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Art Smarts

5 Ways to turn your creative interests into cash

This story appears in the March 1996 issue of Business Start-Ups magazine.

You've probably heard it before: There are those who are -minded and those who are creative, and ne'er the twain shall meet. Right? Well, not necessarily.

If you're a creative type who's overwhelmed at the thought of turning your artistic pursuits into income or just uninformed about how to do it, read on. We've explored five fields where art and income not only meet, but enable thousands of entrepreneurs to make successful careers from their talents. We've also listed Reader Reference Sources that can provide additional information about the specifics of these industries. So let your creative juices flow, and turn your works of art into economic masterpieces.


When Gary Benson graduated from college in 1978, he was given the boot. Literally.

Benson was hired by REI, a recreational equipment retail company, to take product shots of boots-and tents, ski jackets and backpacks-for the store's catalogs, brochures and internal newsletters.

"Because the college photography program I was in provided a mostly fine-art background, it didn't teach us much about how to make a living as a photographer," recalls Benson. "But as a staff photographer, I got on-the-job training in the commercial world, where I had to learn how to meet deadlines and work with designers and layouts."

Now a homebased freelance photographer in Seattle, Benson has developed a successful career for himself. His clients include numerous national and local magazines, including Time, Newsweek, Forbes and Seattle, as well as such companies as Chevron and Airborne Freight Corporation.

Benson's first freelance job after leaving REI was for a stock photography agency, a kind of picture bank featuring a variety of images from hundreds of photographers on thousands of topics. Clients purchase the rights to reproduce these images in their publications. The agency then splits the payment (generally 50-50) with the photographer. Some freelancers choose to shoot only for stock agencies, but because income is dependent upon the clients' specific and often unpredictable needs, this type of work can be highly speculative.

"With freelance photography, I've learned that pre-planning is as important as taking the shot," explains Benson. "When you're on the job, the photography part is about 10 percent of the job, but the preparation is about 90 percent. Having background information on an assignment can be really helpful. Although most people are patient and accommodating, some don't like being photographed. It's important that you assess the person's limit. The last thing you want is a frustrated and upset subject."

Getting your photographs published begins with getting samples of your work to the right people, usually the art directors or photo editors of the publications or companies your photographic style complements. There are a number of ways to do this, each with its own price.

One option is to submit samples of your work to a national sourcebook, a high-quality, hardback compilation of national photographers that's distributed to the art departments of most publications across the U.S., but it'll cost you. A single page in a sourcebook usually runs between $2,000 and $3,000, and because books are updated each year, so are the bills.

A less expensive option is to mail promotional samples of your work, printed on postcards, to a well-researched list of contacts. You can also approach local publications and companies to advertise your services in your hometown.

"The local lab I work with has been very helpful in displaying my images to promote their print processes," says Benson, who recommends keeping in contact with the designers and graphic artists with whom you've established working relationships.

"Try to specialize," advises Benson. "If you show a client too much of a variety, they probably won't remember you, so present your best work and let people know of one or two things you're really good at."

Reader Reference Source: The American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) is a national lobbying organization for photographers, providing legal advice, a national directory and discounts on seminars. "The ASMP is the photographer's advocate," attests Benson. "I definitely recommend them." American Society of Media Photographers Inc., 14 Washington Rd., #502, Princeton, NJ 08550-7033, (609) 799-8300.

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