Like chameleons, we photographers change with our environment to survive and thrive. It’s inspiring to see the way we have risen to new and ever-evolving challenges in the industry. Yet, photographers are being taken advantage of now more than ever.
The photography industry constantly shifts as technology continuously advances. Photographers have shown resilience, creativity, and brilliance in adapting to changes in our industry. And yet our needs to feed our families and earn a livable wage have been neglected.
We are tired of being undervalued. We are tired of being treated like we’re disposable. We are tired of being lied to, often by our so-called industry partners.
Below is a not-so-brief glimpse at what we have had to endure over the past few decades.
The Shift from Film to Digital
From the birth of photography in the 1840s, images were recorded on film. The process felt like magic, but it was science—fairly complex science involving light, chemicals, and chemical reactions. Cameras advanced over the years, but the process remained basically the same until the 1990s.
That’s when digital technology emerged, forever changing the photography industry. Digital photography is faster and more convenient. It produces better quality images that don’t require the use of sometimes toxic chemicals.
But for some photographers, the transition from film to digital wasn’t easy.
Digital photography requires different skills. As a result, it can feel less creative, artistic, and meticulous. Unfortunately, it also makes the industry more accessible, which means more competition—and sometimes, less respect for the profession.
Ultimately, many photographers adjusted to and even embraced the change. But new technology means new ways for photographers to get shortchanged and exploited.
Let’s look at seven ways photographers are getting screwed over and what we can do about it.
Stock sites started as a good option for photographers to earn extra income in the digital world. Today, they’ve become yet another place where photographers cannot make a solid living. Sure, big companies like Shutterstock are flush in cash. But the photographers who provide their content certainly aren’t.
Every stock photo platform has its process. In general, the outlets sell the photos and collect most of the revenue. A photographer who submits their images does get a small percentage of the sale. On Shutterstock, for example, photographers can earn between 15 and 40 percent of the selling price. Shutterstock pockets the other 60 to 85 percent. You must sell 25,000 or more photos through the site before you get the “privilege” of earning 40 percent of the selling price for your images.
“In the last ten years, the prices have just dropped through the floor,” says author and industry expert Jim Pickerel. “If you’re not selling at volume, you’re not going to make enough to make up for the low price.”
Photographers on stock sites earn an average of $.02 a month per photo. Yes, two pennies. Let’s say you price a full-time living at $4,000 per month. To earn a full-time living selling stock photos for two pennies monthly, you’d have to upload about 200,000 images. And you’d have to upload dozens or hundreds the next month—and the month after that.
How long would it take you to plan, shoot, and edit 200,000 photos? Then upload them and add titles, descriptions, and keywords? All for $4,000 gross revenue monthly (before expenses, taxes, insurance, etc.) while major companies line their pockets on your hard work. Here are our two cents: That’s crap, and you deserve better.
Why Are Prices So Low?
You might wonder how stock photo sites get away with paying photographers so poorly. Wouldn’t photographers leave the platform, forcing them to offer a better deal?
When you sell anything through the internet, you’re not just competing with people in your area, you’re competing with people around the globe. Cost of living differs by location, and some photographers can survive off much lower prices than others.
Plus, circumstances differ from person to person. Some people have other individual or household incomes, viewing photography as a side hustle or a fun hobby. So they’re content with not getting paid much. This keeps prices low because, for every photographer who won’t accept $.02 a month, there are dozens of photographers who will. (Our point here isn’t to blame other photographers but to explain the difficulties of competing in a global marketplace.)
Additionally, there are several stock photo sites where photographers give away high-quality images for free. Obviously, this isn’t great news for people who want to earn a living through stock photography. It’s simply hard to compete with free.
Consumer Printing Sites
We’ve all heard of consumer printing sites like Shutterfly and Tinyprints. We even find them useful ourselves. Still, they take away (or at least shrink) another source of revenue for photographers.
In the past, many photographers made good money printing portraits or holiday cards for clients. Now, clients can print their photos online. Many printing sites also offer tools like cropping and retouching. Some consumers still recognize that photographers can provide better quality work than a printing site. Still, many more opt for the most affordable alternative.
So, with the advent of consumer printing sites, the photographer’s business model had to shift a bit. And move it did. There are still full-service studios (known in the industry as in-person sales) that provide a high-end service along with high-end products. Meanwhile, other photographers decided to lean into the digital offerings and include digital products in their packages.
For a while, this worked, photographers could choose the style they preferred and earn a living either way. Those who went digital viewed digital options as another product and priced accordingly. As a result, they didn’t have to spend as much time putting together albums or visiting clients’ homes to measure for art, freeing up more time to shoot.
Photographers had adapted successfully. The crisis was averted…until social media burst onto the scene.
Social Media and the Rise of Bad Advice
As social media skyrocketed to popularity, spreading misinformation and lousy advice became more accessible than ever. The result was a race to the bottom in pricing.
New photographers gave pricing advice to other new photographers—particularly in Facebook groups—like, “My mini sessions are $35 for all the images.” The dangers of using social media as a professional development tool are especially troubling in industries like photography. With no training or no certification needed to become a photographer, photographers are left to fend for themselves. It’s easy to follow bad advice just because it’s popular or sounds credible.
Established photographers tried to offer to mentor and by creating their own groups. They wanted to provide genuinely helpful advice to counter all the terrible advice floating around on social media. But it was like trying to patch a leaky boat with chewing gum.
Photographers don’t have an easy way to calculate what to charge, and many severely underprice themselves. The prevalence of wrong information on social media certainly doesn’t help. Social media also makes it easier for inexperienced photographers to steal work from others and claim it as their own. This practice sometimes lends false credibility to their uninformed opinions and advice.
Misinformation on the Web
On top of social media, the internet is full of misinformation about photography pricing.
Here’s an example: WeddingWire has a “wedding photographer cost guide” on their website. The guide is based on couples who reported how much they paid for photography within their WeddingWire reviews.
This information is misleading for several reasons. The world is a vast place, and packages and budgets vary widely. Some people could have misreported data. Others could have received a discount from a photographer, friend, or family member. Not only does this guide provide inaccurate pricing expectations to engaged couples, but it also misleads new photographers on how to price themselves.
According to WeddingWire, the average photography cost for a wedding is $2,000. So, let’s just see how much a photographer would earn. The average full-time wedding photographer shoots is between 21-28 weddings a year. So, if they charge $2,000 per shoot, let’s use 25 weddings as an average statistic – they will make a total of $50,000 in revenue annually. Given a higher profit margin of 25% in the photography industry, this means the wedding home photographer would take home a whopping $12,500 a year. And that’s before taxes and health insurance. It’s irresponsible and disappointing for non-experts like WeddingWire to circulate misleading information online.
Influencers and blogs worsen the problem by providing “tips” on how to get cheaper rates. For instance, some even advise telling your photographer it’s an event to get a more affordable rate on wedding photography. (This is unethical: Shooting a wedding is entirely different from shooting a birthday party.)
Another tip we’ve seen: “Get a free boudoir shoot from your photographer when you’re getting ready for the big day!” (In reality, a boudoir shoot is entirely different from the five minutes allocated for getting ready photos.)
These tips create significant headaches for photographers, with clients angling for low prices using shady strategies they found online.
Photography Software Companies
Even photography software companies publish misinformation online. Many of these companies have photography blogs, but it’s clearly not a photographer sitting behind the keyboard.
For instance, we recently saw a blog article on “how to price your photography services,” quoting newborn photography between $250-$500. With those prices, with the amount of hours they work per hour of shooting and their expenses – the photographer would earn between $1.66-$3.33 an hour!
New photographers would expect photography software companies to be reliable sources for pricing their photos. It’s a reasonable expectation, but it’s not correct—and that’s ludicrous. Some software companies do offer calculators that give a rough estimate of pricing. However, the calculators ask for information like how many sessions you can do, which a new photographer wouldn’t know yet. There is no accurate, reliable guidance on how to price.
Constantly Let Down by Tech Companies
Photographers have had to adjust to the digital shift, work around consumer sites, and navigate a minefield of misinformation. On top of these challenges, they’ve also had to deal with software companies devaluing the industry or just plain letting them down.
Let’s look at a few examples.
Pictage was one of the earliest online storage and workflow management systems for professional photographers. Through Pictage, photographers could host, proof, print, and even deliver their images.
Unfortunately, the success of Pictage’s business model was based on the high percentages they took from print sales. And as we know, photography went digital, and print’s popularity faded. Eventually, Pictage majorly shifted its business model. It stopped offering print orders and even started deleting images defined as “not profitable.”
Despite these changes, it was too late. Pictage went out of business. Changing the business model was understandable, and so was the decision to close shop. But instead of giving photographers advance warning, Pictage simply shut down its site. As a result, many photographers did not get a chance to download their images. In addition, it was an unbelievable nightmare for those photographers who used Pictage to store their final files, and they lost those images forever.
PASS is a web viewing platform for event photography. Photographers upload their photos, and the images are immediately available for clients to view, download, and share.
In 2013, PASS added a PASS Prints feature, which allowed clients to order prints of the images uploaded to the platform. Here’s the problem: Photographers couldn’t set their prices. Prices were fixed at $1 for a 4×6, $2 for a 5×7, and $4 for an 8×12. Photographers received 50% of each sale. Earning $.50 for a print is absurdly low for any photographer.
Making matters worse, PASS marketed itself by contrasting its “shoot and share” photographers with “photographers who mark up their prints and make as much money as they can off them.” In other words, PASS villainized photographers trying to earn a living while enabling the race to the bottom. Thus, the platform actively worked against the best interest of its customers (photographers) to “make as much money as they [could] off them.” The hypocrisy!
ShootProof is a photographer platform offering galleries, contracts, invoicing, lab orders, and digital downloads. For years, ShootProof photographers have asked for more products to sell to their clients.
Finally, ShootProof responded by launching a print store for photographers to add to their galleries. It sounds good in theory, but they completely ignored the real needs of their photographers. ShootProof photographers wanted a decent website to sell quality professional products to their clients. They wanted to earn a profit for these products because their session fees alone DO NOT cut it.
The consumer printing company now offered through ShootProof is called Collage. With Collage, like what happened with Pass, photographers can’t even pick the products, pricing, or profit margins. In addition, they receive 20% of the profits and have to give away their client’s contact info to Collage. 20% of the profit is not much, but it’s even worse when Collage offers first-time users 60% off, prints sell for a whopping 7 cents on top of offering products for free.
This is yet another example of a company not understanding (or not caring about) the needs of photographers. If they did, they sure wouldn’t think that 20% of nothing would let us ‘earn money while we sleep.’ It’s false advertising and genuinely taking advantage of those newer photographers. They are already unprofitable and simply need ways to make a living. Surely they can make money while we make money too?
Another change in the photography industry is the rise of gig work. Gig work often sounds appealing at first, but it doesn’t benefit most photographers when you look behind the curtain. Photographers are misled by companies saying they do all the marketing and you get a hefty portion of the (really cheap) session fee.
However, when you analyze what photographers take home, it’s close to $12 per hour. You don’t get additional money for travel, editing, or any expenses incurred, such as providing your equipment. There are no benefits and no copyright to your images.
With these conditions, it’s better to have an hourly job in a department store studio. Then, you wouldn’t have to use your camera or computer, and you wouldn’t have to pay for insurance and travel. Plus, you’d have regular hours and benefits. But, no matter how good gig work sounds, it’s another empty promise to photographers. Instead, it’s yet another way to take advantage of your talent and hard work to boost someone else’s bank account.
Little Industry Support
The COVID-19 pandemic was an eye-opening experience for photographers. While industries like haircare had training, guidance, and support on reopening, photographers had very little support.
Occasionally, software companies sent emails informing photographers that they had launched a community on their websites to help. But, again, the real needs of photographers were ignored. They didn’t need a community on a software site; they needed assistance.
Companies sent “ways to make money when you’ve shut down” blogs with useless tips like “edit other people’s photos.” They ignored the easy solutions at their fingertips, like holding subscription fees, getting photographer product sales, offering reopening guidance, or providing free COVID contracts. But, of course, that’s because it was never really about the photographers. It was about the big companies’ bottom lines.
As with many industries, the photography industry was hit hard during the pandemic. Not only did photographers not make any money, but they also had to send refund after refund. No one needed a newborn shoot anymore. Wedding photographers lost a whole year of income. Their clients didn’t know if they would have a job or what would happen, so they wanted their money back. This meant negative revenue (and negative income) for our photographers.
Added to the complication is the lack of support for the self-employed and there was very little help in navigating small business loans, EIDL, PPP, or pandemic unemployment.
The gaps in the photography industry were glaring. Over and over, it seems that people and organizations aim to take advantage of photographers. They devalue photographers’ work or use it to earn their profits at the photographers’ expense.
Why is the photography industry so unsupported? Is it because we are artists? Does the passion tax apply here too? Is it because we let them?
It’s Not All Bad…
This post is not an anti-technology rant. Instead, we want to raise awareness about some of the issues and shady practices harming the photography industry. But we also want to mention that technology can be a force for good.
Sure, everyone can take decent pictures with their smartphone cameras now. People are consuming more content than ever, and they still want to see high-quality, artistic images. So it’s not a bad thing that parents can easily document their kid’s first steps or take candid photos of their children laughing and playing.
After all, owning a pen doesn’t make you a writer. Having a pair of scissors doesn’t make you a hairdresser. And access to a camera doesn’t make people photographers—and it certainly doesn’t make them professional photographers.
We have embraced technology and its benefits, but we are now hyper-aware of the challenges it presents for our industry. With awareness comes the opportunity to work together toward positive change.
It’s time to change the photography industry again but this time on our terms. As photographers, we deserve to feel joy and pride in our craft. We deserve to earn a livable wage again. We deserve support and guidance, not people trying to take advantage.
As an industry, we must collectively work together to create necessary change. Don’t you agree?
About the author: Jane Goodrich is an award-winning photographer whose underlying mission is to support and empower other photographers in reaching new levels of profitable success. With a background in business and marketing, vast industry experience running two successful photography businesses, and building The Photography Business brand, Jane is one of the most respected photographers in the industry when it comes to running a successful business. Jane took her knowledge and experience and poured it into Picsello — a platform that will genuinely support photographers in setting their pricing, running their business effectively, and marketing and monetizing their services. In addition, we’ll help photographers navigate the challenges and cut through the misinformation. Picsello launches in January 2022.
The opinions expressed above are solely those of the author. This article was also published here.