80% of people who call themselves a professional photographer are not making their full time living as a professional photographer.
Unfortunately we don't have a way to get the hard facts on this number because it might actually be something more like 90%. How would we measure it? Photography websites compared to tax returns? If you restrict the answer to a survey stemming from a professional organization, than it's going to look very different because you're surveying a set of people who have already fully invested in joining a professional organization. So, this number is based on my personal experience of living and working as a full-time professional photographer, talking with other photographers, and engaging in community groups with other photographers.
Photography is a great part-time hobby turned extra source of income for a lot of people, but very few photographers are making a full time living doing this. Many photographers won't reveal to their clients- or even to other photographers- that they have another job because they are afraid it will make them seem less serious as a photographer. I kind of understand why they would do this when it comes to working with clients, though I think it would help clients have a better understanding of a lot of things, as well as appropriate expectations about service for someone who isn't a full time photographer.
Where this lack of full-disclosure becomes most dangerous is with young photographers or aspiring artists who don't know the full story. They have no idea what percentage of the websites and blogs they see are actually doing photography for a living. They end up thinking photography is an easy way to make a living doing what they love and then start out basing their own business off of people who may not even be running a business profitable enough to pay the bills.
In Boston, there are five major photography schools that pump out at least 150 photography graduates each year who expect to make a full time living in photography because they now have a degree in it. They get starry eyed reading photography blogs and they assume that people who post a lot on their blogs are making a full time living in photography. They have no idea what's really happening behind the scenes, or how what seems like a "career" on someone's blog is really just a part-time job that helps cover expenses like iPads, nice lenses, and the latest camera gear for 80% of the photographers out there.
I work out of a studio where I'm surrounded by over 150 other artist studios. When I look at the people who are making a full time living doing what they love, I see people who are spending at least 50% of their time on running, managing, and marketing their business. They are both business savvy and artistically creative and they work hard at furthering themselves in both areas on a regular basis. Without the two, it's pretty difficult to make a full-time, self-employed living doing what you love. Now, you could actually be a horrible artist and still make a living from art if you're very business savvy, which tends to piss off a lot of artists, but..
If you're an amazing artist without much in the way of business smarts (or someone managing your business for you) than you're going to spend a lot of time living the "starving artist" lifestyle.
There, I said it, someone needed to.
(Update: This post has stirred quite a discussion... view the comments to see what other people have to say about the topic...)
Anne Ruthmann is a lifestyle & wedding photographer from Boston, MA. She spent 10 years practicing marketing & management in corporate and non-profit businesses before pursuing her passion for photography as an independent small business. She loves helping others find creative and low-cost solutions to business problems. Check out her next workshop at SmarterBusinessWorkshop.com.