How To Earn $1,000 An Hour As A Photographer

It’s a price even lawyers balk at charging (although that hasn’t stopped them entirely.) But no photographer could possibly hope to charge $1,000 for an hour’s work, could they?kids5.jpg

Wrong. It seems some photographers are making $1,000 an hour, and they’re doing it all day long, netting $8,000 from a single day’s work.

No, they aren’t hiding in Beverly Hill bushes with giant lenses.

And they aren’t flying over rainforests in rented helicopters.

They’re going no further than their local schools where they spend the day creating student portraits.

According to Chris Wunder of PortraitEFX, a photography franchise, schools — both elementary and senior — are among the most lucrative markets for independent photographers.

An average size elementary school generates over $20,000 in sales over the course of a year for the photographer that takes advantage of all the opportunities there: portraits in fall and spring, events and yearbooks… [S]ome of the wealthiest photographers in America are school photographers!

In theory, the figures back up Chris’s high-earning claims. An experienced photographer with an assistant can take a portrait in 30-40 seconds, he says, although some schools require more than one team to work at the same time. Chris himself budgets 90 students per camera per hour.

The portraits then sell for $24-$25 each with take-up rates ranging from 70 percent to 85 percent. (Parents in the Midwest are apparently the keenest to have a professional photo of their children; parents in the southeast, the least interested. Elementary schools tend to bring more sales than high schools.)

Even in a low participation area then, 90 photos at $24 with a 70 percent sales rate would still yield $1,512 an hour. About three-quarters of schools also demand that parents order — and pay — in advance.

Of course, there are expenses. Digital cameras might have made specialized long-roll cameras largely obsolete, taking out one of the biggest expenses of the past, but specialized software such as Camlynx and Timestone can be useful for linking student images, organizing data and collating lab orders, especially at large schools. Photofinishing can take time, assistants have to be paid, and the school will generally demand a rebate which makes up a large part of its annual fundraising efforts. That can range from 10 percent to 50 percent but the average, says Chris, is 20 percent.

The higher the rebates schools request, the higher retail prices are to cover them. Some schools require other services (ID cards, etc) in lieu of cash.

Getting your foot in the door might take a bit of work though. According to Chris,

[m]any schools would welcome the opportunity to use a locally-based photographer, but unfortunately many photographers do not understand the sales model required.

Chris will be teaching a one-day class on school photography at the SEPCON convention in January, and he also sells a DVD that explains how photographers can break into the market.

Photographers who want to get started right away though, could simply try calling their local school and making a pitch.

Photo by waterdesire’sfires.

[tags] make money taking pictures [/tags]

34 comments for this post.

  1. Adam Harrison Said:

    This does not take into account the photographers assistant(s). The time and equipment for developing, editing, and printing the images. And then the mounting, etc.

    While things are faster in the digital world, it will still take 20 minutes of time to clean-up each image and print it. At $24 a picture, that drops the price down to $72/hr, and that likely mostly goes to over head of paying assistants, rent, keeping the camera and computer equipment and software up to date. Even if it's one picture every 10 minutes, if you divide up $144/hr between all those things, it's still not a lot of money.

  2. Sean Schraeder Said:

    I have many problems with your assumptions Adam.

    I doubt it would take 20 minutes to retouch a portrait photo. You should learn how to use Photoshop.

    What overhead do you speak of? Electricity? Coffee? Ink? Paper?
    Who says you need Adobe CS3 to retouch portraits? Whats wrong with the 5 year old copy of photoshop running on an older iMac with the 10 megapixel camera already owned?

    Your a hater. What do you do for a living, hater?

  3. Scott Said:

    This article is a little bit too optimistic. Sales of school portraits have been falling steadily since the mid-1990s due to a growth in the discount/department store portrait market that offers similar or better quality to private portrait photographers at a lower price. There has also been a jump in the number of families choosing independent studios (where no one makes $1000 an hour) over studios located at school. I would suggest reading up on the article "Competing for classroom sales: trends in the school portrait industry in 2004" in the May-04 issue of PhotoMarketing.

    Consider also that very few photographers work 40 hour weeks unless they have a fulltime job unrelated to photography. I think many people will attest to the notion that you can work for 3 days and make $5000 doing it but then you have a dearth of clients for the next two weeks. If you think that making $1000 per hour translates to making $2 million per year you have some more research to do.

    As the previous commenter noted, a photo might take 40 seconds to shoot, but with postprocessing, printing, shipping, overhead, assistants, equipment, school fees, advertising, direct mailings, and the like ... perhaps making $1000 in revenue will translate to $100 in profit. This is not counting revenue splitting between three or four photographers!

    As Chris Wunder said in his own article, if you take advantage of all opportunities a school has to offer, then you might take home $20,000 at the end of the year. Even the photographer with the best time management skills will probably not be able to cover more than half a dozen schools alone.

    It's a truism that photographers as a whole do not make a lot of money for the amount of time and resources they put into their jobs. While I think it's safe to assume that school portrait photography is much more lucrative than most other event services (except weddings of course), but to encourage people that the fast track to a summer home in the Hamptons is to shoot school portraits, is not only misleading but also a little detrimental to people aspiring to get into this type of work.

  4. Bart Said:

    Scott is right on the mark.

  5. RealProFotog Said:

    This is a hastily written fluff piece, advertising a seminar.

  6. iris Said:

    I agree that this posting is glossing over the unpleasant and often discouraging economical downsides to this enterprise.

    This article sounds more to me like a fluff piece (i.e. "advertisment") for PortraitEFX and Wunder's DVD's.

  7. Reach Mike Said:

    This is no lie. There's a guy in my small rural town who's "assistant" is his wife. They show up to take all the photos for:

    * city council
    * intermural and third-party sports photos
    * school portraits
    * church portraits
    * local newspaper

    And then they take it a step further. They sponsor many of the local beauty contests and take all the contest photos, as well as encourage girls for modeling agencies and take those photos, and then have even submitted hundreds of photos for Hollywood, NYC, and Wilmington, NC acting jobs.

    Because housing and prices are cheaper here, they save cash.

  8. Kyle Said:

    You are luck to make anything on these contracts!

  9. jon Said:

    It may not sound real but I assure you it is. I made 70k a week 30 weeks a year working for Quality color GMBH (that would be 70 thou for the company) when I was 19-25 and had never used a studio strobe before I got this job. Being 19 I had no idea what a cush job I had, I thought everyone made a grand or two (between 1/50 and 1/70 of what I took in on a weekly basis) a week when they became adults. I did it for 5 years then got hooked on blowing glass which I do for much less money. I think what tends to make people fail as photographers is a lack of marketing knowledge and a failure to understand that to make money you aren't shooting arty stuff you are taking picts of 700-900 bratty kids a day (per team) then you are taking picts of those bratty kids little (as in baby) brothers and sisters after school for three times the money and you don't have to cut the PTA in for any of it. When you finally finish the babies you load up (say 9pm) and drive to the next days location and hope your hotel room is still there (midnight) and you don't have to sleep in the van (again). On friday night you haul ass back to the lab and run your film (we were using camerz slr long roll cameras) so the saturday lab woman can print it so it can be shipped on monday. Nowdays you can e-mail your files to the lab and prints only cost .50=1.00 a unit finished where we were paying 1.35 a unit to print them ourselves and our per child enrolled income was $18.70 my last year (median package price 23.95) (that means that if there were 1500 kids enrolled in your school we could expect to bring in $28,000 in the 2 days I was at your school (after the PTA it would be @20,000 plus there would be 50-60 babies out of that 1500 kids and each of those were worth $50 or so (another $2500)(you have to be able to make a crying baby laugh (or at least look good crying). It may be a strech to call it $1000 an hour but 4 people (two photographers and two assistants (getting paid $10 an hour) brought in a couple of million a year gross and netted over a million each year I was there (in seven months a year no less). I would not say it was fun and if you have what it takes to make it in this field you can do anything and be sucessful. Setting your packages up to where people buy more than one is key to profitability. If you're only making $100 profit per thousand I hope you didn't start your business with a loan...

  10. Gary Said:

    No lie, I did this for a few years, working as a photographer for a small studio (about 25 photographers and equal number of assistants).

    It's not easy work, and requires lots of traveling(a lot of contracts were out of Stats) The key is, you have to pay attention to detail (the test of a real photographer). If you take sloppy photos, it means low sales and more work post processing (more time and money is lost). Make sure the grooming is spot on, along with the posing, posture, and composition before taking the shot. If a hair is out of place, fix before opening that shutter. It means less time in front of photoshop.

    Getting the contracts is extremely hard, and keeping those contracts is even harder, since competition is fierce.

    But the real money maker is doing Prom photos. High School seniors prepay, with packages costing over a $100. The photo session only last 2-3 hrs at a prom. The the work is short, and about 2/3 of the Couples get packages. So you definitely will make lots of income during prom season (so will the tux rental stores and the limo companies).


  11. Kyle Said:

    What about your biggest expence? The kickback/donation. You guys were good workers but you have no idea of the contractual obligations! Some schools it is half of the package price. Right off the top. Bet that wont be on the DVD! If the profit margins were as big as you think then there would be so many more companies going after these contracts. But anyway good luck and keep dreaming! If you want to make in photography take 4 business classes for ever photo classes you take.

  12. jon Said:

    our kickbacks were in the 20- 30% range. It is like anything, if you are good (at anything) you will be as busy as you want to be. We had a company come into our region that offered 45% and took a lot of work from us for 1 year. They couldn't match our quality of image or print. They blamed it on the fact they were using digital cameras (print quality) (which was bs, they were not correcting their photos at all) This claim made it so we couldn't use digital for a couple of years as "using film" was a selling point.(which was fine as the cameras kept getting better) The commission went back to 20% from 25-27% they were getting until they had been back a couple of years when the loyality reward went back up a percent or two a year. It 's all about how you jell with the decisionmakers at each school. Kyle is right about the business classes although I would say that without a plethora of companys competing for the obviously very profitable work the comissions would not be at 50% in places. I'm not suggesting that this is a dream job (I'm not still doing it after all)(it did teach me many lessons about how to be successful (niche marketing)) just that you can make a 6 figure living by working your ass off just like in any other field. (and you don't need a lot of education... just carisma and a good work ethic and the ability to sleep in your car...

  13. Michael Said:

    I think the world is *totally* different from the film days. No-one is making that kind of money with digital.

    My wife is looking to hire a firm for her school district. The sitting fee is $6 for the family with a standard package of a 5x7 and some smaller cards, basically 1 chopped up 8.5x11. They are looking to squeeze that down to $4.

    With soccer, baseball, karate, etc. all offering photos, you are not going to get a high take rate at a high dollar figure anymore. Digital has people all over with cameras offering services.

    Personally, I'd rather be a greater at Wal-Mart than take a school photo job for minimum wage. Go look at the school photo jobs on Craigslist. They suck.

  14. jon Said:

    I guess it all depends on where you are, in my area (oregon coast) I just paid $18.95 for my daughters kindergarten photo. (2 5x7,8 wallets) and $12 for a soccer team photo 5x7 with a couple of 3x5 individual. They were shot with a digital. I think that the people who are sucessful are not competing with the cheapest, perhaps by finding a niche that is not being served by $5 photographers. In my current business for instance (handmade glass) you can buy a very nice paperweight from china for $1-$3 retail. I sell a paperweight that is similar in many ways but has colors I like and a shape that I like and I sell it for $60 retail. I sell every one I make and the reson is that some people don't want the cheapest thing even if they can't tell the difference. I'm not saying you can sell $20 packages to $5 schools. I'm saying sell $20 packages to $20 schools. If you noticed the people who are commenting about the lucrative nature of the gig are also stressing the travel required. You don't get to charge for doing convinent gigs. You've got to go to bumfucked nowhere or a expensive resort areas or do private schools or military bases or ???... Jeez, be creative. somewhere there is no walmart. If you are doing photographs for sub $10 packages you are a dumbass.

  15. JimW Said:

    Jon, I'm a bit confused. In your first post, you claimed to be making $2.1MILLION per year, for 6 years.. That's $12.6M by time you were 25.... and now you sell paper weights for $60each? How come you aren't living on a yacht somewhere?

  16. School Photographer Said:

    I guess your moderator didn't like some hard facts about school photography. So what exactly is your angle? Certainly not truth. Selling ad space. Pity......

  17. Kevin Said:

    Even at $18.95 for a package you're not going to make anywhere near what is claimed. Those who talk about overhead are the ones who know what they're talking about. You can't do the kinds of numbers mentioned in this article without a lot of equipment, computers, assistants, retouchers, bookkeepers, etc. It takes a full fledged business to do enough volume to pull in the high revenue figures mentioned. One guy and his wife won't be able to do it working 24/7.

    I have shoots that net me over $5k in one eight hour day. That doesn't mean I make $1.5 million. Anyone who knows about the basics of business would see this article for what it is.

  18. David Clark Said:

    The biggest issue about schools photography is getting the contract - many schools have used the same photographer since before you were born (no matter how old you are) they they ain't going to change... However, some will - and I can strongly rate Chris Wonder - we knows more about this subject than anyone else I know - and I've been in this sphere of photography for over 20 years.

  19. Derek Said:

    If you expect to be retouching every shot you take under controlled lighting (i.e. professional strobes), then you definitely need to do some more homework before embarking.

    Under this sort of volume is where you want to be getting it right in camera. Any post processing should be done by an action that can be scripted. If you're spending over 30 mins in PS on any image, you're wasting your time.

    I'd agree with the above comments above about getting the contract. Every school I've been involved with, either myself or ones my kids attend, grade school through high school the photos were shot by a national firm. I couldn't imagine even touching their pricing and being profitable.

  20. David Clark Said:

    You should be making far more than $1000 per hour....

    ... each exposure lasts around 1/100th of a second, and even if you are taking 2000 photos a day you've only been working for 20 seconds! I regulary take $2000 from a days shoot (gross) - so that would be $6000 a minute or $360,000 per hour!!!!!

    Joking aside - Chris Wonder is one of the best teachers of schools photography anywhere in the world - and tips I've got from him give me thousands of dollars extra revenue every year.....

  21. Me Said:

    It's a lucrative market (one of the last ones in photography, unless you can manage to break into the hallowed halls of "fashion" photography). But it's also hard. The market is more competitive than you could believe. It's as much about making contacts as actual skill.

    I work for a studio that made a ton of money in graduation photography (and event photography during the down time). The owner died, it passed to his widow, and most of the employees left. We're turning the business around, but it's hard. For a single grad season we have to pay several hundred thousand in school fees, salaries, and such. For one event we're about to do (small scale) they wanted $10,000 and then $5-10 per student. Think about that, it's speculative photography...we're taking photos of maybe 2,000 students...and we're betting we can make something like $15 each to match just the school fees before all other costs. We lost money last year, but with negotiation and work we're hoping to at least make a little this year.

    There may be plenty of money once you're established, but if you have to pay the school to take photos of the kids...and convince them you're actually good for the money, and can do a good job with the photos, it becomes very hard.

  22. seth Said:

    How to get the accounts? You have to undercut the competition and then raise prices over time. I worked for a mega chain doing school portraits, and to see the kind of money coming in in the affluent communities was amazing! Grossing 30k a day easy, paying 4 workers $9 hr. I want to do it, but am afraid of financial risk. Trying to weigh it out.

  23. None Said:

    Someone should ask questions and find out how PCA invested heavily in the school market (which Chris was in charge of), signed schools but could not deliver, and eventually lost over a million dollars before ending their pilot program!

  24. BillG Said:

    I'm sorry, I am a novice in the area of photography even though I have been doing it for 30 + years (part-time on the side). I have made good money at it and I have made nothing at it. What disturbs me about this article is it is directed toward the new comer, someone new to the field but with ambition. I wish to say that the reality of it is as many have already stated is that you are not going to make $1000 per hour. I use to own a drywall company, one of my workers one day was bragging that he was making $45 per hour ..... which was true to a point. He was being paid piece work (which is basically what Photography is) meaning he was being paid so many dollars for each board hung on the wall. In reality he wasn't making that ... he was only working when there was work to be had, if he was hanging 8 hours a day 5 days a week for 40 hours a week then there would be some sense of truth to his statement, but when you figure in that he was only working 3 days a week and had a partner (helper) that he had to split the money with and then taxes .... he was making far less than what he was stating .... being in the Photography business is much the same, you may do a photo shoot for 8 hours and have 100 customers for that 8 hrs and say you were charging a 20 fee (just for arguments sake) thats a $2000 income for 8hrs ... not bad, but then figure in how many hours it will take you to proses the 100 photos you just took, how many imagines per photo, and the help you are paying to proses those photos. Considering the employer end of the job, you may be paying your helper $9hr but in reality you are paying 13+ per hour because of taxes (unless you are paying under the table). I know I have rambled on, but I do feel this article is misleading in the sum of money one can make because running a business isn't about how much you bring in it is about the bottom line and this article isn't telling the bottom line.

  25. jojo12 Said:

    That's really the most basic.
    Yes, you would be making $1,000 an hour, but it's only for 2 hours and that would be like one week for the entire year.

  26. opinions Said:

    Well! Opinons are like!#?!, and everyone has one. The reasons that some earn $1000 per hour and other $1000 a month has to do with business savy. The MacDonald bothers made $1000 a month and Ray turned it into $1000 per hour, metaphorically speaking.

  27. Adrian Baillie-Stewart Said:

    It may work in a 'first world' developed country, but where I come from (Cape Town, South Africa) there's a greater proportion of schools that fall under the poverty line. Photos would be a mere luxury, and I personally wouldn't dream of 'milking' the parents of these poor families, of the little disposable income that they have available. Great idea in theory, but not practical across some third world, underdeveloped foreign international borders.

  28. Mr. E Said:

    I have been operating a photography company for seven years. We pecializein in elementary and day care portraits. A lot of what I have read here rings true. From the actual net profit to what it takes to get and keep clients.

    We are hoping to one day soon franchise our business model. Our main concern is articles and franchises such as these promising results when we know them to be, at minimum, quite unrealistic.

    The catch is, when selling a franchise, companies are selling to those who have not already had years of experience in the photography industry. Although we may know the reality of the hours required to make a business or shoot successful those who are not familiar with the business do not. That being said...

    What would it take for a company, that is in the Photography Franchising business, to persuade you, a photographer, to puchase a francise?

    How do we find people, like you, who might be interested?

    How much are you willing to pay for this opportunity?

    We hope to be up front in our approach and are always looking for honest opinions. So be painfully honest if necessary.

  29. Rick Poole Said:

    After being in the event and school business for about 11 years now.. and embracing the digital world, and taking the time to think out our work flow and constantly watch for new ideas and approaches (such as Chris Wunder's programs among others in the business, you find that those who are afraid of change are the most vocal about it. I haven't had any issues marketing our products to schools, many of my customers are repeat business clients, and we factor in some turnover into the model. We fill our calendar with 5 or 6 different market segments and don't put all of our eggs in one basket. We make 3 mil a year.. and run reasonably lean as far as staff goes, because we have loyal contractors who we pay well.. and they end up being our ears and eyes many times in the business.

    My point is.. think open-minded and you will succeed. If you want to waste the energy on whining about someone peddling their How to DVD, then the rest of us will happily pass you on the left. You never know if that one seminar will give you that single million dollar idea. You never know, but if you aren't receptive to it.. you will surely miss it. Good luck to those whiny ones here in the forum. For those that understand and embrace my perspective, I want you on my team. I am not afraid to share.

    Rick Poole
    CEO Premier Concepts Corp.
    HyperFoto Photography
    Seattle, WA

  30. harriett Said:

    I know someone who made millions and millions, much of it in (hidden) cash by wrangling his way into being the only photog company the schools called, yr after yr. He did that partly by...BRIBING... yes cash money bribes, to the decision-makers. He laughed when I seemed surprised at that, and said something like well of Course it costs you something to sew up a contract worth millions. He also used cheap assistants or family members, developed film (this was a while ago) at home using a big second hand printer set up, using family to collate and label etc. and then stashe dhis $$ offshore. yeah. He was absulutely loaded, afer working the kiddies for soemthing liek 15 yrs.

  31. R. Kramer Said:

    This article is very true. But is in regards to mass production school photography. However I do simply - studio photography and yes - 300- to 3000 per hour is typical. If you times that by 40 hours a week - 52 weeks a year you come out to millions, but we don't work 40 hour weeks. (why would we need to!)

    I'm very happy to work 3-6 hours per week - and yes, I'm worth several million with no debt... my wife works with me. Don't knock it until you've tried it.
    P.S. I have never made a bribe, or paid a kick back, I don't do mass production photography, I do high end fine portraiture. There is more than one way to make great money in photography.

  32. me Said:

    PortraitEFX is a scam. They steal 15,000 dollars from you. Any positive information you find about them online is a set up. They have people that are literally paid to scour the internet all day and post "fluff" comments about themselves, and to make websites about "franchise opportunities" and then list and rate themselves as the top. They are a SCAM

  33. Melissa Said:

    Wow! I can't believe how many people are willing to diss something they know nothing about! Absolute fools!I attended a seminar of his and my first job was for a youth soccer league. I cleared over $8,000 for one day of shooting. There are no 20 minute touch ups in Photoshop either you shoot it right the first time and use barcode scanners with automated software to order your prints. The lab pretty much does all that work for you. Much more lucrative than weddings and such and no Photoshop time. Don't speak against something you don't actually know about, that is just pure ignorance!

  34. Jeb Said:

    I have been a professional photographer for over 40 years and I have shot too many school pictures to count and I can assure everyone that these figures are PIE-IN-THE-SKY dreams. I once walked by a local baseball team and they asked me to shoot their picture on the spot. It took about five minutes and I sold 30 8X10s at $10.00 each. Does that mean I made $3,600 per hour? No, that was only once in a 40+ year career. What Chris teaches is also PIE-IN-THE-SKY dreams. If you throw enough s**t at the wall, ocassionally a fly spec piece will stick but a tractor trailer truck load will fall to the floor. Chris Wunder and his organization survives by selling franchises and not by making photographers. Spec on the wall or pile of dung on the floor? Your choice!

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