Every so often, someone writes in and asks “can you make money with street photography?”
The answer is yes.
But I’ll warn you: if you want to get into street photography to make money, just stop now.
Street photography is very challenging and very time consuming, so if you’re gonna do it, you have to love it.
There are many faster and more effective ways to make money in photography.
How to Make Money in Street Photography
There are plenty of street photographers out there making money selling prints, publishing books, and holding workshops.
I’m not one of them.
I sell the occasional print, and I’ve done a few private photography lessons, but most of the money I’ve made from street photography has been what I call “indirect money.”
How Street Photography Got Me Portrait Photography Jobs
In late 2010, I started doing freelance portrait photography.
This was small-time stuff.
I was making $100 here, $200 there shooting actors, bands, rappers, and whoever else would give me money.
I tried not to take any jobs for under $100, but if you had a pulse and a $20 bill, I’d show up with my Canon Rebel and 50mm f/1.8 lens, ready to rock.
I photographed people for online dating profiles, did engagement shoots, and I even took photos of an accident victim for a personal injury lawsuit (another story for another day).
But it all got started with street photography.
You have to understand this: starting out as a portrait photographer is challenging because no one wants to hire a portrait photographer with no portraits in their portfolio.
So at first, I showed my street photography.
And that got me off the ground.
I was able to use street photography to demonstrate that I could work a camera and had some visual sense.
My street photography got me doing test shoots with models and actors that needed photos. These were people that didn’t even have real head shots, so we were on the same level experience-wise.
And the photos from those test shoots helped me land work from paying clients.
Plus, when I would get booked on portrait jobs, people would sometimes tell me “I love your street photography.”
So even though I was pursuing portrait work, my street photography was an integral part of my marketing.
Personal Work to Commercial Work
Because people like to see interesting photography, regardless of whether it was shot for clients.
So it’s very common for photographers to use personal work to obtain commercial work.
I’ve done that on a tiny scale with my street photography.
But it works in “serious” professional photography too.
One of my favorite portrait photographers is Kareem Black, who used a personal series to land advertising jobs:
When I’m out and about, I find myself in weird situations. I started taking pictures of these situations, running around and catching moments. It’s not so much about lights and composition, it’s more about feeling and energy.
My previous agent was scared of it because they thought that a lot of it was unprofessional. My current agency is a lot more forward-looking and realized that this is where the industry was going. They said we should probably do something with this body of work. I thought they were crazy. Why would people want to see pictures of a lot of good looking people having a good time in groups? It turns out people like that.
So I started to make a body of work, and I called it Feels Good Let’s Go. Lights can be blown out or imperfect, compositions don’t have to be perfect. Expressions don’t have to be perfect, and people’s heads can be cut off. I think that as long as the story is clear for the viewer, then that’s sort of mitigates the aesthetic perfection.
A lot of what I get hired for now is in the vein of Feel Good Let’s Go. With that said, I was just in LA shooting the cover of Cosmo, and it was me with a bunch of lights. The photos turned out really beautiful. I think it’s important to be able to do both. I enjoy both.
Joey L. is another successful photographer who’s landed major commercial jobs from the strength of his personal work.
There’s no reason street photography can’t be used as personal work to get commercial work.
And it’s something I’m increasingly interested in doing.
Is That Selling Out?
I don’t think so.
When I shoot for myself, I shoot for my soul.
And I plan on doing that until the day I die.
That’s pure art.
But photography isn’t always purely about art.
It’s also a craft with commercial value and there is nothing wrong with getting paid for it.
And that shouldn’t change how or what you shoot for yourself.