My three biggest money mistakes as a photographer and how I fixed them
Like many photographers, I started freelancing without a clear plan for dealing with money. The first time I attempted to freelance full-time, in the mid-2000s, I thought hustling would be enough to put me on a solid financial and career footing. In reality, my path to a humanitarian photography career was much harder than that in many ways — including the money side of things.
It’s important for us photographers to understand the business side of photography. The annual mean wage for an American photographer is just shy of $42,000, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor data from 2017. That’s not a lot, especially if you’re a U.S.-based freelancer and that $42,000 has to cover taxes, health insurance, gear insurance and retirement savings as well as living expenses. And given how the Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on photographers’ lives, there’s a good chance that many photographers won’t earn even that much this year.
As a photographer, I’ve made a number of spectacularly bad and slightly less bad money mistakes. But as they say, all mistakes are opportunities for growing and learning. So, here are my three biggest money mistakes as a photographer and how I fixed them.
1. Thinking I could live off one photo revenue stream
I began my freelance career in 2006 promising myself that I would shoot nothing but news and documentary projects. I worked as a reporter for five years before switching to photojournalism and honestly, I looked down on photography not connected to news or what I considered to be important social issues. I know, I know: how snobby. But not for long. I realized within a couple months that this so-called career strategy wouldn’t work. I was shooting a lot of self-assigned stories to keep my skills sharp. Only occasionally was I successful in pitching and publishing those stories. I eventually got freelance work from the local paper, which paid just $100 or so per assignment.
How I fixed this money mistake: I dropped my pretension. Pretty soon I was shooting family portraits, weddings and high school senior photos. And you know what? I enjoyed it all. I really did. Now I make a living primarily as a humanitarian photographer and videographer, but I also write stories, lead storytelling trainings, manage project logistics and edit podcasts. Keeping an open mind to potential opportunities is important, especially these days.
2. Buying photography equipment I didn’t need
Oh, the mountains of gear I’ve bought and then sold on eBay or Craigslist! There was the 24mm lens that I used fewer than a dozen times, the gray backdrop I used for one shoot, the belt, bag and harness system that was clearly designed for a man. Plus a lot more.
How I fixed this money mistake: Now I buy gear only when I truly need it — like the new camera body I bought last year — or after renting and testing it out. In fact, renting gear I’m interested in but not 100% sure about has saved me from making many unnecessary purchases. For example, a couple years ago I was keen on owning a Sony mirrorless camera. In the past, I would have just bought it. But this time, I rented one body and one lens, tested them at a relative’s wedding and decided they weren’t for me. I spent just a couple hundred dollars on the rental vs a few thousand if I had purchased the gear.
3. Working without a clear contract
OK, so this next story is about writing, not photography. But it’s still highly relevant.
A few years ago, an organization hired me to write and film stories. The contract laid out story topics, how many stories I needed to write, about how many words each story should be, what I was expected to film (along with a shot list), how much I would be paid, deadlines, etc., etc. I thought it was thorough.
But when I turned in my first written story, an editor told me my stories needed to be much longer and with more details than the organization had originally asked for. Also, the organization now wanted me to write SEO-friendly headlines for each story. I suddenly realized the contract wasn’t specific enough about the deliverables and about how to handle scope creep, which is when the scope of work expands from its original parameters without taking into account the need for extra time or money.
I didn’t feel I could push back on the organization, so I did the work. But as I brainstormed headlines and wrote stories late into the night, I fumed at the organization, feeling they’d taken advantage of me. I was also mad at myself for not standing up for myself. I was working way more hours than I had planned and I wasn’t getting paid for them.
How I fixed this money mistake: Now I ask incredibly detailed questions about deliverables, especially if I’m working with a new client. And I’m no longer shy about addressing scope creep at any point in a consultancy. If the organization’s contract doesn’t address scope creep, I bring it up in one of our initial meetings. If, after I’ve begun work, the client expands my duties or asks for more deliverables, I explain to the client very matter-of-factly that this is going to cost $xxx more. I usually do this by sending a new estimate that covers the cost and time for the new responsibilities or deliverables. Sometimes it’s a slightly scary conversation to have. In those cases I remind myself this is business, nothing personal or emotional.
FINAL THOUGHTS ABOUT MY BIGGEST MONEY MISTAKES
The longer I’ve worked, the more confident I’ve become in how to deal with money issues related to my small business. Making these three money mistakes taught me so much about earning, spending and talking about money. If you’ve made mistakes, too, don’t despair. You can use those mistakes as motivation to do better next time.