How to make money from your photography

From opening online stores to licensing photos from their archives, seven professional photographers share ways they generate extra income from their work.

Documentary photographer Dorothea Lange was a photo finisher at a photo supply store. Street photographer Vivian Cherry worked as a contact printer in a darkroom. Conceptual artist Barbara Kruger was a freelance photo editor. Millennials and Gen Z might be nicknamed ‘generation side-hustle’, but the truth is, photographers have been doing it for decades.

A recent Lensrentals survey of more than 1,000 professional photographers reveals that 74.6% had all or almost all of their bookings cancelled in April, while 59.7% had almost all of their jobs cancelled in May. The COVID-19 crisis has impacted the income of almost 97% of photographers, but the news isn’t all bad, as many are finding fresh and creative ways to earn money.

We asked seven professional photographers how they bring in extra income using their skills behind the camera. Read on for 17 of their best tips.

1. Sell fine art prints

“I have a few side hustles, and one of them is Beauty Meets Art,” the London-born photographer Nathalie Gordon tells us. “I shoot a lot of beauty photos, and I’ve started to create new works that I sell as fine art Gilcée prints. I’ve exhibited in a few exhibitions already since starting in 2018 and have also been fortunate enough to receive representation from WallSpace LA. My theme is to take macro beauty shots and blow them up to four-foot by three-foot, large-scale pieces of art.”

Image by Nathalie Gordon

Want to learn more about selling prints? Check out our article Vital tips for selling your photography prints online.

2. Create a subscription box

A few years ago, Nathalie launched MeeBox, a nail polish subscription box, along with two friends and business partners, but you don’t have to be a beauty photographer to follow her lead. If your photography niche gives you access or insight into a particular topic, use it to your advantage. Alternatively, you can create a subscription box for other photographers full of your favourite accessories, filters, or film stocks. Maybe you create a photobook club where you share a new release each month; the opportunities are endless.

3. Branch out into video

“I was actually a video editor and worked on music videos, short films, and other short-form promotional content before I became a photographer,” Nathalie says. “I love to edit and still do. This is my main side hustle alongside photography. It allows me to maintain a high level of creativity in a different way. I’m also able to take BTS footage from my own shoots and edit them into whatever I like. These days, a lot of clients are asking photographers if they shoot or have worked with video, so it’s a great skill to have. I’ve even been asked to direct more, so that’s pretty exciting!”

4. Start a zine

“During this time, I’ve created an e-zine called trailblazermag.com,” the San Francisco-based photographer Saroyan Humphrey tells us. “On my site, I present interviews and photo stories that represent the work I produce for clients.

Image by Saroyan Humphrey

“The features are also personally interesting to me, things I am passionate about, so that helps keep it ongoing and viable. I want to expand Trailblazer to become a further reflection of my photography and storytelling. I’d encourage emerging photographers to let their passions lead them and not fall into a cookie-cutter process mindset.”

A regular zine is a big undertaking, but you can always start with a blog or guide. You can keep them free, as Saroyan has so far, or you can monetise them through sponsorships or subscriptions.

5. Write for blogs

You don’t have to start your own blog to share your tips and tricks; you can also write for someone else, like an educational site or the blog belonging to your favourite photo company. Send an intriguing pitch about the topic you want to cover—the more specialised, the better—and include some of your photos as examples. If they’re interested, you can discuss the budget going forward.

6. Explore stock photography

“In 2017, I rolled my ankle and ended up with three traumatic fractures, and I wasn’t able to walk unassisted for months,” the fashion and product photographer Kate Benson tells us. “After that, I started asking my colleagues what they were doing in terms of an exit strategy, or in creating passive income. Did they have a plan for retirement? What would they do if they couldn’t work because of an injury or worse (and now, a pandemic)?

“I took a walk with a fellow photographer, and we discussed diversifying revenue streams. He told me that he started selling stock as a way to get a little passive income money and was (at that time) getting about $10,000 a year from it. He was shooting weddings, food, and beverage, architecture, etc.

“He said he tried for three years to get accepted to the stock site he was with, but when he did, he had the added bonus of not only getting that extra $10,000 a year from sales, but also his images were used for mood boards that landed him bookings around the country.

“He has since gone on to add a lot more work to the stock site. It was a great way to use the images that had already ‘lived their life’ and would otherwise just be sitting on his hard drives.”

7. License your photos to clients (in addition to your day rate)

Stock photography isn’t the only way to monetise work you’ve already shot. “There is a huge missed opportunity for money if you aren’t actually licensing your photographs to clients,” Kate says. “I ended up on a call with someone from the creative team, and she said that, in her work, she has seen photographers easily bringing in an extra five or six figures a year in license extensions.

“So, if you aren’t already, start writing in your proposals about what your images can be used for and for how long. Then follow up when the timeline for those images expires and ask if the client would like to license the images for longer. She explained that these companies/clients almost always extend the licenses so the photographer can graciously just call, remind them, and accept the money. She was seeing this generate more than selling images via stock.”

Image by Corina Daniela Obertas

8. Shoot products for clients

Even during the pandemic, the Rome-based food photographer Corina Daniela Obertas has continued shooting for clients around the country. “Working from a home studio is not very different from working in any other studio, but it does come with the advantage of using it anytime you want,” she says.

“During the period of COVD-19 restrictions, because I couldn’t invite clients to come to me or travel to them, I’ve had them send me their products via courier. After I photographed them, I shared the photos online through my website. The site has a feature for ‘Client Proofing,’ so my clients can see and choose the images in real-time. The clients who needed a card with the digital files received it via courier too.

“I believe in working smart and using technology and online tools to communicate and share information, briefs, and images with clients. I have to say that I have been able to work in a more peaceful and serene way on my own, without people around.”

9. Open an Etsy shop

“There are many ways photographers can diversify their incomes right now,” Corina explains. “In my case, those side projects have been stock photography and the small Etsy shop that I created. The shop was launched to sell prints of my works, but when I started making vinyl backgrounds for use inside my studio and noticed their excellent quality, I thought that I could transform that into a business as well. In the future, I intend to create a category for props too. During the lockdown, these alternatives were of enormous help.”

10. Create a preset bundle

In addition to selling his photos stock co-op and licensing directly to clients, the Berlin-based photographer and graphic designer Daniel Farò is looking into developing and selling presets.

Cooling off in a natural pool in Sicily. Image shot for IGNANT by Daniel Farò.

Daniel Farò has a distinct aesthetic, complete with vivid colours, and soft, dreamy light, so it’s a style many would want to emulate. If you have a unique editing process and can offer something special to amateurs and professionals looking to make their photos more polished, presets might be an avenue to explore.

“In my opinion, anything that will make you happy by focusing on your passion is valid,” Daniel Farò says. “If you have other interests, be it pottery, jewellery-making, cooking, or something else, why not try and pursue that at the same time? There’s great possibility in combining multiple talents.”

11. Share your retouching expertise

If presets aren’t your thing, you can still monetise your editing talents by helping other photographers retouch their images. You already do it for yourself, and if you’re good at it, that’s a marketable skill. If you don’t want to post-process for clients directly, share a tutorial (video or PDF) that interested parties can download on their own for a small fee.

12. Contact local businesses

As businesses start to open back up, they’ll need promo photos, so get in touch and see if they need a professional photographer to shoot their venue. Share your portfolio, and explain how your work will help them reach their goals. You can even offer a reduced rate if they sign a property release allowing you to license the photos.

If interiors are already something you enjoy photographing, shooting freelance for rentals through Airbnb is a good place to start (you can apply here). If events are more your speed, connect with a wedding planner or venue; if they like your work, it could lead to more jobs down the road.

13. Enter contests

The Germany-based photographer Daniel Heilig has a few independent revenue streams, including licensing his images, selling fine art prints, and entering competitions. “I was recently awarded the Grand Prize for the Mobile Photography Awards, which came with a four-digit cash prize,” he tells us.

Image from the series Solitude © by Daniel Heilig

Not all contests offer cash prizes, and most have entry fees, so do your research to see whether it’s worth applying. “I regularly try to enter photography contests, and although my photos are often among the nominated, shortlisted, or even winning images, I hardly make a profit overall,” Daniel Heilig says. “It can bring in some income, but it’s more about widening my network, getting some exposure, and browsing through the winning galleries to get some inspiration.”

14. Host a course

“With the awards, recognition, and exposure I’ve been getting lately, I felt confident enough to start giving some courses on mobile photography,” Daniel Heilig continues. “Even though I have to travel from Germany to Switzerland to get the most out of the experience, I am very excited and happy to share my passion with others and provide some handy tips.”

15. Organise a photo tour

As restrictions lift, there will be more opportunities to connect with other photographers in-person. If you live in an interesting place, consider hosting photo walks or tours for visiting photographers; you already know all the best spots, and you can share your tips for secret, out-of-the-way perspectives.

It can also help to team up with a local agency or business in your area. Some photo tours are free, so just make it clear from the get-go that there’s a fee to take part, and tell potential clients why you’re worth the investment. At the end, you can offer your feedback on the photos and stay in touch.

Image by Christine Chitnis

16. Get creative with products

Fine art prints don’t have to be the only products you create and sell; throughout the years, we’ve seen photographers producing everything from bags to calendars. “Lately, I have been diversifying my income stream by finding ways to monetize the large archive of photographs that I had for my book, Patterns of India,” the writer, author, and photographer Christine Chitnis tells us. “I have a line of framed photographs coming out, as well as an upcoming puzzle featuring my photography.”

17. Pitch, pitch, pitch

Even if you can’t get back into the field just yet, now is the time to polish your archive and pitch existing or future projects to editors and clients. If you haven’t already drafted an artist statement, take the time. Write a local newspaper editor with a clear idea for a story you want to shoot as things open and the “new normal” comes into effect. Or, tell them about a little-known travel destination, and say you’d like to cover it for their publication. For tips on pitching photo editors, check out this article, and stay tuned for another piece we have coming out with tips for connecting with clients.


About the contributor

Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.