Why photograph for money?

I have been reading many recent blog entries, across the web, talking about the changing business of commercial photography, now that digital imaging has “democratized” photography. Most of the blogs are talking about things like the wisdom of “going pro,” the hurdles to overcome in order to do that and various important thinking points in building a photography business. These are all VERY important questions and I am glad to know someone is pondering them in order to spur a much-needed dialogue on the subject. I have yet to read the blog post I have long wanted to read on that same subject. That would be titled something like: “Why photograph for money?” Since no one else has written that blog, I am going to try to do that myself.

First, if you want to read what others have written about the changing nature of commercial photography, you might read some of the blogs I have been directed to read by friends, peers, etc. They include:








I have written more than my fair share about some of these same issues, on The Wells Point. If you scroll down to the bottom of the home page at: http://thewellspoint.com/ you will find the “search” box. Enter words like commercial or professional or business and you will find what I have written on the topic. A few of my favorites are:





This blog entry was prompted when a friend directed me to the work of a wealthy technology executive who does studio photography as a hobby. It is nice enough work, with a disproportionate amount of work of women in what I can only describe as “fashion-esque” imagery. The pictures have plenty of skin, flowing dresses and “come-hither” glances, but nothing too over the top. The work was well executed but hardly innovative or revolutionary.

Still, it got me wondering, why do people photograph for money? I have previously blogged about why I photograph. At its core, photography as a way for me to have small, day-long (or shorter) adventures where I encounter new things and where I can have new experiences. Specifically, my favorite thing of all is to go somewhere new, wake up early, walk around and do street photography. The magical morning light, the people I encounter and the adventures I have are all part of the experience. For me, that is why I photograph!

As I have also previously written, the commercial work I do, including both my assignment and stock photography, supports me as I pursue those adventures. I have tried many kinds of commercial photography, as noted in previous blogs. After all kinds of career experimentation, I have settled on the work I do now because it is the closest I can get to doing exactly what I want to do. But I still have that as my day job, with the accompanying “grind” that is part of any day job.

If I had another job that I liked, that paid very well and allowed me free time to do exactly what I wanted to do with my photography, I for one, would not do the kind of middle of the road studio photography that I saw on the previously noted executive’s web-site. I would be working my way towards (or already be doing) something new, something more revolutionary, ideally a kind of work that I had not seen so much of before.

In my current situation, I struggle to do a variation on that. Right now, the work I am doing photographing inside foreclosed homes is what I am doing for love. The assignment work (which I generally enjoy doing) is as much for love as money. My stock photography business of offering images to agency after agency and keeping track of that as I go, that is purely for money. I have no problem with doing that for money, but again, I would be happy not doing that if I could live without it.

The one thing I have not previously written about is what I learned about myself as I experimented at different points in my career with different strategies for working in the world of photography. The overarching lesson I learned was that I need to be photographing very, very often. During brief stints as a photo gallery staffer, a photo editor for United Press International, and as a full-time professor of photography, I realized that although I did not need to be out photographing every day, I was happier if I was photographing pretty often.

I found I needed to be prompted to take pictures every week. When I was not pressed to do photography regularly, I saw how two things rapidly happened. First, I always found other things to do that took me away from photographing. Second, I saw how the skills that I had developed over the years as a photographer seemed to ooze out of my fingertips, bit-by-bit, day-by-day.

My wife, by comparison, photographs less day to day than I do. But she does a great deal of photographing during clearly defined times of year when she is working on specific projects.

Some photographers have very clear divisions between photography they do for love and what they do for money. There is no single correct path, but making that choice explicitly rather than accidentally is key. If you look back at the history of photography you will see many master photographers who, in their own way, struggled with the tug of war between doing photography for love and for money.

Imogen Cunningham was happy doing both commercial portraits and the fine-art work she is most known for. Edward Weston started out as a cmmecial/portrait photographer but ended up disdaining that kind of work and so he became the classic starving-artist photographer. Paul Strand made his living as a filmmaker but is known primarily as a fine art photographer.

Many of the great photographers somehow (accidentally or intentionally) came to terms with that balancing act of love vs. money. They did that mostly in a commercial context partly because, until fairly recently, most serious photography was done primarily for money, rather than love. That was largely because of the high cost of materials/cameras as well as the high level of expertise that was needed to do photography well.

Some photographers have been fortunate enough to not to have to choose between the two. They came from money, in one way or another, typically by birth, marriage or through their “day job.” They were lucky and some chose to do the kind of photography they wanted to do, being free of the constraints of paying clients. An example of this is the actor Jeff Bridges, who has photographed for years, but never as his primary source of income. If you read his statement about his photography at: http://www.jeffbridges.com/camera.html you will understand why he photographs.

All of this brings me back to where we started, considering the aspiring pros that are flooding the market because the barriers to entry have been lowered by digital photography. For the ones who think they want to do commercial work, with photography as their sole income, all I can say is good luck, read as much in advance as you can (on my blog and on other people’s blogs) and be prepared. For the folks who are considering “going pro” for the love of the media and not necessarily for the money, let me ask you “why photograph for money?”

If working as a pro gives you a discipline that you need to be photographing regularly, that might make sense. An argument for going pro might also be that you love the collaborative process that is at the core of most commercial photography. If you love working with people, that also can be a good reason. If like me, you really just want to take your own pictures, why not do that outside of commercial confines, assuming you have another way to make a living?

I have never understood why being a professional photographer was considered the highest level of the practice. Being a professional certainly means you are good at making photos for other people, good at taking other people’s ideas and making them into images. Does that mean you are in fact a great photographer? Not necessarily. (This is coming from professional photographer with a thirty years in the business.)

Think about this one carefully. Why take that thing you love, that is so personal to you and twist it into something done on command, for strangers, for money. Sounds a bit like prostitution if you ask me.

One response to “Why photograph for money?”

  1. Hello David,

    You hit the nail on its head by addressing the points in this blog that I have been thinking for the past 2 years.
    I photograph for the love of it, because I like to discover people through my pictures and uncover their stories through this beautiful medium. I would love to do it full time, all the time, simply because I LOVE IT!

    Currently I spend about 20% of the time shooting mainly because I am busy with my primary job(IT) which pays my bills.
    I am a guy with minimal needs and don’t want/need a lot of money. So don’t mind working 30% of my time shooting for money and devoting 70% of my time on personal long term projects.

    I am working towards such a goal. Hopefully in a couple of years I will be doing just that.

    Thanks for your insight.

    Uday K

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.