Few people make real money following their passions, and you probably won’t be one of them

I’ve been asked a few times if I’ve ever thought about making photography my living.

A portrait of the artist
Nikon D3200, 35mm f/1.8G AF-S DX Nikkor, 2016. Margaret Grey photo.

It sure sounds wonderful to spend my days driving old roads or looking at historic architecture, making photographs as I go — and getting paid for it!

The other question I get asked, a lot, is whether I’ve ever thought about making writing my living.

And my answer is not only yes, but I’ve done it. For many years early in my career, I traded my written words for my supper. There I learned a crucial truth:

The kind of work you do for yourself is very different from the kind of work that pays.

I hadn’t dreamed of being a writer when I landed my first writing job. I wanted to be a software developer. But the country was in a recession then and jobs were scarce. I was willing to do any job I could get in the software field. I wound up writing manuals, and it turned out that I really enjoyed the work. I did it for a long time. I even contributed to a few published books on popular software products. It’s a rush to see your name on a book’s spine!

In that field I met a lot of talented people who had dreamed of being writers. They came with degrees in English and poetry and journalism, and extensive portfolios filed with great work. Yet they wound up writing and editing books about software, which wasn’t remotely their dream. For the kinds of writing they wanted to do, the supply of talent far outstripped demand. And then they found that the software industry paid fairly well. Few of them loved the work, but they were grateful to be writing for pay.

It’s much the same in photography. Many of us who shoot probably dream of creating great art and making a living through sales, or maybe patronage if that’s even a thing anymore. But most working photographers shoot things like weddings or consumer products. My first wife is a talented photographer, but when I met her she made her living in the United States Air Force shooting portraits of officers seeking promotions.

Photographers can find this kind of work intrinsically rewarding, just as I truly enjoyed writing software instructions. But who dreams as children of being technical writers or wedding photographers? We back into these jobs because they leverage our skills and pay our bills.

438933770007_ proc.jpg
Nikon F3, 50mm f/2 AI Nikkor, Foma Fomapan 200, 2016

Those jobs pay because they create clear value. This blog creates value, too — you wouldn’t keep coming back if you didn’t find my words and images to be valuable in some way. But the value necessary to capture your attention is much lower than the value necessary to make you pay even a little bit.

If I were to charge even a nominal fee to read my posts and see my photographs, I feel sure that most if not all of you would quit visiting. What I do here isn’t that kind of valuable. And I’m just one small voice on the vast Internet. Even the big players struggle to make online content pay.

There was a golden time when personal blogging could be lucrative: approximately 2004. Several talented early bloggers found large followings and made good money with online ads.

But in about 2011 online ad revenue started to fall, and hard. The bloggers that didn’t have to find day jobs again created other revenue sources: writing sponsored posts (where the blogger writes an ad and tries to make it sound like it’s about them), creating product lines, and offering services such as personal coaching and workshops in an area of skill or expertise they have.

These are great, legitimate ways to make money. But notice how these things aren’t personal blogging. They’re not the passion that made the blogger start blogging.

Here’s the fatal flaw in my argument: if your passion is something like managing hedge funds or starting tech companies, and there are really people with passions like that, well heck yes those passions can pay, and handsomely. But for most of us, we just want to make something that represents us or showcases our talents, and put it out into the world and hope people come to see.

Is that you? That’s me. And so I persist. It’ll be ten years in February. I’m very happy that my work creates enough value to keep capturing your attention. I’m working on ways to generate a little passive income and hope to pay this blog’s costs and maybe some of my photography. But I have no delusions that this will ever let me quit my day job. The same almost certainly goes for you.

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22 responses to “Few people make real money following their passions, and you probably won’t be one of them”

  1. Bill Bussell Avatar
    Bill Bussell

    I did have the childhood dream of money from photography. I actually generated income throughout school, and later into adult life. I was primarily a corporate-employed photographer. This would be a difficult road to travel today. However, I have known of one individual who had a good eye, and she sold framed art pictures for office decoration. It all boils down to being a salesman.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Last summer I flirted with becoming an independent consultant in the software field. Two things stopped me: the inability to tolerate variable income in the short term, and the high need to keep selling. I don’t want to sell; I want to work.

  2. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    I’ve had an entire career in photography, and I wouldn’t do it again. My brother and I are trying to make sure my nephews get a bankable career out of college, and we don’t want them to become working drones, it’s just that you don’t need any kind of education if you want to be a photographer or artist, you just have to learn from others and experiment, so don’t waste your college money on that mess, get a fall-back position!

    Even when I went into the business, I never realized that I would have to freelance, AND be successful, to really control more of what I do and make decent money! And when you freelance, as I ended up doing, you spend most of your time NOT doing photography (business, selling, etc.), and the photography you do is for money, and not necessarily what you would want to do with the subject. I was lucky to take 4 pictures a year I liked. You can take so many more when it’s a hobby!

    As far as jobs go in the field, working for professional photographers, and as one, in large studio settings, was the way to make someone else money, not you!

    Digital has messed up the business even more. The amount of professional “churn” in the business now is staggering: i.e. the amount of people getting into the business, then dropping out, all while pricing so low no one can make a living. When I researched photographic salaries in 2004, they were floating at about the 38K level, when I rechecked my sources in 2014, pursuant to trying to get my staff more money, they had dropped to 28K!

    Even before Vivian Maier was discovered and became famous (and even when digital was the “norm”), I told people if they wanted a great and rewarding hobby: to buy and restore an old Rollei, Yashica Mat, Minolta Autocord, or the like, of 120 roll film twin lenses; get one good tripod, one good lightmeter, one good 120 roll processing tank, and a reel, and spend the rest of your life with that! Concentrate on the pictures you good do with that.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Digital did open the floodgates, didn’t it? It coincided with the devaluing of skill across most media that consume photography. Consider television, where the reporter most likely shoots his/her own stuff now, especially in smaller markets. Buddy of mine used to shoot for stations all over Indiana and he tells me that, like most things, it takes time and effort to be any good. I have to think the average reporter is more interested in the story (or how good they look on camera, I say cynically) than in how well they shot it. For that matter, so much of what photography I see in the news today, especially in local newspapers, doesn’t look as skilled as before digital.

      In my chosen field, I’ve made all kinds of software that, except to the extent it kept the company profitable so it could continue to pay me, I didn’t truly care about. It wasn’t as mercenary as all that, really, but none of the domains I’ve served (i.e., manufacturing, advertising, Medicare) have been my passion. I feel very fortunate that I continue to enjoy delivering software, whatever kind of software it is.

      1. Andy Umbo Avatar
        Andy Umbo

        Funny you should mention reporting. I saw a reporter the other day with an iPad on a tripod, and a microphone sticking out of a bracket, and she was spinning the whole thing around in front of her to find a background she liked, then she set it down and stood in front of it and did her report. Cringing! (where is she in that field of view and is she in focus?) I can tell you since autofocus/autoexposure, I’ve seen more newspaper and magazine reportage where the wrong thing was in focus, and ditto for video, more reports with the background in focus and the reporter fuzzy, even on national news! This is a ‘false economy’ and ridiculous; there is no reason to be so cheap you actually don’t have a videographer with the reporter. I have a buddy who made his career in cinematography and videography for small films, docs, news and pr; and he’ll openly admit he’s glad he’s retiring, as his whole industry is heading the way of still photography.

        It’s not like the “auto” technology is allowing a monkey to get as good of a picture/video shoot, as the pro, it’s that the business economics makes the end users amiable to the second class quality. I do things every day, and I see things in magazines, newspapers, and tv, everyday, that would NOT have been allowed in the 70’s!

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          In my field, we have a saying: “Good, fast, cheap: pick any two.” In media today, they keep choosing just cheap.

          I don’t think the best ever production values are always necessary. Remember in the 70s when network newscasts routinely used telco audio for far-flung reporters, over film, in their reports? We all survived.

          But most print/broadcast media is in a race for the bottom today.

  3. billeccles Avatar

    Congratulations to the two of you on the first photo credit. :-)

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Bill!!

  4. dmswriter Avatar

    Exactly, Jim. I used to buy into the philosophy that said “follow your passion and the money will come.” Well, not for most of us. My job, which I enjoy, is not my passion. I’m thankful I like the work, but my passion comes outside of it – traveling, presidential history, listening to music, etc. I doubt I’d ever get paid for any of them, but like you, I persist because they add value to my life.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I am fortunate that one of my passions, software development, ended up working out for me. But I had to hold on loosely to my exact desires and goals because life has a way of delivering twists and turns. I never expected to end up as a middle manager over software testers, but I like it fine and frankly would be hard pressed to trade it for anything else, even writing this blog and taking photos, even if it somehow paid the same. But I feel like I must be in a strong minority.

  5. Lignum Draco Avatar

    Interesting. I have no delusions about making significant money from photography. I’ve been asked a couple of times by people/corporations to sell photos to them. I’ve done it for the exercise but I don’t think it’s worth the effort for the small scale I do it at. I just keep the photography fun, and therefore it stays interesting.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I get asked every once in a while for rights to use one of my photos. I’ve charged just a couple times, when it was a giant company. Otherwise, I generally just say yes with my compliments. That said, I have a self-published book project in the back of my mind that I hope to execute this summer/autumn. My main goal with that is to share my work in print and maybe make a little to help fund my photography. Overall I’m with you: I just want to keep the photography fun.

  6. DougD Avatar

    Yup, you always here “follow you passion and the money will follow” but I figure it’s better to follow some money and then indulge your passion separately.

    I love fixing old cars but can you imagine if I’d been a mechanic? Nothing but oil changes and check engine lights all day, whereas on my adequate engineering salary I can keep an old car and fix what I want, when I want.

    One of my uncles who was also an engineer got laid off and started a stained glass store. He was a real extrovert who enjoyed the people interaction he never got in engineering, and made a go of it for 20 years. He’s retired now, but I don’t think stained glass is his hobby anymore..

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I know some people who only followed the money and more of them ended up miserable in their careers than those who at least sort of liked the vocation they chose. So there definitely is a balance to strike there!

      1. DougD Avatar

        For sure, can’t imagine doing something I hate just for the money. That would be rather miserable.

  7. bodegabayf2 Avatar

    I’ve been lucky I suppose. Pounding the keys of a typewriter, word processor and now a MacBook has paid my bills for just over three decades now. Most of what I write is drivel, but hey.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Don’t let your clients know you think that! ;-)

      I used to feel like I was getting away with murder when writing “Open the File menu and choose Print” used to pay my rent!

      1. bodegabayf2 Avatar

        Oh, they know it! As long as the drivel works, drivel on.

  8. Bob Dungan Avatar
    Bob Dungan

    Excellent posts and comments. Most people who start a business involving their passion don’the realize that most of their time will be marketing, selling and managing the business.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yup. It’s the hidden gotcha!

  9. Scott Bennett Avatar
    Scott Bennett

    The last thing I want to do is pollute the things I enjoy with the undesirables that come with most any job.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I like the way you look at it.

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