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9 Most Profitable Photography Genres15 min read

February 11, 2020 10 min read
Yvan Cohen

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9 Most Profitable Photography Genres15 min read

Reading Time: 10 minutes

While the rates indicated here are approximate industry standards, they remain averages and generalizations, we suggest you use them as a guideline when you’re thinking about the value of your work, what sectors you want to work in and how much you should charge.

Note too that these rates are based on broad international standards. Depending on your economic context, however, you will need to adjust your fees up or down. At the very least, this guide will give you some ballpark figures to orientate yourself in the photography marketplace.

Naturally, fees are dependent on a range of factors:

  • The type of client
  • The difficulty of the shoot
  • The perceived value the shoot delivers
  • The reputation of the photographer
  • The negotiating process

There are professionals in every photography genre getting paid far above the averages we list here.

At the end of the day, a photographer is paid for his or her expertise (which can be illustrated with a strong online portfolio) and their ‘brand’ (which is in part measured by how much work has been commissioned and published). 

It’s no surprise, therefore, that the most famous photographers (who usually have acquired a fair bit of experience and expertise on their way up the ladder) command the highest rates.

By hiring a well-known photographer, the client gets a feeling of additional assurance along the lines of “if others have chosen to work with this photographer, then I’m not taking a big risk by following in their footsteps”. We could call this kind of behavior the ‘risk averse sheep factor’. Unfortunately these attitudes, understandable as they are, make it harder for new names to break in.

Having said all this, there are many related factors that can influence how well you get paid in a given photography niche.

These can include:

  • How much you charge on top for print versions of your images
  • The licensing scope for your images (limited usage as ‘rights managed’ or broad usage as ‘royalty free’).
  • Factoring in travel fees (charging 50% for a travel day is pretty standard)
  • Having a retainer fee
  • Photo editing and post processing rates

Understanding that a day rate is a flexible concept – Our advice in this scenario would be to always insist (within reason) that every job you do is going to be billed as a full day.

With that, lets hit the list.

10. Editorial News: $250-$400 per day

Editorial Photography from the streets in Europe
A protester holds placard reading ‘Stop single use plastic’ during ‘Fridays for future’ demonstration, a worldwide climate strike against governmental inaction towards climate breakdown and environmental pollution. Photo and story credits by Nicolo Campo

This is one of the most popular areas of work for photographers but it is, sadly, one of the least profitable, especially when one considers the intense competition in this sector and the potential risks (if you’re covering unrest, conflict or disease).

This sector is generally dominated by news agencies who have their own staff photographers and cover almost all major events. These agencies will sometimes hire freelancers but when they do, the rates tend to be at the lowest end of the pay scale.

With such a strong supply of pictures from well-established news agencies, most newspapers and magazines are very selective in assigning photographers and when they do it is usually for a limited number of days and for limited rates.

For freelancers working in this sector, the rewards in terms of experiencing major events can be tremendous, but the material returns in terms of pay tend to sit at the lowest end of the scale.

9. Portrait Photography: $150/hr – $650 per day

Portrait photography from Africa
Herero woman with typical dress. Photo and story credits by Jorge Fernandez Garces

Lo and behold, one of the least profitable photography genres is portrait photography – unless of course you’re Annie Liebovitz or David LaChapelle. For the rest of us mere mortals, however, earning a living from portraiture alone is going to be pretty tough.

With minimal barriers to entry, competition is high and the range of choice for clients extensive. Clients can choose between a $25/hr photographer, or a $200/hr photographer.

For this reason, even if your rates are justified by a higher quality of work, you might still find yourself competing for business against photographers who have rates significantly below yours. This may lead clients to haggle your prices down, knowing there is a plethora of cheaper alternatives available to them.

All this being said, everyone loves a great portrait so while the competition is tough, this is a big market and one where photographers of almost every level can find paying clients.

8. Wildlife/Nature Photography: $200 – $500 per session (roughly $150 per hour)

Nature photography of an elephant
A closeup of Mosha’s eye at the Friends of the Asian Elephant hospital in Lampang, Thailand. Mosha is one of over a dozen elephants who have been wounded by landmines on the Burmese border, the site of an ongoing civil war. Photo and story credits by Taylor Weidman.

The great thing about nature photographs is they have some of the highest resale numbers in the industry. Animal pictures – particularly ones that mix the cute and the bizarre – are among the best selling types of stock imagery.

But nature photography remains niche and only rarely assigned, unless you’re working for National Geographic. Plus, the market is already well supplied by legions of hobbyists who have pro-level gear and are willing to wait as long as it takes for that award winning shot of a lion pouncing on an antelope or a cheetah racing across the savannah or a bird feeding in their garden – before making them available via online stock portals.

While fees can be similar to day rates for general editorial news and portrait photography, if you make sure you retain full rights to your work, you stand to earn some significant residual income down the line. Someone might need a picture of a cute orangutan today, just as they might need that same picture ten years from now. Almost no-one, however, is expecting to use the same portrait or headshot from ten years ago…unless it’s for historical purposes.

For this reason, we placed nature photography slightly ahead of portrait photography because of its longer lasting potential to earn income from stock.

7. Event Photography: $150 – $600 per session or event

Event photography form the streets of the Philippines
Participants of the parade during the celebration of Dinagyang in homage to “The Santo Niño”, Iloilo, Philippines. Photo and story credits by Jorge Fernandez Garces.

Much like some of our other photography niches, the answer to what event photographers get paid is, it depends.

Late night events at a swanky location in downtown Manhattan or indeed any other major city, will probably pay more generously than a day-time event in a low-prestige venue. So keep in mind the kinds of events you want to specialize in as this will heavily influence your hourly rates.

Corporate event photography is going to be your best bet if you’re looking to make the most on a per hour basis.

Even so, we’re finding that these events are increasingly covered by in-house photographers, sometimes even using a smartphone. That’s right, smartphone toting non-professionals are replacing professional photographers. It’s not good but it’s the reality of today’s market especially where events are concerned.

6. Interior Photography: $150/hr – $1,500 per session

The lobby of the Chedi Hotel in Chiang Mai. A part of the GHM Group, the Chedi Hotel provides its guests with five star service in a chic, contemporary and Asian environment. Photo by Yvan Cohen

Interior photographers are a little higher up the profitability rankings because the subject matter is often higher value and photographing interiors is a specialized skill that usually involves expensive lighting equipment and some serious post processing skills.

And then there’s the fact that interior photography is always on location, so higher travel costs and time requirements are additional factors to consider. Your next shoot might be located 3-hours away, meaning a 6-hour commute. In some cases, you’ll even be getting on a plane to get to a shoot. These costs will need to be factored into your billing to ensure profitability.

5. Band/Sports Photography: $300 – $1,000 per session (roughly $200 per hour)

Sting at concert band photography
Marbella, Spain. 23rd July, 2019. Concert of the British singer Sting at the StarLite Festival 2019, on his tour “My Songs”. Photo and story credits by Abel F. Ros

We’ve decided to bundle band/concert and sports photography into one.

Freelance sports photographers with enough experience can become accredited or, even better, full-time photographers for select teams, leagues, or even agencies.

The rates for sports and music are almost always going to be editorial in range because the end users are almost always magazines and newspapers. There aren’t many opportunities for high end commercial fees in this particular niche.

If you’re smart though, and you’re covering high profile bands or sporting events, you should negotiate the ability to resell your work as stock. Exclusive imagery of famous musicians and sporting personalities and historic concerts and sports events can have good re-sale value as stock, hence the slightly higher profitability ranking for this sector.

Likewise, big-time bands might have a reasonable budget for a full-time photographer to document their lives and work – though those long rides on tour-buses and late nights may get exhausting and you’ll need a good network to get on those big stars’ contact lists.

4. Wedding Photography: $1,500 – $3,000 per day

A couple in wedding dress poses for pictures in a archway at Dalian’s “City of Water”. The “City of Water” also dubbed “Venice of the East” or the “Oriental Venice” is a large touristic project in Dalian’s Donggang business district stretching over 400,000 square meters with a replica of Venice and other European-style architecture buildings. Photo and story credits by Thierry Falise

Wedding packages are always interesting because this is especially subject to the scale of the wedding. Professional destination-weddings can earn photographers sums up to $10,000 – though that would almost certainly include work across several days.

We see pricing in wedding photography playing into three dynamics:

1. Couples may be more likely to spend generously for a photographer because they see it as “just another cost for the wedding”. Wedding expenses generally include a vast array of items – food, location, setup, staff and so on – photographer costs are often simply bundled into the wedding cost as a whole. Thus, a $5,000 wedding photographer can more easily be justified as just another line item (and a pretty crucial one at that) amidst thousands of dollars for other costs.

2. You will generally be dealing with a client who has a lump-sum budget, and needs to figure out how to allocate it accordingly. For example, a client may be willing to hire a more expensive photographer in lieu of a better wedding location. Understanding your client’s priorities for their wedding is crucial to figuring out how flexible their budget is and working out what kind of fee is possible.

3. Weddings are a once-in-a-lifetime event for many people. Thus, couples are typically willing to pay a premium to ensure every moment is captured. The memories of their wedding are going to be almost as valuable to a couple (perhaps more even) than the fleeting experience of the actual day itself (which of course still has to be great for the pictures to reflect that!).

3. Product Photography: $25 – $170 per image

Product photography items
Alebrijes or wood crafted and painted with beautiful colours inspired by Zapotec cultural perspective and meaning in life can be seen in San Martin Tilcajete village in Oaxaca state. At Jacobo and Maria uses all natural colours. Photo and story credits by Korakot Punlopruksa

The profitability of promotional product photography is dependent on the time needed to setup the shoot, the complexity of the shoot and – surprise, surprise – your client’s budget.

One of the main reasons we give this a high profitability ranking is because it’s a purely commercial sector: so make sure you set a rate that is in line with the business reality of the service you’re providing. Your pictures are going to deliver measurable economic benefit for your client and your rate should reflect that.

Product shoots can be very straightforward but they can also be highly complex; requiring complicated lighting and demanding retouch and post production work. Make sure you factor these elements into your invoice.

There’s also a certain comfort to this kind of work. You’re not having to cross any mountains or take any risks to get your pictures. It’s generally all in studio and all very controlled. Unlike shooting people, products don’t throw tantrums or pout at the wrong moment (although your client might if you don’t deliver on time). 

Thus, we believe product photography is especially profitable to those who have a taste for it and know how to do it. Once you’ve worked out your setup, you can get amazing quality images very quickly.

2. Commercial Photography: $250 per image – $1,000s per day

Researcher works at an electron microscope. Photo by
John Greim.

We’re aware this is a very broad category, so it’s difficult to set hard and fast rates. The point is that any purely commercial shoot should ideally be netting you some big bucks – certainly the rates should be higher than for editorial shoots and wedding work (though this might depend on whose wedding you’re photographing!).  

With higher rates, however, come higher expectations. You can expect clients to be very demanding and selective. You’ll need a strong portfolio and very good technical skills to build career in commercial photography – it’s a sector that’s only open to solid professionals.

1. Fashion Photography: $500 -$ 1,000s per day

Vietnamese top model My Linh, 19, is one of the best known fashion models in the country. Posing inside Haidong Photo studio, My Linh sports designer Truong Thanh Long’s latest collection. Photo by Alberto Buzzola

It’s a close call between fashion and commercial photography and perhaps one could argue that fashion photography is actually a subset of commercial photography. But our research shows that fashion is the niche that pays its photographers the highest sums.

Unsurprisingly, the world of fashion is a small, highly selective and sensitive to trends. A photographer who captures a fashionable look can easily find themselves sidelined and out of work if they don’t keep up with changing trends and visual styles.

In the fashion sector, photographers don’t just need to have the technical and artistic skills to make great pictures, they need to have the social and networking skills to make and maintain connections with the right people. Getting hired to shoot fashion for luxury brands like Gucci or Prada is no easy task. Similarly, high-end fashion magazines like Vogue, Elle and Vanity Fair pay generously but tend to only work with a very select group of photographers.

Commercial and Editorial – What’s the difference?

The rates quoted here are averages designed to give you a starting point when thinking about what you want to charge.

However, it’s important to remember the difference between what’s known as ‘editorial’ and ‘commercial’ photography.

Rates for editorial photography, which is imagery created for informational purposes like newspapers, magazines and books, are nearly always going to be lower than those for commercial photography where images are created to promote a particular product or service.

Where commercial shoots are concerned, the sky’s the limit really. Much depends on the size and value of the client and your personal brand and negotiating skills.


Header image credits to Jorge Fernandez Garces

Written By Yvan Cohen

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