How to Make More than Minimum Wage as Professional Photographer

It’s been a while since I blogged “Do Professional Photographers Really Make Money?” and I wanted to thank everyone for reading, sharing the link and commenting on my blog.

While most photographers roughly agree with my figures, there were some who didn’t think they added up and some who still retaliate against charging enough to sustain a living from photography alone.

So here I am, once again, asking photographers to charge enough to sustain their lives.  Do not supplement your business with personal income to charge a smaller rate.

If you are QUICK, you probably spend 6 hours on one portrait client.  Let’s be honest and say you probably take longer, but for the sake of another example, we’ll show the best-case-scenario.

How many portrait sessions a year can you handle?   One a day? One a week? Two or three a week?

Running a photography business is SO much more than taking pictures and editing them, so let’s say you can handle three portrait sessions a week and you take two weeks off a year.

3 x 50 = 150 portrait sessions for the year.

Since minimum wage (in the state of Colorado) is currently $7.36, you want to make more than that.  You have a SKILL that is worth more than that, right? (right!)

$7.36 (minimum wage) x 6 hours of work = $44.16

HOWEVER, you need to #1 set aside approximately 1/3 for taxes AND #2 set aside 1/3 for “running your business.”

So you actually need to earn three-times minimum wage to MAKE minimum wage.

$44.16 x 3 = $132.48

So, to earn minimum wage, you need to charge $132.48 for one portrait session.

But you can’t be ok with earning minimum wage, can you?  If you are, you could go out and find a minimum wage hourly job.

When people say “Heather, I’m OK with being a starving artist. I do this for the love of doing it! Making a little money on top of it is just a bonus!

Actually, if you are not charging enough to sustain your business and your family, you are teaching consumers that it is possible to obtain a professional at this rates. (*dislike!*)

Let’s talk about the national poverty level. For a family of four it is $22,350 for the year.  That is $10.75 per hour at 40 hours a week.  That is $3.39 MORE per hour than minimum wage.  That’s a HUGE difference, percentage-wise.

So, as a “starving artist” you should at least make the national poverty rate – let’s hope so!

$10.75 (national poverty rate) x 6 hours of work = $64.50

Again you actually need to earn three-times $10.75 to MAKE $10.75.

$64.50 x 3 = $193.50

So, if you are charging LESS than $193.50 for a portrait session, that (start to finish) takes you no longer than six hours to complete, you are paying yourself at the national poverty line (as of 2011).

So let’s say you feel “set” at your price of $200 for a session, with a CD of edited images.

$200 x 150 sessions for the year = $30,000.

That sounds like a decent little starter income, right?

Nope… remember this doesn’t go into your pocket.  1/3 is set aside for taxes. 1/3 is set aside for equipment, marketing, website, computers, CPA fees, samples, business insurance, etc. THEN a 1/3 is your take-home pay.

$10,000 doesn’t go far in the DSLR world.

Photography equipment is VERY costly. People will ask what the “bare minimum to get started” is and I honestly feel there isn’t a “bare minimum.”  I will do another breakdown in a future post, but you can easily invest $10,000 upfront and keep investing $3,000+ a year to your gear bag.

The $10,000 that is left for your take-home pay for the YEAR can easily get erased by the expensive of running your business. It has for me, which is why I’m just being upfront and real.

150 portrait sessions x 6 hours each = 900 hours of work JUST on those sessions.

That’s 18 hours a week for the year… which sounds like part-time work, but you don’t get paid unless you see clients.  So you actually have a full 40 hour week on your plate (marketing, office work, customer service, scouting out new locations, social media time, etc.).

Are you really ok with earning less than HALF the national poverty line rate?  ($22,350 vs. $10,000)

You would need to do 340 portrait sessions a YEAR at $200 each to earn roughly the same… $22,350 vs. $22,667.

The solution here:

  • Start your session fee at $200 but you don’t include the digital files on CD.
  • Offer print packages at a minimum investment amount so you know you will get paid more than minimum wage & the national poverty line.
  • Don’t offer the digital files for purchase until that minimum print investment is reached.
  • If you feel you aren’t experienced enough to charge these rates, then take some time to assist an established photographer (for weddings or portraits, it doesn’t matter).

Let’s say you make the leap of faith and start charging $200 for the session, then your print packages start at $200.  That’s a $400 minimum investment from your client.

$400 x 150 portrait sessions a year = $60,000

$20,000 set aside for taxes (you may not need all this for taxes, but you won’t know until year-end)

$20,000 set aside for equipment, cost-of-goods, computer, marketing – “overhead”

$20,000 your take-home for the year. Save it & spend it how you see fit. Just be kind to yourself and account for mortgage/home rent, feeding & clothing your family on top of retirement, college funds & vacations.

Will $20,000 a year do it for you?

How much do you want to make?

$40,000? Then your 150 portrait sessions a year need to average $800 each.

$50,000? They will need to average $1,000 each.

Again, I am not a financial advisor and I didn’t learn this from a book… my goal is to share my personal experiences as [barely] “making it” as a professional photographer.





Please leave a comment below & share with your friends. All comments await my moderation.

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Brooke Summer Photography - August 2, 2011 - 8:24 am

This is SO good Heather, and so important. It’s important for anyone to charge what they’re worth, regardless of their field. I don’t understand why some people are so against photographers doing the same!

Sheila - August 3, 2011 - 7:12 am

“Let’s talk about the national poverty level.” … This is what I’m concerned about, and it’s where I feel a passion to serve. Since I DO have a full-time job that isn’t related to photography and does help pay the bills, I don’t have the time to devote to trying to compete with higher level professionals. This is why I’ve made the tough decision to dissolve my business after this year is over and work on a new direction. This new direction will include providing a service to those who can’t afford family portraits. I’ve always had a heart for the “underdog”. I don’t plan on giving away images on CD/DVD or huge print packages, but I would like to make family and individual portraits to preserve memories as a “semi-pro” for those who can’t afford to pay a professional photographer. So I don’t see this as taking business from the pros or undercutting the market as it’s really a different market.

Hilary Mercer - August 16, 2011 - 8:50 pm

You’re awesome. Thank you.

Shannon White - August 17, 2011 - 8:42 am

I recently told a friend who is new in the business an interesting thought of mine. She mentioned that she likes to serve middle class families who would otherwise not be able to afford great photography.

Middle class families have some form of money that isn’t allocated to bills, maintenance, gas and food {disposable income}. They have choices where to spend that money. Are these same people who cannot afford custom family photography giving their kids a great birthday party, buying them a $200 electric car, giving them tons of gifts under the Christmas tree, mom spending $100-150 a pop on getting her hair done, buying an awesome purse and many other treats for their family? Yes, they most likely are. If they do not put money towards photography it is because they really do not value photography like they do other things in life. Be very careful of serving the average consumer by low balling your services.

I have several clients who pay their session fee and spend about $100-$150 more in prints mostly in a 4×6 or 5×7 size. They value the wonderful images created and spend as much of their budget as they can often saving up for their session each year. It is what they can afford and I appreciate their business. I have other clients with more disposable income who spend $600+ on their print, product and CD order.

Being in business is very expensive with the recurring fees, equipment purchases, props, improvements, advertisements. The time involved is incredible. Just the networking alone feels like a full time job. Your math is very accurate and most people who don’t agree are taking short cuts in how they operate their business {especially in legality and taxes}.

Dave - August 25, 2011 - 9:13 pm

Interesting article. My family is on the low end of middle class as are the majority of people we know. They don’t buy $200 on electric cars for their kids or $150 to get their hair done. Nearly every penny they spend is on bills, food and medicine. What little “extra income” they have typically goes to movie night (sans popcorn) or an occasional night out at a cheap restaurant. They can’t afford $300 or $500 and it’s not a choice. Do those people not deserve professional portraits because they can’t afford those prices? If I, or someone else, offers them a similar service at a cheaper price are we really taking those clients away from you? Do you really think that without “cheap photographers” that your business at its much higher prices would grow? Perhaps a little bit, but most people simply would go without.
You know what you are worth and you should charge as much as you can get because your time is valuable. But we are becoming a nation of haves and have-nots with the “have-not” population growing every single day. And denying them a quality product and service simply because you think it “trains them” to believe they can get something for little or nothing is ridiculous in my opinion. You really shouldn’t care or worry about the “cheap photographers” and what they’re doing. They really aren’t effecting your business. Your clients know the quality of your work and that you are worth every single penny you charge them. And when people like that know that you get what you pay for, they will continue to pay premium prices for your premium service. So stop worrying about the “cheap photographers”.

Mary Peterson - November 22, 2011 - 8:52 pm

Great article, really breaking it down. I currently am and always have been on the low end of the income spectrum, but you still spend money on what’s important to you, even if it means saving longer. As for the cheap photographers they do need to be educated because they do train consumers that it’s ok, and it’s not bc you start training all levels income to believe one is just as good as the other.

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