It’s kind of a crazy thing: I believe you can stay true to your roots, values, and ethics, and also get rich. In this post, I’ll share some of the secrets of how I earn over $200,000 a year as a “photographer.”
1. To become rich, charge more money
I earn the bulk of my income through teaching workshops. The secret is to charge more money for workshops. I think workshops are great for photographers because nowadays people want to spend money on experiences and people want to learn.
A lot of photographers like to complain that the Internet has messed up the photo industry, that nowadays “everyone is a photographer.” I say f**k that, everyone is a photographer. Your mom with her iPhone is a photographer. We’ve got several billion photographers in the world, and anyone with a smartphone camera is a photographer.
To me, this is a massive opportunity.
In a future world where 7 billion people own a camera, you are going to have several billion people wanting to learn how to make better photos. And there are a lot of really rich people who want to learn how to make better photos.
And there are a lot of rich people who want experiences. They don’t care about spending a bunch of money on an expensive camera — they want to travel, meet other passionate people, and to also learn from photographers they admire.
2. How I make money
I have monetized my photography by teaching workshops, selling products via my brand HAPTIC INDUSTRIES, and also through Amazon affiliate links (which earns around $600 to $1,000 a month as of 2017) — so if someone buys a photo book through my recommendation, or whenever anyone buys anything on Amazon through my link, I get a 3% commission. So someone can click an Amazon link on my site and buy baby diapers, and I get a 2-3% commission on that.
3. Alienate people
I used to want everyone to attend my workshops, because of course as a self-interested human being, I want to make more money to better myself and my family. But I soon learned that it’s better to not want everyone to attend your workshops, and not want people to buy your products.
The reason is simple: you only need a very small percentage of your audience or followers (lets say 1%) to buy your stuff or attend your workshops.
For example, let’s say I have 90,000 Facebook fans. 1% of that audience is 900 individuals. Perhaps half of those people will actually buy something, or attend a workshop. But that is still massive.
But honestly, if you want to make a living from your passion (let’s say photography) you might only need only $40,000 a year to make a living (and not a killing). So for me in the past, I only needed 50 people to attend a workshop to earn about $40,000 a year.
So just think to yourself: you only need 50 dedicated followers to attend your workshop, or buy your (expensive) products to make a living.
4. Find a thrifty life partner
The biggest tip I have for making a lot of money and getting rich is having a thrifty/economical partner. My wife Cindy taught me to save money and not to go out and buy Leicas.
I have a personal rule: if I want to spend more than $300 on anything, I need Cindy’s explicit permission. I know I can’t trust myself, and it has worked very well so far.
So a secret to getting “rich” (financially) is to reduce your expenses. The only reason Cindy and I have been able to accumulate more than $100,000 in savings is because we spend very little money on ourselves.
5. Everyone starts with 0 followers
I started my blog in 2011 with 0 followers and 0 page views, and 0 social media followers. It takes a long time to build up an audience.
To build up an audience from 0, I wrote 1 street photography tips article every Monday, every Wednesday I interviewed 1 photographer, and every Friday I shared photos from the social media community. After about a year of constant blogging 3 times a week, I was able to build a small, yet dedicated audience.
6. Why you should start your own blog
Now, I have disabled all of my pageview trackers and whatnot on my blog. This is because I get emotional with numbers: the days my pageviews go up, I feel high. The days it goes down, I feel like s**t. So I just realized the simple solution was to disable my stats and pageviews. Now, I follow my own gut, and feel liberated.
I also recommend you to start your own blog, and to own your own platform, the only way to get discovered by others on Google. And no, I do not pay Google to appear high on search results. The only way to rank high in Google is to write really useful stuff, and the more people who link to your site, the higher your site ranks in Google (like how academic papers work).
Also a secret: I’ve written over 2,600 blog posts from 2011 through 2017. That helps too.
7. Social media is overrated
Another lesson: social media is overrated. 90% of my audience discovers me through Google, not Facebook or Instagram. So while I recommend that it’s good to have a “social media presence”, only focus 10% of your attention on that. For the other 90%, focus on blogging, finding clients, and figuring out ways to actually make money.
And not only that, don’t waste time focusing on “marketing” yourself — just make great art. The quality of your own art and photos will be the best marketing for yourself.
8. Why you should start a YouTube channel
Also, I do think it is a good idea to start your own YouTube channel. It is free marketing for yourself (and I recommend not putting on ads on YouTube, as it’s annoying and it will deter people from watching your videos and learning more about your message, ethics, and morals).
I make YouTube videos that are fun to me. I have intentionally turned off ads on my YouTube, because I hate ads. I think it is better to have people watch your videos on YouTube (without ads), and learn how to trust you and then eventually buy your products or attend your workshop, rather than to just earn a few dollars here and there.
My crazy ambition is to create a trillion dollars worth of “value” in the photography world. I want to own the #1 photography website on the Internet. I therefore know in order to do that, I don’t want put paywalls on the information on my site. To me, an open system is always better than a closed one. This is why I believe in “open source photography” and have even made a free photography boot camp.
9. How to make your own luck
“Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.”
You can make your own luck. The more you swing the bat, the more likely you are to hit a home run. The sad reality is, if you are never given opportunity, you can never have the opportunity to make a lot of money and also become the best version of yourself.
You can hustle f**king hard and still not become financially “successful.”
I got very lucky. I started my blog when nothing much was being written on street photography. In the course of 6 years (2011 to 2017), I was able to become #2 on Google for “street photography” because I’ve written a lot of articles on street photography (especially my “Learn From the Masters of Street Photography” series) and from my free photography ebooks.
10. Free or Expensive
The biggest principle I believe in is this: it is better to give away your stuff for free or to charge a lot of money for it. My buddy Nassim Taleb calls this the “Barbell Theory.”
Many individuals make the mistake of trying to “nickel and dime you” for every little thing. Avoid charging a “medium” price or a “moderate” price on anything.
I actually predict that the future is going to be polarized. Either everything will be free (for the masses) or really expensive (for the rich). If you look at society, the middle class is dying. 50 years from now (if capitalism keeps marching forward) there will only be really poor people (subsidized) or really rich people (those who control the “means of production”).
Consider the fact that you can buy a $10 bag on Amazon or a $100,000 Hermes handbag. Or you can have a smartphone camera on your iPhone or spend $10,000 on a digital Leica camera.
The future is going to be luxury goods or free.
11. The death of the photographic middle class
There is going to be a death of the photographic middle class. Those photographers just charging “medium” prices will die off.
You will have a future with $100 medium format digital cameras that everyone can afford. 18-year-old kids will shoot weddings for $500. And they will be damn good. And poor people will pay that. And the rich will spend $50,0000 on a wedding or commercial/fashion/editorial shoot.
12. Have faith in yourself
Ultimately, the most important thing is to have a hustler’s mentality. To have supreme confidence in yourself (almost to the point of radical foolishness). If you want to innovate and make a living from your passion, you need to be a little crazy.
When I lost my cozy $40,000 a year job in 2011 and decided to pursue photography full-time through blogging, everyone thought I was crazy. But I am so grateful to then-girlfriend Cindy and my mom for believing in me. And my friend Kevin McKenzie for telling me that he would do everything to help support me.
You cannot control whether you will become rich or even “succeed,” but you can control how hard you hustle. When you are looking into the dark pit of despair, believe in yourself. You can do it. Not only that, but never stop hustling. If you really want to make a living from your passion, it will likely be f**king hard. You will not see the back of your eyelids for at least a year or two. I know for myself, when I first lost my job in 2011, I worked 12 to 14 hours a day. I used this time to make photos, blog, make videos, send emails, build connections, and trying to figure out ways to make money.
Even now in 2017, I have doubled down on my hustle. The other day I woke up at 5:30am, and drank 5-6 cups of (Vietnamese) coffee, and crashed at around 5:30pm. I worked essentially non-stop with the hope of creating information that will empower my followers.
This is why I live: I believe in you, and you can really change society and the world, as well as earn your freedom through owning your own business.
Money isn’t going to buy you happiness, but in today’s world, it will buy you (some) freedom.
I know for me, being broke sucked. I grew up poor as a 12-year-old kid. Now that I am rich(er), I can be more generous helping friends, family, and helping give back to society by keeping my information open and free.
You might wonder, why did Eric write this article? Is it for more pageviews, for more people to buy his products, and “free” marketing for his workshops?
No, but seriously, the reason I wrote this is to encourage you and say that with enough hustle (and a touch of luck) you can earn (more) than $200,000 a year from your passion. If I can do it, you can do it too, and even better than me.
About the author: Eric Kim is an international street photographer. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Eric’s photography and writing on his website and blog. This post was also published here.
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