Editorial Photography: The cost of doing business

Maybe you've been slinging a camera for a few years now. Shot some local events. Had a few things published. Maybe even got paid for your photos a few times. You are not alone. The modern era of inexpensive digital SLRs has created opportunities for many amateur photographers to get published, and ponder the dream of becoming a full time professional. I am here to splash some cold water on your face. There are very few people who can make a reasonable living as a full time editorial photographer. Witness the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) Cost of Doing Business Calculator. (Might be helpful to read the FAQ before proceeding). The calculator adds up the major expenses you'll have as an independent photojournalist, your desired income, and how many days of shooting you expect to bill in a year. The number you get is your cost of doing business. Let's proceed to the calculator and enter some numbers, shall we?

We'll use a broom closet as an office, a cheap cell phone plan, a spouse's insurance, and go with the most shoestring budget on everything we can. Think Top Ramen. Now assuming you are young and have cheap rent, let's enter $24K as your desired annual salary, and 100 days of shooting per year. That's 2 grand per month salary, and an expected 2 days of shooting per week. I end up with about $800 per week on the calculator. So now I need to bill 2 days per week at $400 to get by. Or 4 assignments as a stringer for a paper at $200 each. Or bill three days at $800 this week, and nothing for the next two weeks. Try fiddling around with the number of shooting days per year in the calculator. Or put the salary of your current job into the calculator, and realize your day job isn't so bad.

I did a week long workshop with lighting master Joe McNally back in 2004. Joe is one of the top editorial shooters in the country -- he's shot for Time, Life, Sports Illustrated, and National Geographic. These big magazines pay about $500-600 per day. Unless you can get a month long assignment from Geographic, it's going to be tough to make a decent living as an editorial photographer. Some of the best advice I got from Joe is that in the photography business you have to be an octopus. While one arm is doing editorial, you've got another arm that's doing stock, one that's teaching, and another doing portraits. How many arms do you have, and what are their photographic capabilities?

I don't think the transition into a full time photography career is impossible. If you have the drive, a plan, and some business sense you can make it happen. In a future episode we'll talk a little bit about some of the compromises that may be necessary to achieve your goals. In the mean time, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.