11 Things Photographers Wish They Knew Before Going Freelance

11 Things Photographers Wish They Knew Before Going Freelance

In theory, freelancing is a great option – be your own boss, choose your own projects, make your own money. But the reality is that creating a sustainable business from freelance work is no easy road. Almost every every freelancer faces the very same cyclical path: hunt for new projects, then work like crazy, then hunt for new projects, again and again.

On top of that, the competition is stiff. In 2005, The U.S. Department of Labor reported that 10.3 million people were working as “independent contractors”, and in 2013 a group from Economic Modeling Specialists estimated that number was steadily increasing, with more than 4 million freelancers falling into the “creative class” (i.e. artists, designers, and media workers).

As a result, freelancers often fall into a number of different pitfalls – perhaps the biggest being the “work for free” dilemma. Wikipedia acknowledges that “freelancers may work for free or do work ‘on spec’ to build their reputations or a relationships.”

But the truth is, it really doesn’t have to be that way. You can get bogged down in the negativity surrounding much of the freelance photographer industry today, or you can take the advice of those who have come before you. We asked our community of supportive and, more often than not, optimistic photographers what they wish they knew before going freelance. Here’s what they had to say:

1. “If you try to be all things to all people, you will fail. Find your specialty, your niche, that one thing that you love photographing more than anything else, and focus on becoming the best you can be at that.” – Rich Demanowski, portrait photographer

2. “Invest more in lenses, less on lighting. Also, know your market and the amount of competition in your area.” – Steve Green, event and lifestyle photographer

3. “[Know] how much time you actually spend not taking pictures – feast and famine really happens so plan accordingly, and network a lot more.”  – Mitchell Masilun, travel, editorial and commercial photographer

4. “I learned from a mentor early on that one really needs to be more than a business person than an artist. There are some incredible photographers out there that are eating bread and water, and some really [bad] ones making a fortune! Also, don’t start with zero in the bank. Always have a slight financial buffer. Always remember to pay yourself – including retirement savings. This buffer means you can keep things going in bad times too.” – Alistair Blair, wedding photographer

5. “To have stressed less about what I didn’t have (i.e. equipment, etc.). Focused more on what I do have (i.e. network of supportive friends and family who believed in me.). And how to have made better use of the resources that are out there which make starting up a photography business a touch easier and more profitable earlier on.” – Jennifer Langille, sports photographer

6. “No matter how many times you state your cost, you will have those who will say you said something different, so get it in writing, get it signed and dated, and do it before work starts.” – Nathan Dion, corporate and event photographer

7. “Copyrights, different types of licensing, and not wasting time running different channels (website, Flickr, 500px, blog, etc.).” – Rob de Voogd, landscape and architecture photographer

8.How to not sell myself short and practically give away my time. And how to better explain to clients the difference between hiring a professional and handing a friend your camera to ‘save money’.” – Diana Shaydiehl, fine art photographer

9. “How to bid and price jobs.” – Tod Grubbs, fine art photographer

10.Photo workflow efficiency and the ability to negotiate with clients.” – Alphonsus Fok, commercial and editorial photographer

11. “1) Always looking for the next job takes more endurance than you imagine. 2) Your costs are far more than you estimate. 3) It’s just as important to keep in in touch with old clients as finding new.” – Shane Srogi, commercial and editorial photographer

What are the three things you wish you knew before becoming a freelance photographer?

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There are 32 comments for this article
  1. Chet Nichols at 4:22 pm

    I would pay a lot of attention to 1, 4, 6, 9 and 11. Others are a must also, I just had that old feelings whit the ones I mentioned.

  2. John at 5:47 pm

    I wish I knew that for every hour behind the camera I would need to spend at least 6 to 10 hours behind a computer, performing customer service, making sales calls, and doing a million other things other than taking pictures.

    The photography industry is, first and foremost, a service industry, so customer service is just as important as the photography. 9 out of 10 photographers that I meet tend to be arrogant jerks, even with their customers, so you would be amazed an how far being friendly and nice goes towards finding and keeping clients.

  3. Stanley Leary at 6:29 pm

    Totally disagree with number two. Just the opposite. Learn lighting. You don’t need a lot. Just a simple flash off the camera to the side can really help separate you from guy with camera, which concentrating on lenses will make you. How do you make your photos better than the client can get with their gear?

    • Steven Green at 12:12 am

      Stanley, fair statement. At the time, I was primarily an indoor sports and live event photographer, where flashes were not permitted. For me, fast, long lenses were more important than flashes or strobes. Light is important; you get it where you can as allowed depending on what you are capturing.

      • James Fuqua at 9:53 am

        I would say lighting vs lens debate really depends on what kind of photography you do. Both are right because both do different photography. If you shoot outdoor sports or landscape then lighting would be not be as important, however if you are doing people or product then lighting would be very important. Funny how people everywhere think they are right and the other is wrong, all because of a different vantage point.

  4. Pocatello Photography, Cramer Imaging at 7:21 pm

    Another piece of advice that I would add is to not jump for every single “advertizing opportunity” that comes your way. Some are legitimate opportunities, but most are someone trying to get you to pay them money to boost their business, or worse, trying to scam you out of your hard earned money. They may or may not deliver their promised promotion to you and, even if they do, the campaign may not work the way you want or hoped. It is good to get your name out there, but what kind of name is getting distributed? Is it the name of a desperate person who can’t pay his or her bills? That is devastating for future expansion and investment. Could it be that your name is being prematurely elevated as a pro when you’re really not there yet and, by so doing, driving your customer base away? You can’t practice on your customers and expect them to come back.

    Many of these calls, mailers, and emails are looking to sign you up for a “premium type” level of membership. This can be very costly and expensive with few if any leads for you. Free advertizing is just fine. It doesn’t matter what your competition is doing. If they have the free accounts, they are smart. The line of “bring in more customers” or “take on new leads” is just that: a line. The upgraded accounts are not guaranteed to bring you more business at all. If your free account is not netting you the business you want, paying for a “better” account will not generate more human eyes and interest automatically. All you are doing is guaranteeing your business with the advertizing company, which is really what they want.

    Chasing every “advertizing lead” can be devastating to the finances of a new freelance worker of any sort. You probably will have to spend some money on advertizing, but be incredibly selective and be ready to bail instantly on failures that cost you money. Long term contracts with agencies, when you are conducting experimental advertizing, are to be avoided like The Plague.

    • Brewster at 11:02 am

      Another thing . Dont make it your source of income. Find a second job to finance your being a freelance photographer.

  5. Shannon at 8:28 pm

    Learning how to truly exploit social media so that you can leverage your network AND your client’s network. This should save a lot of time, and more importantly to a lot of photographers just getting started, it is absolutely free.

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  7. Alec Leggat at 6:11 am

    I agree with John in that clients hire you not just because of what you can do – plenty more out there who can do it – but how well they get on with you. They need to have confidence in you and that you are reliable. So, communications between you and your clients is key.

    I also agree with Stanley about lighting. It is, one way or another, what makes a photograph “speak” to the viewer. I chose my lens combination according to Cartier-Bresson so that I can get close to the subject for the type of photographs I want to get.

  8. Thomas S. England at 8:41 am

    Realize that you may not be paid for 30-90 days AFTER you have finished and submitted your invoice, even though you have incurred expenses along the way. This can be especially difficult when you first begin and have no money in the pipeline.

    • Lubin at 4:53 pm

      I never take on jobs that would pay more than 30 days AFTER the job. 95% of my jobs are paid on the day I shoot or before. The 4.5% are paid within 30days. The rest are delinquent accounts, which is why I insist on being paid the day of the shoot. Don’t get into the trap of chasing down payment(s). This can waste more time than it’s worth. If a client is being difficult about this type of pricing, they are likely to be delinquent and waste your time collecting.

      The 4th point is probably the most important. If you run your company like a normal business, you will make money, if you are giving in to customers for every aspect from price/products to payments you will lose all the time. I also don’t have a price match option so if another photographer has a promotion, I ignore it.

  9. Erin at 1:52 pm

    You put your own payments, your terms ,after all your clients choose you for a reason. The costs to move as an individaul are high. Ask 50% up front and 50% upon delivery. Clients will pay.
    Cheers, the remarks are so true.

  10. Matt Smith at 1:27 pm

    @Stanley @Eric I have a feeling that in #2, he was speaking of investing *financially* in lenses instead of investing *financially* in lighting. In other words, if you have to make a decision between spending money on good glass or a ton of lighting gear, choose the good glass. He didn’t comment on how to invest your *time*, but I’d say spend your money on glass, and spend your time learning good lighting techniques.

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  12. Duane Wyatt at 6:43 am

    I think number 2 is debatable because I do photography and trying to get into it, (duanewyatt.deviantart.com) please go and have a look. I don’t have much money and I have a Sony alpha 390 and I have learnt to use the light around me, so in one way yes learn as much about light as you can because if you get the light round you then you’ve got a great shot. However on the other hand light is not that important depending one what lens you have and what technique you use. Please let me know on this comment love to know what you think.

    • Vince Comfort at 11:05 am

      I have also failed to consume Steve Green’s statement there. I am new to photography but my little experience tells me you need to invest equally in both especially if you are not specializing in one type of photography.

  13. Pingback: Quoted - Steven Green Photography
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  16. David M. Russell at 1:16 pm

    Re: #1

    It’s great to have a specialty and something you love doing. It’s great to have a primary revenue stream. But you’ve got to be flexible and be able to do other work. I’m not suggesting that anybody take work that they’re not confident in being able to do well, but if your specialty is acting headshots or corporate events, you better have something else you can do to keep your calendar full.

  17. Andrew Buchanan at 6:11 pm

    Spend time figuring out where you want to be in your business — financially, professionally, and creatively — in 3, 5, or 10 years’ time, then work backwards to develop a plan to get you there. Be flexible, plans don’t always work out the way you hope, but not having a plan is a sure way to go nowhere.

    For instance, knowing you hope to net $XYZ money means knowing an income level to target, what expenses to deduct from that, what to spend and not spend on equipment, promotion, shooting trips, etc. Once you know what you’re trying to earn, figure out how to get there — how many jobs you need, what to try to charge, is that many jobs per year realistic? Now figure out where to find those jobs, how much can you afford to pay to reach people, where can you look for jobs that your competitors aren’t? Now start doing it.

    It all sounds pretty simple in hindsight but I sure wish I’d known all this 20 years ago! Failure to set goals is a surefire way to get there.

  18. tim at 4:04 am

    Rob De Voogt says it’s not good “wasting time running different channels (website, Flickr, 500px, blog, etc.).”, yet by the looks of his website he has them all!

    Werk aan de Muur | Canvas, Xpozer, Poster

    Oypo | Foto’s bestellen

    Flickr | Mijn fotoblog

    Twitter | Fotografie en Rotterdam

    Facebook | Fotografie



    Nice, thanks for that Rob De Voogt!

  19. B.O'Leary at 3:22 pm

    Number 2 is absolute bollox, the thing that sets me apart locally is the fact that not only do I have the lighting equipment, but I know how to use it. The lighting gear I have allows me to produce consistent professional results, that have set free my creativity in ways that no massive collection of lenses ever would.

    I’ve proven to people attending my classes, that you can give me any camera, regardless of format and with good or interesting lighting, I can get professional standard results.

    Compare that to working with shitty lighting in a dull room and again, you could give me a plastic toy camera or a €6k Canon 1Dx II with any lens attached and I could produce an equally shitty photo on both!

    My collection of lenses that I make a living off of are a Canon 24-105, Sigma 50mm macro and an ancient Super Takamur 50mm M42 adapted lens. Nothing else and the only one I know I need is the 70-200 2.8 is II.

    One of whom

    And the other who undercuts me by a factor of 10, yet still uses ‘Portait Mode’ fully auto setting for all photos

  20. Dave Michaels at 3:39 pm

    A great photographer once said,

    Lighting to photography is the equivalent of blood to the human body. no matter how much or how little you use, it is necessary to produce the perfect picture.

    That photographer, was me.

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