How I Turned a Photography Hobby Into $1,138,610

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A man's hands with a laptop, tablet, camera, and notebook.

If you follow this blog it’s no secret that I’m a fan of side hustles as a way to make extra money and work towards financial freedom. My own personal experience with side hustles is the reason I recommend this approach. My online business originally started as a design blogging side hustle (in 2007), and within a year and a half of consistent effort, it produced an income that allowed me to leave my full-time job.

But that experience from 2007-2008 isn’t what I want to talk about today. The story that you’re about to read happened a few years later.

While I was running my design blog for several years I started to get interested in photography. If you have any interest in photography you probably know that it can be an expensive hobby. Cameras, lenses, filters, tripods, software… it all adds up very quickly.

In 2012 I wanted to upgrade from my point-and-shoot camera and buy a nice DSLR and some lenses, but I couldn’t really justify the $5,000 price tag for the equipment that I wanted.

After all, it was just a hobby.

Even though I was making a nice income at the time, I decided to start a photography-related side hustle to see if I could earn the $5,000. At that point, I had been blogging and running my own websites full time for about 4 years, so I was pretty confident that I could make some money, but I really didn’t know if it would be a lot or a little.

As it turned out, I made that $5,000 in a few months, saw the possibility to grow it much further, and over the next 6 years I wound up making a total of a little over a million dollars. (I did wind up getting a camera, but ultimately decided to spend less than $3,000 on it.)

There are a few reasons I’m telling you this story:

  1. To show the power and potential of a good side hustle
  2. To show that you don’t have to be an expert on a topic in order to make some money
  3. To encourage you to take action and start your own side hustle

→ Related reading: 40 Exciting Hobbies That Make Money

The Details, and How I Made it Happen

Before I tell you more about what I did and how I did it, I want to stress the fact that I was a beginner photographer back in 2012. I’m still not that great, but back then I was just learning the basics.

I also want to tell you some things I didn’t do. If you hear about someone making money with a photography side hustle you probably have some specific ideas that come to mind.

  • I’ve never been paid to take anyone’s photograph (portraits, weddings, newborns, etc.)
  • I’ve never sold or licensed my photos on any stock photography website
  • I didn’t sell prints of my photos
  • My photos have never been in a magazine or any high-profile publication
  • I didn’t run photography workshops

All of those things are perfectly legitimate ways to make money, and I’d actually like to try a few of them at some point in the future, but that’s not the approach I took.

Instead, I created digital products and a photography blog (turned into multiple blogs, more on that later). I also made some money from affiliate promotions at my blogs, but the majority of income was from selling my own digital products.

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So as I mentioned, I started this project back in 2012. It started with a simple website and a few products, but it expanded into more websites over the years.

Here is a timeline overview:

  • 2012 – Launched photography website #1 in the fall and had some success pretty quickly.
  • 2014 – Launched photography website #2 in the fall.
  • 2015 – Launched photography website #3 early in the year.
  • 2016 – Sold website #1 and #2 together for $500,000.
  • 2018 – Sold website #3 for $216,000 ($194,400 after broker fees).

Breakdown of the Numbers

As you can see above, I’ve now sold all of my photography websites. The money from the website sales is included in the total mentioned in the article title. Here is a breakdown of how I came to that number:

  • $694,400 total for the sale of the 3 websites (that is the total after broker fees)
  • $555,826 combined income running the 3 sites from 2012 – 2018

That comes to a total of $1,250,226. My expenses related to running the 3 sites from 2012 – 2018 totaled $111,616, bringing the net amount to $1,138,610.

My Approach to Making Money with a Hobby

I’m not going to list the domains of the websites or list the specific products that I sold. What I hope that you take away from this article has nothing to do with photography or the industry. The same approach that I used could be used in just about any industry or niche. I want to explain the basic steps that I took so you can see how it’s possible to take something that’s a hobby and turn it into a decent income.

You may be wondering how much time I put into these websites, and that’s a valid question. At the start, it was just a few hours per week because I had other websites that I was managing full-time. For about a year and a half (2014 – 2015) the photography websites were my main focus, and it was definitely more involved than a side hustle at that point. But in 2015 my wife and I started an Amazon FBA business that took up about half of my time, so the photography sites went back to a part-time project. Right at the beginning of 2016, I sold 2 of the 3 photography sites to free up more time for the Amazon business. Photography website #3 was always a part-time project, except for a span of a month or two in 2017 when I dedicated more time to creating digital products. In general, it started as a side hustle and didn’t turn into anything more than that until it was making several thousand dollars per month.

If you’re a regular reader you may remember my article How I’ve Made Over $1 Million Blogging. For full disclosure, there is some overlap and these photography blogs were included in that. However, my general blogging income also includes blogs on other topics like design and travel that are not relevant to this article.

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s look at the details of how I was able to turn a hobby into a source of income.

1. I Saw an Opportunity

As I started to get interested in photography and I was visiting websites and blogs on the topic, I noticed that there was a big market for digital, downloadable products related to photography. I saw a lot of websites selling them, and it seemed like there were a lot of people interested in buying them as well.

Although there were a lot of sites selling downloadable products to photographers back in 2012, there is exponentially more competition now. It’s crazy how many sites are selling these types of products now. If you’re just getting started and looking for a way to make money from a hobby I wouldn’t recommend following the same path that I took because it is extremely competitive. Instead, apply the principles I’ll be sharing to another hobby, or take a different approach to making money with photography (like offering services).

I had previous experience selling downloadable products in the web/graphic design niche, so I thought I could use some of that experience to help me with selling products to photographers. I also saw that there were a lot of existing websites and blogs that had established audiences and email lists, and if I could partner with these people and get them to promote my products I could potentially start making money even without my own audience.

2. I Took Action

One of the biggest hangups for many people who want to start a side hustle or online business is simply getting started. A lot of people have ideas and good intentions, but fail to ever move forward and actually get started.

3. I Created Products

In my case, I got started by creating a few products to sell. I looked at these initial products as kind of a test. I hoped I would be able to sell them and make enough money to buy the camera and lens that I wanted, and if it went well, I would continue to create more products in the future.

4. I Set Up My Website

Once the products were ready I created a basic website with e-commerce functionality to collect payment and deliver the products to customers. I used SendOwl to set this up (it was called Digital Delivery App back then). I highly recommend SendOwl for selling digital products because it’s extremely easy to use, has a lot of great features, and it also provides a very good experience for your customers.

5. I Reached Out to Potential Partners

Since I didn’t have an audience of my own I decided to reach out to others who I thought might be interested in promoting my products to their audience in exchange for a share of the revenue. In some cases this was a typical affiliate relationship where they used an affiliate link and sent traffic to my website. In other cases my products were actually sold on their websites. In these cases the other site owner collected the payment, delivered the products to customers, and then paid me for my share of the revenue.

This is a really key point, and the reason why is because these types of partnerships make it possible for you to make money from your own product even if you don’t have your own audience. If you’ve considered selling digital products but your hangup is “I don’t have an audience”, there are ways around that. Of course, when you’re partnering with others you’ll have to share the money so you won’t get to keep it all, but it’s a great way to get started. I didn’t want to spend a year of hard work trying to build an audience, I wanted to test my products right away and see if there was demand.

When you’re looking for sites to partner with you have a few options. First, you can look to deal sites like Ultimate Bundles, or niche specific deal sites that reach your target audience. With the popularity of deal sites like Groupon, a slew of niche-specific deal sites popped up a few years ago. Some are still around, but others have died off. Aside from deal sites you can also reach out to bloggers in your niche. I would recommend looking to see which bloggers are actively promoting affiliate products because they may also be interested in promoting your product. When you’re just getting started you may need to offer a higher commission to convince bloggers to promote your products. Another option is to sell at marketplaces like Etsy or other marketplaces that are relevant in your niche.

Initially, I started small in terms of the partners that I contacted. I didn’t try to get any of the leading sites in the niche to promote my products. I reached out to some smaller sites because I knew I had a better chance of actually getting them to promote my products, and I also wanted to learn from the process before approaching any larger sites.

6. I Scaled Up

After having success with a few small promotions (making a few hundred dollars with each promotion) I felt confident that there was enough demand and potential to put more time, effort, and money into this project. I hired others to create some products for me, which temporarilly set me back on my quest to make $5,000 for the camera, but I felt it was a good move in the long run. I also created more products myself. My plan was to have a lot of different products so I could potentially line up a lot of different promos with partners and affiliates.

7. I Created Freebies

In addition to the products for sale, I also created a few products that I decided to give away for free. The freebies mainly served the purpose of growing my email list and attracting traffic to the site. I used OptinMonster to create optin forms to offer the freebies to visitors in exchange for their email address. This email list helped me to make a lot of sales over the course of a few years.

8. I Got Links from Other Websites

Most of the links I got from other websites were pointing to the freebies on my site. At first it took work to get these links (contacting website owners and bloggers). But after a while the freebies got enough exposure that other people started linking to them with no effort on my part. That led to more traffic, more email subscribers, and more sales.

9. I Published Content on My Own Blog

I used a blog on my site for the purpose of attracting traffic. The articles were mostly general photography-related articles, not just focused on the products I was selling. The articles attracted more traffic to the site and also gave me some content to share with email subscribers so I was able to give them some helpful content, rather than just constant sales pitches.

10. I Launched a 2nd Site

After success with my first photography website I decided to launch a 2nd site that would also sell downloadable products. I took basically the same approach with the 2nd site and had pretty good results right from the start.

11. And I Launched a 3rd Site

In early 2015 I launched a 3rd photography-related website. Although I sold products at the 3rd site as well, this one was more of a content-focused site and the products were kind of secondary.

12. I Sold the Sites

More than half of the money I made with these photography websites came from selling the sites. The amount that you can get for a website varies, but right now somewhere around 30 months’ worth of profit is very common. I chose to sell and move on to something else. Selling is nice for a lump sum, but of course, you lose that ongoing income.

Selling a website may sound intimidating, but fortunately, there are a lot of brokers out there who will help you find a buyer (for a percentage of the selling price). You can read more about selling websites here.

Key Takeaways

Here is a quick summary of the approach that I used to go from a hobby to over $1 million. The same principles can be applied to many other topics or industries.

  1. Use freebies to grow an email list, and get other sites/blogs to link to those freebies
  2. Create quality digital, downloadable products that your target audience wants
  3. Partner with others who will promote your product to their audience
  4. Gain consistent sales from your email list and traffic to your site
  5. Sell the website when you’re ready to be done

How About You?

If you don’t currently have a side hustle I would encourage you to get started. Personally, I like using a hobby for a side hustle because it’s a lot more fun to work on something that you enjoy. If you’re interested in this approach, please check out my step-by-step guide How to Start a Blog.

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