#NairaLife: The Photographer Who Went From ₦50K To At Least ₦800K/Month

March 22, 2021

Every week, Zikoko seeks to understand how people move the Naira in and out of their lives. Some stories will be struggle-ish, others will be bougie. All the time, it’ll be revealing.


The lady in this story is quite young, but frankly, that’s not the most interesting thing about her. It’s how she started photography as a hobby and followed through till today.

Five hard years, long YouTube hours, a couple of projects later, here’s what her #NairaLife looks like.

Let’s start from the beginning. What’s your oldest memory of money?

When I was in Primary 2, my dad started giving my siblings and me pocket money for school. He thought we were too young to handle money, but we begged. We didn’t need the money; we just thought it would be cool if we could join the queue to buy stuff from the vendors at school during the break period. He started with ₦5 and increased it over the years. 

Haha. Do you remember the first thing you did for money?

In JSS 1, I started making this flavoured drink solution — Eve — and sold it to kids in my compound. I bought a sachet for ₦15 and sold a cup of the drink for ₦10. I made up to ₦200 from that.

It was going well until my mum woke up one day and went “If you continue with this, you won’t be serious with your books.” She collected what I’d made to keep for me. Well, we know how that goes.

Lmao. Speaking about your parents, what did they do?

My dad had a printing business, but he left Nigeria for the UK when I was five years old. This was 2004, and we didn’t see him for about five years after that. One day, my younger sister told him on the phone that she wouldn’t recognise him if she saw him. This triggered him, and he took the next flight home. He’s into a bunch of things in the UK but he comes home at least once every six months now. 

My mum sells clothes and other materials. At first, none of them wanted us to be involved in the business because they didn’t want us to mix with the crowd of people where her shop was. We moved into our home when I was in SS 1and my mum found a new shop close to the house, so we started helping out.  It was fun at first, but before I finished secondary school, I wasn’t so keen on helping her at the shop anymore. My younger sister was more interested in the whole thing and I didn’t hear the end of it. 

What was the next thing you did for money?

I don’t know if this counts, but I got a job as a teacher right after I finished secondary school. I didn’t last up to two days there.

Haha. Why?

Those children were stressful. They wanted to pay me ₦5k and they wanted me to be teaching all subjects. I wasn’t down for that.  After my second day, I told them I was done. 

What happened after that?

I went to university. My allowance was ₦10k at first, then it increased to ₦15k. In my first and second year, the only thing I cared about was my studies so I could graduate with a 2.1. It’s funny now because I was hardly in school in my third and final year.

What changed?

I found something more interesting. Photography.

Let’s back it up, how did you get into this?

In 2016, I met someone on Twitter and during one of our conversations, he asked if I had anything I was interested in. I told him I’d like to capture moments but I didn’t have a camera. He advised me to start with my phone. 

I started taking photos with my phone and putting it out on social media. Slowly, my follower base grew. Later that year, the same friend asked me if I would be interested in working for a smartphone company. I would take pictures with their phones and share on social media. It was a micro-influencing kind of gig. Of course, I was interested. A month later, the company set up a meeting with me at their office. I was hired and offered ₦50k every month.

Lit. 

I decided to give professional photography a chance and see if it would work out. I saved for six months and bought my first professional camera — a used Canon 650d for  ₦150k. I had a community of photographer friends, and I put the word out that I was looking for gigs. I got my first job in less than 24 hours after I bought the camera. 

What was it about?

I assisted a photographer at an event and he paid me ₦25k. Immediately I got the money, I spent ₦16k on an external flash.

Two weeks later, I got another job, which paid me ₦50k. Then other jobs started coming. The first photographer I worked with was a major plug. He always called me back for jobs until we shot at a wedding and lost all the pictures. 

Omo.

I still have no idea how that happened. It was a stressful experience. The client threatened to lock us up and all that. I would wake up in the middle of the night and start crying. I think the guy even travelled out of the city for a few months until it blew over. 

We move.

After that, I focused on portrait photography. Though event photography paid more, I was still in school, and it was a struggle going out every weekend to do a job. 

With portrait photography, people were booking me to handle their birthday shoots and stuff like that. I charged an average of ₦6k-₦7k per look, but it was a lot of work for little money. If they didn’t complain about the price, they would have something to say about the pictures. I realised that I couldn’t make a lot from that. Shooting videos looked more promising, so I thought it would be cool to learn and combine both. 

How did you learn how to shoot videos?

I watched a lot of YouTube videos. Also, I was in my third year at this time and there was this long strike. I got a job as a behind-the-scenes photographer on a cooking show. Then their video guy travelled out of the country, and they asked if I would like to try shooting their videos. I took up the offer. That started my transition into videos.

How much were you being paid for that?

Nothing. But they gave me a chance to learn on the job and paid for the logistics. It didn’t matter if I was being paid because I was also doing photography on the side and making an average of ₦80k every month. 

Ah, I see. 

It didn’t take long before people noticed my work on the cooking show. I started getting small video gigs. I think the first one I worked on came from someone in the cooking show crew. They hired me to work on another project they were on and paid me ₦70k.

The other video projects I worked on doing the time paid between ₦50k and ₦100k. But I wasn’t good at editing and was outsourcing it. The ginger to take video editing seriously came in 2018. I had shot an Independence Day video for the cooking show, but they couldn’t send the cuts to the regular editor. They asked me if I could just do it, and I downloaded Windows Movie Maker on my laptop. YouTube got me through it. Omo, I spent four hours editing a one minute video. In the end, they liked what I did. 

Mad.

The rest of 2018 was pretty much about sharpening my editing skills.I bought a new camera and upgraded my laptop in 2019. I also invested in a couple of other gear. In that year alone, I spent about ₦1m on gadgets. Once I got paid for a job, I made sure to buy something I needed for work. I’m not sure a lot happened in 2019 except that I graduated from university and went all-in on personal projects.

I’m listening.

I did a short film at first and spent about ₦500k on it, but it didn’t bang the way I thought it would. The next project I worked on was a documentary, which I co-produced with someone. That one did considerably better. It was selected for short film festivals, and we had private screenings. Suddenly, people were reaching out to me for interviews.

Did you make any money from these projects?

No. But they were worthy additions to my portfolio. Also, I made sure to share everything I worked on and tried to be visible online. 

How did this affect your earnings in 2019?

I was making an average of ₦150k on a project, though I was investing a lot of it back into my craft. At the end of the year, I had saved about ₦300k. 

Impressive. 

2020 was weird in the beginning. I went for a vacation in March and the country went into lockdown the week I returned. 

That meant you couldn’t work.

I couldn’t oh. A lot of brands weren’t even interested in video projects anymore. They pivoted into motion graphics. I was stuck at my parents house, broke and tired. I did something for an American brand during the lockdown in April  $500. That  was the only thing I worked on for about three months. I didn’t even get paid until July.

How much did you have in savings before the lockdown?

About ₦1.2m. However, I wanted to get an apartment and had sent ₦1m to a friend. 

So I had ₦200k in my account. When the lockdown was lifted, I had only ₦70k left. Most of the money went into paying for food and the internet. 

Luckily, I was hired to shoot and edit a TV commercial for a brand immediately after the lockdown and they paid me ₦400k. That kicked things off. I got a mini-flat for ₦750k in July 2020 and moved out of my parent’s house. I’ve spent an extra ₦600k on purchases and renovations since that time. Tears!

Lmao. What happened in the second half of 2020?

It was the best. The jobs kept coming in. A big brand here, a small business there. The interesting thing was that I didn’t have to spend money on logistics on some of the jobs I was getting — the companies that hired me took care of those, which was great for me because these logistics expenses always took a chunk from my earnings. I got one that paid me ₦750k and another one that paid ₦1.9m. 

You were charging more to work on projects. How did this happen?

The quality of my work had gotten better, and I had gotten better at self-promotion. I was sharing every project I worked on social media. That made the difference.

 I didn’t have to look for new projects to work on. Most of these new clients were referrals or people who had been following me for some time. I was getting emails like, “I think you might be interested in this project. Are you free to work on it?” I guess that gave me the leverage to negotiate what I wanted. 

Of course, I was still investing in gadgets. I bought a drone for ₦600k in September. It was my biggest work purchase last year. 

Nice! What did your finances look like at the end of the year?

I had about ₦3.5m in savings. I took ₦2.6m out and bought a car.

How did that feel?

I felt proud of myself. I’d been planning to get one since the beginning of the year because I was spending about  ₦100k on Uber every month. I even had an Uber guy who drove me around whenever I had to go out, and I paid him ₦15k every day I needed him. 

My parents were just beginning to accept that I wasn’t living in their house anymore when I bought the car. When I moved out, they were like, “Go and see the world and come back home.” They definitely didn’t expect that a car was the next thing for me. They were proud, but they were surprised too. 

I get that. I think you’ve come a long way between 2016 and now. What’s 2021 looking like for you?

I was working on a photography project for an American company at the beginning of the year. It was supposed to pay me $10k, but they suspended the project halfway. I only got $4500. I started working on other projects at the end of January. There was this four-day project I worked on that paid me ₦850k. I’m currently working for a production company, and I’ll be paid ₦1.1m for it. 

I still get the ₦200k and ₦300k jobs, but they are far and in between. And when they come, I probably just pass them off to my assistants.

I’m coming to accept that I deserve the money I charge. I know the work and I’m an all-rounder — I’m good with cameras and drones. I’m good at editing. Clients like to work with people who can do everything effectively. I’m that person. 

Energy! Can we break down your monthly running costs?

I started paying myself ₦120k as a salary at the beginning of the year to control my spendings. 

I don’t pay black tax, but my parents could call me and ask me to buy something in the house or loan them money they won’t return. I spent about ₦400k in money gifts for my family in December last year. At the beginning of the year, I decided to see someone through school. I give her about ₦25k every month. 

What about savings?

I currently have $4500 in my domiciliary account and ₦1.5m in my savings account. The total should be about ₦3m-₦4m.

Are investments your thing?

Lmao. I invested ₦250k in cryptocurrency recently. The thing dipped the day I put the money in it, and it was like that for a week. The money is still there, and I won’t touch it. However, I like to open my bank account and smile at what I see. 

What aspect of your finances do you think you could be better at?

I could be more prudent at spending money. I’m a fan of “problem no dey finish”, but it would be great to stick to a budget. I could literally spend my last kobo on food or wine. 

What’s the largest amount you’ve spent on food at a time?

I took someone I liked on a date once and the bill was ₦40k. I’ve done that three or four times now. 

What do you think the next five years will look like?

I don’t want to be in Nigeria. I’d like to work with a company like Netflix and handle their post-production or working with a global production company. Also, I’d like to build my own production company. I registered it in 2019 but recently started putting some structure around it. So I have to work on classic projects and invest more in myself and other people. I love investing in people. I think it makes everyone’s lives easier in the long run. 

Love it. Back to the present, what’s something you want right now but can’t afford?

In the short term, a vacation. I spent ₦650k on my last vacation. I’m thinking of going to Europe this year, and my budget is ₦700k. I don’t have that kind of money at the moment, but I hope to raise it soon. I also want to go to film school — New York or Vancouver. The tuition alone is about $25k, so I imagine I need about ₦10m – ₦15m  to make it happen. 

What’s the last thing you spent money on that significantly improved the quality of your life?

My car. I also bought a new camera in January for ₦1m. Normally, I used to rent the camera for ₦25k per day when I needed it for projects. Now, I don’t have to. 

On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your financial happiness?

It’s between 6.5 and 7. I have a lot of anxiety about when I’ll get my next job or if it will even come, which is funny because I have gone from charging ₦200k per project to at least ₦700k-₦800k in a few months. I’ll feel better when I work with all the brands I want to work with or execute foreign projects in Nigeria and get paid in dollars. Nobody deserves to be broke in this country. 

How has your skillset evolved over the years?

2016 — Started as a mobile phone photographer. Got my first gig with a smartphone company.

2017 — Transitioned into professional photography.

2018 — Started learning cinematography and editing. 

2021 — I’m thinking of learning animation and design. I’m getting bored.

Got it. Last question. How old are you again?

22.


If you’re interested in talking about your Naira Life story, this is a good place to start.

Find all the past Naira Life stories here.

Toheeb Lanlehin

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