(Originally published 7/26/2016) I’ve been asked a few times if I’ve ever thought about making photography my living.
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 more than a decade. 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 filled with great work. Yet they wound up writing and editing books about software — not 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 well. Few of them loved the work, but they were grateful to be writing something, anything for good 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 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.
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 amount of value that captures your attention is much lower than the amount of value that opens your wallet.
If I were to charge even a nominal fee to read my posts and see my photographs, most, if not all, of you would quit visiting. What I do here isn’t that kind of valuable. 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 dropped off a cliff. 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 or their interests), 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.
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. I’m very happy that my work creates enough value to keep capturing your attention. I’ve dabbled in 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.