The Economic Realities of Editorial Photography


There are as many career paths in photography as there are food pictures on Instagram. The difference is that on Instagram, the pictures are posted for fun. When it comes to a career though, pictures are produced for profit. At least that’s how it’s supposed to be.

There is no denying that the business of photography has changed recently and so has the landscape of the clients that need pictures. From the dramatically slashed budgets at national magazines to the recent layoff of the entire photo staff at the Chicago Sun-Times, editorial photographers in particular are finding themselves questioning a marketplace that has devalued photography to the point where it has often become unprofitable to work in the editorial market — particularly if you’re a freelancer.

Freelance fees in the editorial space currently range from $1,000 at the occasional high-paying national publication, down to around $65 at some regional newspapers. The average creative fee currently seems to hover between $200-$500 at the national magazines, wire services and larger newspapers. Working for these rates can lead to a decent standard of living if you’re able to shoot regularly enough so that the income is consistent.

For example, if you were to shoot three days per week — one day for the New York Times, one day for Sports Illustrated and one day for the AP — you’d make around $1,050 for that week. If you could do that every week, a 50-week income would be around $52,500 per year before taxes, retirement funding, health insurance costs, equipment acquisition and marketing expenses.


But, if you instead work the same three days a week for the $100 per assignment offered by some photo agencies, your annual gross pay would be around $15,000. Once you deduct all of the above expenses, your income would actually place you below the federal poverty line. And, since the agencies that pay at this level often take ownership of the images as well, there is no resale rights retained by the photographer and no residual income to make up for the low creative fee.

Another reality of editorial work is the time required on the front and back end of every assignment. Research, emails, phone calls, packing, travel, image processing, and even uploading digital files all consume time and those cumulative hours are often unpaid because the work is considered to be included in the fee. Sometimes, those hours can stretch into days in the case of portraits that require arranging for a studio or location, obtaining permits, hiring a make-up artist and wardrobe stylist, finding a trusted assistant, and sometimes making travel arrangements to another city. Some editorial clients will compensate you for both the pre-production work as well as the post-production processing, while some will see that time as just part of the job.

Does all this mean that it’s not profitable to shoot editorial work? Absolutely not. It simply means that in order to remain profitable, you should consider two critical factors: The clients you’re working for and the subjects that you shoot.

For example, an assignment to shoot Bruins defenseman Zdeno Ch├íra for a national magazine will have a budget that pales in comparison to the same shoot done for someone like Reebok. The work involved might be similar, but the magazine shoot might have a budget that’s just a fraction of the Reebok shoot.

2721_2While the editorial shoot might offer you lots of creative freedom and the opportunity to have your work displayed in a national publication, the Reebok shoot will offer you a paycheck that will likely be equivalent to more than a week of shooting for a national magazine. It’s a tradeoff for certain, but it’s one that photographers willingly make for the creative freedom of editorial work.

Who you’re shooting is also important. If you make a wonderful portrait of some guy named Steve James, you’ll be paid a nice creative fee and that will likely be that. But, if you make a portrait of some guy named LeBron James, you’ll be paid the creative fee and you will likely make many times the creative fee by relicensing that portrait around the world.

Simply stated, LeBron James is valuable, and Steve James isn’t.

This is fundamental supply and demand and nowhere is it more evident than in the secondary market for images. For example, if you have a great picture of Dodger sensation Yasiel Puig swinging a bat, you’ll have what dozens of other photographers already have (large supply) which reduces the value everyone’s pictures in the secondary market (low demand). But, if you have a lit portrait of him and that portrait is really good, suddenly you might be one of the few who has something rare (low supply) that everyone wants and is willing to pay a lot of money to use (high demand).

The basic law of supply and demand

Supply and demand

This will be true in any market where you might supply images. The rarer the image, the more you can command for it in the secondary market. The reality is if you can find the image on Shutterstock, Getty or US Presswire, it’s going to be difficult to make any money licensing your work. You’ll be competing with a model that is already licensing pictures that are sometimes less than a few dollars per image. But, if you create images that few others are creating — whether it’s the subject that’s rare or the way you’re shooting it that’s rare — you’ll have a market mostly to yourself. And, you’ll have the leverage to command the fees that go along with the scarcity of your work.

The last economic reality is that every photographer has the chance to differentiate himself or herself in the way they provide images to their clients. As an example, many people can shoot game action, but how many of them are willing to mount multiple remote cameras in addition to the camera they hold in their hands?

How many solve all of their own problems and deliver fine images without ever telling the client about the many obstacles they faced on the road to getting those images? How may are grateful for the assignment and mindful of the needs of the editor, rather than just shooting whatever comes into frame?

These are opportunities to make yourself the photographer that editors have on speed dial when they need someone that they know will deliver the goods.

The editorial market is certainly more competitive than ever. But, by choosing your subjects and clients wisely, retaining the resale rights to your images, and being the kind of photographer who is a pleasure to work with, the market can easily be a very profitable one.

About the author: Joey Terrill is an advertising and editorial photographer with clients that include American Express, Coca-Cola, The Walt Disney Company, ESPN, Golf Digest, Major League Baseball and Sports Illustrated. Visit his website here. This article originally appeared on SportsShooter.

Image credits: Photographs by Joey Terrill

  • nerdbomber

    Good read.

  • bob cooley

    Agreed on most of this, but if you are shooting one day a week for the NYT, one for SI, and one for AP, then you live in a metropolis like NYC, Chicago, LA, etc., and 52k Gross is not a sustainable living.

  • Kyle Sanders

    Not to mention that if you have health insurance to pay, and you are not a part of a large pool of people – the rates will be unsustainable. Tack on gear insurance, CPS/NPS fees, Creative Cloud license, etc etc. and it gets thinner and thinner.

  • pgb0517

    Such a great read, and the economics apply to many self-employment businesses besides photography.

  • Antonio Carrasco

    Great post!

  • MMielech

    That’s all very nice, but, who’s the girl?

  • Emily

    Poor Steve James… and he was SO excited for his shoot before this article…

  • Greg

    Well said. Great post!

  • harumph
  • JD Fitzgerald

    Great article. To even further prove your point, the local papers here pay $40/assignment.

  • Jimmy

    An interesting and accurate account of the current state of photographic affairs. But rare photo’s will become less rare with the current tendency toward over-saturation, and in the end everyone will be paying photographers bottom dollar.

    I’m surprised companies like Reebok and other corporate giants haven’t figured out that the photographers they pay thousands of dollars to shoot for them, work for far less for magazines, and are generally producing the same standard of shots for both clients.

    It is also becoming more common for people who’s image is valuable(sports stars, celebrities) to hire a photographer a couple of times a year, and retain the rights of all portrait images taken of them, supplying them to magazines at a fee for use. In a celebrity portrait, it is the photographer who is expendable, not the famous face.

    In the end photographers will all be working for a low hourly rate, and the wheelers and dealers will be making all the money(stock agencies, ad agencies, media outlets, e.t.c.).

    I don’t mean to be too pessimistic, as is always the case there will be some great opportunities out there as well.

  • Renato Murakami

    Sad but true. If you add all the economic realities on the article with the shifting culture around photography, considering it’s becoming a common thing for celebrities to have their own instagram accounts, and people overall getting used to… well… amateur quality photos, then you kinda have a bomb in hands.
    I think and hope there will always be room for pro photographers on editorial shoots, perhaps after a switch of the medium which they are valued. But Joey’s words are valuable as a reflection of what’s currently happening, and on what photographers have to be prepared for…

  • Thurston Howell

    No offense but, most of us already know most of this, the real problem is most of us keep accepting assignments that pay stupid fees or take all rights anyway. It’s now beyond crazy how far we have fallen in terms of rates and opportunitites. Photographers can’t make money in stock but the Shutterstock CEO is now a billionaire??!! Getty now pays a 20% royalty instead of what was once 80% and yet the Carlyle group pays almost $1 Billion for them from another hedge fund company!!

    I hear this, “we have no budget” bulls**t all the time and it wouldn’t work in any other business but photographers are the biggest suckers in the world, Hell, some of them pay Getty for the privilege of taking their pictures now! The owners are laughing their asses off at that one. In the end, pubs that can’t pay what good shooters charge (not what the pubs say they pay you, again, a phenomenon found almost exclusively in photography) need to go out of business, simple as that.

    As for photographers, a lot of you need to go out of business too, supply and demand and all that. Even more, if you’re a hobbyist or part timer, stay out of the sandbox! We get it, your dream is to become a pro but you’ve all loved your hobby to death. Thanks to your working for free or stupid low fees, photography in the eyes of most people is now almost worthless and the budgets have shrunk as a result. I cant tell you how many corporate clients now get “Joe from accounting wit the good camera who wants to be a pro” to shoot the head shots and such for the annual report, a job that used to pay $4 or $5 thousand a day. In the last couple years, I’ve had countless former pro friends give up and fold up shop, close studios and seek new careers as the wave of hobbyists decimated corporate, weddings etc and the Wall Street gang find countless way to get their hands on stock photography money.

    Most people don’t realize that rates now are lower than they were in the 80’s and that equipment etc is now far more expensive. Trade groups like APA are no longer relevant and so there is no real driving lobby or force to inform and protect photogs. The bottom line is, “professional photographer” is now almost defunct. People always delude themselves though that “I”m different” which is why lottery tickets get sold week in and week out, people dream beyond all reasonable measures that it “will get better”. It wont in the case of photography unless EVERYONE stops accepting these bulls**t jobs and makes it standard to tell anyone who’s first sentence on the phone is “our budget is….” or “we dont have a budget for photography….” that they’re not interested

  • jonathanjk

    This is why I am now a Kindergarten teacher, which pays quite nicely and on the side, I practice and make pictures.

  • jkantor267

    “Multiple remote cameras”? And just who is going to be able to afford them – and how are you going to get permission to use them anywhere but the local Little League field?

  • NobodyImportant

    Editorial Photography has not been about money for a long time.

    For years Magazines have been arguing with photographers over pay rates, with the magazines claiming that shooting for their magazine lifts the profile of the photographer, and that should be seen as part of the ‘payment’.

    For example, if you shoot editorial for Italian Vogue, then high paying fashion houses will apparently fall over themselves trying to hire you for high paying Advertising shoots. Similarly with Sports Illustrated. After shooting for them, supposedly the big $$ pay checks will rain down from The big sports brands for national campaign shoots.

    The last time(over 10 years ago) I worked for a regional Vogue edition(not italian), they were paying the photographer $100 per page for editorial, and charging $40000 per page to advertisers. Don’t be surprised if big name magazines start paying photographers nothing at all, or worse still pay nothing and expecting the photographer to pick up the expenses!

    And considering most magazines are monthly, you would need to shoot for about 15-20 different publications every month to even consider living off that alone. It is hard enough to break into one with the thousands of photographers they get begging them for work every day(yes i exaggerated, but only just!).

  • JohnnyLA

    It’s called “creative destruction”, you should really get used it.

    You don’t see too many horse and buggies out on the streets, do you? No. Are we crying about the horse and buggy biz now? Or the milkman? Bookbinders? The Ice-maker?

    Adapt or die.

    There is no going back and really kvetching about it, especially on a high horse looking down at those”undercutting miscreants who take away an honest photographer’s job”, is not going to do a damn bit of good. It’s here to stay.

    We are in the service industry, not the photo taking industry especially now. People who are smart enough to adapt to the new realities of image making and creating value through other means besides the dying threads of past “regular” photo work are going to make it.

    Again, adapt or die.

  • Martin Deschambault

    A great example of how important it is too have socialised medicine like Canada and most of the civilised world. Starting and sustaining a small business is challenging enough without having to choose between eating or buying health insurance. A universal health care system helps to stimulate innovation and allows entrepreneurs to survive by keeping them above the poverty line.

  • sdavidweaver

    I think it’s appalling that you would demean and insult Steve James (whoever he is).

  • Roman

    Truth hurts. Plus if you think that high fashion photographers are raking in the money. Check out Markus & Indriani and Annie Leibovitz who declared bankruptcy in the past.