Essay, Photography

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

(Originally published 7/26/2016) 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 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.

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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 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.

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

  1. I spent several years as a semi-professional photographer, with a view to ultimately going full-time. I did pretty well out of it. But it’s a mistake to think that because you’re passionate about something in your personal life, then it automatically means you’re going to love it as a job. I found shooting what other people wanted me to shoot – i.e. weddings, babies, corporate events etc – risked destroying my love of photography. That’s what made me eventually knock it on the head.

    If I could have my time over again then I would have loved to have travelled the world as a photojournalist, but that ship has sailed, even if I did have the talent. I was one of those kids who never really knew what they wanted to do. I always envy those who have a clear vision. I do remember telling my careers advisor that I wanted to travel, so he suggested being a travel agent. Yeah, thanks a lot Professor Heywood! Funnily enough, though, I have eventually made a career in the aviation business, I do travel, and occasionally I do get a chance to shoot pictures abroad.

    I feel like I’ve gone off topic…

    • I’ve heard this before, that the kinds of photography that pay are often soul-crushing. I can’t imagine that shooting weddings is actually any fun — nothing like anxious brides and grooms.

      I was very fortunate: I knew I wanted to be a software developer from the time I was in high school. I didn’t find photography as a hobby until my 40s.

  2. Andy Umbo says:

    I was in professional photography all my life, but starting in the early 80’s it became increasingly difficult to make a living at it, so I had to keep altering my work to keep employed until I was managing big imaging departments for corporations and it was horrible! Nothing to do with why I got into the business.

    Income and financial reward over those periods also went though a massive shift (as well as living expenses rising massively). I remember living in DC in the early 2000’s and reading a report that professional photography income had dropped over 10K in the previous 10 years, and now, it’s one of the lowest paid professions in the country! Always on the top 5 worst jobs in the country. The dependence on a spouse with a primary income job is also one of the few ways photographers survive; but is also responsible for a lot of divorces and animosity associated with spouses being tired of financing the photographer’s “play” job!

    Needless to say, my brother (who’s a writer), and I, channels my nephews in to much more sensible careers when they went to college. I told one nephew that there are plenty of stories of business people retiring “set” and 50 and becoming photographers. The old joke about how to make a million dollars in photography (start with two million), has never been more true!

    • I’m sure it’s much the same for many art-related professions. Whatever happened to the people who used to draw for advertising? Remember hand-drawn ads? Yeah, those have been gone for decades. Where did all those artists go?

      • Andy Umbo says:

        Interestingly enough, my pal Christine in Chicago started out as a fashion/advertising illustrator, and she was damn good, Half way through her carer she ended up just working in art/design departments doing layout, and now she’s a design vp for a small indie film distributor. She’s still a great illustrator tho; recently I found some large format letters she sent me where half the paper was a fashion illustration, and the other half her writing: I kept them because I treasure them!

        When I started at Carsons/Saks/Boston Store/ in the ad department in 1990, to expand their photo dept and capabilities, they still had an on-staff fashion illustrator, who wasn’t even really that old, but she was bouncing around the country trying to stay employed…

  3. Short form:
    My wife was an accountant for 30+ years. She had several professional photographers as clients. They all needed jobs to support their profession.

  4. Ric Bell says:

    Yes, I spent 36+ years in a job I never would chosen had circumstances been different. But it paid well and allowed me to retire at 55. Now I’m trying to catch up and am doing all the things I’ve put off through my working for pay life.

  5. Jim, I have been following you because I like what you do and say. I’m not a photographer; I’d like to be a writer. I retired last year, and with a BA and an Mdiv, thought I’d try writing. Not good so far, for the reasons you just explained so clearly to me. I can’t buy you a coffee yet, but keep up your passion. I love reading, AND checking the visual history you present. Please continue! Thanks, John

  6. I’ve come to realise quite quickly that photography is a hobby for me and I think that’s why I truely enjoy it as I can shoot what I want etc without the pressure of trying to earn money from it. I am however fortunate to have a career and earn money from one of my other passions which is knitwear design 🧶

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