How to thrive as a freelance photographer

I’ve been working as a freelance photographer for over fifteen years, starting from humble beginnings to having a pretty thriving practice today with a team of photographers and videographers to help me better serve the growing and changing needs of my expanding clientele.

Despite major technological changes in photography putting a camera in everyone’s hands, event photography has only grown. While there are thousands of photographers around today, there is also a huge and consistently growing need for images that tell stories, communicate brand personality and help event managers reach their audiences.

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In the past month alone I and my team have covered fashion shows, balls, multi-day conferences, trade shows, recruitment fairs, graduation ceremonies, business luncheons, unveiling ceremonies, gala events and parties, executive retreats and several fundraiser evenings.  It’s been an exhausting yet still exhilarating fall season and it doesn’t look like it’s slowing down any time soon.

Here are some highlight images from this hectic fall season:

Taking a moment to pause and reflect, I think one of the keys to having a successful thriving freelance photography business is keeping the needs of your clients foremost in your mind at all times.

A “client” may be one person, or a team of people, all of whom you as the event or conference photographer are there to serve. The agenda may change, schedules get moved around. You may need to deliver a quick set of select images in real-time, or show up at an ungodly 6:45 am call time for a cold walk outdoors in sub-zero November weather because your client needs you there. It’s all part of the job.

If I had to summarize the most important traits a successful freelance photographer (or any freelancer really) needs it would be the following (and only one really has to do with technical ability):

  • Adaptability: being prepared and ready to adapt to sometimes (often) very last minute needs and change requests from clients.
  • Client-first attitude: while it’s important to bring your experience to bear on events you are asked to cover (you should be the one choosing where group shots get taken, and paying attention to details that show up in an image that clients are too busy to think of), you are ultimately there to serve the client. If they need you to take a photo of every award recipient that gets up on stage, you do it.
  • Technical prowess: you need to know your gear and how to use it. Galas, conferences, meetings, trade shows – all take place in spaces where lighting is rarely natural. Understanding the best way to show off the room, the people and the space with the available light goes a long way towards delivering images your client will be thrilled to receive and happy to share.
  • Being easy to work with:  this seems like an obvious one, but remarkably, not every photographer seems to recognize where they stand in the pecking order. It’s great to be confident and proud of your work, but there is no place for divas or big egos when you are on a job. You do your work with a smile, or not at all in my opinion. No client needs to deal with you and ultimately everyone is replaceable so while getting the photos right is important, being someone people enjoy working with is even more important.

Getting the gig is of course the most important part of freelancing as a photographer, but once you have it, keeping it going relies more on your personality and how you interact with your client than anything else. Your work has to stand out, but in the end, clients may find you because of your portfolio, but they choose you because of your personality and how you work.

 

A sunrise photoshoot with Wellness à la Maud

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Waking up before the sun rises is usually worth a photographer’s effort because of the special quality of morning light. If you’re not an early riser naturally (which I am not) it can also be painful, but I have Maud Urbas, founder of Wellness à la Maud, to thank for getting me to Mount Royal early one morning last week to help get her image library started for the new freelance business she is launching. Maud is a Kripalu Yoga Teacher (RYT) with a background in Psychology and Communications, passionate about health and wellness and her goal is “to empower people to reach their full potential through yoga, meditation, nutrition, and creative expression”. Sounds pretty worthwhile to me and we both agreed that a sunrise shoot on Mt. Royal would be a perfect way to showcase her style and provide us with some useful images to populate her website and social media channels (must haves for any freelancer launching any kind business today).

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When we got there we were surprised to find the lookout was actually rather busy. I had expected us to have the place to ourselves but not only were there a few healthy looking couples and other photographers out there before us, eagerly awaiting the sun to burn off the early morning mists, but also a few groups of teenagers who looked like they’d spent the night there partying.

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Happily, aside from a few photobombs, we found a space to shoot Maud demonstrating various poses with natural backdrops of Montreal and the sun slowly emerging through the early morning fog.

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We then took a little walk around, up and down some stairs, encountering more people up for morning runs and another photographer, who smiled and told us that the light was really beautiful just a little further along the trail we were walking on. And he was right of course.

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We were after natural looking settings to where Maud could demonstrate simple poses that communicate Maud’s belief that yoga is for everyone, regardless of age, experience, and mobility.

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Here are a few more shots from our morning session. If you’re interested in trying out yoga with Maud, you can reach her on Instagram @wellnessalamaud, Facebook, or by email directly.

 

 

The hidden cost of free

Way, way back when I first began working as a freelance photographer, I was sometimes tempted (and asked) to work for free to gain experience, or because the client pitched their event as a “great chance to market yourself.”  I sometimes accepted, reluctantly, and almost always found myself regretting the decision.

The experience gained was usually not as it was presented by the client, and invariably, the “great marketing opportunity” translated into more offers to work for free from the client’s guest list, if any at all.

The concept of how you can give stuff away and still make money was written up in a book by Chris Anderson called “Free: How Today’s Smartest Businesses Profit by Giving Something for Nothing“, (notably not for free on Amazon), which commented on and helped fuel the whole Freemium model startups love, in which a basic service is given away for free (like Google does with Gmail) and then a small percentage of users are charged for the more advanced features of a premium account, usually on a monthly subscription. 

As much as I’d like the idea of selling subscriptions to my services as a photographer (a day in the life, once a month for a year anyone?), on the few occasions where I did actually work for nothing, the results never paid off.

It shouldn’t really seem all that surprising. People who expect something for nothing aren’t usually the kind of people who turn into great clients. And as amplifiers and marketers on your behalf, the only message that usually gets communicated is that you work for free.

In creative fields like photography, writing, videography, graphic design, etc. where a large number of freelancers are competing for contracts, there is still pressure to “sell” your services for free in the hopes of winning a paying contract down the line.

When it’s a bad idea to work for free

Here’s why it doesn’t work for service providers the same way it might work out for a startup whose only cost is server space.

  1. You want to develop a customer relationship: Alas, customer loyalty just ain’t what it used to be. Because of the pernicious effect of freebies spawned by internet startups and the mass disintermediation the internet has enabled (allowing rich market businesses to buy services from poorer market labourers), loyalty is an increasingly rare resource. As a freelancer, odds are, your clients won’t come around as often as you’d like them to. Even with a regular working relationship, you may only get two or three contracts a year. For most freelancers, that’s not sufficient revenue to survive, let alone thrive.
  2. Free is expensive: If your free client does ever come back to you, you’ve set the bar very low for when you do eventually need to charge them real money to cover your operating costs and keep putting things into your body like food. At that point you’ll realize that negotiating for a fee compared to free. vs. a lower fee compared to a higher fee leaves you with less green in your jeans.
  3. Free gets ignored: People don’t respect what they don’t pay for. It’s as simple as that. Even if you charge a very low cost that just barely covers your operating costs, you are sending the message that you respect yourself and are confident in your ability. Any client not willing to pay even a low fee is not ever going to turn into a client that values you for what you can provide and you are better off putting that time and effort into finding clients who will.

When it’s okay to work for free

There are some times, however, when it’s okay to give your services away. (In fact, I was recently sent a bunch of free custom usb drives from someone I didn’t know, and unusually, I accepted the offer. I don’t know if I’ll buy more, but I liked the way I was approached by the company and the fact that they were willing to offer me something of value just because. I also like the way the drives looked -ego stroke!):

  1. It’s for a cause you care about: If you are drawn to a particular charity, or cause, and want to help them with their fundraising efforts, then you could consider offering your services to the organizers as a gift-in-kind donation. I do this for charitable causes related to children’s health, girls education and cancer research because I care about these issues and like the feeling I get lending my talent towards a worthy cause. It feels good to give, and we should all do more of it, but it should be clear both to you and the recipient that it is a deliberate choice that you are making because you care. It is completely justifiable and fair to ask for a charitable receipt for the fair market value of your services, in this scenario.
  2. You need content for your portfolio: when you are just starting out as a creative professional, your most important asset is your work, your book, your portfolio. It’s the first thing prospective clients want to see once you’ve established contact and if yours is too lean or weak to impress them you’ll never break into the field you’re trying to get into. If this is your case, then it’s okay to do free work, but be very careful about how you do it and it is still worth putting a contract in place that specifies that you own the work, and get to promote it and include it in your portfolio.
  3. You want to learn: in photography and many other creative fields, you start out knowing enough to get going but you are far from expert at anything. It is an art form that takes years to get really good at. And that’s great because one of the things that inspires lifelong passion is the chance to always be learning something new. If you are looking to master a technique, or just gain exposure to a line of work you are researching, then again, offering your services for free can be worthwhile. It isn’t really free because you are getting educated and making contacts in your industry. If you choose this path, research the person you want to work alongside and always keep the focus on your learning while trying to offer something of value to the person or organization you’ve joined up with so that when the time comes for you to strike out on your own for real, you’ll have someone who will feel comfortable referring work to you and or maybe even hire you first.

Working at something you love is a reward in itself and it pays dividends throughout your life in terms of happiness, self-actualization, self-confidence and just being free to live and work on your own terms. Autonomy and independence are enormously empowering emotions and should factor into anyone’s decision to go it alone and become an entrepreneur, whether as a freelancer or business owner. But giving yourself away for free for too long ultimately slows down your growth and potentially undermines it completely.

How to survive as a freelance photographer

How do you survive as a freelance photographer?

I encounter a lot of people who are curious about what it’s like making a living as a freelance photographer. Because I often go into offices during the work day to shoot an executive or pickups of office life for company websites, I am in contact with lots of people doing a lot of different jobs.

And I see the look of incredulity on people’s faces when I tell them what I do for a living. They can’t quite seem to fathom that in this digital age where everyone is armed with a camera in their pocket, and people are uploading hundreds of millions of photographs daily to Instagram and Snapchat, that anyone could possibly earn enough to survive by just being a photographer.

And while I am not “just a photographer” (I do a lot of freelance writing as well), photography is my main occupation and what I fill out on customs cards when I travel.

Do it for love, not money

I am the first to admit that photography as a career choice is not one made with an eye to getting rich. Indeed there are very wealthy photographers out there, those who shoot celebrity portraits on exotic beaches, for example, but I am not one of them, and the vast majority of working photographers are not either. Gigs come and go, clients come and go, and you are never guaranteed anything. It is not a surefooted, clearly marked career path and there is no security. So if you are looking for anything of the sort, it may not be the best choice for you.

It is, however, one of the best jobs in the world if you enjoy meeting a lot of people in a wide range of contexts, and engaging with each one of them on a human level. One of my first ambitions in life was to become a journalist, and though I never realized it, photography affords much of the same exposure to different situations, different groups of people and an array of ideas (if you keep your ears open as you do your work) that is very exciting. It is totally unscripted – one day you may be doing a CEO portrait in an office tower, the next you’re covering a tree-planting team building event in a city park, but the opportunities are truly endless for encountering new, interesting people and getting a snapshot of who they are by being a fly on the wall in their every day lives.

So if you love meeting lots of different people and having many interactions throughout the day (if you are covering a large event like a conference or tradeshow), than it is a very fulfilling job.

Get your hustle on

How do you get business? In that sense it’s no different than any other freelancer gigness out there. Whether you are a writer, a designer, graphic artist, videographer or the guy who sets up window displays for shops on High Street, getting gigs is about showing up, doing your best work every time, listening and understanding what your client really needs, delivering everything you promise (and more), and then doing it all over again for the next client. And the next. And on and on until one day you get a call from someone who says they heard about you from someone else.

While you can never stop hunting for new clients – and that can mean making cold calls, running e-mail marketing campaigns, maintaining a blog with regular, useful content, and good old-fashioned networking both on and off-line – holding on to the clients you have is also part of the job. If you develop a good relationship with your client – mainly by doing good work consistently for them – you earn the benefit of their repeat business. Having a few regular clients can help smooth out some of the variability in your income and provide a degree of security, though nothing ever lasts forever.

Developing your hustle muscle is also critical. I never go to any gig without a pocket full of business cards, and my spiel ready to deliver at the right moment if I meet a prospective future client. While the main focus is always on the paid gig at hand, part of photographing people necessarily entails talking and connecting with them. Not doing so makes you that awkward shooter lurking on the sidelines and yields a crop of photos showing people with slightly annoyed looks on their faces at your interruptions. You have to interact, and mingle, professionally. Sometimes, in so doing, you’ll meet someone who might need what you’ve got to offer and you follow up. I’ve landed a lot of new business this way.

Don’t let your love go cold

Finally, staying at it and always looking for ways to up your game or improve your skills, tools and technique is all part of the job. You are only ever as good as your last job, and no body cares how expensive your gear is. They just want great photos and it’s your job to get them done.  I read up on photo news, stoke my perpetual gear lust with Pinboards full of the latest gadgets, and experiment constantly with new approaches to my work.

It’s very important not to let your passion ebb away by letting your work go stale. After the 100th portrait of the old guy in a suit against a grey seamless backdrop in a cramped little fluorescent lit office downtown, you may be tempted to just mail it in. But that would be the beginning of the end of your career, I believe, because to that man, this portrait means something. It’s a sign his company is investing in him, a chance for him to show who he is to his clients or to accompany a news article about his recent accomplishments. Having your portrait taken is something to be proud of, and it’s important to always keep your emotional IQ running high to ensure you never lose sight of what a photo is really about.

Taking good pictures, and being the kind of photographer people like and want to hire is ultimately not about the tech you are using, or any tricks you’ve learned along the way. Yes, you need to understand your gear, have mastery over the tools you have, and not flub the shots technically. But the most important aspect of the work is making sure your heart is in it, and keeping it there.

Stick with it

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Mr. Stickwithitness

Being a freelance photographer is really an amazing life. I’ve been able to travel, meet interesting, friendly and wonderful people and see places and things I never would have were it not for the work. That’s imparted a very deep sense of gratitude in me and a respect for my work. I truly believe that it’s a privilege to be hired by every client, and every client deserves my best work. If I let that slip, even a little, it’s the beginning of the end for me.

The work is important. The gigs will vary. You’ll have to nail your pricing and be flexible and able to talk frankly about cost vs. value, and you’ll need stamina. All entrepreneurs will tell you that it takes twice as long as you think it will to be successful, and will cost twice as much as you expect it will to get there.

How you define “success” of course, is up to you. I consider the option to wake up every day, direct my efforts towards my goals and do important work for great clients a success. And as my economics professor once told me, I’ve got “stickwithitness” which is probably the single most important thing you need if you want to make it as freelance anything.