These 16 tips for the budding freelance photographer were written with beginners in mind. From what freelance really means to challenging yourself and always learning to how to survive the stress of freelance photography, this article will give you the tools you need to start out as a freelancer.
Disclaimer: Good “how-to” articles should contain some amount of debatable content. Useful tips may go against the grain and challenge your preconceived notions. Effective advice pushes your boundaries, and forces you to examine your own individuality. This is how you grow and get better as a photographer. Consensus is rarely a good thing.
1. What Is Freelance Photography?
According to BusinessDictionary.com, Freelancing is: “Working on a contract basis for a variety of companies, as opposed to working as an employee for a single company. Freelancers are often considered to be self-employed, and have the freedom to pick and choose their projects and companies they would like to be associated with.”
I’m freelancing now writing this article. I’m self-employed both as a writer and photographer. As a freelance photographer, sooner or later you’ll need to get yourself set up as a legal business entity.
Whether as a corporation, LLC, or a sole proprietorship is determined by your particular business needs now and in the future. Don’t get too hung up on this at first. Understand it by doing the research, and handle it when the time is right, but sooner rather than later. You’ll also need contracts.
In the meantime, get out and shoot.
2. The Three F’s of Freelance Photography
Flexible – You need to be willing and able to work days, nights, weekends, holidays. Being flexible means being available anytime a client needs you. Often, the person who gets the gig, is the person who says yes and shows up first.
Free – Understand that you will likely choose to work for free, at some point to further your photography career. Especially in your early days. This allows you to build a solid and professional portfolio when you’ve yet to establish yourself. And it builds relationships that can turn into paying gigs later on.
Fortitude – Some call this grit. You need to have thick skin, a strong work ethic, and an even stronger drive to succeed. This desire must transcend how you may feel at any given moment. Ongoing perseverance, passion, and productivity are requirements to be successful in any field.
In the meantime, get out and shoot.
3. Be Seen as an Expert Within Your Niche
What’s your speciality? Your niche?
I know many photographers who think they can shoot most anything, but would you really want to? Don’t become a “wedding photographer” because you believe that’s the only way to make money as a photographer. Or because you shot a friend’s wedding once.
Choose a photography niche or two that you’re passionate about, and then master them. Ensure that your work demonstrates that you are the go-to person for the best quality within that niche. Doing so will mean people come to you for your expertise.
For example, I am considered one of the top choices for concert photography and artist portrait shoots where I live and work. My name consistently comes up in conversation, and on social media, when artists are looking for a photographer. Not boasting. Just the facts. This happened after hundreds and hundreds of hours of shooting and processing images.
I developed a reputation for high quality work that stands out. It continues to afford me opportunities to this day. Whatever niche you choose, be exceptional, and stand out.
In the meantime, get out and shoot.
Nikki Sixx of Motley Crue & Sixx:A.M.
4. Ensure That You and Your Work Stand Out
There are many very good photographers out there. A select few are great. If your images are good, but look like everyone else’s, you will not stand out. As a result, “success” (whatever that means for you), is going to take much longer.
Again, as a concert photographer, I’m one of many. Sometimes at big festivals, there are forty or even fifty shooters in the pit. Numerous shots of the same artists, taken at the exact same time, are posted.
So how do you separate yourself out from the rest? First, get great moments (see #6). Force yourself to “see things” differently. Second, spend extra time in post to make your images pop (see #8). This takes time and practice to achieve.
When I shoot concerts, I take my time before posting them online. I don’t choose to work for outlets that need them the next day, so I don’t have to rush. The wait has always been worth it. Patience is a key virtue to become an in-demand freelance photographer.
In the meantime, get out and shoot.
5. Challenge Yourself Right Away
Undertake a project, and push yourself immediately. I committed to one of those photo-a-day challenges within my first month of shooting. I didn’t finish it, I only got through about 250 days or so. It didn’t matter.
The project forced me to begin looking at the world in a different way. I learnt how to use my camera creatively. I went to places I wouldn’t have gone to otherwise to get shots. In short, I started thinking like a photographer. It was an invaluable experience that I look back on fondly.
I’m planning to take on another project again to challenge myself further, and strongly suggest you to do the same.
6. Focus on Getting Great Moments
The best photos are the ones that have captured the best moments. The “best” of anything is subjective, but that’s why photography is an art form. Great moments need to be great to you first. They don’t always have to be grandiose. Compelling moments are often subtle. Understated. They’re those images that cause you to pause and look longer. It can be a sporting event, concert, wedding, sunset, portrait, or street photography.
Skilled shooters are always looking for interesting postures and facial expressions. They are considering the placement of objects within a frame. They are looking for interesting lighting and any unusual elements present, etc.
The best moments don’t require the best gear. The best moments require the right photographer to recognise them and capture them.
7. Study Techniques
Want to learn how to take great long exposure images? Want to get good at pet photography? Want to become the go-to wedding photographer in your area?
Then commit to learning as much as you can about those styles and techniques of shooting. Read articles and books. Like these here. Watch videos. Work one-on-one with a photographer who has demonstrated skill within these areas. Then spend 10x more time taking photos to apply what you’ve learned.
Too many photographers spend too much time inside studying, instead of outside shooting. Studying techniques is good and needed. Actually applying what you’ve learned is best and necessary.
8. Spend More Time in Post
I know, I know… there’s a whole contingent out there preaching speed with post-processing. And I agree, to a point. Efficiency is always necessary and smart. Time is finite, and time is money right? Begin by understanding some of the tools available here. BUT remember, if your images don’t stand out, YOU won’t stand out.
And if you don’t stand out, you don’t stand a chance at succeeding as a freelance photographer. Why? Because there’s too much competition.
Don’t rush your images. You need to find that elusive balance between quality and quantity. Unfortunately, a lot of photographers err on the side of speed. This is a mistake. Taking longer in post creating great images that last will ensure you last as a freelance photographer.
9. Be a Great Communicator
Becoming a great communicator is the number one business tip for a budding freelance photographer. You have to be effective in all different kinds of situations, with all different kinds of people.
Commit to communicating well with your subjects, prospects, and clients. Be the kind of person and professional you’d want to hire. This is THE most important skill any person, in any field, can have. This is counter-intuitive because most people think they’re already competent communicators. A few quick clicks around social media tells us otherwise.
So what does this have to do with photography? Everything. Talented photographers with questionable communication skills are prevalent. I run into them all the time. It takes seconds to notice. Many are standoffish, aloof, and/or downright rude. Remember: first impressions count, and first impressions last.
Getting the job often comes down to one person making a strong connection with a decision-maker over another person. Less experienced photographers get opportunities at times because they’re easier to work with than the pompous pro. Even if you become the greatest photographer in the world, if you’re hard to work with, it will cost you.
Take an interpersonal communication course. Enrol in a webinar. Polish your skills in this area. It will pay you back in spades.
10. Follow the ABCD’s to Get Freelance Photography Jobs
To land freelance photography jobs, and make money as a freelance photographer, follow the following ABCD’s:
Ask – Ask for the job. As simple as it sounds, this step is often skipped. Make a phone call. Send an email. Message a contact. Inquire about opportunities you’d like to take on. Ask the question.
Back It Up – Experience and social proof are the most powerful persuasion techniques available to everyone. Especially in photography, often few words are necessary to “prove” how good you are. Your portfolio of images will do most of the talking for you. After asking for the job, direct prospects to samples of your work. Link to your website. Provide testimonials.
Correspond – Be in continual contact with your prospects throughout your working relationship with them (see #9). Be proactive, not reactive. Follow-up frequently. “Top of Mind” is where you want to be with your prospects and customers. Review all their information pertinent to the job at hand. Ask clarifying questions. Be thorough. Respond to their inquiries in a timely manner. They need to know you’re a professional photographer, as well as a business professional.
Deliver – The most important part. Produce the top quality work and results that you promised. Results that your customer wants and needs. Over-deliver to ensure any repeat business comes back to you. Delivering excellence is how you achieve ongoing success as a freelance photographer. And also how you will make money.
11. Develop Key Relationships to Make Money With Freelance Photography
Do photographers actually make money? Absolutely! But… likely not at first (there are always exceptions). Or at least not consistently at first. To begin cashing checks, you have to first show that you are worth the cash. You have to be visible to get paid. This is where strategic networking comes into play.
Consider every new contact you make a valuable network connection for potential future use. Nurture and develop relationships with people inside and outside of the photography field. You must come across as professional, competent, and easy to work with during every interaction. Doing so will make you more memorable, and someone easier to say yes to when the time comes to ask for the job.
I’ve known many very talented photographers who are their own worst enemies. Despite their skills behind the camera, their off-putting personalities make them hard to work with in front of the camera.
There are many other talented shooters out there who have pleasant personalities who also produce top-level work. Quality being equal, who would you rather work with?
Lzzy Hale of Halestorm
12. Be Strategic Online and On Social Media
Commit to being an active and smart internet and social media user. Sure, most of us are on some quantity of social media these days, but mainly surfing and scrolling timelines with light engagement here and there. To be successful as a freelance photographer you have to get your name out there and connect with people.
You need a strong photography website, and have a smart and active social media presence. A key distinction that I’ve had to learn and get better at myself over the years. Smart online activity and social media use is not a passive activity. It’s daily, it’s focused, it’s consistent, and it’s oftentimes a grinding exercise.
Sometimes the use of outside services to help small businesses expand their reach farther and faster can help. Many photographers pay for ads, sponsor posts and pages, etc., to promote themselves. Done right, it can pay big dividends.
Beyond social media, the internet in general is your friend when it comes to searching out freelance photography jobs. But you have to be discerning when using it to get the most benefit. Here are a few places to start your search for freelance photography jobs:
There’s a world of potential opportunities available for the earnest and driven freelancer. Is any of this easy, or come without ongoing hard work? Not by a long shot. But to those who say there aren’t any freelance photography jobs out there, I call B.S.
They’re there. You just have to go look and work for them (review #2).
13. Don’t Crumble Under the Compare-Itis Pressure
We all do it. We compare ourselves and our work to others. It’s normal, to a point.
Should you follow other photographers? Sure, in moderation. Getting inspired by others’ work can be beneficial. Getting creative ideas from other photographers to expand upon and make your own can be very helpful. But, paying too much attention to how and what others are doing will start to suck the life out of you. Pace yourself. And dare to be different.
Don’t get lost in the styles and preferences of others lest you lose your originality. Learn from others, yes. Emulate, but don’t copy. Take what you like, and leave the rest. Develop your own unique style and voice to inject into your works and into the world.
Also, limit your time in online photography groups consuming other photographers’ work. These groups can be educational, but can also be counter-productive if overused. Some photography groups are notorious for being full of members who are full of themselves. Some of these blow-hards’ intentions are toxic.
Many come off as rigid know-it-alls, and their delivery to newcomers is more harmful than helpful. Speaking from experience, comparison moderation is key for your mental health.
14. Be Honest With Yourself
Have confidence, but don’t delude yourself into thinking you are better or worse than you are. If you’re not sure, ask for feedback (see #15). An accurate assessment of where you’re at on the talent and skill continuum can help you immensely. You can stifle your progress by both over and underestimating your talent and skill.
Pompous and puffed-up photographers are a dime-a-dozen that nobody likes to be around. Keep your ego in check. Be someone you’d like to be around.
I’ve also come across very talented shooters who don’t realise how good they are. Again, objective feedback is very important. Seek it only from those you trust and whose opinion you value.
15. Listen to Feedback, but Not Too Much
We all need honest, constructive critiques of our work to become the best we can be. Human beings suffer from cognitive biases at times that prevent us from being objective about ourselves and our work. This is where feedback from trusted others comes in.
Seek the opinions and experience from those you value and know have your best interests at heart. Be prepared to hear things you may not want to hear. Don’t get defensive. Remember, you asked for feedback. Take it, and think about it awhile before deciding to keep it or chuck it. Time is your ally when it comes to constructive feedback.
But, too much feedback can be counter-productive, and water us down. Too much feedback can paralyze us into inaction. Take feedback, and apply what you believe to be truly helpful. But also take feedback and others’ opinions with a grain of salt.
At the end of the day, listen to yourself. You know what’s best for you.
16. Get a Photography Coach
It’s never been easier to connect with people for personal or business purposes with technology today. Quality photography coaching is available with a little research and a few key strokes. Investing in one-on-one photography coaching could advance your skills fast. It can be the best money you will ever spend.
Reading books and articles about photography is one thing. Watching videos is another. But, nothing replaces talking with someone who’s been there, and done that which you aspire to do. First, you need to find someone whose work you like and respect. Next, you also need to connect with someone you feel comfortable, and can work with on an ongoing basis.
This may take a little trial and error, and that’s OK. If the first person or two doesn’t work out, keep trying. You’ll eventually find what you’re looking for and what you need. A good photography coach can cut your learning curve down big time by cutting to the chase to get you the know-how you need to improve fast.
Any “tips for success” are subjective of course, and their value is up to the end-user should they decide to put them into practice. Reading about, and doing, are two different things completely.
Apply these tips to start strong, and build a balanced foundation both as a freelance photographer and business person who stands out from the competition. Good luck!
Now check our articles on stock photography
(All images by Tom Leu)
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