The Follow-Through: Answering the Rest of the Majoring in Photography Questions!

Remember a few weeks back when we did a bit of research on Photography as a degree?  Turns out that if you want to be a photographer, it’s best to take a non-fully paid undergraduate degree route.

That doesn’t mean that some very good questions weren’t raised – so here we are with a bit of a follow-up.  A brief note: these statistics aren’t directly comparable; the last piece was just March 2012 data, while this data is everything IPUMS-CPS gave me from 2010-2012.  That disclaimer in mind, let’s dive in.

The Full-Time Photographer

In the United States, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (commonly known as ‘Obamacare’) changed the definition of full-time work to 30 hours a week.  One minor point that came up was the idea that many Photographers, although listing their first profession as ‘Photographer’, work part time.  With that in mind, I ran the numbers for Photographers who worked 30 or more hours.  Here are the decile incomes (again, just like last time, I have added together any reported salary and business income, to take into account self-employment):

Full Time Photographer, 2010-2012, Deciles of IncomeSo, the median income of a full time photographer over that time span (in the United States, of course)?  $41,000.  Certainly a living, perhaps not on either of the coasts (or the Great Lakes).  $95,000 and up puts you in the top ten percent of photographers.  (For the record, $150,000 puts you in the top 5% and $280,000 puts you in the top 1%).

Hopefully that clarifies things a bit.

Under Thirty Photographers

This category deserves a special mention mainly because, well, I was quite interested.  It’s well targeted to the majority of Personal Finance blog readers – under thirty years old, trying to get rid of some debt.  This topic, if you recall, came up because we were discussing getting an undergrad education in Photography… with all the loans and work that goes into that.  When I screened the 2012 data by age, however, the data set was way too small to get meaningful results.

Armed with the 2010-2012 data set, I set out again to figure out what an under-thirty Photographer can expect to make.  Without further ado…

Under Thirty Photographer salary by decile.So, the median income for an under-thirty Photographer?  $16,000.

Following Through on the Follow-Through

Of the two new statistics, the under-thirty stats should be the most sobering.  I want you to remember some numbers from the first piece – the median cost of room, board, and tuition for a 4-year private not-for-profit school in 2010-2011 was $38,129.  The average student who graduates with college debt (2/3 of all students that year) averaged $26,600 in loans.

Again, these articles aren’t meant to turn anyone off a Photography career.  On the contrary, the issue is with going into massive amounts of debt in order to fund a degree which won’t be that lucrative.

Yes, the numbers get better with experience and full time hours.  But 80% of under-thirty year olds who list ‘Photographer’ as their main profession make less than $40,000 a year.  Let that sink in for a second.


  • Miriam King, Steven Ruggles, J. Trent Alexander, Sarah Flood, Katie Genadek, Matthew B. Schroeder, Brandon Trampe, and Rebecca Vick. Integrated Public Use Microdata Series, Current Population Survey: Version 3.0. [Machine-readable database]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2010-2012.

And Then?

There you have it, all the new data that probably should have gone with the old data.  Never let it be said DQYDJ doesn’t follow up when there are questions – and feel free to ask if something isn’t clear.

We may not always be right, but we certainly are well-researched!


  1. AvgJoeMoney says

    Those are some ugly numbers. This definitely doesn’t mean that someone shouldn’t become a photographer but clearly outlines the economic struggles you’ll face if you decide to head that route full time.

    • says

      Yep – I’m not saying put down the camera for a desk job. I am saying that perhaps you should pick the camera up while already working a desk job, and not cutting the cord until you know it’ll work.

  2. Andy Hough says

    If you’re going to get a photography degree it looks like you need to either get the degree free or not be dependent on the degree for income.

  3. freeby50 says

    How many people are there in each group? I think it would be useful to see the number of people making the higher wages and working full time and the number of people by age. For example are there a larger number of young people mostly working for lower wages? Are the people working full time hours a minority or the norm?

    • says

      It’s impossible to figure out the exact number of people each data point represents – each person is assigned a number of weights, meant to make it nigh-impossible for you to individually identify a single person who took the CPS survey. That said, there are like 350 or so DPs for > 30 hours, and 230 or so DPs for under 30 years old. So, yes, I can say that young people are “bringing down the average” a bit, but I’m not slaughtering the pool of DPs as I was with just the 2012 data (haha – we’re talking like 10 DPs for under 30 YO).

      • freeby50 says

        You’re talking about survey data points? I’m actually wondering how many photographers are there total in the population, not the survey sample.

  4. Jacob @ iHeartBudgets says

    How about take some pictures and watch online Photoshop tutorials. Then do some friend’s weddings for free, build a portfolio, start a website for $100 and BOOM! Achievement Unlocked: Career in photography without debt :)

    • says

      I have spent many hours watching those silly transformation videos on Youtube. Well done, unknown digital artist, you’ve created a monster.

  5. krantcents says

    Photography is very much an art! I think you can learn to be better, but you need certain skills or talent to be really good at it. Does it take specialized training or college? Maybe, but probably not. Practice and talent trumps all the training.

    • says

      And will learning with 30 of your peers in a classroom give you the leg up you need to be in the 5% of Photographers? Tough to answer, but I’ll go with: not for most of the 30 peers.

  6. The College Investor says

    Thanks for highlighting this reminder that you shouldn’t take out student loans to get an art degree!