One of the questions that turns up most frequently in my inbox is 'I want to earn a living from photography - do you have any advice?'. To which the succinct (and unwanted) answer is 'don't give up the day job'.
In roughly the same way that not everyone grows up to be an astronaut, most aspiring pro photographers never make the grade. Well, alright, perhaps that's not an entirely fair parallel. There are, after all, considerably more photographers than astronauts in this world (at least, there were last time I looked). But still, photography isn't a safe, easy or lucrative career choice to nearly the extent that most people imagine it is (for more de-motivational truisms, I can do no better than refer the over-eager wannabe astronaut / photographer here).
Of course I would say that, wouldn't I? After all, it's hardly in my interests to encourage competitors to tread on my riding shoes. But if you're still not convinced, consider this:
- It's a buyer's world
Pre-flickr, pre-broadband, pre-budget dSLRs, pro photography was already in trouble. Buffeted by falling circulations, the fallout from the dotcom bubble and general post 9/11 market jitters, media organisations and commercial buyers of photography were all going through an extended period of belt-tightening anyway. Prices froze or dropped, extended rights were demanded and contracts locked down. And then the prosumer explosion came along, and photography was well and truly commoditised. Suddenly the market was over-saturated, almost overnight, with millions of images. Many of them were (are) available for free or a pittance, their creators only too happy to allow usage in exchange for the short-lived golden glow that comes with seeing their work in print. With the market chasing ever-cheaper imagery, it's tougher than ever for an individual to earn a living from the images they produce.
- The herding instinct
You've bought a dSLR, you're enjoying the whole thing, everyone says your pictures are good. Think you're the only person to have considered making money from them? Given that dSLR sales have been growing at double-digit rates for a while now, chances are there are thousands - if not millions - of people just like you. The market's already over-saturated (see above). How are you going to rise above the rest?
- Quality matters
In the days of film, most people simply didn't take the time to learn how to consistently produce the sharp, well-exposed transparencies that most editorial and commercial users demanded. The long and relatively costly learning curve acted like a natural filter, ensuring only the most determined individuals endured the disappointment of roll after roll of sub-par results. Digital's instant feedback loop both speeds the process and gives the illusion that a higher proportion of shots have 'come out'. But wait - are your pics really up to scratch? Are they really sharp? (lack of sharpness is the most common shortcoming that I see in amateur pics, whether of mountain bikes or any other subject). Whilst some clients are happy to accept 'good enough' standards of photography, there's no future in being a bottom-feeder. If you can't consistently produce technically and aesthetically top-notch images, to order, in a range of conditions and circumstances, you're in trouble before you start.
- Do the math
... because most photographers don't. As a group, photographers are notoriously bad at running businesses. The ones that succeed tend to be either vastly talented, extremely well connected or, more often, simply ok at basic arithmetic. It's simple, really - you need to earn more than you spend. Hardly rocket science, but it's amazing how many people get blinded by the lure of shiny toys, then go on to market their work poorly / hardly at all and under-charge when they do find a buyer. Know the value of your work, understand your market, spend time on a business plan and then stick to it.
- It's not (just) about the pictures
Plenty of extremely gifted amateurs are capable of turning out consistently great images, but that's not enough to earn a decent living. No-one is likely to beat a path to your door, even if you do have a great flickr gallery (and if that's the extent of your marketing, it's likely that anyone that does go down that route will be looking for free or cheap usage). To succeed you need to spend more time running a business than being a photographer. Selling your work is key, and you can't necessarily rely on the quality of your images to do all the talking (though if they're great, that helps).
- Self-employment blues
The relative isolation, need for self-motivation and complete lack of job security mean it really doesn't suit everyone. Oh, and did I mention no sick or holiday pay and irregular cash flow?
Tough love? Maybe, but the reality of professional photography - rather like running a restaurant or writing a best-selling book - seems to be far removed from the popular perception of it. And if that hasn't been enough to put you off, you just might stand a chance. Good luck!