Going Freelance in Photography

Going Freelance in Photography

A decade’s worth of photo staff cutbacks means freelancing is almost an inevitability for photographers. For those fortunate enough to have survived rounds of lay-offs, the next question is how to best prepare yourself for the unpredictability of the freelance world. Recently, a photographer posed the following question:

“I’m looking for advice on how to best prepare to walk away from my job and freelance full time. Last year I was freelancing full time and pulled in about half of my current income with my job. It wasn’t a bad first year, but found it hard to survive when paychecks would come in so randomly. This was the main reason I took the job I’m in currently. I’m still freelancing and trying to bank money, but am curious for the folks who have done something similar how they were finally able to make the leap. Thanks so much!”

In the gig economy, the topic is perennially relevant – even outside of the photography business. Here’s some sage advice from a number of photographers who made the leap:

“[A] financial planner might tell you to have 6+ months of living expenses saved up incase you lose your job. After seeing the last 12 months in my family where my wife twice lost her job, I would say more than 6 months. The first time we had a sizable severance. But it was still stressful. I didn’t have a big choice of when, that was made for me. Luckily my girlfriend, then finance, then wife was supportive. So, I would make sure you have a minimum of 9 months of savings stashed before you make the leap or at a minimum have a heckuva partner who let you put your paydays back into your business (i.e. insurance, marketing, gear, etc.). Just a few quick thoughts.”
Shaun Sartin, Glenview, IL

“Whatever you do – you need to plan on having a diverse client list. $200 day rates from newspapers will leave you starving. Think about what clients you could have that are not editorial publications…When you leave your current job, you’re losing that email account too. All those assignment contacts for companies, businesses, ‘annoying’ PR people. Yeah. You need those saved somewhere you’ll own and control. Start now. Organize it. When you leave, Those could be prospective client generation leads and sources.”
Patrick Fallon, Los Angeles, CA

What You Need To Know Your First Year as a Freelance Photographer

“[E]veryone’s a potential client, constantly be passing out cards and planting seeds. Use your Rolodex (editors and those you met on assignment) to make sure everyone who could use your services knows you’re available. There are a lot of ways to make money as a photographer, so diversity outside journalism is important also. When you can save, savviness with your savings (investments) can create passive income over time. Use social [media] properly. Make sure people can see your current work. Start an email list to send updates. The longer you’re freelancing, your client list will (hopefully) compound and you can be more picky about where you make your income. Sooner you make the leap the faster your freelance business will grow.”
Robert Caplin, New York, NY

“Since you’re in mid-sized market, you’ll find a lot of PR/advertising people know each other and tend to move around within that city. Referrals from past clients can be the easiest way to build a client base. Before you quit, think about what other organizations use photography on a regular basis. Look to universities, hospitals, restaurants, nonprofits and corporations in your region and reach out to their marketing/PR departments.”
Whitney Curtis, St. Louis, MO

“Don’t do it. Figure out how to focus on what you want to shoot and how you can create a body of work in the time you have from your current job.

If you’re dead set on freelancing again, I wouldn’t jump ship until you have that client list built up and diverse. If you can’t do it while you have a job, it’s not going to magically happen because you don’t have a job. See if there’s a way to do both without conflict. [L]ocation is huge as is having the ability (desire) to market yourself to everyone everywhere all the time is important. Some people just don’t have the personality for it but it’s important to do, and knowing whether or not marketing is ‘for you’ is an important thing to remember.

Also, the playing field is not equal. People aren’t always honest about their success or failures (marketing) nor are they honest about their finances. Don’t be swayed or quick to chase the illusion of the hive-mind industry. Do your own shit.”
John Tully, Bethlehem, NH

11 Things Photographers Wish They Knew Before Going Freelance

“Location, location, location. Also, of course your first year won’t be good so save lots of money and create lots of new work in the downtime. I’d freelanced for years and moving from Atlanta to LA set me back 8 months (but I did get to build up some Atlanta freelancers – ha), if not more. ps I should add that when I first quit (I actually got laid off but planned on quitting the next week) from newspapers, I didn’t do it until I had 10 weddings booked (which I no longer shoot) so all my bills would be covered the first year and I had already gone to NYC and met with photo editors and started working for NYT and TIME. Good for you for making more deliberate moves this time before cutting the cord!”
Kendrick BrinsonLos Angeles, CA

“I lived with my parents for over two years (we get along, luckily) paying a small rent, and then transitioned into a super cheap living situation with my brother and my best friend, all while I taught adjunct and high school summer art classes part time. I was lucky because I was happy in all of these situations. Find some complementary corporate jobs. Think of newspaper assignments as fun beer money, not the stuff you will live off of. You generally need to have some sort of support network to get going. But at this point I’ve got no regrets – if you can be smart about when the money is coming in, you can use the down time to focus on making personal work and not stress it too hard. Figure out the minimum you need to live off while not being miserable and do that, save the extra money.

If I were you, I would try to get 9-12 months of living expenses in order – and some money to really put into marketing and make a real good push out the gate.”
Peter Hoffman, Chicago, IL

Video: 11 Essential Tips for Freelance Photographers – Hosted by Robert Seale


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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 2 comments for this article
  1. Douglas at 10:28 pm

    Photography is an art form, however when you start charging for it, the art of photography takes a back seat to the business of photography. Your skills with a camera don’t entitle you to business success, neither does someone’s lack of skill prevent success. I know this burns a lot of people up, but someone who is an average photographer and a smart businessperson stands a better chance of success than a gifted photographer who views their business as a distraction. When you are running a business, photography can’t be 100% about the art form. You might be the best photographer in town, but you’ll never have any work if you are priced too high or marketing yourself poorly. The soccer mom who got a DSLR last Christmas is going to bury you. While she’s churning out photo sessions on Auto down by the railroad tracks or that wall downtown with all the graffiti, you’ll be alone in your studio wondering why no one wants to hire a “real” photographer. I know experienced photographers like to get their collective undies in a bunch over this, but it’s something that many newcomers looking for extra income grasp almost immediately. The truth is, seasoned photographers know it too, but they won’t admit it. The average person doesn’t care about the artistic merit of your photography. They want pictures they can afford and that are better than something they can take. Something not shot with an iPhone. Something they can hang on their wall and post on Facebook. That’s it. Veteran photogs might view that market as beneath them, but it’s one new photographers thrive in and might never develop the skills to move out of. And honestly, if they’re happy with that and their clients are happy and they aren’t conning anyone, I think that’s just fine.

  2. Ben at 7:24 am

    “Also, the playing field is not equal. People aren’t always honest about their success or failures (marketing) nor are they honest about their finances. Don’t be swayed or quick to chase the illusion of the hive-mind industry.”

    Great advice! People who are self employed like to boast about their successes and people moving into that same field can easily be misled about how easy or hard it is.

    Always look at every job as both an opportunity to network, but also a chance to make great work. Most business comes in from referrals, and that happens more often if you’re delivering great content with a good attitude. You need to take work you don’t necessarily want for a while when you start, but realizing what you want to shoot and pushing for that kind of work is key to maintaining a healthy work/life balance.

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