The Real Poop
Photography is a creatively rewarding endeavor. In a fraction of a second, a perspective is rendered through the aperture and snap—the artistic insight is captured in a flash. The shot might convey peace, or love, or the ravages of war. The right picture really can be worth a thousand words. Or more.
Probably as a result of the potential artistic expression, photography as a career is a perennially popular field for those who don't understand how hard it is to make a living doing it; who think they're "the one" with true talent (meaning someone will pay them for their art). It's easy to see why—who hasn't snapped a couple pictures that seemed to have true artistic depth?
But a couple of great ones in the roll does not a career make, and most photographers don't shoot art—they shoot cereal boxes and lug nut wrenches and bratty kids at Sears. The business of being a photographer involves oh-so-much more than just pointing a camera at something and pushing a button.
You might not get to fulfill your artistic dreams, but those still frame photographers who master the medium can expect to make about fifteen bucks an hour, or $31,200 annually (source).
Even if you just want this gig as a semi-professional hobby (e.g., you're an accountant by day but get paid to shoot weddings and Bar Mitzvahs on nights and weekends), you'll need to stay abreast (giggle) of the latest technology, understand the inner and outer workings of a complicated high-end camera, and know how to use all of its functions.
You'll also need to master Photoshop and be able to inspire the best "cheese!" faces from your clients.
If you're still looking to capitalize on your artistic talents, you should also be prepared to struggle and starve for your art—it's not an easy living. You're looking at weird hours and picky clients, and that camera constantly hanging around your neck is eventually going to start feeling like a lump of Kryptonite. It's no cake walk, and getting paid for doing it is a feat in and of itself.
There's also a wide range of careers in photography. You could go it alone, taking artsy pictures of plastic bags in alleyways and hoping someone finds them "profound" (and will pay you for said profundity). You could snap portraits of three-year-olds in photography studios à la Sears.
You could become a paparazzo and spend your whole life annoying celebrities (and then have to live with yourself after causing one of them to steer into oncoming traffic just to avoid you—way to go). Or you could head to Milan or Kenya to take photos for a fashion or political magazine.
Because there's such a wide range in photography career paths, there's obviously also a wide range in the type of places that'll pay you to snap your pictures.
You could be salaried by a photography studio, paid per shot by a gossip mag (big bucks if you can catch Miley Cyrus on a secret date with a U.S. senator; small bucks if you catch her wearing her hair differently than usual), or you could develop and frame your own work and see if anyone's willing to pay more than twenty bucks for it.
For some, that kind of diversity is overwhelming; others thrive on it. You really can't afford to be picky. If an opportunity lands in your lap, you'd better pet it and give it tuna treats before it runs away. Wait—we might have been thinking of a cat there.
For most photographers, the hours aren't bad, especially if you're of the "artist" variety. If that's the case, you might wake up at noon, take a few photos of the birds outside your window, and go back to sleep. One of the things creative types love about a job such as this one is that very freedom. Some folks prefer not to be chained to a desk for eight hours a day or made to feel like another cog in the machine.
With that freedom comes responsibility, though—the responsibility of having to find a way to make rent, to maintain any semblance of a social life when you can't afford to go anywhere or do anything, and to contribute to society in some meaningful way. These two aspects of an artist's life (the freedom and the responsibility) are generally at odds, but if you can find a way to make it work, more power to you.
Being a photographer isn't the easiest way to make a living, but you probably already knew that. Should you turn out to not be the next Ansel Adams (spoiler alert: it's likely), and are at peace with the prospect of taking a less glamorous photography job, you're in better shape than most.
And if you really are that one in a million whose photographs will sell for millions, our hats off to you. You truly must see life through a different lens.