I started a real estate photography business in the Spring of 2016. After 3 months I was worried why I wasn't quitting my full time job and shooting beautiful architecture in exotic places around the world. I came to the deflating realization that it was going to take much longer than 3 months and a handful of postcards sent to real estate agents to regularly make enough money to quit my job.
2016 was a very slow year in business (as it is for most new businesses), where I only brought in maybe $1500 in 9 months. 2017 proved to be a much better year for me. While I still don't have the income potential to quit my job, I am able to shoot things that interest me and the money I made from my real estate business has enabled me to take chances and make mistakes with my landscape photography. I'll break down how much I made in each part of my business and where the money came and went. This article is going to be a complete look into my photography business world, aside from a few minor details about dates and volumes.
Let's get started with the number I know you're dying to see. How much did I make all year long? Don't worry, I won't drag this out. I made $10,941.07 so far in 2017. That includes both real estate and landscape print sales. I say “so far” because the year is not yet over and I still have a commercial shoot coming up and 2 holiday gift markets where I'll hopefully sell a few landscape prints. $11k sounds pretty sweet, right? And believe me, it is. But, I have almost $11k in expenses as well. The cold, hard truth is that for the few first years in business, you probably won't be seeing much, if any, profit at all.
Here is the breakdown of how much I earned and how much I spent. As I mentioned, I won't go through line by line of my balance sheet (a couple line items will be redacted due to their sensitivity) but I will point out a few notable items.
My cost of goods sold was the cost for all my prints. As I mentioned, I'm including my landscape photos in my income report as well. Looking back on this, and this is the first time I've looked at my profit/loss report this year, I can't believe I spent over $4000 on prints. Usually, I don't print anything unless it had been ordered already since I am just starting out selling prints, but I am producing inventory for a couple holiday gift markets this month so I have lots of prints hanging around my office. My most popular print by far was my 2017 Eclipse panorama. I sold over $1200 worth of that print for a profit of about $700.
In the advertising/marketing category, that includes all Google Adwords ads and Facebook Ads. It also includes postcards, mailing supplies, and promotional gifts.
Gas and fuel are pretty obvious. I didn't use my business credit card every time I was traveling for “work” so this number will be off. However, I did use it for the more fuel costly trips like when I went to Southern Utah and drove all over down there.
Meals and entertainment is food and drinks while on the road. A burger here, a soda there. One night, after a very long shoot at a million dollar real estate listing, I stopped at a local pizza place and picked up a pizza to eat on my hour long drive home. I got this special “Apocalypdough” which has ghost peppers in the dough. They make you sign a waiver (no joke) saying you understand that consumption may result in bowel discomfort and you won't hold them liable. It was delicious.
Professional fees and website expenses are kind of the same category but 17 Hats likes to categorize things funny. I have to go back in and correct some of those. These include the cost to run my website, add-ons that I purchased, video templates for Adobe After Effects, and other things of that nature.
Small equipment includes anything gear related. Bags, lenses, remote shutter releases, and my fancy Rhino motorized slider that cost $1500. Of course this is the largest category.
The training and education category includes any video training, ebooks, and other tutorials. Training is very important and while you can find almost anything for free online if you look hard enough, sometimes it is easier to just buy a training series from someone already established in the industry. I haven't regretted any of the training I've purchased.
Most of this income is from real estate photography, I'd say about 65%. I shot a handful of houses this year that provided the ability to stay flexible in my business. The real estate photography work also funded most of the landscape photography. If it wasn't for shooting a few homes here and there, I wouldn't have been able to take “business trips” or print out photos to display on my cubicle wall at my day job (which has lead to a few more sales to coworkers).
Thoughts on the year
At the end of the year, my bank account has less than $700 in it. For being my second year in business, I think this isn't half bad. Work has a tendency to find me when I least expect it and people come out of the woodwork to purchase landscape prints every now and again. I honestly did better in 2017 than I thought.
I started out the year charging 9 cents per square foot for real estate work. I thought this was a fair price to pay for the quality I am able to deliver (I still think it's a great price for quality). However, this is upwards of 4x the amount that others are charging and I missed signing several clients because of it. When I quoted the .09/sqft price, many real estate agents practically hung up on me. However, being relatively new in business I knew that I still had the option to adjust my prices according to what the market is willing to pay. I lowered my pricing based on a more traditional square footage model and it settled on about .07/sqft (as a comparison). I was still struggling with this pricing, not being to land the number of clients I want so I switched to a two tier pricing model with the cut off at 3500 sq/ft. Anything below is $150 and anything above is $225. I don't expect to maintain this pricing forever but since I'm still new, I'm calling it my “special introductory price.”
The real estate photography market is heavily saturated in Salt Lake with the average price being about $120 and going up to a little over $200. Drone photos and other specialty services like twilight photos are extra, of course. There are several big box type photography companies and about 5 times as many independent real estate photographers to compete with. There are so many “business coaches” who will tell you, “Don't lower your prices! Increase your prices! Stick to your guns! Don't be afraid to charge higher prices! Forgot those cheapskates who can't afford you! They'll be terrible clients anyway!”
But you know what? A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Meaning, a paying client now is worth more than that unicorn client who will “appreciate you” for who you are and love to pay your arbitrarily inflated prices tomorrow. Someone did the math that if a real estate photographer were to shoot 2 houses a day at $150 each, 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year, they could make $75,000/year. That's a decent wage, well above the medium income line in America. I had the realization that I don't need to be a millionaire doing this, I just want to get paid to do photography. Yes, I understand that working for myself means paying my own health insurance and taxes and whatever, but the principle is the same. Getting paid a little bit every day right now is better than holding out for huge windfalls “as soon as the right clients come along.”
Not everyone agrees with me, and that's totally cool. But I understand that while I'm a nobody, I can't charge “somebody” prices. Just because Peter Lik sells a photo of some dirt for $6.5M doesn't mean all photos of dirt are going for millions of dollars these days. But I can work my way up the ladder. There is no rule saying I can't. If you find yourself struggling with the idea of working “below your worth” consider what your end goal really is and understand you don't have to “make it” right from the start. If you are wanting to get into real estate photography, it can be hard to know where to start with your pricing. Check out my Salt Lake City real estate photography website for an example of what real estate photographers could charge in a market similar to Salt Lake.
I always thought it would be cool to sell landscape photos and make actual money off that. I didn't plan on that at the beginning of the year, however. Landscape photography was just a hobby at the time, although I was getting pretty serious about it. It wasn't until I started selling eclipse prints like crazy that I thought I might actually be able to do it. I hadn't sold many prints before then; a few here and few there to friends and family. I gave away more as gifts than I sold at that point. But I always wanted to do more with it.
I got the courage to sign up for some art shows after reading a fantastic article by Nathan St. Andre earlier this year. I realized that selling at an art show was within my grasp and I could hurdle the relatively small barriers to entry. I became serious about it a little too late in the season but that only gave me plenty of time to do research into the requirements for different art markets. I found 2 indoor holiday themed markets in Salt Lake and signed up for the second 2 weekends in December. There are 2 more art fairs in the summer that I want to sign up for that have entry fees and juried acceptance (a panel decides whether to include you or not). From my research, these can be very hard to get into but I think I have a good chance. That is my goal for 2018.
At the end of the day, my goal is just to get paid to do photography. Whether that's real estate photography, small business videos, selling prints, or product photography, I just want to support a family with a reasonable income by using a camera. I think too often people assume the American Dream is to have 2 Teslas in our 5 car garage and front row tickets to the super bowl every year. This is impossible for most people to achieve. Instead, I like to think the true American Dream is to have a comfortable place to live, good food in the fridge, a couple cars that run well, and the ability to take the kids to Disney World every couple years. I think that can be accomplished with any self-made photography profession these days as long as you A) don't get greedy; and B) are realistic about what your local market wants.
I hope 2018 is so bright I have to wear shades. Maybe next year I'll do another year end recap and we'll see what happened. If you have a photography business, take a look at your profit and loss statement (or import your banking transactions into Excel) and see how you did this year. And remember, it's not about net profits, it's about how much you grew this year.