Did you know that your photography business means nothing in the “real world”?  Did you know that all the work you’ve done is pretty much invisible when it matters?

I’m not here to crush your dreams.  I’m sharing my road of reality and letting you (photographers) know what it is like if you try or NEED to change your course…..

Disclaimer:  As long as there are great clients out there that still find value in the art I create, at the price that gives me a livable wage or an hourly salary that is worth taking time away from my personal or family time, I will continue doing photography here and there.  However, I spent the last year and half diving in, analyzing, researching, compiling information and have come to the conclusion — I can no longer do photography full time and achieve a wage that I want/need for this high cost of living area (Maryland) – read about that here.  I know other photographers have also discovered this as several are closing their studios or not renewing leases as I type.  Photographers aren’t screaming this from the mountaintops, but it’s happening.

As I have said in another post, because the world wide web had made this such a small world, photographers in low cost of living areas have taught photographers in high cost of living areas to charge cheap because that’s what the market will bear (or some other ridiculous reason).  Photographers in Maryland are charging such low amounts, that I venture to say MOST are not making a livable wage.  I’m not joining them.

Years ago, when I saw the decline of the industry (read my full story here), I recognized that my plan of retiring as a photographer with piles of money to enjoy in my golden years was not going to pan out.  I went back to college.

Consider YOUR Future

There’s something that I have noticed that has been happening over the years.  Example:  A photographer loses her spouse and is left crowd funding because she has counted on her spouse to bring in the majority of the income.  She is now left having to support herself and  her kids.  Where was the life insurance policy?  Does anyone concern themselves with preparing for the future?  This is not said to be mean. I’m simply saying – we need to consider reality of what the future can bring.  We don’t want to think that we will ever lose our spouses but it happens unfortunately – it could be a death, it could be a divorce… it’s the bad part of life but the reality is there – it could happen.  Why aren’t we preparing for things that are out of control?  We must know that we can provide for ourselves no matter what happens.  Maybe photography is doing that for you?  But maybe it won’t always be there.  Consider securing your future.

I had to learn the hard way that photography was not going to continue in the same capacity.  (Again, my full story here).  Even though for quite a few years, I was making more than my husband and we seriously counted on my money,  I’m extremely thankful that my husband has a good stable career or we would have never made it this far.

Start dividing your eggs into different baskets.  Trust me,  you NEED a safety net and the confidence that you could support yourself and your family if anything should happen.  And women……this is all mostly for you especially those that insist you don’t need photography income yet keep taking clients.   We are not in the 1940s…  Even if your husband can support you now, he could lose his job tomorrow, do you know that you can be independently financially stable?

Photography Experience Means Nothing in the “Real World”

When we are photographers, we live in a bit of a bubble.  We are proud business owners in control of ourselves.   This bubble will burst if you try to step out of it.   I have over 20 years of experience in owning/operating small businesses.  Do you know what?  It means nothing when trying to find a job.  Most everywhere I applied wouldn’t even let me in the door without a degree.  I slipped through the cracks and managed to get a few interviews; however, as soon as they learned I was not yet finished my degree, the interview was done.

I got creative and worded it as I managed commercial studios (leaving the word photography out of it), but the sighs or eyerolls from people when they started questioning my work experience was unbelievable.

You know what truly sucks?  Sitting across from someone who has your financial future in their hands and thinks your hard work and experience are not worth anything but you know that you made a higher salary during your best years as a photographer than they have in their current executive position.  I was 40 years old, had an abundance of experience – 20 some years of it – responsible, extremely high work ethic, no kids on my hip (my kids are grown), and I couldn’t land the jobs I wanted and knew I could do and do very well.

maryland photographer

Those 20 years were invisible.

Just yesterday, I had a recruiter over the phone say a few things I found degrading.  While reviewing my resume, she said, “How did you get that accounting position at a place I have heard of without your degree?”  I told her well I interviewed for the position and got the job.  She then said, “Well how did you get general ledger experience?”  She had totally disregarded the 20+ years that I had on my resume where I owned and operated my own businesses.  It was like those 20 years were completely invisible to her.  After picking my jaw up off the floor from her puzzling behavior, I stated, “I worked with Quickbooks and Sage all those years in order to run my businesses and do the accounting for them.  Not to mention the formal training I had in both.”

You Need a Degree

Do you have a college degree?  If you don’t, now is your time to go get one.  I know, people will argue and say a college degree is worthless.  I’m here to say – no it isn’t.  As long as you chose a degree that has branches and opportunities and is in need.  You chose Marine Biologist?  Okay…. well, so did a lot of people and the problem arises as how many jobs are available for that?  You may be able to find something but you are in a land-locked state, and well… ready to move to a coast somewhere?  You chose Womens Studies?  Okay…. I’m not sure what kind of job you get from that so I’d have to guess there aren’t a lot of positions readily available for that particular degree or the average person would be able to name titles and positions.

My son chose computer science with a track in cyber security (technology and computers and security are ALWAYS in high need).  He just started a computer programming job this week at an excellent company.   He finished the coursework and was approved for his degree, but he’s waiting to have the diploma in his hand.  He had the job offer prior to receiving his diploma.  He would not have had that opportunity and so quickly without going to college.

But I can’t afford college or debt!   You want to know what my son managed for his four year degree as far as debt?  He’s in debt $24,000 with his four-year degree.  How did he do it?  Same way I did it.  Started at community college and transferred to another in state college.  Community college here is around $2,500 per semester.  In state colleges can be as low as $4,000 per semester.  They have payment plans for each semester or you can qualify as an adult married or single for $12,500 per year in unsubsidized or subsidized loans.  Oh, and if you are running a legitimate business and your degree has something to do with your business, that’s an educational tax deduction for your business – consider that!

But I don’t have time!  This is simply not an excuse.  I did all four of my years online.  While I didn’t get to do my first choice degree (Actuarial Sciences/Mathematics) because they didn’t offer online courses for that, I was able to complete an accounting and business management degree that has sooooo many different branches.  When people think of accountants, they think of taxes.  Nope.  Not necessarily.  You can do everything from bookkeeping to taxes to business management to CFO to financial controller, to staff accountant to IT auditing (this is a hot ticket these days – six figures easily) and much more.  I could still become an actuary with this degree as I qualify for the exams; however, I’ve chosen a different road that has now interested me more.

But back to having the time.  For two of those years, I ran my business part time, held a full-time accounting position at a company that was 1-1/2 hours from my home (yes, 15 hours of commuting per week but it helped update my resume), and did online college full time and juggled life at home with my family, farm animals, etc.  Don’t tell me you can’t take a few classes here and there to work your way to that degree!

I can confess that the minute I was finished my college classes and could state I have my degree, doors that were closed started to open.  Prior to that, you wouldn’t believe how companies will use your not having a degree to negotiate a decrease your salary, no matter what type of experience you have.

Age is a Big Deal

This is a touchy subject but ageism is real especially for women.  It’s bad enough that women are paid less than men STILL.  This is not okay at all…. but women are discriminated against more for age than men.   There are a lot of reasons ageism is a thing but one I find particularly offensive is for both men and women – if you are older and more seasoned in a field, they can hire someone straight out of college for less.   While maybe the inexperienced worker doesn’t’ do quite as good of a job as you, he/she was “good enough for cheap.”  Sounds like the photography industry, doesn’t it?   We have become a society of “good enough for cheap” instead of “you get what you pay for.”  You can see this everywhere, in every industry.  Very seldom do you find a company that is willing to value your skills enough to compensate you well for it and if you find this, hang on to it!  Work hard and be loyal to that company!

You are only in your 20s?  Hey, so was I and then I blinked.  I REGRET not getting my degree earlier and keeping my resume up to date.  I regret it greatly.  Don’t have regrets if you can help it.  I am, however, very glad that at least I went out and did it – I was 42 when I completed.

My Advice Using Hindsight

To those who are photographers right now, in any capacity – whether you are just starting photography and have stars in your eyes that this will be an amazing experience (it just may be!) or if you are a long-time photographer that is doing well… or you are feeling the pinch…..

  • Get a degree.  If you don’t have a degree.  Get one.  Make a wise decision about what type of degree.  Research industries and find what is in high need or what has a history of being a classic stable profession.
  • Have a degree? Keep it viable.   Depending on what type, it could become obsolete or less valuable because you are not keeping up with changes in technology or that industry is general.
  • Keep your resume up to date.  Consider keeping  your foot in the door with your other industry or field of study.  See if you can do contract work during slow season with photography or part time work in that industry.
  • Don’t quit your day job.  If you have too many clients to handle, you are charging too low.  Raise your prices (I will discuss that another time).  If you are considering quitting your day job, make sure you have at least one year’s worth of your day job’s salary prior to quitting.  You don’t know what the industry is going to do from month to month, don’t cheat yourself or dig yourself a hole you cannot get out of.
  • Photography is a good “side gig”…..  Consider doing photography part time but for a livable wage.  So many photographers are doing full time photography for such little money.  Some are saying they “don’t need the money”.  I have to tell you  – you need the money, whether you think you do or not.  Don’t need the money to pay the bills?  Put the money in a retirement plan…. put the money in a vacation savings… put the money away for your kids’ college.  Trust me, you NEED the money… you just don’t realize it yet.  Also, the amount of people that say they charge cheap because they don’t need the money because you have a day job.  Are you serious?  Why would you work for so little?  If you have a day job that pays your bills (or a spouse that pays your bills), NOW is the time to charge a prime rate.  I’d rather go take a nap than work for minimum wage if I didn’t have to, wouldn’t you?  When I worked my day job in accounting, I didn’t leave the house for less than $200/hour (I didn’t take clients for less than a fee of $1,200) for photography because I knew between the session time, the travel time, the editing time, and the admin time, I would be doing about six hours worth of work.  I will never understand photographers’ ideas of a good hourly wage or their idea of valuing their time.  If you do not know how to price for profit, consider purchasing this spreadsheet that will walk you right through it with YOUR own figures – it’s on sale right now to go with this article.

By the way, I do believe that things happen for a reason.  My in person interview for a local company after that awful phone interview yesterday was nothing short of amazing.  The business owner has built her company in a way that empowers other business women.  She totally understood what happened to the photography industry having been an artist in her first career.  This is a rare thing to find someone who understands and credits your hard work as a business owner.

Having been in the photography industry for so long constantly seeing women devalue themselves (ladies, I love you all but you really need to value your work and time and stop feeling like you are not worth it – ask your spouse if he is willing to work for $8/hour?  I bet he will say no… while you run around doing the housework and balancing your business and hardly even making that), I look forward to surrounding myself with serious business-minded and career-minded strong women that have found the Holy Grail of work-life balance while not devaluing themselves.  I do believe that positive influence will be a wonderful thing.

Personally, I’m going to continuing doing photography at a prime rate part time, but the offer I received yesterday will allow me to work full time out of my home for a nice livable wage in my area of study.   This is the balance I have been seeking for quite a few years.

If photography is making you happy and you have a stable income with it, WONDERFUL!  I think that is great…. I also think it is important to make sure that there is some sort of security because this industry has fluctuated greatly over the past 15 years… simply keep in the back of your mind that we are living in an age where having backup plans are extremely important.  Our society is no longer a society like the industrial age where someone chose a career field and stayed in it until retirement.  Statistics last time I read them were that everyone has on average, three career changes in their lifetime…. huh…. so that’s something to think about.

Jodie Otte is a Maryland professional photographer  and designer.