Most of my adult life has been spent around photographers. They are my friends, my associates and my customers. Whenever photographers gather together, it’s inevitable that the subject of how to make a living at it comes up. I think many of us have had (and continue to have!) the dream that, if we could just find the right way to make a living in photography, we could quit our day job and just make photographs full time. I mean, who doesn’t want to photograph all of the time? I know I do. Making photographs in the field, and making fine prints of those photographs gives me an immense joy like few other pursuits can. The idea of being able to do it full time is a powerful attraction.
In the course of my career as a Fine Art Printmaker, I’ve gained an inside look at the business of hundreds of “successful” full time photographers. As a result of that I can tell you absolutely nothing about how to make a living at photography. I can tell you what they do: teach workshops; sell prints; shoot assignments; etc. Unfortunately, I can’t give you any formula that puts it all together into a guaranteed career like I could for a pharmacist, or a nurse, or an engineer.
The truth is that every successful photographer I know has put together some completely individualized package of their skills, passion, dedication, worth ethic, connections, and circumstances to make it work. I also know a lot of photographers who are incredibly talented image makers who have great skills, yet have struggled to make a living from photography.
I can’t tell you, in fact no one can tell you, how to make a living from photography. But I can give you something better. That better thing is that you don’t need to make a living from photography to have a deeply satisfying lifelong relationship with it. Why do you find photography so interesting in the first place? Seek those things; how it feeds you, grows you, challenges you, motivates you, and enriches you. Enjoy the fact that photography allows you to tell a story that is beyond words, share part of your soul with another, and define grand truths and great tragedies. That is why we photograph.
I’ve seen so many photographers burn out and leave the art because they were chasing making a living at it. I’ve seen others who take photography on its own terms, in balance with the other needs in their life. They are able to make incredible work that brings them immense satisfaction.
Becoming successful in photography is not a goal; it’s a lifelong pursuit. If you only want to do it to be the rock star, be ready to join the heap of other failed rock stars. But if you can learn to pursue photography for the joy of it; the joy of finding a subject, of clicking the shutter, of seeing a print come out, of communicating the deep things that are beyond words...then you can continue to grow, learn, and have a lifelong engagement with this incredible medium. Finding success in photography is not about reaching some elusive final destination. It’s about embracing the journey. It’s time to look up from the map, so you can fully enjoy the ride.
Rich Seiling is a pioneer of Fine Art Printmaking, having worked on thousands of prints for leading photographers.