Surviving as a Photographer in the 2020s

Updated: Aug 21, 2019

Taking a fresh look at today’s landscape of opportunities for freelance photographers to create multiple income streams both online and offline.

The internet, smartphones, tablets, AI technology, and a broad range of apps have combined to democratize photography. As a result, there are now more high-quality photographs being produced in a single day than would have been produced in an entire year pre-internet.

Of course, having the best gear, software, knowledge, skills, work ethic, and industry connections will give you tremendous advantages. However, in today’s environment, a talented and hard-working teenager with just their phone and some apps can be serious competition. A scroll through Apple’s Instagram page which curates photos shot on iPhones proves this new reality.

Getting Noticed

Until recently, the new generation of photographers would use social media platforms such as Instagram to get noticed. This worked well because the networks had large audiences hungry for beautiful imagery. However, since these platforms don’t specialize in photography, most people on there aren’t in the mindset to become your client or customer.

A growing number of photographers are finding that they get more traction by uploading their photos to free stock image sites such as Pexels, Pixabay, or Unsplash (personally, I prefer the latter’s approach to UI and functionality). Since people are coming to these sites specifically to find high-quality photography, they are more likely to become a client or customer.

Regardless of what platform you share your photos on, sooner or later, you will want to make it easy to get paid. The way to enable this is to have a link in your profile(s) to a website which has everything you are offering. There is a dizzying array of website builders available, including several free options, so check out comparison sites like this one to get an idea of which would be the best fit for your needs.

Selling Online

Selling Stock Photos

The cost of purchasing stock photos has been falling over the decades as creating and distributing photos continued to get easier thanks to technology. That said, it is still possible to make income if you are providing the kinds of images that are in demand. Of course, photos that you have already shared via the free stock image sites cannot be sold via the premium ones. For this reason, you may want to keep your best shots for selling.

Stock photo sites to check out include Alamy, Dreamstime, Fotolia, iStock Photo, and Shutterstock. Another option is to sell your photos directly using a portfolio website builder such as SmugMug or Zenfolio. In either case, it goes without saying that the more traffic you can drive to your premium photos, the more you will sell.

Selling Prints

According to the licenses of the free stock photo sites, you are the only one allowed to sell prints of your photos. Specifically, the licenses allow anyone to use your photos for free for almost any legal purpose. However, selling unaltered copies of the photos (for example, as digital downloads or prints) is prohibited. This means that they could create art based on your photos and sell them. However, since the resulting style would be so different, it wouldn’t be direct competition.

As for how to go about selling prints, it depends on how involved you want to be.

  • If you want to handle everything and have full control over all aspects, then marketplaces such as Etsy can be used to take orders and payments.

  • You could have a Shopify store and outsource the printing and fulfillment via Printful. You would still have to deal with customer inquiries, but can remain more in control of the customer experience, branding, and collect customer contact details.

  • If you just want to upload your photos and not have to worry about anything else, then you could check out sites such as RedBubble or Society6. They will handle everything for you, but you will be just one of many talented artists and photographers on their platforms vying for the attention of site visitors.

Selling Courses

Having a knockout portfolio will naturally brand you as an expert in photography. This allows you to offer online tutorials and courses on the many aspects of your craft.

  • YouTube: Some photographers create tutorial videos that are freely available. Once they gain a sufficient number of subscribers, they can apply to join the YouTube Partner Program and take a cut of the ads run on their videos.

  • Udemy: This is a platform which lets you sell online courses. Alternatives include Teachable and Thinkific.

Offering Services

Bespoke Shoots

A brand may notice the photos you've posted to Unsplash, love your style, but not find any pictures that are exactly suitable for their upcoming campaign. Curious to learn more, they decide to click the link in your profile that leads to your website. If you have thought ahead, you will have prepared a page that gives them all the information they may need to make a decision such as your location (and whether you're able to travel), what kinds of shoots you are available for, what your rates are, any necessary availability information, and how to get in touch with you.

Offline Coaching & Classes

There are always going to be beginners who would like to learn the skills you have, but prefer to do it face-to-face rather than searching for help online. Try starting out with one-on-one coaching and then consider working your way up to teaching classes if you can find a suitable venue. Teaching in person can be facilitated online via platforms such as ClassDo.

Photo Editing

Whether it’s via your own website or a freelance job marketplace such as Conyac, you could offer photo editing services. While there are many easy-to-use photo editing apps, even competent amateurs end up hitting a wall and needing to hire a pro for more ambitious edits.

The most successful freelance photo editors have a true passion for it, possess excellent communication skills, and be located somewhere with a low cost of living. That way, they can be competitive in terms of pricing and enjoy doing the work day-in-day-out. PCs continue to drop in price while free photo editing software such as DarkTable and Gimp keep on improving.

Other Earning Options

  • Blogging: If you blog about photography, you can sign up for an affiliate aggregator such as Skimlinks or VigLink which will monetize any links to merchants you include in your articles. Content genres to consider include tutorials, reviews, or photo essays.

  • Sponsors: Once you have a large enough audience, vendors of photography related goods and services may contact you to sponsor videos or posts.

  • Donations: Some photographers receive donations from people who want to support their work or say thanks for using one of your free photos. Pexels and Pixabay let you add a PayPal link. On Unsplash, you can just mention what email address to send PayPal payments to. On your website, you could have a Donations page with various payment options.

  • Membership Subscriptions: Sites such as Patreon or SubscribeStar enable you to offer monthly subscriptions in return for member-only perks.


It is definitely possible to make a living as a professional photographer in today's world. However, the competitive landscape, risks, and opportunities have changed dramatically over the past few decades and will continue to do so. Only those who stay flexible, curious, and work hard to stay ahead will prosper.

There is no single correct path that all photographers should take and the sheer number of options can be truly overwhelming. The key is to start with whatever feels the most natural and accessible. Choose one thing and focus on it until you gain traction before branching out. You will be more successful in doing one or two things well than trying to do everything all at once.

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