A picture may be worth a thousand words, but it is certainly not worth a thousand bucks. Usually, anyway. Unless you capture Brangelina in a car wreck or Snooki sober. Sadly, about the “only” way photogs make any real money is to be paparazzi shooters. A pap with a great run of photos can make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. It’s not “wealth” by normal business standards but it’s a decent living, assuming you can keep selling photos of Paris Hilton’s left nipple and still feel good about yourself.
There are staff jobs as well, shooting for newspapers, television production companies, and news feeds like AP/UPI that syndicate or sell your photos to a thousand publications around the world. A senior photographer at a top-notch place can make a hundred grand or more a year. It is decent work and depends entirely on what you’re doing with your camera. In a war zone? In an end zone? In a calzone? The gig’s rewards largely revolve around how you do what you do, but for many, the idea of working for Sports Illustrated is cool.
Others want to shoot for the military doing reconnaissance work behind enemy lines – amazing selfless work about as opposite from the Venice Beach crowd as one can get – but God help you if you get captured and don’t like really, really short fingernails. Many studio jobs exist as well – new cereal boxes come out all the time and need to be shot for print ads, etc. But as the “uniqueness” of the skill diminishes, so does the pay, and at the popular but bottom rung of the pyramid, you are back to Sears and the bratty kid and $15 an hour and slow waking death. Making $35k a year is about enough for rent, food and digital film. Hope you really love to take pictures.