Guess Which Study Photographers Ranked #1 Worst In

Guess Which Study Photographers Ranked #1 Worst In

We've all heard of the stereotype of "the starving artist," but a new study from the UK put concrete numbers on this portrayal, showing that graduates with a degree in photography truly do (on average) become starving artists. Adding insult to injury, the study reveals that photographers are not only on the list, they are ranked the worst for post-graduates making low income. Ouch.

Adzuna, a UK-based job search engine, analyzed more than 120,000 CVs to find which jobs were the lowest-paying five years after receiving their college degrees. The research revealed that photography degrees offer the worst value for money, as graduates earn an average salary of £24,785 ($29,381) five years after graduation.  

On the American side of the research, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics report in 2021 that the annual mean wage for photographers is $48,210. 

The average university degree leaves graduates with £45,000 in debt ($53,345). It seems that in the era of the "YouTube Academy," traditional art degrees are hard to justify.

I am one of the few that did complete a degree in Fine Arts. Did my degree pay off? Absolutely. I had requirements not only in film and digital photography, but also in design, composition, and art history that have impacted my work significantly. Would I say that you need a degree to be a successful photographer? Absolutely not. Very few of the greatest works in photographic history came from people who had degrees in the field. Thankfully, I fall significantly outside the mean for the study's salaries. Perhaps my next article should be "Making Great Money in Photography: How to Actually Do It."

The question that naturally comes as one reads this statistic is: "why"? Why do we, as photographers, have the lowest return on investment in our education? Do we underprice our work? Is it related to the trendy topic of "imposter syndrome"? Perhaps it's linked to lowering our prices for fear of not closing the deal? The flip side of "YouTube Academy" is that now, everyone is a photographer. We've all received those responses: "Well, my cousin is a photographer, and he can do it for..." Is it that the increase in the quality of cell phone images has decreased the need for professional or at least semiprofessional work? 

I'm thankful that I fall out outside of the statistic and that my clients see the difference in my work enough to pay more. In cases where clients want the work for less, I find that educating them on the process of creating the images helps them understand the price tag. I've charged several hundred dollars for one shot on numerous occasions. Some charge thousands.

I've found that education pushes prices from what inquirers think it should cost to what is an actual fair price for the time and expertise that go into creating the images.

What are your thoughts? Why do photographers fall into the painful bottom slot in this study? Is there any way to change that? Leave a comment below. Reading your input is always my favorite part of the article. 

Cheers, and happy clicking this week.

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21 Comments
Tom Reichner's picture

I think that many photographers who have pursued a degree have made a decision to make their life all about what they like to do; what they want to do, instead of doing whatever it is that will produce a solid income. They have already prioritized personal fulfillment over financial gain. Many people in other fields have made financial gain their top priority when it comes to career decisions. Of course someone who sets high income as their #1 goal is going to earn more money than someone who has knowingly chosen a career path that yields little income.

People don't practice law in their free time, on weekends or during the evening after a hard day of work. They don't detail other peoples' cars "just for fun". Nor do they organize a corporation's financial ledger for relaxation, in their downtime. But people do photography at such times, because it is fun and fulfilling. Like it or not, things that most people do for fun, as a hobby, typically do not yield big incomes for those who do them vocationally.

Furthermore, those few who do earn high incomes at "fun" careers are actually doing a lot of things that aren't very fun or enjoyable at all. I mean, I love to go out into nature and photograph wildlife, but I dislike contacting editors and publishers to try to get them to buy licensing rights to use my wildlife photos. Nor would I enjoy organizing, marketing, and conducting photo tours in which I guide other nature photographers on photo trips ... so much red tape with insurance, logistics, procuring government permits, etc. Hence, if I were to make a high income as a wildlife photographer, it would require me to do a lot of things that I do not like to do, instead of just doing the fun, enjoyable parts of the job.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

"Doing business" is the nature of any self employed enterprise and doing business can be fun with photography.
I photograph at the time I do business since the majority of my shoots are with clients. You create friendships, you learn new tricks on their account and time, they send you to new clients, you get free lunch sometimes, large discounts on their products at time, travel to new places time paid, you see weird stuff, often how they make weir stuff and they can invite you at parties for example. There are plenty of great things coming from doing business in photography.

Michelle VanTine's picture

This is also true and perfectly penned. There are so many perks. This year I get to travel to Abu Dahbi for a shoot. I just went to a week in Las Vegas. I am constantly meeting interesting and inspiring people. It's a mixed bag like you said.

Michelle VanTine's picture

Excellently written! I agree with ever word. I did get a Fine Arts degree, but as you said, I would say that I spend 60 to 70% of my time doing things I don't want to do: contracts, calls, marketing, all kinds of 'running a business' things. I've wanted to throw the towel in more than once! But having said that, I still can't imagine doing anything else.

Asher Honish's picture

Tom Reichner This is really poignant! I also completed an MFA in photography. However, I neither pursue it as a profession nor make any money from it. Instead, I work in public service. For me, I never wanted to mix the production aspect of work with a passion for an art I truly love.

Indy Thomas's picture

As a retired commercial photographer I would say that many enter the field with misguided expectations.
While the craft is fun the bulk of work is necessary but generally uninteresting or tedious.
Education in the arts focus on the craft, never business. Understandably so.
I think the stats reflect the fact that those grads are struggling at the business part.

Photographers for the most part are a small startup business. To succeed takes time.
A person who studies plumbing and then decided to start their own business has the same hurdles. However, the plumbers, electricians and dentists of the world are far more accepting of the demands of business.

It takes a lot of time to build a reputation in the photography field. As a new business you have to constantly market.
In addition, many choose fields that are notoriously competitive and poorly paid. For every $10k wedding we read about, 200 are going for $1500. For every fashion shoot we read about with a crew of 15 and two grip trucks, there are 500 done with one guy and maybe an assistant chasing a model with a reflector for trade. For every article about a sports photographer flying to Europe with $60k of gear, there are 100, 000 shooting at Peewee football and little league games for free hoping to score a paying gig.
It is a lack of knowledge about the field for many.
As we speak, my kitchen is being remodeled by a contractor that got a photo degree from UCLA who then could not make it as a fashion photographer.

There is money to be made as the demand for quality images is immense. However, the photos in demand are just not always the sexiest.
Also, in any field, it is always a combination of persistence , skill and luck. Persistence being the most important.
Even an idiot will get jobs if they are around long enough.

Michelle VanTine's picture

What a great reply. I liked the note on persistence. I'm on year 14 and I can wholeheartedly agree.

Mike Ditz's picture

If the remodeler actually has a UCLA degree in photography they could take a cut in pay and teach photography at UCLA...lol

Mike Ditz's picture

Persistence, luck, skill and who you know...and who knows you.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

After enjoying the working life for a short time, I went for a 2 year photography program. It was half days classes. My goal was to become commercial photographer so I was very focused on what I would need to learn. The other students were much younger than me for the most part and had no other goal than “studying photography” for what ever that means. I had good time, didn’t care for the art and most our teachers who came from the art school in Avignon. There were a lot of clashes with the only teacher we had with some level of commercial photography knowledge. He was a moron but he brought us the Broncolor/Sinar dealer and a few established commercial photographers from Paris. I took a part time job and for the rest of my time, photography wise, I established great connections with the local custom lab, a local wholesale photo dealer and a local commercial photographer who was also using Broncolor. I don’t think the other students understood that this was a necessity. I didn’t care for a diploma so I left before the end for a trip. Pretty much I don’t think anyone but museums would care if I had a diploma in photography and that may even have counted against me. I have zero regret taking this educational path.

After school I worked for years for labs (all kinds) and got hired as commercial photographer in a pre-press house in part because they had Broncolor lights and an F and a P2/E Sinar and the owner liked that could work on their P2 with the digital back. At that place I learned drum scanning and pretty much anything about pre-press and printing apart from running an actual press. When the place closed, I bought all the good photo stuff, packs accessories, heads, camera stand, C stands and anything I would need in my future studio for a small amount, just no camera. I kept the photography clients too since all I had to do was purchase an Epson 4800 for their cmyk proofs and I purchased the prepress house ICC profiler too. Technically as the only photographer in that place, these clients only knew me and my work kept these accounts for the six years I worked at that prepress house. Some people got irritated that I kept the clients, but my reason to be there in the first place was to indirectly generate work to other departments and print runs so I was actually contributing to their pay check up until the last day. Can’t fix stupid. From school to working for myself, it all came together like a chain reaction. That only happened due to my decision to go back to school.

I want to finish by saying that photography schools did not necessarily have a better reputation 20-30 and probably even 40 years ago. As usual, it’s what you provide and what you plan that makes the education worth it or not.

Michelle VanTine's picture

That's a very interesting history. I've often considered going back to school (now at age 40) to get my masters- I've even gotten so far in the process to talk with department heads. But at the end of those discussions, it's hard for me to quantify the value of the investment. It seems like work experience is almost the best school yard?

Mike Ditz's picture

Degrees are not important in the creative arts. But if you want to teach at a decent school, or work at a corporation a degree is almost essential. On your own with your business no one cares about a degree.

Michelle VanTine's picture

Yes, my thought was as you said, perhaps teaching at the University level later in life, and also for professional development. But I haven't gotten to the point yet where I have justified the time commitment.

Mike Ditz's picture

If you become a good/successful/creative enough a place that "requires' degrees (sometimes to weed out people ) will find a way to hire you under a different job title, special lecturer, external staff, instrutor, not prof....
In my school I had a photography instructor who's degree was in architectural engineering.

Jan Steinman's picture

Although I never pursued a photography degree, I supported myself for five years from selling my fine-art photography.

Problem is, I found I was spending less and less time actually <i>doing</i> photography, and more and more time running the photography business!

So I went back to just enjoying it, rather than making money from it.

Roger Cozine's picture

Unless a photographer is working for himself/herself, I believe this article is entirely correct. Even on most job search websites, it's rare to find an actual photography job. It's even more rare to fine one that pays enough to consider it a primary source of income. As a current college student finishing up the final 3 months on my photography degree, I can attest to the lack of pre-graduation job offers that most other degree graduates see. Basically, your on your own once you graduate. The cost of a photography degree is also higher than most since you will need different equipment and items at various stages in the process. A camera with interchangeable lenses, several different lens, lighting kit, speedlights, light meters, software...ect. These cost quickly add up, and are compounded by the actual cost of tuition. Unless you really have a solid plan, impeccable work and a great sense of business, it's extremely easy to fail. Even those with great ethics and skill usually have a side hustle in case things go south. While photography can be fun and empowering, it can also be cruel and deceptive.

Michelle VanTine's picture

Great comment and congratulations on being close to completing your degree! I ABSOLUTELY agree about the cost of taking the classes. I did a lot of work in film also when I was getting my degree and the paper for printing came out to $1 per sheet. For weekly assignments the costs added up quickly. Have you set up a job alert on Linked In? I have one permanently set: with certain parameters for salary and such. I've seen some fantastic jobs come through my email.

Mike Ditz's picture

Are you getting alerts for actual full time photographer jobs with a good wage? The ones that I have seen are looking for about 8 very different job skills but for $40,000 yr.

Michelle VanTine's picture

I never take the jobs because I want to work for myself and the high paying ones are full time positions with major companies. There are some laughable postings but I've seen 2 or 3 in the $58-$70k in the last year

Benoit Pigeon's picture

What happen is that you have inventory when you are done with your studies. In a way you are already in business despite not having the income. So it’s an investment unless your purchased the wrong items to start with, but otherwise, that money is not a loss. Lack of practice might be your fear, but if you build a solid inventory of equipment that is durable, flexible and you bring a lot of back up and extras with you, your chance at failure will be greatly reduced because your bag of options will most likely help you. I am the opposite of the minimalist photographer I read about lately, except may be for cameras and lenses. Try to find 9-5 type of clients. They have deadlines, their boss does and if they can trust you once you build that relationship fast. In my opinion, photography is mostly a business of client retention, not necessarily hunting. The other thing is to learn to read your clients and tension around you and them, including people you don’t expect like front desk person all the way to accounting. They all have a role that may affect you more than you may realize. If you give yourself a chance at zero failure, you can get there.

Edo Photo's picture

At a particular downturn in my financial life, I did a business plan program under the unemployment system in NYC.

Part of the process of creating my business plan was to do market research on photography in United States.

To say that it was a absolutely ludicrous market is saying the obvious. The average photographer salary was somewhere near 30,000 which means most photographers were poor or near destitute. At that point my feelings didn't matter, it was simply a no way in hell proposition a.

While I've still pursued photography after that, I have long given up on using photography as any kind of main financial engine. I've since worked at a magazine, where we interviewed photographers and I've had much more exposure to the general workings of the lower end of the fashion business which is the worst out of them all (i would imagine.)

Since then not only have I been disappointed with the prospects of a photography career, but the most insidious part is with the small legion of photographers I've met in New York city over the last 10 years. Unhelpful, can't discuss any kind of business without them getting nervous, sometimes just plain old weird etc. There's been a few shining lights but those are usually the people who are so far in the trenches of photography that you see them for 10 minutes and you never see them again.

Thankfully my day work is centered in digital design, I wish nothing but good luck to those who have peers in the photo industry that support each other, can actually discuss critical subjects such as money etc. I simply haven't had that experience.

I'll still pursue photography but it will be distinct projects and doing a show hopefully sometime soon. I'll try some other things when I go abroad as well. But otherwise, it is utterly nonsensical to jump into this field and be dependent on it. That doesn't mean it can't work, but it is highly highly dependent on what financials are behind you, and of course your network and the network of your friends. Of course there's other things that can influence that scenario, but your entire circle has to be set up for photography or forget about it. At least that's been my experience.

As my first and only studio teacher said, without a network you will not be a working photographer.