Terra Galleria Photography

From Amateur to Full-time Photographer

I noted in the previous post of this series that prior to 2001, I had no needs nor plans to make money from photographs. Ten years later, I am making a living, sustaining myself and my family off my art.

As hinted to in that previous post, the “family” part has some significance. It isn’t that difficult for a young (or not so young) unattached photographer to live a nomadic life tailored to his art. My situation is different: I have two young children, aged respectively seven and five-and-half, and a dementia-stricken mother. My wife hasn’t worked professionally since her last pregnancy.

To digress a bit for my readers which are not from the US, I’ll provide some context. Home prices vary dramatically across the US. Homes in San Jose (which has the largest per capita income of all large US cities) cost between three and four times the national average of $170,000. Moreover, all neighborhoods are not equal. The quality of the public schools depends directly on the quality of the neighborhood, which translates directly to higher home prices, easily twice the city average. There is no national health insurance in the US. Instead, for most it is provided by their company as part of the benefits package. Because of their size, companies can negotiate advantageous terms with health insurers, which are for profit enterprises. As an independent worker, you have to purchase your own health insurance without the benefit of those advantageous terms – assuming someone will insure you (nobody would for my mother). Why is health insurance such a big deal you ask ? A routine consultation with a specialist is easily several hundred dollars. A routine stay at the hospital is easily ten thousand dollars per night.

According to 2010 US government statistics, the median annual salary for a photographer is $29,000. A salary of $63,000 would place you in the top 10% earners. Yet such a figure would barely pay for my mortgage, property tax, and family health insurance. My relatives from Vietnam always wonder why I left my comfortable office to wander around in often harsh weather, lugging tons of equipment. You begin to see why a ranking of 200 jobs from best to worst puts “Photographer” at #144, below “Janitor” #141 and “Waiter/Waitress” #139. “Photojournalist” is #185, but I am wondering what the rank of a “Nature and Travel Photographer” would be, since this is the area where there is the most oversupply of imagery, the production of which requires expensive and time consuming travel. Although in my opinion the ranking is deeply flawed, it accurately reflects the fact that photography is a tough business, possibly one of the very worse, characterized by a combination of no barriers to entry, no leverage/scalability, and no equity-building. The second point means that you are simply trading your time for revenue, which may explain why the most successful nature photographers are childless.

Another successful photographer originally from France (Alain Briot) points out that when he made the decision to switch to a career in photography, he had nothing to lose as he was a overworked, underpaid and broke graduate student. Every person’s situation is different. After a decade and half at it, I was internationally well-regarded in my field of research, artificial vision, having, amongst other things, introduced the Fundamental matrix in my PhD thesis, and then co-authored an influential book with my former advisor, Oliver Faugeras, a member of the French Academy of Sciences. It could appear borderline insane to give up such a well-compensated position at SRI, working on interesting, cutting-edge problems, with talented colleagues, locally and abroad, in a supportive and flexible environment.

Besides wanting to try something new, which would touch more people, one of the factors that nudged me was the thought that my most creative days in science were behind me, whereas I saw more creative potential in photography, to which I wanted to give more commitment. You only live once, and to try and to fail is better than living with the regret of not having tried. So, faced with such a prospect, where to provide adequately for my family I had to quickly rise to the top segment of the hard and competitive profession (in terms of income), how did I cope with my responsibilities ? I chose a transition plan to full-time photography which had actually no risk whatsoever.

Whereas in the past I had used my income from the research job to finance my photography – which make it possible to create a body of work free of commercial pressures – I began to account for it like a business. The beneficial part of that included substantial tax write-offs in the first two years, as I transferred existing assets to the business. My projections showed that the third year would be profitable, which would satisfy the IRS hobby-loss rule of thumb that you have to show a net profit in at least 3 out of 5 years for your business not to be considered a hobby (and your deductions invalidated). I started officially the business in 2001.

I began to progressively increase the time I’d spend to develop my photography business, reducing my work hours proportionally to the progress of that business. I first took leave without pay, then officially changed my work status to part-time, with the limitation that I needed to put 50% of the time to keep benefits. My approach was to operate at a constant income level – which actually requires an increase in income, once benefits are factored in: if during a given year I’d make with photography the equivalent of, let say, a month of work, then the next year I’d work one month less. Within five years, my income from photography had exceeded my (hypothetical) full-time income in research. I stayed at SRI one more year, to make sure it wasn’t a fluke. At that point, I didn’t have enough time to work even 50% at SRI, take care of the photography business, and take care of my family, so it was actually with a sense of relief that I resigned from SRI and became a full-time photographer.

Photography has become such a difficult business that I recommend such a path to anybody whose work is flexible enough. I was certainly fortunate that this was possible for me. In fact it was one of the reason I stayed in academia. In hindsight, I must say that this prudent approach probably limited what I was able to achieve, for in the recent years, the photography business has become considerably more difficult. If I had jumped in 100% ten years ago, I would have been able to take advantage of a window of opportunity which has since then disappeared. I could have also used a couple of years on the road before our children were born. However, this is merely hindsight. I wouldn’t have been able to predict that my novel approach to the photography business ( I will elaborate in future posts) would work that well, like I was unable to predict that a start-up company whose name is now synonymous with internet search would do so well. When they approached me in the early 2000s, I turned down their interview offer, as I was already too focused on a future in photography. Maybe I have not arrived to a better place, but so far the journey has been interesting…

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8 Comments

  1. HI Tuan: THANKS so much for your perspectives and experience. Your background and career is fascinating and successful.

    I find it amusing that we outdoor photographers volunteer for and relish working hours and conditions that others consider “harsh” :) Your leaving the comfort and security of a warm office and reliable income for your art requires NO justification in my book. If you haven’t seen this video (‘Ball of Light’), you really should: http://vimeo.com/21338911

  2. Pele Leung says:

    Love both stories from QT and Denis. Please keep them coming. Cheers Pele Leung.

  3. P. Chong says:

    great insights and very good read. Thanks Tuan.

    (interestingly, I am sure you’ve been told, but Tuan in the Malay language means Lord or Master…)

  4. Richard Wong says:

    Thanks for continuing your story, QT. There are a lot of practical insights here that I think many photographers can relate to in that your family life and professional life is like most of us (plus the PhD credentials), and not a celebrity who is on the road 300 days a year like an Art Wolfe.

  5. Frank Field says:

    QT — First, congratulations on success you have achieved, springing from the courageous decision ten years ago to follow your dream. Thank you for publishing your experience. Looking forward to the next chapter in your story. Best regards, Frank

  6. Eugene Cheng says:

    Your insight into your professional and personal life leaves many of us, including myself, in awe. Thanks!

  7. Steven Scott says:

    Xin chao,
    Blog của bạn rất thú vị. Hình ảnh của bạn đẹp và cảm hứng.

  8. nate parker says:

    I have gotten a bagfull of great tips out this mornings reading here starting with your SEO tips- I’ve found this series of articles to be deeply compelling! Can’t believe you turned down a Google interview! Awesome!

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