Your ability to make money as a photographer doesn’t just depend on the kit in your bag or the quality of your eye. It’s also connected to the choice of images you shoot. Some subjects will always pay more than others — sometimes a lot more.
Here are the most valuable subjects in photography, and how you can build a path to shooting them and selling them.
The most expensive images in the world were shot to be admired. Andreas Gursky’s Rhein II tops the list after selling at auction in New York for $4,338,500 in November 2011. The image shows grass, path, water and sky in horizontal strips of grey and green. All of the ten most expensive photographs sold for more than a million dollars and while some picked up their value because of their age, most were shot by living photographers.
When just a single photograph that draws entirely on your creativity and sense of aesthetic can land you a seven-figure sum, it’s clear that shooting art is a big draw.
How to Shoot and Sell High-Paying Art Photography
The path to giant numbers for your art in New York auction houses runs through galleries. A college photography course may work with gallery owners for end-of-year shows, giving students their first art world contacts. Other photographers can try juried art fairs where a prize will always provide a real advantage during meetings with gallery owners. But you can also just pick up the phone, call your local galleries and set up an appointment to pitch your images. Good gallery owners won’t just provide exhibition space. They’ll also help to manage your career… assuming your photos are strong enough to sell.
Even the most expensive paparazzi photos can’t compete with the multiple millions occasionally paid out for the best art. But they can do very well. The most expensive celebrity photo sold is said to be a shot of a bald Britney Spears which is believed to have netted the photographer half a million dollars. (The more recent snaps of a topless Kate Middleton are rumored to have been shot by a paparazzo on commission from a magazine. He is said to have only received a salary and could face prosecution under France’s privacy laws.)
Clearly, this isn’t a job that matches everyone’s taste but it is a job that anyone can do. You don’t need to be a great photographer, but you will need a long lens and, more importantly, great contacts to know where celebrities are likely to be found.
How to Shoot and Sell High-Paying Paparazzi Images
The easiest way in is to sell your images to one of the agencies that accept photos from the public, such as MrPaparazzi. You’ll need to be quick once you have your shot because interest in celebrities cools off quickly. You’ll also have to know what you’re looking for. In general, paparazzi images tend to be candid rather than attractive. Buyers want to see a side of the celebrity that they don’t get in official media interviews or the headshots released by their agencies. Once you’ve sold a few pictures through open source agencies, you can try approaching one of the larger agencies or talk to the experienced photographers standing outside nightclubs or alongside red carpets about the agencies they use.
The biggest challenge though will be knowing where to find the celebrities who are currently in the news. If you can develop sources close to the star, such as stylists or bodyguards, you’ll have an advantage.
Not all photographers want to spend their days hiding in bushes waiting for a C-list star to walk out of a store licking an ice cream. Commercial shoots are what professional photographers do. They might consist of something as simple as placing a product against a white background, something that could cost just a few hundred dollars. But they might also involve flying in a helicopter to some remote location to photograph a new resort for a hotel chain or a mining operation for a company’s prospectus.
These shoots can be hugely expensive. The usage licenses alone can cost as much as $20,000 with expenses more than doubling that figure.
How to Win High-Paying Commercial Bookings
When a company is shelling out tens of thousands of dollars to a photographer, it wants to be sure that it’s going to get the images it needs. That means these kinds of jobs tend to go to established and experienced professionals, people who have shot on location, managed teams, handled the logistics and still succeeded in creating fantastic images. It’s possible that an offer will come in from a design agency through your website. But it’s more likely that you’ll already know the commissioning art editor and he or she will know your work. And it’s even more likely that the call will come from photography agency that has already vetted your portfolio.
Targeted emails to either of those kinds of agencies can put you in the running but make sure that your portfolio is strong enough to stand the scrutiny, that your professional work shows a clear style and your personal work reveals how you think and how you see photography. It’s the style, professionalism and your reliability that sells.
Those are the highest-paying subjects that a photographer can earn money for shooting. Wedding photography can be relatively high-earning, at least compared to mall portraiture, and it’s easy enough to get started. Being able to charge five-figure sums for a wedding though will mean having a unique quality and ideally contacts with wedding planners who arrange high society weddings. Stock images, too, can bring in thousands of dollars over their lifetime but their prices have fallen over the last few years and saturation in microstock means top-paying subjects are increasingly rare and struggle to cover the costs of shooting the images.
Ultimately though, the best subject for an photographer to shoot isn’t a particular kind of art image or an open-cast mine in the middle of Australia. It’s always going to be the subject you love. That’s the one you’ll always excel at and the one that will keep bringing you fresh work.