Is it really possible to earn $1,000 an hour as a photographer? A regular photographer. Not the kind of high-end fashion photographer or Vogue cover-shooter that requires a lifetime of career achievement and first-name terms with media moguls. The kind of photography for which there’s constant demand, whose buyers are average Joes and which can still deliver the kinds of rates that even lawyers would be frightened to demand.
When we first asked this question back in 2007, the post became one of our most controversial. But what surprised us most about the dozens of comments we’ve received since publishing the article was the number of people who came out in support. “Yes,” they said. “It is possible to make $1,000 an hour as a photographer — and more. I’ve done it.”
The original claim had come from Chris Wunder, a photographer with more than 30 years’ experience who now sells workshops with the claim that it’s possible to make $8,000 a day doing school photography. The key, he says, is the number of portrait jobs available in schools and the speed with which photographers can get through them.
“Experienced photographers with an assistant can do a great job in only 30-40 seconds per student,” he explained to us then. “I normally budget about 90 students per camera per hour.”
Mall Photography on Steroids
That doesn’t leave any room for creativity; it’s mall photography on steroids. Students sit, smile, wait for the snap then make way for the next in line. According to Wunder though, the portraits sell for $24-$25 each with a typical take up rate by parents of between 70 and 80 percent. Ninety students an hour over eight hours is 720 portraits a day. If 70 percent of those portraits sell for $24 then total revenue for the day would be $12,096. Divided by eight hours that works out at revenues of $1,512 per hour — 50 percent higher than even the eyebrow-raising sums claimed in Chris Wunder’s marketing material.
And yet, some photographers greeted those figures not with a scoff but a shrug.
“Jon,” a glassblower who had worked as a school photographer for six years, reported that he had generated over $70,000 a week, shooting 30 weeks a year for a company called “Quality color GMBH.”
“Being 19 I had no idea what a cush job I had,” he said.
His description didn’t make the work sound very cushy. After spending a day shooting 700-900 “bratty kids” in a day (a rate in line with Chris Wunder’s estimate), he would then photograph their baby siblings after school for three times the amount. Shooting would finish at 9pm, after which he would drive to the next location, reaching the hotel around midnight. Often, the hotel would have given away his room by then and he would have to sleep in the van.
At the end of the week, he would head back to the lab so that the “Saturday lab woman” could print the images ready for shipping on Monday. The income from each enrolled child was $18.70 and the median package was $23.95.
“That means that if there were 1,500 kids enrolled in your school we could expect to bring in $28,000 in the 2 days I was at your school,” ‘Jon’ commented. “Plus there would be 50-60 babies out of that 1,500 kids and each of those were worth $50.”
Too Good to Be True
“Jon” wasn’t the only one endorsing Chris Wunder’s figures. Rick Poole of HyperFoto Photography in Seattle had been in the event and school photography business for eleven years. He commented that he was generating $3 million a year.
It all sounds wonderful… and too good to be true, as many other commenters were quick to point. The biggest problem was that the figures that Chris Wunder — and others — quoted were revenues, not profits. The costs would cut into those figures deeply. Processing the image can be done quickly, especially if the photographer is able to get the portrait right in camera, but would add some time to the 30-40 seconds needed to photograph the student. Printing costs money, as does travel to the school, and accommodation if the photographer is traveling a long way and doesn’t want to sleep in a van. Schools charge their own fees, a kickback that Chris Wunder himself notes starts at 10 percent of revenues in the Midwest, rising to as much as 40-50 percent in the southeast.
Add on the price of equipment and throw in the cost of staff — school photographers need to shoot in teams to keep the children organized and the shoot flowing smoothly; even Chris Wunder talks of having an assistant — and it’s no wonder that even “Jon” was seeing only $1,000-$2,000 a week of the $50,000-$70,000 he was generating for his company.
And if $8,000 a month sounds good, bear in mind that to earn that money “Jon” would have to spend long periods away from home, sleeping in a van and working twelve-hour shifts. Nor would he work the whole year. If he worked 30 weeks out of 52, he would still have made only $60,000. While that might be respectable and give him time to add to his income, few photographers with families would want to work those kinds of hours for long.
The answer to the question of whether it’s possible to make $1,000 an hour shooting something as simple as school photography is that it is possible. It is possible to generate that amount in revenues but if you’re shooting for a company, you’ll be paid a relatively low salary while the firm takes whatever is left of the profits after deducting other costs. And if you’re doing it for yourself, you’ll struggle hard to get your foot in the door and you’ll have to make do with whatever is left after you’ve fed the school and paid for your assistants.
Whenever you’re faced with giant revenue claims, it pays to be skeptical, especially if they’re coming from someone selling a course. But it doesn’t pay to dismiss them. There is (still) a lot of money in school photography and while your profits might not $1,000 an hour, the reason that school photography still exists is that photographers can make money out of it.