Frits Habermann, PicMonkey CEO and lifelong photographer
Tough question, and one that I would have answer way differently ten years ago. Back then digital photography was really catching on, and the iPhone was about a year old. Social channels like Facebook were still in their forming phase and Instagram didn’t exist for another 2-3 years. Photography was mostly seen in the local art shows, or in glossy magazines or advertisements. A good friend of mine and pro photographer for the past 30 years could make anywhere from $30,000-$50,000 in a weekend at an art show. Another friend made six figures a year selling his work on stock photo sites like Getty Images.
Then the economy crashed and the bottom fell out of the art market. Then digital photography really took off with the rise of cheap digital cameras and mobile phones, and the bottom fell out of the stock photo market. Then social media took off and the bottom fell out of galleries and printing. Gone were the days of asking a few hundred dollars per print and instead publications were freely using digital photos off of the web without any attribution to the artist, or taking advantage of inexperienced new photographers who were just happy to see their shots in a magazine. So photography became a commodity and the bottom fell out of many pro photographers’ livelihoods. Photos they could sell to Conde Naste for hundreds or thousands of dollars suddenly were a dime a dozen.
But their expertise and the internet provided new opportunities as well. With the proliferation of digital cameras and new channels to show their work, aspiring photographers are looking to be educated on good technique, new locations and post-production proficiency. How-to videos, electronic lessons on platforms such as Lynda: Online Courses, Classes, Training, Tutorials or selling their own DVDs can bring in good income for proficient photographers.
Additionally, many pro photographers have turned to leading tours to various shooting locations and providing in-the-field tutelage on all things photography. They provide all the logistics for housing and meals, and usually obtain any special permitting required as well as organizing quality itineraries. For those who know how to manage logistics for groups of people, or who have experience in the travel industry, this area has proven a good avenue for income. But it's hard work, and the margins aren’t huge. Attendees can be fickle, cancelling at the last minute, leaving you footing the bill on overbooked hotels or minimizing the tour so much that you actually lose money after tallying up gas, food, accommodations, etc. And where you want to go is likely where others do as well (can you say “Iceland”?), so you need to fight for itineraries at the same time as distinguishing your offerings from the rest of the pack.
And lastly, there are still some ways to make money in stock photography, or if you’re really good, in selling your own work to collectors. The former is highly dependent on understanding trends and what is selling, while the latter is mostly about getting your work out in front of a ton of people, especially if it’s unique. Social channels can help on the latter, as can simply exhibiting your work at a local coffee store or donating pieces to auctions that then builds up a client base.
But none of it is easy; you need talent, lots of hard work, a deep portfolio of work, expertise, and a bit of luck.