The Average Salary of Starting Photographers

Photographers earn different levels of pay depending on the industry sector they work in.
Photographers earn different levels of pay depending on the industry sector they work in. (Image: Jupiterimages/ Images)

Professional photographers capture images on film so individuals and companies can reproduce the images in various media. Starting photographers generally don't make more than $30,000 annually. However, they have a great degree of artistic license, and their initial work can lead to an excellent portfolio that later can be used to command a higher salary or fee.

Salary Variances

The College Crunch website says the annual yearly salary for an entry-level photographer is $29,567 based on 2008 information. Another source, A Digital Dreamer, shows a very similar salary, $29,440. According to this website, photographers in the lowest 10th percentile of earners make $16,920 annually. This is not far from the 2009 figure for the 10th percentile provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, $17,120. The website shows a higher figure for those in the 10th percentile, $33,911. Based on these figures, starting salaries probably are somewhere between $16,000 and $34,000.

Industry Sectors

Photographers may work in many different industry sectors. For example, they can work as wildlife photographers, fashion photographers, portrait photographers or even forensic photographers. This has some impact on what a photographer makes when starting out.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the top-paying sectors for photographers as of 2009. Entry-level photographers may have better luck in these sectors, as they generally pay above the national average. Nonscheduled air transportation pays $51,110 a year, followed closely by cable and other subscription programming employers, at $51,560. Printing and related support activities employers pay $51,790. Photographers involved in aerospace product and parts manufacturing make $66,150. The best odds are in the motion picture and video industry, where pay is $72,370 a year.

Compensation by State

Next to a photographer's choice of industry sector, geographical location is perhaps the largest determinant of what a starting photographer's salary will be. The five lowest-paying territories and states for the industry as of 2009 are Kansas, Guam, Idaho, Alabama and Texas, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Pay in these regions for the lowest 10th percentile of earners is between $14,910 and $15,730. The best regions for those in the lowest 10th percentile are Illinois, Rhode Island, Arizona, Alaska and the District of Columbia. Pay in these locations ranges from $22,960 to $31,900.


Starting photographers have the option of seeking a salaried position or freelancing. Freelancers tend to make more overall than salaried workers, according to the StateUniversity website. However, their salaries are subject to fluctuations in the photography market. Additionally, those who are able to take better shots will earn more for those pictures than those who produce photos of only mediocre quality. It thus is possible for a very good entry-level photographer to make more than a photographer who has worked in the industry for several years, although more experience tends to lead to better quality.

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