the photography business and the american dream

posted in portraits, strictly business, weddings at April 28, 2011

Here’s how I define the American Dream:  living a middle-class or better lifestyle while building enough wealth to send your kids to college and retire at a reasonable age (i.e. before you’re too old and infirm to enjoy it).  Your mileage may vary.  Personally, I have much higher financial goals than this but I’ll use this as a baseline for this discussion.

This post is based on the experience and knowledge that an MBA and 20 years of business experience (both inside and outside of photography) has brought me.  It is probably the most important post that I’ll ever write.  If you plan on making photography your career, please don’t skip this one.


There are lots of ways to build enough wealth to live the dream. I’ll outline some of them here:

The Investor

The Investor is at the very top of the wealth-building food chain.  Just about all of the wealthy (entertainers and athletes aside) have generated their wealth through investment.  That is, through ownership of assets – either businesses or real estate.  They’ve earned their wealth by (1) being willing to take big risks and (2) by using leverage.  I’m not talking about saving some of your salary and buying mutual funds here.  Think bigger.

Let’s take, for example, a fairly typical real estate investor. He buys a small commercial property for $500,000.  He put 20% down ($100,000) and took a $400,000 mortgage.  His tenants pay enough rent to cover the operating expenses, including the mortgage.  He was smart and bought in the right market. Twelve years later he sells the building for $1,000,000.  His profit?  He turned $100,000 into $1,000,000  – a $900,000 profit (less the repayment of the remaining mortgage)  in 12 years.  Or in other words, 30 years worth of income for the average photographer made with a single deal.

It’s easy to see why/how most large fortunes are made this way.

“You see that building? I bought that building ten years ago. My first real estate deal. Sold it two years later, made an $800,000 profit. It was better than sex. At the time I thought that was all the money in the world. Now it’s a day’s pay.” - Gordon Gekko

The Professionals

Professionals (dentists, lawyers, accountants, etc.) build wealth in a couple different ways.  First, they can earn high incomes.  The primary reason for the high income is that their profession may require a high level of expertise acquired at a very high cost.  It takes a lot of time and money to become a lawyer.  Four years of undergraduate education, three years of law school, and then you have to pass the bar exam.  This is an extremely high barrier of entry.  Graduating from a top law school raises that barrier even higher.  For example, the median starting salary for lawyers graduating from New York University (my alma mater, although I went to the business school, not the law school) is greater than $160,000. Not bad for an entry level job.

But beyond salary, professionals build wealth through equity and leverage/scalability just like investors do. The lawyer eventually becomes a partner, which opens him up to ownership of his firm.  And then there’s the leverage – the lawyer no longer makes the bulk of his earnings through his own labor.  He begins to earn income through the labor of his employees (law firm associates).

The Corporate Employee

Entrepreneurship isn’t the only way to build reasonable wealth over time.  Lots of corporate employees do it too.  They do it through investment (of profit sharing, stock options, bonuses, employee stock purchase programs, 401k company matches, etc.) and leverage.  An employee has leverage?  Sure, let’s look at this example:

Let’s say you work at a big box retailer like a Best Buy.  You work at the cash register or stocking shelves.  At this level you’re simply trading your time for money.  You don’t earn much because there is a very low barrier of entry for a stock clerk.  There is no way to leverage your earnings.  You make $10 per hour.

Now let’s say you’re a good employee and have a few promotions over the years and eventually you’re managing one of the departments – say the cell phone department. You’re making $40,000 / yr.  You have leveraged yourself because now you’re getting compensated on the results of the entire department.  A few years later you’re the general manager of the store and make $100,000.  Now you’ve leveraged your earnings again because you’re responsible for the efforts of all of the employees in the entire store.

A few years after that you’re a regional manager responsible for a dozen stores. Now you’re making $200,000.  You’re making the big salary because of leverage and the fact that now you benefit from an extremely high barrier to entry.  There are millions of people who can be trained to stock shelves in a day, but there are not that many people who have the skills and expertise to oversee a dozen large stores with hundreds of employees.

The Public Employee

Public employees have a great opportunity to live the American Dream and build wealth over time.  They do this through (1) higher than average wages and (2) extremely generous benefits unavailable to private sector workers.  Let’s say you’re a police officer or fireman in a big city.  You probably have a pension that’s based on your last few year’s salary.  Work some overtime your last couple of years and you can easily have a six-figure per year pension + free health care for you and your spouse for life. Oh, and you’re retiring before age 50.  The dollar value of these benefits boggles the mind – it’s easily in the $millions for a single worker.  It’s a great deal if you can get it.

Most people realize this, of course, which is why it’s not so easy to get one of these jobs.  In some parts of the country, it’s harder to get a job as a police officer than it is to get into Harvard.  This is no exaggeration. Last year, Harvard had a 6.9% acceptance rate.  My nephew is trying to get a job as a police officer in Connecticut.  For every job opening there are more than 100 applicants.  That’s less than a 1% acceptance rate.  Just think about it.

Canon 1V, Canon 50mm f1.4, Kodak Portra 160NC, develop/scan: RPL,  perfect skin tones straight from the scan with zero corrections.

The Photographer

Okay, thanks for reading this far.  This is the part you’ve been waiting for.  Where does the photographer fit in?

I’m sorry to report that photographers feed at the bottom of the wealth-creation food chain.  Why?

Zero barriers to entry. There is basically a zero barrier to entry to the professional photography business.  No qualifications, schooling, certifications or experience are necessary.  Since most people who become professional already have a camera, a computer and Photoshop (photography was their hobby), there’s a near zero investment in equipment needed.  All it takes is a $50 Bludomain website and you’re good to go.  Education (from sites like this) is free and readily available.  Today’s $700 Nikon D5100 is miles better than the $5,000 Nikon D2X from 4 years ago. Do 2 hours of coaching with me (or someone like me) and you can learn a topic – pricing, for example – that took me years of trial and error to learn.  Is it any surprise that every single day another dozen photographers in your town open up shop?

Zero leverage/scalability. Unless you’re going to open up a chain of employee-run studio photography stores, you have zero leverage.  That is, you are simply trading your time for money, and there is a fixed amount of hours you can work before you run out of time or simply drop dead.  Twenty years ago photographers who shot stock for Getty Images were able to leverage their images (i.e. sell them for decent money over and over again), but that market is basically dead now due to microstock.

Zero equity-building. Unlike the owner of the dry cleaning store who can sell his business and build wealth over time, your photography business builds no equity.  [remember the 70's sitcom The Jeffersons?  George Jefferson became wealthy by owning a chain of dry cleaning stores].  The typical wedding/portrait shooter (Sally Smith Photography) earns zero income the day she shoots her last wedding.  Nobody out there will buy Sally Smith Photography.  There is nothing to buy.  Her copyrighted library of 200,000 wedding/portrait images has no value, because she’s already sold the images to her only possible customer.  She might be able to sell her gear for a few hundred bucks but that’s it.

Zero benefits. You have to buy all of your own health insurance, for example.  With the cost of family health insurance at $20,000 per year and going up 10-15% per year, this is a huge deal.  Employees of large corporations often have dozens of smaller benefits as well – e.g. life insurance, employee wellness programs, reimbursement for health club memberships, employee discount programs, tax-saver accounts, etc.

I actually can’t think of a worse business than photography.  I honestly can’t.  In fact, if I were teaching an entrepreneurship class at a business school this would make a great exercise:  Have my class think of a business that builds zero equity, had zero scalability and zero barriers to entry.  It would be interesting to see if my class could come up with professional wedding/portrait photography. Knowing what makes a bad business would be very helpful in designing a good business.

The bottom line is this:  from a wealth-creation standpoint, photography is a lousy career.  But you probably already know that.

Olympus OM2n, Zuiko 28mm lens, Kodak Portra400nc, NCPS process and scan, straight-from-the-scan

So what to do?

Don’t give up!  Just because photography is a bad business doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile pursuing.  It does have other non-business related benefits (primarily, it satisfies the urge to scratch your creative itch, which has non-monetary value that’s difficult to quantify).  So here are some options:

Option 1:  Curl up into the fetal position and rock back and forth.  When finished, complain to everyone you know about all the newbies entering the market. Look under the seat cushions to scrape up your health insurance premium.  Resume the fetal position and repeat.

Option 2:  Take positive action.

Re-evaluate whether or not to be full-time vs. part-time. I wrote about this topic in my post “for love or money“.   While photography is a lousy career (from a wealth-creation perspective), it can be a GREAT part-time business.  The “low barrier to entry” issue is not a problem for the part-timer. In fact, it’s an advantage. Shoot 10 weddings a year and you can easily bring in $20,000 of extra annual income.  Invest this extra while living on the salary from your day job and you will be on your way to financial independence and lasting wealth.  How many people do you know can save and invest $20,000 per year?

Pick the right spouse. Photography as a full-time business works best when coupled with a spouse who has a solid job (with health insurance).  If your family can live on your spouse’s salary, then you can save/invest nearly all of your photography income.  How great would it be to save and invest $40,000-50,000 per year!

Invest your profits outside of photography. Spend less than you earn. Invest your savings wisely.  Set a specific savings goal for the year.  Do not make a single discretionary (i.e. non-essential) purchase until you’ve socked away that amount into an account earmarked for investing.  Read a lot about investing. This will build your wealth a thousand times more than spending time reading ridiculous online forums where people debate Canon vs. Nikon and display their photos of brick walls.  I don’t care if you choose real estate, stocks, mutual funds or whatever. Become knowledgeable, save and invest. Since your photography business does not build equity, you need to build that equity outside of photography.  Unless you’re a professional sports photographer who needs the ultra-high frame rate, buying a new D3s is NOT an investment, it is luxury, unnecessary spending. The $5,000 D3s will not earn you a single penny more than the $2,500 D700.

Hold on to your cash. Photographers spend way, way, way, way too much money.  If I were hired as a business consultant to a photographer, the first thing that I would look at are their expenditures.  Let’s look at some examples:

Gear: If your camera is less than 3 years old, there is NO NEED to upgrade your cameras. EVER.  Cameras are so good now that you should use them until they wear out.  I am still using my 5 year old 5D and getting stunning images from it.  I could shoot all of my portrait sessions with my $60, 30 year old Olympus OM2n and my clients would be thrilled with the results.

Software: No need to upgrade.  At most, upgrade with every 3rd release.  Do you really need those thousands of fancy features that you’ll never use?

Branding: Branding is one of the most misunderstood topics for wedding/portrait photographers.  YOU are the brand.  Your images.  Your attitude.  How you treat your clients.  Your brand is NOT your logo/letterhead.  There is no reason to spend thousands of dollars on professional graphic design.  Sure, it’s important for large corporations like Pepsi, Apple, and McDonalds to have the recognizable logo. But in order for your logo to establish your brand, you would have to have thousands and thousands of impressions (speaking with my MBA hat on) at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Your name in an attractive font is all you need for a logo.

Advertising: Don’t spend your hard earned cash on magazine ads. They are a waste of money.  Spend a few thousand dollars on a magazine ad and you’ll be lucky to book one wedding from it.  Great, you’re now working that wedding for free.

The most effective ways to generate business and profits are free or nearly free. How much does it cost you to not be an a-hole? How many times have you read a post on online forums like this:  “My contract does not allow clients to use images without my permission, yet I saw they posted some of their wedding images on Facebook without my permission!  How do I get them to cease and desist and/or compensate me for those images?” Are you f_ing kidding me!! Who are you, Annie Leibovitz?  Instead I would thank them for the free advertising.  In fact, on my client’s DVD I include a folder labeled “Facebook” with images perfectly sized for it.  Which approach do you think will better improve your “brand”? And how much does it cost you to pick up the phone and make some sales calls?  You can make more with a single phone call than you can with a $2,500 magazine ad.

Maximize revenue. Since your time is fixed, you have to maximize the revenue from each session.  This is way too big a topic to be covered in a single bullet point or single blog post.  It’s the basis of my entire blog.  Read up on marketing and especially pricing.  Photographers leave way too much money on the table.  They don’t have a recognizable style, which results in average pricing.  They don’t know how to price albums.  Their package design invites nickle-and-dimeing from their clients. They sell online instead of face to face. They don’t know how to price prints.  They don’t do proactive marketing.  How many sales calls did you make this week?  Zero?  Then why are you amazed that your phone isn’t ringing?

Yes, you can be a photographer and still live the American Dream.  But in order to do that you’ll have to recognize the limitations of working at the bottom of the wealth-creation food chain and what to do about it.  Keep your chin up!


Please keep these blog posts coming! All you have to do is shop by clicking on the advertisements below. It won’t cost you a penny more to shop that way, but it will provide me with a small commission that enables me to spend time working on new blog posts. Thanks!

  • R. J. Kern
    Twitter: Kernphoto

    Prolific. Sobering. Educational. Love your matter-of-factness blended with a bit of warmth and humanity. I'll be re-reading this for months to come! One of your best posts to date, Laurence! (April 28, 2011 | 08:41am)

  • Priscilla

    I agree with RJ Kern - a definite re-read. So glad I found it... Thank you... (April 28, 2011 | 09:03am)

  • Jodie Otte

    The only thing I would love to add to this is where you say it makes a great part-time job. Well, unfortunately, those part-timers that are bringing in an extra 20 grand take that 20 grand and buy more needless sh!t, and think they still have this extra salary when in reality, they spend that money on business expenses, and don't realize they aren't getting a salary at all. They are working for nothing. Countless times I hear new portrait photographers say - I only spend cash for my business, so I worked for three months part time and finally had enough money to buy that lens I wanted... huh? Did you have a salary with that? No? Then you basically worked for nothing for three months because you didn't have a salary with that lens. (April 28, 2011 | 09:07am)

  • Corporate Headshots
    Twitter: grantlylynch

    It is a difficult market to make a decent living and has been harder since the arrival of digital cameras, with clients having a go at doing it themselves and many weekend photographers offering their services for reduced fees. But if you are good at what you do, and make a niche for yourself, you can succeed. It takes passion, hard work, and most of all a thick skin. (April 28, 2011 | 09:09am)

  • gary fong
    Twitter: garyfong_real

    This is a well-written and informative article. Thanks for sharing! (April 28, 2011 | 09:37am)

  • Kimberly Simonetti

    Well said! I have been in the industry for almost 30 years and boy have things changed. Business wise not for the better. I am so tired of the Momarazzi charging $8.00 for a 5x7 and thinking they are making money. If they had to raise thier children and send them to the fancy private school they attend there is no way they could do it. I plan on reposting this and saving it in my data base so I can send it to the "professional photographers" when they call me for advice. Thank you! (April 28, 2011 | 09:44am)

  • Racheal Cook
    Twitter: yogipreneur

    Love this post! I'm not a photographer (except for the photos of my kids) but came across your post from a photographer friend on facebook. All of the points you make here are 100% right on -- not just for photographers! I provide business and marketing coaching to yoga and holistic professionals, and so much of what you have shared here applies to them as well. Will be sharing this blog post to my community with that in mind -- I'd love to feature it as a guest post on my blog if you're open to it! (April 28, 2011 | 10:37am)

  • Maureen Cassidy

    Really good post!!! sobering and true. I really wish it was easier to make a career out of photography. Thanks! Are you open to allowing people to repost this? It is really good! (April 28, 2011 | 11:49am)

  • Keri Doolittle Photography
    Twitter: keridoolittle

    Love this post!! Thanks for sharing! (April 28, 2011 | 01:47pm)

  • Greg

    Thanks ...... I think ;^) (April 28, 2011 | 03:09pm)

  • Julie Renee

    This is such a great post! Thank you so much for putting this out there in such an intelligent, informed, and clear manner. Too many experienced photographers are either "doom and gloom"ing about newcomers to the industry and wasting their time whining about how the newbies are morons, while others kindly welcome them to the industry with open arms, but don't bother to share with them the reality of their career path. Thank you for providing such a great discussion here! (April 28, 2011 | 04:04pm)

  • admin

    @Jodie: So true - lens acquisition just may be the #1 destroyer of photographers' net worth! @Racheal and Maureen: feel free to repost this on your blog. (April 28, 2011 | 05:12pm)

  • Andy Lim
    Twitter: andylimdotcom

    Nailed it on the head! Very well written Laurence. One more thing that photographers can do, and are already doing, is providing education to other photographers. (April 28, 2011 | 08:17pm)

  • Neil van Niekerk
    Twitter: #!/Neil_vN

    a refreshing and sobering article, and a much-needed antidote to the vacuous "you can do it too!" inspirational posts you see so often. (April 29, 2011 | 12:24am)

  • Steve Bedell

    So true, you hit all the right points! (April 29, 2011 | 05:02am)

  • Stephen Tang

    I was referred to this article by another wedding photographer who posted in his forum. Thanks for sharing! I like your article, because you approach this from a wealth building perspective with your MBA experience (i.e. barriers to entry, leverage, etc.). Most other articles on this subject matter only focus on the income and expense perspective (i.e. breakdown of expenses and how much income you need to make). The wealth building perspective is key for long-term financial independence. (April 29, 2011 | 05:52am)

  • Kevin

    "curl up in the fetal postion and rock.." I love it. Thank you for this post - excellent perspective! (April 29, 2011 | 06:57am)

  • stephanie beaty
    Twitter: lifeography

    One of the most straightforward, well-written articles on the economics of a photography business I've read. A wake-up call to entry-level photographers and experienced pros alike. (April 29, 2011 | 06:58am)

  • Jon Allyn

    This is the most complete and accurate assessment of our industry I've ever seen. Thank you and Steve Bedell for passing it along. (April 29, 2011 | 07:48am)

  • CJ Kern
    Twitter: CJinNJ

    Well said and thought provoking. Definitely has me thinking... thanks! (April 29, 2011 | 08:21am)

  • Chris

    Sobering. Thank you for this. I wish I were more of a sponge and could absorb everything here. Instead I will have to archive and re-read. Maybe I will do that daily until it all sinks in. Amazingly, with 3 weddings coming up this weekend, this helped me relax. After seeing so many "rockstars" grow to make really great money in this business, I have to disagree with the lack of "leverage opportunity". ie: Jasmine Star, Kabota, Doug Gordan, Jose Villa, Joe Buissink just to name a few who have managed to leverage their experience and grow to another level. - Thank you very much for sharing. Great article! (April 29, 2011 | 08:35am)

  • admin

    @Chris: you've hit the nail on the head. the only way to leverage a photography career is not with photography - it's selling stuff to other photographers. Invent a camera bag, host workshops, sell action sets, etc. I had the good fortune to meet Craig Strong, the founder of Lensbaby. He was just an average joe photographer out there who one day built a little home made lens that he thought would be fun to play with. Today his Lensbaby company is worth I don't know how much, but suffice to say many hundred times more than what the average wedding/portrait photographer will earn over a career. But his American Dream was not built with photography - it was built by investment/ownership of a manufacturing business. (April 29, 2011 | 08:45am)

  • Brooke

    Very interesting, and awesome information, thank you for sharing! It definitely has me thinking! (April 29, 2011 | 09:07am)

  • Anne Grant

    Thank you for this insight. It clairifies my own "American Dream" and what I need to consider next. I'm definitely not a "full-time forum visitor/contributor", but I have posted this on a couple of forums..this is a must read. (April 29, 2011 | 10:58am)

  • Alessandro Di Sciascio

    Wow. I could have written this blog post. And I don't mean that I think I have the same eloquence or the MBA to back the opinions up, but you basically put to paper (dont' start) exactly what I've been thinking all along. Thank you for an amazing post! (April 29, 2011 | 11:12am)

  • Carolyn Egerszegi

    Outstanding article Laurence. One of the best I've ever read on the business end of photography. Thanks for writing it because you said everything I need to hear. Thank you!!! (April 29, 2011 | 11:29am)

  • Iosif Konstantourakis

    That was a really great article. It answered many of my questions - some of them, I didn't even know I would be asking them soon. Thanks. (April 29, 2011 | 11:52am)

  • kristin korpos
    Twitter: kristinkorpos

    Nice article...I am reading a great book, The Fastlane Millionaire, by MJ Demarco, and I couldn't help but think about the messages in that book while reading your article. As a fellow MBA graduate, I think you would enjoy it....And thanks for posting this article, good stuff! (April 29, 2011 | 12:59pm)

  • Jake Lisbon

    Great article...all true points. I teach Math at a local college in San Diego, CA, but environmental photography is my passion. The person I'm most envious at my college? The full-time photography instructor at my college. My colleague "John" teaches photography 15-20 hours a week to eager students, and then shoots on weekends or hosts his photography shows at local art venues. He gets the pension, security (not to mention summers off) of a public employee, and has tons of time to focus on and devote to his photography business. (April 29, 2011 | 03:43pm)

  • Robin

    Great article!! Exactly the reasons why I decided to hang it up. Even the possible part-time $20,000/yr you mentioned is not worth all the work & hassle it takes to earn it! My 'creatvitiy itch' appears to be pretty much gone - a few bounced checks from clients and other general business crap and it healed up really quickly! ha! a.k.a. I'll stick to my day job! (April 29, 2011 | 05:27pm)

  • marta locklear
    Twitter: martalocklear

    FINALLY. This is just brilliant...and true. (April 29, 2011 | 06:24pm)

  • sarah downey

    Fantastic read. Thanks for sharing. (April 29, 2011 | 07:26pm)

  • Building wealth with photography

    [...] wealth with photography - Today, 11:33 PM the photography business and the american dream | Laurence Kim Photographer I thought this was a great article. A lot of the things a lot of new businesses don't think out in [...] (April 29, 2011 | 09:36pm)

  • Lacy Dagerath
    Twitter: lacydagerath

    Ahh so refreshing to read.. and perfectly said!! One question.. In your opinion.. for a full time wedding photographer... What do you think is a good annual salary for this business... Gross and Net... Just curious what your thoughts are on that... (I know several factors have to be included... ie. location, market etc... but just guestimate)... if you don't mind :) (April 29, 2011 | 11:06pm)

  • Courtney
    Twitter: ftcphotography

    Thank you for posting this raw and honest article. I wish EVERYONE could/would read it. I will be reposting and sharing for sure. ;) (April 29, 2011 | 11:57pm)

  • emily engelhardt

    this is when i wish facebook had a 'love' button. Wish I would've found your blog when I started 4 years ago. Looking forward to reading more! (April 30, 2011 | 05:38am)

  • admin

    @Lacy: Sorry, but a good income to one person may be lousy to another, so it's impossible to say what's "good". And to a large degree it also depends on whether or not your spouse has health insurance. I will say this - if you manage to make $100,000 or above (net) as a full-time photographer, you are probably in the top half of the top 1% of all wedding/portrait photographers out there. If you make $25,000 - $30,000 net, you're probably average. (April 30, 2011 | 07:29am)

  • jason h

    great read. not jus for photography but life itself. thank you (April 30, 2011 | 08:41am)

  • Natalija

    Laurence, this is a great article and something that my husband has told me countless times. I found this article through clicknmoms on FB and here is my response to it via the comments on Facebook: "All very, very true and something that my husband (who has an MBA) has been telling me for years. A business where you are the only one doing all of the work is not scalable and will not bring you a significant income, if any, especially wh...en you take time spent into consideration. Children these days are growing up with SAHMs who think they can run a successful photography business while their attention and time is really taken away from their children. If you need to "scratch that creative itch" with photography, simply ask your stable income-earning husband very nicely for a simple camera and lens and then use that to photograph your own children instead of taking precious time away from them. Children are only children for such a short time. Is earning an extra $20,000 per year (if that) really worth all those memories you could have been making with your children? All of those memories lost as you finish editing just one more gallery or just returning emails or setting up one more shoot which will continue to rob your children of the one and only one thing that matters in the world to them...time with you. Think about this as we approach Mother's Day and how we can be better moms to our children by returning to the true meaning of stay-at-home moms. As my husband keeps telling me, if you really want to contribute to the family, go get a job that will earn a significant income. Otherwise stay home and be a mom. We all need a creative outlet to keep us sane from the mundane and it's all fine as long as it doesn't infringe upon quality time with our children." I have to add that when my husband says "a significant income", he really means a six-figure income. Not many people see just how little, if anything, they make. This also applies to the prop-making business (of which I am a part and "guilty" participant so I know this article applies to me) - the current craze of hand knitting and crocheting hats for newborn photographers. I charge on the high end and cater to those who value my work, but even though I might charge $40 for a hat, when you take the time it takes to not only knit the piece, but also to photograph it, market it, ship it, and continue to interact with customers, this price is not high at all. It's all about putting a price on the value of time. (April 30, 2011 | 09:08am)

  • Joe

    Hey, LK and everybody else - Am I the only one that noticed that Gary Fong posted his kudos here? Similar to the Lensbaby/Craig Strong story, ask him how he built wealth in photography. (Click on his name/link.) I think LK's article and this great collection of comments (we have a great community here) has led us to this line of thinking: Do you want to be a photographer? Do you want to build a photography business? The two are not necessarliy the same. Photography is a market. If you have other non-photograph-taking skills, ideas or products and like photography, you can get into the photography market and make money (get your share of that market). Sell to photographers. Sell to people who buy photographs. Sell to people who display photographs. Sell to people who sell photographs. Etc... Photography (photograph taking) is also a skill. Take that skill and enter into other markets. What are your other hobbies? What else do you like? Horses? Classic cars? Model making? Travelling? Weddings? Find a niche. Will your photos be portraits, product shots, art prints? In a nutshell, successful people find ways to combine their skills with their interests. That makes them happy. (Isn't that what success is?) "Interests" sometimes have a market associated with them. Does that market have trade papers, magazines or websites? (No? Why don't you start one?) Look at the ads in those publications. (That's called research) Try to get some ideas and imagine yourself doing something in that market. It doesn't necessarily have to be unique. There can be more than one person doing/selling the same thing. Me? I'm a hobbyist. I take OK pictures. Once in a while I take one that I actually show people. Yet, I dream. Maybe when I retire I'll sell art prints into the equestrian market. Check out this guy: . Amazing. Follow your hearts, follow your dreams. Take risks. Be patient. - Namaste - (April 30, 2011 | 09:47am)

  • admin

    Gary Fong is a businessman that I really look up to. When he says something, pay attention. One drop of advice from him is worth more than a dozen workshops from one of those twenty-something rockstar photographers in Orange County. (April 30, 2011 | 11:33am)

  • admin

    @Natalija: Thanks for the thought-provoking comments. I've come to similar conclusions. Quite often these days when I get an inquiry for someone who wants to shoot on a weekend, I'll decline or quote a ridiculous price because I'd rather go with my kids on an adventure somewhere (and take photos along the way, of course!). (April 30, 2011 | 11:39am)

  • Chris Fawkes
    Twitter: chrisfawkes

    "Branding: Branding is one of the most misunderstood topics for wedding/portrait photographers. YOU are the brand. Your images. Your attitude. How you treat your clients. Your brand is NOT your logo/letterhead. " Way way off base despite it being current philosophy A brand is an identifying mark that people associate with you or your business name. In other words a logo. What people think of you when they you or your name or your logo comes to mind is brand association. That is why the same brand can have different associations in different markets. Starbucks is the prime example, great logo but different things come to mind in different markets. In some countries people think of premium coffee and a great experience, in other countries Starbucks would be frequented by the lower classes or the undiscerning. The name and the logo are the triggers that remind us how we feel. "Advertising: Don’t spend your hard earned cash on magazine ads. They are a waste of money. Spend a few thousand dollars on a magazine ad and you’ll be lucky to book one wedding from it. Great, you’re now working that wedding for free." Actually if you spend money on a magazine ad and do it right you can book 40-50 weddings over a year. The problem with most ads is they do not have the right words. Hire a copy writer and do it correctly and it can get results. That doesn't mean it is best value for money but too often people advertise somewhere get no result then blame the medium rather than the ad itself. (May 01, 2011 | 08:44am)

  • Yanko

    Laurence,thanks for the great article. And thumbs up for the even better writing style, you are getting better and better at writing! I am sure that in some time you will be making a book - it's a clear decision given that you will clearly earn you back your CoS and OPEX for it plus a good margin, I am sure! Now my question - I am a equity manager, so photography is not my business and I don't find weddings appealing, but still I would love to have my hobby funding itself, what I mean is that i would like to make an annual income on photography good enough to cover my gear(modest), film and printing costs. Do you think that stock photography can do this? Any idea on some average annual figures made on stock sites? Can you, please, share your valuable tips/advise regarding stock photography? Thank you! Yanko (May 01, 2011 | 09:50am)

  • Matthew Saville
    Twitter: matthewsaville

    Laurence, I think your paragraph that "dismisses" branding is actually MISSING one of the biggest aspects of discussion- If you build a brand that ONLY focuses on your PERSONALITY etc, then later on when you're 55, or 65, that personality may no longer be your selling point. Sure, you might still be a nice person, but is a 20 year old bride going to be able to relate to someone more than 2-3 times her age? I dunno, but I'm not gonna just wait and find out. OPPOSITELY, if you build a brand that focuses more on a standard of excellence, customer service, etc. and less about one personality, THEN your business has long-term potential. In 20 years when you're getting out of the loop, or just tired of shooting 14 hour wedding days, then you can bring on new photographers, train them, make them partners in the business, and eventually maybe even SELL the business. What a novel idea! You can't SELL your personality later on down the road, like a stock option. But you CAN sell a studio, you CAN sell a brand, a standard of excellence, a reputation and the business income that goes with it. Just a thought. Obviously these are already gears that are turning in your / our heads... =Matt= (May 01, 2011 | 11:46am)

  • admin

    @Matthew: sure, you can attempt to build a business that is not dependent on you as the photographer. Instead of Sally Smith Photography you can call it Beautiful Photography Studio and hire some other shooters and see if you can sell it down the road. My point about branding is that the logo is not going to build Beautiful Photography Studio any more than it did Sally Smith Photography. Unless you have tens (or even hundreds) of thousands of $$ to spend on advertising, it isn't possible to generate enough impressions for the logo to take on enough recognition to drive business. Beautiful Photography Studio will thrive or not thrive based on the personalities of the people that work their, the images, the customer service, etc. (May 01, 2011 | 12:52pm)

  • Sachin Khona
    Twitter: sachinkhona

    Thank you LK for posting this! (May 01, 2011 | 01:16pm)

  • admin

    @Chris: Sure, putting marketing dollars behind a logo/brand (or whatever you want to call it) makes sense for a multi-billion dollar corporation like Starbucks. But my point isn't to debate words like "brand" or "logo". It's to point out that a huge investment in such areas doesn't make a whole lot of sense and isn't necessary for a wedding/portrait photographer. Quick - tell me what Jerry Ghionis's logo looks like? Joe Buissink's? Bill Sorenson's? I couldn't tell you, and neither could their clients. (May 01, 2011 | 02:52pm)

  • admin

    @Yanko: Sorry, I'm not the guy to ask about stock photography. If you're thinking about micro-stock, however, keep in mind that this is a volume game. The only photographers who make any decent money at it are submitting hundreds of images per month. (May 01, 2011 | 02:59pm)

  • Susan
    Twitter: picturethat

    Very well-written article... I agree that photography isn't as lucrative as it may seem. I'm already to late for the "marry the right spouse " as we are both photographers together, but I do agree, that software upgrades are a waste of time :) (May 01, 2011 | 04:15pm)

  • Kim

    I just wanted to say thanks for this article. It's a nice, frank look at this profession/business and I am very encouraged by it. The trend seems to be get online and find the rock star photographers, mimic, buy what they're selling and you'll be successful. I started seeing through that pretty well right away, so it's nice to see someone like you offering realistic advice and not preying on newbie business owners. And I thank you for your tips, i.e. buying the lesser camera that will do an amazing job, etc. And your work clearly speaks for itself. Thanks. (May 01, 2011 | 09:59pm)

  • Colleen

    Very astute, well written article, about careers in general and photography in particular. Should be required reading for all high school and college classes! (May 02, 2011 | 12:28am)

  • Joel C

    @Jodie: But they got the lens they wanted, and by doing photography! Some people spend their normal wage on the lens they want, the people you're referring to are working extra and getting shit they want..... (May 02, 2011 | 03:17am)

  • Heidi Roberts
    Twitter: ltwphotography

    So often I see a fellow photographer upgrade gear simply because they want to, or spend as much of what they make on business expenses as they can simply so they don't have to pay taxes. But you're right, when I'm wanting to retire or stop shooting, all of that stuff isn't going to help me to pay my bills or take a vacation. So, thank you for this article! It is perfectly written, and confirmed many things my business senses were telling me already, but it helps to hear it from someone else. (May 02, 2011 | 06:21am)

  • sam hurd
    Twitter: iamthesam

    wonderful article. thankfully i have circumvented the dilemma by being one of the few salaried photographers out there working for a company... and shooting weddings along with that (i guess) puts me in the top half of 1%... wow. (May 02, 2011 | 09:28am)

  • Jalon Ekholm

    Thumbs up! I haven't had a chance to read your entire post, but love the thinking behind it and can't wait to read it in full soon! (May 02, 2011 | 10:39am)

  • Gigi

    Here is a simple way to see if you have a business. "If you support your business, it is a hobby! If your business supports you, it is a business." Simple but true. (May 02, 2011 | 11:52am)

  • Monica Emrick

    I am SOOOOO glad I stumbled upon this post! Perfect! Thank you so much for being so straight forward and to the point :) (May 02, 2011 | 01:05pm)

  • Daniel

    Great post Lawrence. As an MBA myself, I've been thinking about this exact topic for years. Do you have any ideas of how to break/change this? Some of the greatest innovators in business have been people who've been able to take broken/unprofitable business models and made them immensely scaleable/leveragable. Is there any way to do it without resorting to selling stuff to other photographers? That'd be an interesting discussion to have. For example I've always wondered about the law firm business model compared with the photography studio with associate photographers model. I don't know much about the law firm business model so perhaps you can help me out. On the surface, the structure of these businesses would seem very similar, but in practice, one works and one does not. Lawyers working for a law firm don't go out and start their own law firms. They typically try to work up to partner or maybe after decades of not making partner, they could consider starting their own law firm. Associate photographers on the other hand constantly start their own photography studios. Is this because the experience that lawyers need in order to be a partner? Do they gain valuable experience during the 20 years that allows them to run their own law firm whereas a photographer knows all there is to know about photography after about 2 years? Or is it more due to reputation? The law firm that has been around for 100 years has a much better reputation than one that's only been around for 5 years, where as no photography studios have much reputation at all. Maybe that will change after 100 years of photography? (May 02, 2011 | 02:27pm)

  • Irene

    I am also an MBA, turned mom, turned small photography business owner. I loved this article. I sometimes tend to option #1 and just want to give up, but luckily I am also one with a husband with a great job and incredible benefits AND the perfect schedule (teacher). So I will keep on going and try not to get down too much. The photography business for many of us (me) has become the one thing we think may finally allow us to live our dream of working for ourselves. When I was in business school, when I was in the workforce, I always had a dream that maybe someday I can own my own business. Problem was, I had NO idea what that business would be. And almost any idea I had required too much investment, too much risk, too much trouble. The photography business has little investment, no risk and you can be established in about 10 minutes after you create your FB page. Easy Peasy! The internet and the explosion of the social network scene has probably the single most influential development for this business - take some pictures, post them online, get lots of accolades, start to think you are something special - rinse, repeat. It doesn't take long before all those accolades make you think you are special enough to finally hang out your sign. I think the photography business is not only INSANELY easy to enter, but it also feeds our dream (ego) to be famous. What other business can you do some "work", edit and upload and get feedback and pats on the back literally minutes later. Photography is a HUGE ego booster. Especially for those who are not committed to continual improvement and refuse to seek out constructive criticism for their work. (May 02, 2011 | 03:41pm)

  • admin

    @Daniel: I don't think the law firm model works for photography. There's no reason for photographers to go through a 10 year apprenticeship under another photographer. I've seen photographers go from getting their first camera to producing 1st rate, high-end work in under 2 years. Quite frankly, it's just not that difficult (thus the low barrier to entry). (May 02, 2011 | 05:07pm)

  • Sam Gibson

    A fascinating, timely and really insightful article. Thanks Laurence. As someone who's relatively new to this being a 'business' it was really useful and quite sobering. In a good way. (May 02, 2011 | 10:59pm)

  • Chris Fawkes
    Twitter: chrisfawkes

    I agree that most of the logos you allude to cannot be remembered, and yes without aiming to be memorable a logo is pretty much a waste. Really just clutter. But it does not have to be. But i don't think a business without one is a brand as such, it's just a business, nothing wrong with that. (May 03, 2011 | 04:39am)

  • Stig
    Twitter: stigalbansson

    Thanks, that was a great read..!! (May 04, 2011 | 03:20am)

  • Mike

    This was a great read. I'm currently struggling with the path from amateur to professional portrait photographer so it's really helpful to hear sobering advice. And I want to give some major props to Neil Van Niekerk who also posted a comment - he's an incredible photographer and produces fantastic educational books. By the way, does anyone else get the feeling that some of those 'rockstar' photographers don't book nearly as many weddings as they'd like us to think? (May 04, 2011 | 04:16pm)

  • american dream follow-up: how much does a lens cost? | Laurence Kim Photographer

    [...] I never anticipated that my post about The Photography Business and the American Dream would be by far my most-read and most commented upon post ever. I guess it struck a chord with the [...] (May 04, 2011 | 07:57pm)

  • Loren Scott

    Excellent article with a lot of good points. The discussion in the comments is also worth the price of admission. :) It is points exactly like the ones you made that sometimes make me want to give up on being a full-timer and just go back to having a day job and become a part-time photographer again. ... NAAAA! I think I'll stick it out a while longer. :) (May 05, 2011 | 04:15pm)

  • David Wittig
    Twitter: davidwittig

    Your article raises some points that photographers would do well to think about. However, before even thinking about those things I think it's vital to spend some time (possible years) considering how one wants to spend their life. I cannot imagine a more impoverished life than your definition of living the "American Dream." I'm an artist, photographer, and small-business owner because I wanted a life that allowed me to prioritize my friends and family above everything else, a job where I would never wake up dreading that day's work, the opportunity to explore this world, the independence to follow my own path, and the ability to leave those around me a little richer than they were. Photography allows me to fulfill those goals even though I may never own the cars, properties, and furniture I admire. It's very possible that I may not have enough money to send children to college, or even for my own retirement. Those things rarely keep me up at night. Principally, because one shouldn't have to retire from a life well lived. The most content people I've ever met are those that were able to continue practicing their craft or trade 10, 20, even 30 years past "retirement age." I realize my ideals and goals are not normative, and others are likely to have vastly different dreams and ideas about what constitutes a life well lived, but I suggest it take into account more than a balance sheet. (May 05, 2011 | 05:08pm)

  • admin

    @David: Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I'm not sure, though, how the primary message of the article (work smart, spend wisely, price correctly so you can maximize earnings) is in any way in conflict with your goals and desires. (May 05, 2011 | 05:55pm)

  • Jaclyn Robinson
    Twitter: RobinsonStudio

    Game Changer. Such a range of emotions this brought out in me. I'm speechless yet I have a million things I want to say. So I'll just leave it at "thank you". I needed that dunk into the ice cold bath. (May 05, 2011 | 10:18pm)

  • David Wittig
    Twitter: davidwittig

    @Lawrence, I don't think they are in conflict at all. I'm only suggesting that some people, may have other compelling reasons to pursue a life in photography regardless of their position in the "wealth-creation food chain" and that those reasons maybe stronger than fear of hunger and homelessness. I think the advice you give in the "primary message" of the article is truly excellent. I was just reacting to the fact that over half your article is spent glamorizing professions with greater earning potential and describing why photographers will never be there. I'm just saying I still wouldn't trade my life for all of Gordon Gecko's money. (May 06, 2011 | 12:17am)

  • KAG

    GREAT article! Well done! (May 06, 2011 | 07:17am)

  • Fred

    Thanks're one of the few bloggers that I always check for updates on a weekly basis. Your communication skills are excellent. (May 06, 2011 | 08:55am)

  • Jason

    Well written article. This should be mandatory reading for anyone coming out of school, much less those who want to become pro photographers. (May 06, 2011 | 09:20am)

  • Shawn Corrow
    Twitter: scorrow

    So glad someone tweeted this today - extremely well-written, thought-provoking and ultimately inspiring. As someone who does this full-time, I cannot overstate how much I agree with your premise, although I doubt I could ever express it so eloquently. Bravo. May I link this to my blog? (May 06, 2011 | 09:56am)

  • Geneve Hoffman
    Twitter: photogeneve

    Interesting article--but, I don't see our profession as being much different from any other satisfying job out there...I think the big huge difference is all the attention paid to the Big Shots in the wedding industry tends to glamorize this profession. It leads folks to believe that you will be rich and famous too. If you think you are going to be famous and wealthy...then yes, you should try another line of work. But like in any profession, if you are talented, have some innate taste/marketing savvy (hard to learn that in school) AND are persistent (very, very persistent) you can make a decent and very rewarding living doing this. You do need to sack cash away feverishly and stop spending on things that don't directly make you money though if you want to retire with anything! That is great advice! But I make a decent salary--enough to pay all my bills and then some, and I enjoy my job immensely. The day I stop enjoying it, is the day I will hang my hat and try something new. (May 06, 2011 | 10:26am)

  • Duana Trotter

    Awesome, informative, well-written post! Thank you for enlightening us! Wow! (May 06, 2011 | 10:46am)

  • Photography business and the American Dream

    [...] business and the American Dream Thought this was an interesting read. As much as I love doing it, I can't imagine doing (wedding) photography full-time. It's just so [...] (May 06, 2011 | 11:32am)

  • Nat Nelson

    "Wow" Great article. This is how we did it.....Started shooting as a hobby, progressed from there to shooting family's, weddings, etc. My wife ( and business partner )and I both had full time jobs and we shot a Lot over the years....we did miss out on some family times but our kids are grown and turned out quite can be done. What it allowed us to do is save/invest over 22% of all or our income over a 25 year time span....We both retired at 50..and only now are we Full time .. shooting about 20 to25 weddings per year and sitting on the patio the rest of the time.. You can't make up for lost family time but we try by spending more time with our grandkids. I know you can make it doing this full time.....but I don't think I would have changed anything. (May 06, 2011 | 12:38pm)

  • A Girl and A Camera Photography

    Great post! So true.....Thanks (May 06, 2011 | 01:47pm)

  • Vitalia
    Twitter: #!/DazaPhotography

    The only difference between me and this blog is that $30,000 was spent towards a 4 year degree in photography and I did have to buy all that software new and the lights and the gear. This was such a great post, its completely changed my perspective and gives me more ammo for realizing the value of what I do dollar wise. (May 06, 2011 | 09:29pm)

  • R.G. Hernandez

    I was already sensing that a photography startup isn't easy especially since I'm dedicated to 2 full-time jobs (day job and mommy), and this article reaffirms I am making a sound decision never to quit my day job ;-) I will continue to shoot for fun and beyond, and if someone wants to hire me, that's cool too -- I'll still offer my for-hire services on some weekends only, I'd love to supplement my income even if just to pay for 1/4 of what I spent on my last lens. I enjoy taking photos for self fulfillment, as I have cornnected to photography on a very personal level and that's enough for me. Photography is as expensive as being in a band (I do both), but I continue to pursue them to spice up my life, and that's pretty much how I am building my American dream: getting holed up in expensive hobbies! (May 06, 2011 | 10:52pm)

  • Debbie Schwab
    Twitter: debdoesfotos

    Straight to the point and to be honest not all that cheerful. Knowledge is power and at least we can't say "we didn't know" what we were getting in to. Thanks for the tips and clarity:) (May 07, 2011 | 07:59am)

  • Rachel

    I don't know if I'm in the minority here, but maybe I am. I always thought I would be a SAHM to my kids, and never "tried" to be a photographer. I started doing free "e-signatures" or "siggies" on Mommy Message boards, and played around with PS, taught myself everything, didn't take any PS classes or even read tutorials...I just spent 2 years playing with it while making these free graphics. I started to apply the same "editing" to my pictures and recorded them making my own actions. During playdates I would take pictures of my kids playing, and friends would ask for copies because the pictures looked so good. Then their friends would ask who their "photographer" was and they would tell them my name, but I wasn't really a photographer. Said friends would contact me just to take some pictures for cash, maybe design birth announcements/invitations (I made those too). So I did. Soon I thought I should just make it official. My dad gave me a loan, I talked to a financial advisor, got a tax ID number and started building a portfolio. For over a year I worked here and there charging hardly anything. Clients typically gave me more than what I was asking for. Over the past three years I have slowly built up my business, having fun and making sure to still be a wife and mother first. Again, I may not be the norm, but I make well over 20k a year. My husband appreciates the burden of being the sole provider, but also loves that even though I'm "working" I love it and can work around the kids' schedules and one of us can always be home for the most part. More than if I had a "real" job. My mother is an artist (oil painting), her mother and grandmother were also artists (painting and sculpting) so maybe that is why this works so well for me. But...I do see so many "photographer" moms who are simply trying to hard to make photography a viable job for them while neglecting their little ones. I guess I just say that, for me, I respectfully disagree. Photography falling into my lap is a blessing and I'm so thankful I didn't read something like this three years ago and get discouraged! (May 07, 2011 | 06:07pm)

  • Trey Hill
    Twitter: squarerootof9

    Hey Laurence, I've stewed on your words all weekend & need to respectfully disagree with a few of your points. First, most photographers aren't entering this business to chase a dream defined by culture, trend or their neighbors. I believe most photographers enter this business because they have something to say. They see the world in a unique way & want to translate that into something that stirs people. Because of this, they don't measure success like an MBA. Sure, you can amass wealth by sitting in some cube farm in a building off a freeway in just about any American city, but is that the single measure of success? I hope not. You are correct to say that leverage is a great way to build wealth - and every photographer, if they are managing their body of work correctly, has an opportunity to build wealth in this way. Thankfully, US Copyright law allows the creator of a photograph to retain ownership of that work for a very long time, which means that a single job can earn returns for a lifetime. There are licensing opportunities, fine art opportunities and print sales. Unlike most other careers, photographers actually create a valuable good that can be reproduced and sold hundreds of times over or lice While there may be zero barrier to entry because DSLRs are affordable & available, there is a massive barrier to entry because so few have the raw talent & ability to make a compelling image and, like any art, craftsmanship is essential. In my opinion, the largest problem with pursuing a photography career is, it's a bit like saying, "I'd like to be a pro athlete." So few are born with that thing necessary to create both stirring work & find an audience over a lifetime and, just like the lawyers or doctors you mentioned, even fewer will ever put in the work necessary to hone their craft over a lifetime. Like I said, a life peddling art may not fit the typical MBA mindset, but I believe you are incorrect in your analysis that photography sits at the bottom of the "wealth-creation food chain." Someone who gets to earn a living - even a meager one - by creating work that stirs people is already far wealthier than someone who simply earns dollars. Add to that the actual ability to leverage that work to move beyond simply stirring people's souls, and I think you'll find photography actually sits atop the list of desirable careers. (May 09, 2011 | 05:50am)

  • admin

    @Trey: I can't disagree with you, because you can define "wealth" any way you'd like. For the purposes of this post, I chose to define wealth in financial terms. YMMV. (May 09, 2011 | 08:58am)

  • 6 links you’ve got to check out! >> Wonderful Wednesdays » Alex Beadon Photography

    [...] The photography business and the American dream. An interesting article on how the photography business is changing, and how it’s becoming a [...] (May 11, 2011 | 09:33am)

  • carol ann dwyer

    B R I L L I A N T ! ! ! The no-BS approach to reality. Thanks sooo much. (May 12, 2011 | 12:00am)

  • Jaco Fourie

    Now you know why I have a day job. This is 100% spot on. (May 12, 2011 | 10:43am)

  • Born » Blog Archive » dream photographers

    [...] the photography business and the american dream | Laurence Kim … Apr 28, 2011 … Yes, you can be a photographer and still live the American Dream. But in order to do that you'll … [...] (May 12, 2011 | 07:27pm)

  • Sasha Gitin
    Twitter: learnmyshot

    Great Article. I have been in freelance photography business for 7 years. And began to come to the same conclusions. Thanks a lot for a great read! (May 13, 2011 | 08:59am)

  • Ashley Pomeroy

    "I could shoot all of my portrait sessions with my $60, 30 year old Olympus OM2n and my clients would be thrilled with the results" - they would be confused by the lack of a screen, though! And having to wait a while to see any results. And the strange whirring noise in between exposures. And the odd way that you had to move backwards and forwards a lot instead of just zooming with the lens. It would unsettle them. Regarding leverage, this post seems to be targeted specifically at wedding photographers, although it's not obvious; I can see e.g. a photographer building a studio that survives after his death, either because it has a unique technical edge or because it is the only one in the area. A used D2X might not fetch much in a few years, but a complex piece of equipment that can photograph clothes in ultraviolet (e.g.) just might. And the problem with the personality-drive school of reputation is that most clients really don't want a personality, they want someone who will do the job quickly and efficiently, in which case you need to be low-key, discrete; the "grey man". Avuncular; pleasant; attractive, but not so much that the husband gets jealous. And of course it helps not to be a short-tempered, creepy sociopath, but I'm assuming that's a given. Going around forums on Model Mayhem and so forth and moaning endlessly about the Facebook photos you mention is a terrible way of spreading yourself about; people *will* google for you, and if the first result is a tirade of hate-filled invective you're not going to be hired. The internet does tend to bring out everybody's inner short-tempered creepy sociopath. "Who are you, Annie Leibovitz?" - I suppose if you *are* Annie Leibovitz you don't need the publicity, although one of the attractions of photography - tied in with the "no qualifications, no experience" element - is the remote chance that the photographer might actually make a name for himself, or herself, thus leapfrogging the whole tedious process of building a reputation. Every so often the newspapers go ga-ga for someone who was spotted on Flickr playing around with iPhone filters, and they are briefly famous; albeit that of course you can't build a business out of random chance. And ultimately there are only a handful of photographers known to the general public; David Bailey and Lord Lichfield and Rankin in the UK, you have yours in the States. It would be awesome if Annie Leibowitz came on here and said "actually, I *am* Annie Leibowitz". Like that bit in Manhattan where Woody Allen produces Marshall McLuhan from behind a signpost. Was it Manhattan? (May 13, 2011 | 10:08am)

  • Marc Matteo
    Twitter: marcanthonyfoto

    Um, I disagree with this article. You can make a great living with photography if you know what the hell you are doing. If you know how and where to market yourself. If you know how to treat your clients with respect. Oh, and if you know how to take a picture. That always helps. I've been in this business for over 15 years. I was establishing my name in the first 5 years and now my reputation is the best in my area. Why? Because my clients come first, I take amazing pictures, and I don't beat people over the head with my price. I shoot an average of 60 weddings a year at an average profit of $3500 each. And that's just weddings. I do dozens of boudoir, maternity, and newborn sessions which profit over $350 a piece. Does it take time? Yes. But in the end I spend more time with my wife and kids doing what I do then some BS 9-5 job. I am proof that you can be successful, make a lot of money, and still have a great family life. If you can't do what I do it only means two things. Your work sucks or your personality does. (May 13, 2011 | 12:22pm)

  • Thao Vu Archey
    Twitter: thaovuphoto

    Thanks for a very straight forward, knowledge filled advice session. I am on the brink of deciding between going full-time or staying part-time. Lots to think about! (May 13, 2011 | 12:41pm)

  • admin

    @Marc: Ummmm, I guess I missed the part where the article said you can't make a good living with photography... (May 13, 2011 | 02:25pm)

  • Benicio Murray – A photographic journey through my lens » Blog Archive » Lauren Cekim – ‘the photography business and the american dream’

    [...] and very well written article by Lauren Cekim on the reality of the photography business; The photography business and the american dream. No blowing smoke, no marketing, just raw truths. You’d better be doing it for the love [...] (May 13, 2011 | 07:47pm)

  • OneLight-Photography

    This is a well-written and informative article. Thanks a lot for sharing! (May 14, 2011 | 06:51am)

  • Thomas

    Laurence, I am really not sure what to say, Thank you is a start, a perfect summary, or should I say, a honest summary of this business of ours. (May 14, 2011 | 07:37am)

  • Joe Pulcinella
    Twitter: joepulcinella

    Best photography business article ever. But as much as they should, I don't believe the average wedding photographer with less than 5 years under his belt will be able to stomach the truth. Personally, I still love hearing them bellow about clients posting their glorified snapshots on Facebook. (May 14, 2011 | 08:47am)

  • Russ

    Bingo. Dead on the money. Great post and great information. Should be required reading before that person buys their entry dSLR and kit lens and goes into the wedding photography business. (May 14, 2011 | 09:32am)

  • Mike T

    Laurence, a great article. My Dad was a photographer and I had a camera in my hands at the age of 2. Although I loved photography and wanted to make a living with it, I knew it was a bit tough (financially) as a career so it never happened. Eventually I did well in my chosen field (which ironically is buying and selling companies), but always I think ... what if I tried.. (May 14, 2011 | 09:58am)

  • Bradley Bravard

    This is slightly off topic, but the comment about public employees making "higher than average wages" is incorrect. Historically, the public employee trade-off has been a LOWER than average salary in exchange for greater job security and better benefits than typically available in the private sector (the benefits often included a pension that allowed retirement earlier than many private sector employees could achieve). Even that is becoming a thing of the past as public sector jobs at the state and local level are reduced and benefits are being trimmed. I worked in the public sector for a time and have relatives who worked in the federal government. (May 14, 2011 | 10:38am)

  • Bob S

    We have a very successful local photographer - think 4 Corvettes and a big boat. He's a great salesman who leverages his skills by hiring other photographers to take the pictures, or videos, or do the DJ'ing, or run the photo booth. He had needed 12 people to cover last week's weddings. He is the exception to the rule, but you've got to pay more attention to the money than the photography. (May 14, 2011 | 02:24pm)

  • Harry, ExposedPlanet
    Twitter: exposedplanet

    Many truths in our article, I think it will be a good wake up call for many. Maybe the second part of the title should be 'American Nightmare' though. Too many people are completely stuck because they are buying and have bought things they do not need with money they do not have. Do you really need 3 bathrooms, a playroom and 4 guestrooms and a car for each family member?. Who is going to pay for all the heating and the fuel once the true costs f oil are charged to consumers? It is much easier not to have bills than having to find a way to pay for them. A simpler lifestyle, without all the clutter and 'stuff' takes away much more stress than a higher income can ever do. Spend more time with your family and yourself and the wonderful planet around you. Travel and share your life through photography, whether it pays the bills or not. (May 14, 2011 | 03:38pm)

  • Reb

    Awesome post. Looking forward to sharing it ... (May 14, 2011 | 06:10pm)

  • Will Photography Make you Wealthy? : PhotoTimes

    [...] 8:05 PM PetaPixel is pointing us at an interesting article by photographer Lawrence Kim called “Photography and the American Dream”, were he takes a look at the economics of being a pro photographer, and sees it as the worst [...] (May 14, 2011 | 07:06pm)

  • Dan

    I disagree with the point about not spending money on a graphic designer. "Your name in any font" is very short sighted. That's like telling someone to pick any camera, they all take photos. (May 14, 2011 | 07:14pm)

  • Bogdan

    Oi ! I knew all this already but seeing it so eloquently put is a bit disheartening... On the flip side getting the instead of domain and studio name might still prove valuable at some point... Nonetheless thanks for putting my upside-down frown down again ! (May 15, 2011 | 12:11am)

  • Adam Maas

    @Bradley Bravard: While that was the historical model, it's not the case anymore and hasn't been since the 1980's. Outside of the major cities Public employees typically have salaries and benefits significantly higher than average, sometimes as much as twice the average for the area (such as in Wisconsin, which has an average wage around 40K and an average Public Employee wage around 80K). The outsourcing of most low-wage public jobs like Garbage Collection has increased this wage gap. (May 15, 2011 | 07:06am)

  • Joe Butts

    Great post, Laurence. It's one that should slap some folks up side their heads. Hope it helps them. It's great to see some of my "old" friends posting here. 8^) Miss you guys. I made my career in photography from '70 to about '05. Still doing some work but rarely. After I entered the digital arena in '96, I began to see what was coming our industry. It was going to be similar to the failure of graphics firms after the advent of desktop publishing. I've managed to retire in a comfy lifestyle as long as I'm careful. I inluded a lot of business info in my seminars over the years. One that you make me think of was Kodak's research on Mom & Pop studios. The original research was done about 1980. Average gross sales of about $80K w/ a 20 to 25% net income. They did this research again near 2000. The sales had increased to about $85K and the net remained the same. Folks, that's only $25K income working full time!!! That's not a pretty picture for any entrepreneur. You're right Laurance, NO LEVERAGE. BTW, that RE deal at the beginning only reaped a gain of $500K. They still had to pay back the 400K loan. Take another 10% off for agent's fees and costs of closing. But, still a great gain. Hmmm, sounds familiar. I did something similar with my studio building but not to those large numbers. But, when it came time to try to sell my business -- 0. Nobody wanted it. It was my name not a generic studio name. Think about that one as you set up your businesses. Best Wishes to all of you. It's a tough business but rewarding to know that you can create memories for people that they will cherish the rest of their lives. A life with purpose is worth living. (May 15, 2011 | 07:54am)

  • Mark S

    Excellent article. I've sad come to some of the same conclusions about the difficulties (and maybe impossibility) of photography as a full-time business. I studied photography as a career right before all the rules to the game changed. The "maximize revenue" part really hit me since most of us do seem to be "nickel and dimed" by our clients. But how does one prevent this when so many people are focused on price, even when you have a style he client likes? What is it about our packages, as you say, that is causing this and what should be change? (May 15, 2011 | 08:19am)

  • bizior photography
    Twitter: bizior

    wow, Laurence, what a great post. Found it on one of my fellow photogs fb wall, and it made great Sunday coffee read :) And great info in the comments. Thanks for sharing everyone... (May 15, 2011 | 08:47am)

  • Mo Govindji
    Twitter: mangostudios

    I'd have to disagree with a few points in this article. 1. Strong brand identity has directly played a major role in the success of our business. Sure the work speaks for it self, but website / branding / and a simple to remember word when it comes to effective word of mouth advertising goes a LONG way. Everyone in our market knows of MANGO as a high quality Photography studio. 2. We have built a business with a family of photographers. I like to refer to this as our creative capital. We formed the business 8 years ago and saw the road ahead and clearly realized that future growth would rely on a team , or else the business was simply not scalable. Magazine advertising has been highly successful also, since we've created great relationships with the editors to ensure that our work is published in the editorials sections also. I agree if your a mediocre photographer this may not work. 3. Building equity from both investments and our very own studio. We purchased a commercial property 3 years ago in a developing part of the downtown Toronto core. The gallery space itself is stunning with great street exposure and acts as FREE marketing to passers by, not to mention an impressive space when clients come in. The property has increased in value and rather then paying rent we're building equity over the years. We've added additional services like commercial photography, custom framing, education, and working on other projects. So we're constantly coming up with new growth strategies. All this is possible because of the willingness to take risks in an admittedly saturated market with low barriers to entry. I think it's a game of survival of the the fittest, you have be a darn good Photographer and success without creativity in this business is simply not possible. I've grown up in the Photography business and seen the hardships, successes and failures first hand. I chose to go to business school then pursued my career in Photography. My partner (fiance) Nancy and I started the business together and we wouldn't have built a strong company without each other and our great team. My 2 cents. Mo - (May 15, 2011 | 09:09am)

  • admin

    @Mo: great work! We have in fact no disagreement. You are running your business smartly and you've invested successfully in commercial real estate. In fact, the point of this article is that more photographers should think like you. (May 15, 2011 | 10:37am)

  • Stephanie Kennedy

    Fantastic article! =) The only thing I might say is that you can use photography, via microstock, to build passive income. I wouldn't touch portraits with a ten foot pole: women are a nightmare to try and please. I know, I am one of them! But Stock photography is all a numbers game. The more you upload the more you sell the more you make. And it's money you make over and over again on the same image. From a technical standpoint, you'd actually be surprised at how hard it is to get accepted at the dreaded iStockPhoto. It didn't used to be so, but I've sold there for almost six years now I think? And it's significantly harder to get acceptance now than it used to be, which raises the quality of everyone's work. You won't get rich selling stock (well, some do...I won't trot out Lisa Gagne's name like everyone does. Oh wait...) but it's also nothing to sneeze at. Just another option for Momtographers who are interested in making money. :) (May 15, 2011 | 11:27am)

  • kimberley french

    well said. (May 15, 2011 | 12:06pm)

  • El negocio de la fotografía y el sueño americano | Fotó

    [...] Originalmente en inglés por Laurence Kim [...] (May 15, 2011 | 01:54pm)

  • Sarah

    Info... (May 15, 2011 | 04:54pm)

  • Ivan Lee (melbourne photographer)
    Twitter: naviivan

    Thanks for this awesome post. I posted this on my Facebook and twitter profile and got a lot of responses from it. I think we (photographers) know it's hard to make a good living from what we do- I'll be marrying a Doctor...... (May 15, 2011 | 06:24pm)

  • Ghetu Daniel

    great post, i started doing similar business a couple of years ago and it's miles better. good luck! (May 15, 2011 | 11:34pm)

  • Bill Raab
    Twitter: billraab

    Great post, thank you for sharing. It is tough, maybe extremely tough, to make a living in this business. But I can hardly imagine something as rewarding as the smiles our images put on people's faces... and the memories we leave them with. (May 16, 2011 | 04:45am)

  • Leica M9-P, Even Smaller Cameras and the Photography Business and the American Dream | DailyCameraRumors

    [...] that post is a follow-up on his controversial The Photography Business and the American Dream. Read that one too. Why, as a photographer, he asks, aren’t you amazed that your phone [...] (May 16, 2011 | 06:42am)

  • Stephanie Strader

    Irene & Rachel - thank you so much for chiming in as other mom's doing this to help support their families. Yes, I do spend many hours editing, shooting, etc. However, this allows me to chip in on a few bills around here AND schedule around my kids. Yes there are times when they are home that I am not, but daddy is home too. It allows me to schedule around ball games and soccer practice. I wouldn't be able to do that with another job (or do it as easily.) I only shoot on location so my children's lives aren't completely being disrupted by a constant flow of people showing up for a session. Your posts made me feel better. I read another post above yours that razzed on us for not spending every waking moment with our children. Yes, I love my children and would do anything for them including this. This is for them. This is what helps pay for the 'extras' and the fun stuff we get to do and a few bills. My kids know that aside from weddings - I am off doing a shoot for a few hours and then I'm back home. I usually edit while they are at school and if I edit in the evening I put a TV and a loveseat in my office to allow them to hang with me, do homework, read their books, watch a movie, etc. while I'm working. So, please, don't degrade those who have chosen to work AND raise a family at the same time. It's not always about being selfish and 'scratching the artistic itch'. (May 17, 2011 | 06:55am)

  • William

    Outstanding. Now, dissolve or reinvent? (May 17, 2011 | 07:05am)

  • Carolina Wahnish Rivera
    Twitter: cwrphoto

    wow! just amazing, what a slap in the face!... both depressing and sobering at the same time... makes you really think about your future and how to make it work!... one of the best business articles out there that speaks the truth about photography as a career... wish there was more written in this "matter of fact", "straight to the truth" sort of style addressing the hobby photographers (or momtogs) that think they're pros and charge close to nothing just to get their expenses taken care of... i have been reading some of the comments/arguments of others, and this makes for a great conversation! thanks so much for sharing, can't wait to read more of your articles! (May 17, 2011 | 08:42am)

  • Jack Jentzen

    Mr Kim, that was brilliantly written. Coming from many years in real estate as an agent, I hear exactly where you're coming from in every way. Still, I love photography. I'll happily die with a camera in my hand, even though I know the business itself builds no equity. One of the things I love, almost as much as creating the photos themselves, is being able to control every aspect of my business. In selling real estate, so many things were out of my control. With this last collapse of the real estate market, it put me and millions of other agents right out of business. Not that there wasn't money to be made. I just figured why should I do all that work for $3 per hour when I can do something far more fun! (May 17, 2011 | 10:55am)

  • Danielle Anderson

    Hey, I read plenty of blogs on a daily schedule and many blogs lack substance although, I merely desired to make a quick remark to say GREAT website! I'm going to be checking in on a regular basis now. Maintain the good work! :-) (May 17, 2011 | 12:48pm)

  • Brian Tremblay
    Twitter: tremblayphoto

    Thank you for this. Just as I was thinking about picking up a Nikon 80-200 f2.8 lens. I have no idea why. I still use a D200 and D300 and have no intention of upgrading. For that matter I still use CS2. I have never seen the need for all the "bells and whistles" of all the other versions. Thank you again. You saved me a lot of money. (May 17, 2011 | 09:02pm)

  • Amanda Padgham

    Wow, such a great article. Thanks so much for sharing! (May 18, 2011 | 03:22am)

  • Julie Watts

    I've been in business 10 years, full-time for the past 3. I have come to realize unless I do the work to improve my sales and marketing skills, I will never be a financial success story; I will always be "Julie, that amazing photographer with a great personality." I KNEW photographers I admired for their financial success, all had products. So last fall I did it; I pursued that idea I'd had for years and have built an apparel company that makes custom-fit pants for women wedding photographers. I finally feel like I am creating a business that will have equity, and I'm thrilled to be providing a product that will save other photographers from inconvenience and embarassment (when you bend over in regular low right dress slacks!) (May 18, 2011 | 10:49am)

  • Why You Should Not Become a Photographer | Travel Photography and Stock Images by Manchester Photographer Darby Sawchuk -

    [...] Kim has written a detailed article on why photography isn’t the best choice for those hoping to pursue the American dream. He and his MBA make some good points, but fortunately, he doesn’t stop at doom-and-gloom [...] (May 18, 2011 | 02:12pm)

  • Thomas Davis

    Great Pohotog article. (May 18, 2011 | 04:08pm)

  • The Airstream Chronicles Continued › Surviving this market…..

    [...] a friend of mine sent along an article that was a worthwhile read.  “The Photography business and the American Dream.”  Before you read on today in my post, go read this sobering post by Laurence Kim.  If [...] (May 18, 2011 | 08:03pm)

  • Derek P.

    I had never thought of the photography business as a low risk business with no equity until now. I grew up with parents that were self employed in sales, so I understand how difficult it is be in a business that has low equity. Your personality is what you are selling, not your product or ideas. This makes me want to enter the photography industry even more, as a challenge to myself to see what I'm made of. (May 22, 2011 | 03:35am)

  • mjkjr
    Twitter: mjkjr77

    Great article. Lots of good info that I never put together. Thanks. -mjkjr (May 22, 2011 | 07:48am)

  • AhmetZe
    Twitter: Ahmetze

    this was awesome, opened up my eyes. It's a must have article that every photographer should read. (May 25, 2011 | 06:44am)

  • A Photo Editor - Sobering Truths About Making A Career Out Of Photography

    [...] different, I’m going to become the next Dan Winters. Sober up for a second and read his post (here). The key here is not just making a living at photography, but a career: enjoy life, raise kids, [...] (May 26, 2011 | 08:45am)

  • Erik Voake

    I personally feel there is no better time to be in the photography profession than right now. First off, and most importantly, consumption of images is at an all time high. Of course there are a ton of people buying cameras, getting template websites, making business cards, getting some shoots and calling themselves a professional photographer, but that does not mean they are really photographers at all. Understanding branding, marketing and promotion, along with being knowledgable in all the tools that are available to a photographer makes you a professional. Obviously the quality of your images does not make or break you as a photographer, most of the really high paid photographers arent that good they just found a niche and more often than not had someone in their corner screaming to a ton of people that that person was amazing so then people started drinking their kool aid. I checked out a bunch of websites that belonged to people who responded to this blog and unfortunately I have to say everyones work seemed pretty much the same and even worse so did everyones websites! Where is the uniqueness anymore? Ive been in the business two years and I make 100 percent of my living taking photos and shooting videos. I dont even know if my work is good but one thing is I treat everyone like family. I work hard to gain unique access to things. I try anything to be different, I dont look at what other people are doing and every morning I wake up and just charge forward. I also happen to live in one of the worlds most photographer saturated cities but I never ever let that get to me. I also take advantage of a number of services that werent there a couple years ago, deviant art, emphais, kickstarter and more! There are more people calling themselves photographers everyday but there are more outlets, more services, more consumption, heck theres even more population which means more weddings, newborns, bar/bat mitzvahs, you name it. So that being said good luck to us all and be thankful we are photographers. (May 26, 2011 | 12:52pm)

  • Dave Pullen

    Great Article! Definitely a wake up call for someone just starting out in the business. (May 26, 2011 | 04:05pm)

  • Patrick Lane
    Twitter: plphoto

    This is a great entry. I am a photographer and have been so since I was a child. Truth be told, that is how easy it is to be a photographer, even kids can do it. I am often amazed by what my son can create with our little G10. I am blessed that I have been able to be as profitable as a photographer as I have been. I've been successful but let me say, it is a constant struggle and uphill battle to continue to achieve the same success as the year before. While the digital camera has changed the face of photography and essentially erased the barrier to entry, it doesn't change the fact that some people are just better at it than other. I guess it is like cooking, most every one can make a grill cheese but not everyone can make the bread, butter and cheese to make it gourmet meal. I do sometimes wish I was just an great amateur and didn't have to worry about the profe$$ional aspect of it all but that is the driving force behind what pros do, $$$. Getting paid to do what you love is the highest honor in the world. I've met horrible photographers that make great money and vice-versa. The truth is being a professional is much more than just the equipment you own, it is about connections you make and having confidence in yourself as the product. Ultimately you are selling yourself not a camera. (May 26, 2011 | 09:51pm)

  • Tibor Radvanyi

    Laurence, It was sobering and extremely pragmatic and realistic. I would be happy to share your thoughts with my readers in Hungarian. (May 27, 2011 | 02:37am)

  • Dean Oros
    Twitter: deanorosphoto

    Well written article. If you can't imagine living without being a photographer, then you MIGHT want to keep pursuing as a profession. (May 27, 2011 | 05:25am)

  • Tanya Malott
    Twitter: tanyamalott

    I have been a high end wedding and portrait photographer for 20 years and I could have written this article myself! It is 100% right on target and I thank you Lawrence for sharing it. I have been living with this knowledge for at least a decade, and seen the writing on the wall for longer than that. Even at $20,000 for a wedding, I know there is no future in what I do. The number of weddings in America stays about the same from year to fact, the number of couples choosing NOT to marry is increasing (according to CNN). ANd the number of photographers entering the business is increasing! (How to make money now? Hint: sell to Lawrence here..) Years ago, Gary Fong gave a lecture where he said the key to making money in photography is "real estate, real estate, real estate". Guess what Gary has? Real Estate! Plus several other businesses: a little gizmo that so many of us use on our flashes (I saw photographers in CUBA with Gary Fong lightdomes on their cameras!), plus his creation of album designing software, and his partnership in Pictage. At the time, I owned two homes and I knew that he was right. I made more money in 3 years owning one of those homes than I had made in a decade as a photographer. I am almost done trading my hours for $$ as a photographer, but I am grateful that photography has given me the time to think of other great ideas, to make deeply meaningful contributions to the lives of my clients, and to make connections to people I might not know if I worked in some other field. My clients are amazing people. They are part of the key to my future. When young people come to me and say they want to be photographers, I tell them it is a hard way to make a living. I shoot portraits for $2000, and I still say that. The smartest people in the business have multiple income you, Lawrence! David Jay created Showit. Denis Reggie has multiple other businesses. The guys you think are at the top are not there because of photography alone....they teach workshops, get sponsors, invest in other businesses (and real estate), have blogs where people pay to advertise. In any business where you trade hours for $$, you will run out of hours at some point. Keep it coming Lawrence! (May 27, 2011 | 06:34am)

  • MarkKostel
    Twitter: Markkostel

    Valuable read. I must say it definitively validated many points and decisions we have done in our business to date. Four years into full time Wedding photography as husband and wife, we were able to take our home based studio to a commercial space (renting thus far) kudos to Mo+Nancy from Mango for investing in real-estate. Shooting more than just weddings as your skills are transferable don't say no to viable work. Realizing the current scalability and lack of leverage in photography we have purchased a rental property, offer workshops and consulting and in near future will be attaching a tangible product, watch out fongdong ;) I think it is todays decisions and goals that make for bright and fiscally prosperous future. Thanks Laurence for putting things in perspective, but with hard work and persistence it's worth to chase your dream, freedom and family time. (May 27, 2011 | 07:59am)

  • Robert George

    Its time photographers, all of us, got REAL. Laurence’s post makes real sense because he understands business. When was the last time you heard a photographer refer to “barriers to entry”? Nicely done. Sadly, photography is no longer a profession. Still a great art form with ever improving tools, but less of a serious career. The comparison to fishing fits: many hobbyists but few who find serious income. Maybe music is the better analogy with so many aspiring musicians and an uncertain career path. You record in your garage. You market via the internet. You play in a band on Saturday night. You teach a few students and hold down a day job. Sadly, it is not in the interests of our industry leaders and inspirers to announce this truth and dialogue it publically. But hey, what’s wrong with selling the sizzle of rods and reels? Photography will continue to be one of the great endeavors. (May 27, 2011 | 08:32am)

  • admin

    Thanks everyone who read and commented on this article. I think probably 9 out of 10 of you "get it". The 10% who didn't get it seem to think my advice is to give up or that it is impossible to make a decent living with photography. Nothing could be further from the truth. I wish people would read more carefully. Anyway, it's almost getting to be a part-time job just monitoring the comments on this single post! Accordingly, I'm disabling further comments here. Pretty much everything that needs to be said has been said. Thanks! (May 27, 2011 | 08:49am)

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    [...] The reason for this post has to do with a conversation I had with another photographer here in town last week.  He was complaining about all the Digital Model folks out there and their impact on his long standing business.  He’s recently re-adjusted sitting fees and package fees to deal with the digital competition.  His solution?  A low sitting fee to get folks in, and higher print package fees on the backside.  Additionally, if folks want digital copies on disk it’s a pricey proposition.  That’s an approach I’ve seen in a great number of larger studios and it seems to work.  The whole conversation with him reminded me of Laurence Kim’s article on the realities of the ... [...] (June 28, 2011 | 10:02am)

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