Photographers and Money. We Should Talk.

In Freelance and Business, How to Feed a Starving Artist, Resources, The Life Creative by David28 Comments


One day I want to sit down with my readers, somehow, and have an honest conversation about money, and how we make it and manage it as creatives. I don’t know how it’ll happen – it’s hard enough having honest conversations about things that aren’t so surrounded by fear and shame and a general, “I don’t want to talk about it” feeling. Which is odd, frankly, as it’s one of those subjects that, if spoken about freely, could help so many people. The desire for that conversation is why I wrote VisionMongers, and most recently How to Feed a Starving Artist. It’s also why I wrote this blog post (Chains All the Same). And it’s why I’m writing this one too. But we need to start talking about it. I’m so tired of  people pussy-footing around the subject when so much good can come from not struggling with it all the time.

So until we can all sit down and have that conversation without anyone feeling judged for how much they do or don’t have, what they do or don’t know, or how they do or don’t make the living they want to, here are 3 mistakes I see photographers making with money, and they’re easy to fix.

1. Spending Money on Gear.

Just stop buying so damn much of it. And stop putting it on credit. I know, you’ve heard it before. But if you’re still buying gear in the hopes that the gear will help make you more money, you’re wasting it. Money saved is a better bet than money hoped-for in most cases. Use the gear you have. Reconcile yourself to not being the coolest guy on the block with the coolest gear. Trade that for more freedom to make great photographs with the gear you have. Impress people, if you must, with your images. Save the money. And when a client really, really, needs you to shoot with the new $4500 Zeiss 85/1.4 lens, or $40,000 Phase One system, rent it and bill the client for the cost. Money spent on technology is a poor bet. For many photographers it’s obsolete before you can make a return on it, and by then you’re already jonesin’ for something new, something better, something that – this time! – will really make you some money. Stop the insanity.

2. Not Paying Yourself First.

Save your money. Be aggressive about it. Put it somewhere you can’t touch it. And then make damn sure you’ve got enough to pay the tax man. Put 10% aside, before you do anything else, for you. In savings. And when I say savings, I do not mean savings for new gear. Long term, interest-earning savings. Then put an additional X% aside (ask your accountant how much) for taxes. If you don’t have an accountant, get one. Stop pretending you know more about money than the experts, unless you do, in which case, close this and go make some photographs. But pay yourself first. Don’t wait to save money or pay your taxes with your left-over money. There is never left-over money.

3. Not Selling Your Work.

I know, I know, no one’s buying. Bullshit. You’re not selling. By selling I do not mean you’ve got a BUY NOW link on your site. That’s passive. And I’m willing to bet you’re marketing to photographers. Listen, photographers don’t buy the work of other photographers. It’s rare. You know who buys photographs? Magazines. Companies. Professional offices. Interior designers and architects. Hotels and B&Bs. Hell, people at craft fairs are making more money than most of us, selling $50 prints. You know why? They’re selling. They’re hustling. And they aren’t at home complaining that no one’s buying, while convincing themselves their work is worth too much to let it go for less than $500. I know it’s not easy, but the internet isn’t a panacea. It’s not a substitute for building an audience of real people who want to buy your work. That is the hard work, friends. Finding the audience that wants your work, and then asking them to buy it.

When’s the last time you sat in a restaurant, thought, “My work would look great on these walls,” and then did something about it? When’s the last time you sat in your doctor’s office and thought, “Wow, the work on these walls is dated. I’d love to see mine up there,” and then did something about it? Believing people will just buy your work because it’s amazing won’t get you where you want to go. There’s mediocre crap on walls everywhere, and you know why it’s there? Because someone hustled and talked to someone and offered them something we weren’t offering because we were too busy complaining that the market for stock imagery has collapsed or “no one’s buying.” It’s easy to complain, it’s hard to hustle. Get creative. Connect. And then offer your work (no, I don’t mean for free). If you want to sell prints, make a list (right now) of 10 local businesses you have relationships with (doctor, lawyer, dentist, accountant, favourite restaurant…) and then go talk to them. Ask them: what would it take to get my work on your walls? Be creative. Connect. Be persistent. If what you offer is of value, they’ll thank you.

I know this stuff isn’t easy to talk about. But if we can be as creative as we are with our photography, or the justifications we make to buy the gear we don’t need, then we can be creative about how we approach money. There are a lot of resources out there – great places to learn more about money. Some of them are listed in How to Feed a Starving Artist. Get it. It’s only $10. If you can’t afford it now, wait until Black Friday and it’ll be half price, though you didn’t hear that from me. And if you’re literally on the edge of financial collapse, email me and we’ll see what we can do. I know the publisher and he’d rather you get the book for free than go bankrupt. Or  go to Amazon and find some books, written by another author, if you feel this is just a push for you to buy my book. Or talk to someone who has some and knows more about it than you do. Whatever you do, don’t let the fear, shame, or whatever other frustration, stop you from getting on top of it. Life is too short to live in bondage to debt and financial pressures if there are things you can do to get out from under it and find the freedom to do the work you love.

Until we can have the conversation I’d love to have, I’d like to try something, even knowing it might not work. Leave your questions in the comments below and if there is enough interest I’ll pull them together and record a small audio podcast with my thoughts and perhaps that rather one-sided conversation will be helpful. I came to my wisdom about this stuff the hard way, but I don’t believe in secrets and am happy to share what I’ve learned and continue to learn, if it’ll  get you a little closer to living your dreams.

HowToFeedAStarvingArtist_1961How to Feed a Starving Artist, A Financial Field Guide for Creatives, Solopreneurs, and Other Anarchists is available from Craft & Vision as a PDF for $10 and from Amazon in the Kindle format for the same price.

The book itself isn’t magic, and there’s no shortcuts to this stuff, but there’s a lifetime of experience in this book, both mine and others, and if it stirs you to see things in a new way, or to take action on things you already know you should be doing, or just gives you one new idea that helps stir the embers a little on a business that’s lost its fire, it’ll have done what I hoped for it. You can read – or leave – reviews of the book here.



  1. I’m a family and children’s photographer in El Paso, TX.
    I’m so glad I found this article. It’s hard to talk about money. I should raise my prices so I can afford to buy new equipment. I never pay myself first… It always goes to the stuff that supports my business – marketing, internet, studio rental, web site hosting.

    It’s hard to know who to talk to – spouse? family? other artists? Who can can you trust? Who will get angry or compete with you?

  2. This is an interesting read. I agree with most of it, but I would like to talk about the one about paying yourself first. It is totally correct that you need to pay yourself first, but instead of investing in your own name, you should be investing in your business’s name. Also, debt is not bad. Sure, it’s great to make money off your money…. but it’s much nicer to make money off other peoples’ money. Most businesses are in debt. That’s how they make so much money!

    1. Author

      J Rae – There’s a “should” in there that I’m not sure I agree with. Why not invest in my own name? What if my name and the business’ name are one and the same? On top of that, what if one day the business folds? Investing in yourself AND your business are sound, but I still think you need to pay yourself first in most respects. As for debt – you talk about making money off other people’s money. That’s well and good, and there’s a place for that – but the people that are making the most are the ones lending. So better to NOT be in debt, to finance your own business, and invest surplus in areas that will make you an even better return, while you also continue to earn as a business. Anyways, there are plenty of ways to approach this and my intent with the post and the book was not to prescribe anything so much as to get the wheels turning. Everyone will approach things differently, as long as they do so wisely, and intentionally.

  3. Thank you David.
    This past year or so I have had some big changes in my life as a result I have had a BIG issue maintaining any kind of focus on my photography. Recently I have taken steps to try and resolve the issues and finding my way back to my photography and goals, life what are you going to do, right?
    With that, it always helps to stop by your blog and open one of your books that I have to help in refocusing my attention on what is important.

    Thanks again.


  4. Hi David,
    as usual, fantastic post.
    But this part was incredible! (And if you’re literally on the edge of financial collapse, email me and we’ll see what we can do. I know the publisher and he’d rather you get the book for free than go bankrupt.)

    thank for it

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  6. After reading Otto’s post about creativity I found you and your post about collecting dots So true! Instead of going out in a Land Rover to find a leopard I took a walk on a city street and found a feather. (I would love to go back and see that leopard).
    It’s nice to meet you.

  7. David,

    Thanks for sharing your journey here and through your books. I just plowed through A Beautiful Anarchy and How to Feed a Starving Artist.

    I am a full-time Presbyterian Pastor but in recent years have been growing into my calling as a “creative” through photography ( and writing (

    A year ago I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma and spent most of the last year in cancer treatment – 45 days in the hospital, surgery, radiation, etc.. Boy can I relate to your thoughts about the brevity of life and the need to live boldly now instead of waiting around for the time, or the gear, or the…whatever it is we wait for.

    In a surprising twist, I have grown by leaps and bounds as an artist during my cancer journey. While the chemo zapped my ability to write for a season, my photography has thrived.

    Now that I’m past treatment and in remission I’m just starting to shape an integrated path of ministry, art, and writing and your resources have been a wonderful help. Thanks.

    Regarding this post about making money I just got a business license on Jan. 1 of this year for my photography and have experimented with various ways of selling.

    In the dark days of treatment I set a goal of doing a couple local art shows and they were a blast. Along with having success with sales I found the feedback and interaction with people invaluable for understanding different ways people connect with my photos. The shows also helped spark a lot of follow-up sales and consultations with homeowners and businesses. I suspect I made more money from the special orders that followed the shows than the shows themselves. The shows require a lot of overhead whereas special orders have a much higher profit margin. The shows also sparked a lot of passive sales on my photo site.

    One thing I hear a lot is that you should either go all-in as a professional or just take pictures for the fun of it. It’s usually presented as either/or. While I don’t plan on leaving my day job, I have found that selling images has taken my skills and vision to the next level. For me it hasn’t been just about making money but also about growing as an artist.

    On another note, I am on the board of Plant With Purpose (, an NGO based out of San Diego that does environmental, economic, and spiritual development work with the rural poor in 6 countries, soon to be 8. We have an exciting new project in Ethiopia working with the Orthodox Church and their ‘church forests,” some of the few areas of biodiversity, untouched by deforestation. We also work in Tanzania and Burundi and are making plans to launch in the Congo. Let me know if you’re open to possibly joining us on a trip to visit and take pictures.

    Thanks again for pioneering a path that inspires.

    1. Author

      Craig, thank you for taking the time to write such an honest comment. I trust you’re through the worst of the treatments and healing well. Keep fighting, and don’t let it steal your joy. 🙂

      You’re right, the professional side of things need not be an all-or-nothing proposition. People are very fond of binary thinking, but it’s not very creative. Find the mix that works and own it!

      Thanks for the invitation to join you on a Plant with Purpose trip – sounds fascinating. It’ll be a year, possibly two, before there’s room in the calendar to even consider this, but drop a line to my team through the contact info at the top of the site and give me more details. I’m always open to new ideas and opportunities!

      Courage, strength, and joy to you!

  8. Thank you for this post. The information is targeted and hits right to the truth. We have to hustle to earn but we also have to be wise with what we earn. SJG

  9. Hi David, money is always a strong subject. This may also be for the first time I’m publicly saying that I’m struggling to get on top of it! I have bought the book and will read it thorough! I almost feel like I want step by step instructions on “how to”. Apparently no one can give that. I think you should have the podcast – I look forward to it!

    Take care for now

  10. I am too close to collapsing and will have to hold off on buying the book, even $10 on the credit card is a mistake. I value my wife and family too much.

    But I look forward to the read. I know I have the photography skills. And I know I have issues with money. So if you need a case study, I’d be willing to bare it all.

    Thanks for looking out for us, David.

    1. Author

      Jason – No need for a case study, but happy to make sure you get a copy of this. Keep your chin up and keep at it. Kudos to you for the honesty. It was only once I got brutally honest that I started to turn things around – not easy, man.

  11. Thank you David.

    Money is a hard thing to talk about. I’m keeping this, as it’s really encouraging and motivating. Also I’m going to pick up your new book.

  12. Thank you David. This feels like the kick-in-the-pants I was looking for. I stopped looking at gear a long time ago to avoid the gear lust. I started renting gear to meet the needs of a job. I started pricing my work to include payment for my time. I was doing a few things right. I think you just gave me the final piece I needed.

  13. Hi David! Thanks for sharing your secrets. My question is I’m sure you must have shared a whole lot of ideas as to how to make money. As much they sound universal in application are you saying the basic idea of hustling is the same for any place in the world and some of the opportunities may vary from location to location? I don’t know if I framed my question right but you know what I mean? I was reading a blog from a great financial expert the other day but somehow his solutions sounded more USA centric than things that I can apply to myself in India as well. I do feel that being an Indian and being in India is liking sitting on a gold mine and wondering what to do next. I’m kind of ashamed in admitting that too. Thanks again for being an inspiration!

  14. Yes, I agree, we creatives, all of us need the conversation.

    I do find humor in how photographers try to sell to other photographers, the last people who will buy. Not entirely true, but true enough. Most artists feel what they are doing is best and tend to find fault with the work of others, a poor way to travel, but very prevalent.

    Anyway, what you say is true, one must find a way to market oneself in the right places….

    I am loving following your journey though your wonderful images, here and over at Instagram. Keep trucking’….

  15. Great advice! Having grown up with my Father being a professional photographer, I saw, and still see potential of how he could have marketed his stuff. I can’t begin to tell you the ideas I have and still have, but yes..

    My Father’s best photographs were raw and edgy. B&W fresh from his lab with all the chemicals and equipment.

    He passed in 2008 and his attic full of photos chronicling a small town in Sitka, Alaska have so much potential STILL.

    Advice from someone else:

    Sometimes overthinking shots and presentations takes away from the Raw Life that exists in what one captures.

    What a cool conversation this is! Glad I was introduced to it!

    Namaste. 🙂

  16. Hi David,

    Thanks for Vision Mongers.

    I feel I often hear the good ol’ “there’s lots of photographers who’ll work for free” line.

    Other than knowing your CDB, what is a good way of knowing and feeling confident in what your fee is?

    best, Richard

  17. Thank you for the wise words, as usual, David. Right now I am very passive when it comes to selling my photos. I am confident in my work, so that’s not a problem. I am currently doing something to start attending arts and crafts festivals as a vendor to sell my work. My issue is this: how does one approach magazines, graphic designers, advertisers, etc., to have their work featured? Is it as simple as looking for contact info, or buying a Photographer’s Market book? Also, the nuances of marketing mystify and utterly confound me, to the point that I feel helpless and hopeless, yet my greatest dream is to quit my cubicle gig and get out there with my camera to capture and share all the visual wonders and human stories this world has to offer with anyone anywhere.

  18. These are excellent. They are all very correct. Especially paying yourself. The only problem with online VS real person is this – if you do not have the money available for printing, matting or framing, to present your work it is hard to do that.

    I tried face to face and no matter what style I took to show them they wanted to see something different. Every single time. I had to stop because I didn’t have the money to keep printing them up or buying paper and ink. I live in what used to be a cartel city. They weren’t interested in buying anyone’s work they wanted you to move their “product”.

    This is not whining. It’s from my experience. Selling at fairs is very labor intensive and expensive. For every one they sell they have fifty more (that are matted and framed) sitting in their garage. How many times have you taken work to show someone and had them smile and adjust their crotch? Probably not as many as I have.

  19. Great post and a topic that has mystified me for 25 years: Why are photographers embarrassed or ashamed about making money?

    Most photographers are not good at selling themselves — for whatever reason.

    Something I tried to get going in eastern Canada about 15 years ago was a photographer’s incubator pod. A pool of different discipline photographers would share studio space to lower overhead costs, and share the skills of a sales and marketing rep who would be an equal partner.

    Four or five photographer’s, and a sales/marketing rep each contribute $5000 as start up and voila … collectively you have sufficient seed money to get rolling as a force. Much better than sitting in a basement lamenting why we’re not making money.

  20. ‘And if you’re literally on the edge of financial collapse, email me and we’ll see what we can do.’ That line is so you, what is the point of what we do if we can’t help those closest to us? Love this article and your compassion.

    Off topic, in another recent article you shared that you were having your normal feeling of your work being of no value whilst taking it. I don’t know about anyone else but for me the camera is starting to seem like a really good excuse to place myself in some incredible situations for extended periods without anyone thinking me strange. Magic appears to happen a lot of the time if we’re happy to sit still for a while and not just do something. You seem to really get this.

    I bought the ‘Starving Artist’, I’m still reading it which is a REALLY good sign.

  21. Thanks for this David, yet again you seem to cut through the rose tinted soft and dreamy world we wish we could inhabit as photographers and force us to buck up our thoughts.
    Somehow I’ve managed to stay in business for 14 years but still suck suck suck at marketing and selling. Seriously, I despise “Putting myself out there”. But it’s just something that one needs to do in order to keep on doing what we do as a means of paying the bills.
    Quit playing at being photographers and BE photographers. We’re business women and men whether we like it or not.

  22. I’m fortunate to be surrounded by many willing to talk at various levels of detail but it’s unfortunate that we can’t help but judge or be jealous based on perceived wealth.

    This reminds me of a presentation our company did at a past website design conference themed open business. We share everything from technique, to assets, to open source code, but yet remain quite about money – both publicly and privately.

  23. I have BOOKMARKED this post!!! I definitely don’t want to lose it, so I can refer to it and pass it along. It hits the nail on the head for me on so many topics. And (little pat on the back) leaves me feeling just a little bit better as one of those photographers that does the very competitive Art Fest circuit (even if only on a small scale), which is a lot of hard work, but sells a print or two… Sometimes it is only enough to cover the costs, but more than enough to remind me why I do it and to keep me doing it. Again, wonderful post…glad somebody wants to talk about it.

  24. David, thanks for this post. My fiancee and I loved A Beautiful Anarchy and I’m looking forward to reading the Starving Artist book as well.

    My question is selling portraits. I’d love to sell some of my ‘hero shots’ that I’ve gotten, but they have models in them. Even with a model release, I feel antsy about making money off of them. How much do I compensate the model? I doubt I’m going to make much money myself, so not sure what the split should/would be, or do you they give up that right to monetary compensation altogether? (no matter what the release says or not)

    Any place to get some info on this?

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