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How to Become a Successful Freelance Photographer

Written by on July 27, 2016

The freelance photography market has always been resilient in tough times, with a growth of 2.6% through this year and revenue of $10 billion.

The business is surrounded by glamour, danger, adventure, passion.

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It’s a business that revolves around the idea of getting the soul of a person, creature, landscape, event, the personality of a moment that can describe it wordlessly.

Download our free ebook The Freelancer’s Guide to Photography for much more information.

A picture is worth a thousand words, and a beautiful, well-crafted photograph can sometimes be worth a lifetime, capturing moments that define an entire generation. To be part of that history is a wonderful and important responsibility, and it’s easy to see why so many want to start doing it as a profession.

However, being a freelance photographer can be quite hard. It’s not an easy business to get into, nor is it an easy one to stay in.

It’s been estimated that there’s been a 16% overall decrease in the numbers of photographers on staff since 2001, and that more than 30% of freelance photographers have quit.

Although people love photography and following their passions, they also have to follow where the money is. If you don’t have a good roadmap for your new career, you could get lost along the way.

Although people love the art and love following their passions, they also have to follow where the money is, and if you don’t have a good roadmap for your new career in photography, you could get lost along the way.

Today in our guide we’ll look at: the pluses and minuses of the industry, how you can get started in photography, and how to get and keep your customers.

With these useful tips, and your own passion and talent for the art, you’ll be a success in no time.

But first let’s check out some of the advantages and disadvantages associated with the job.

The Ups…

There are many advantages to this industry

There are many advantages to being a freelance photography.

The first, and the most important, is that you’ll be doing the thing that you love. This is so obvious, but it should not be underestimated. Not only is your satisfaction with your career important for your stress levels and emotional state, but it also has surprisingly strong health benefits.

Besides health, you’re also growing in a creative field that is by definition unlimited.

You will be able to constantly switch up, change your mind at the drop of a dime, be an artiste, and be proud of what you do. You could even make a difference, whether in an advertising campaign, helping in film shoots, or bringing family and friends together.

Secondly, you’ll be your own boss. Of course, this is the whole point of freelancing, but it is even more pronounced when you’re contacting your own clients and deciding by yourself who to work with.

You’ll be able to set your own schedule and fill it up as much or as little as you wish. You don’t have any manager or CEO who will determine for you when to show up and when to leave.

Because you don’t have any manager or CEO telling you what to do, as a freelance photographer you’ll be able to set your own schedule.

If you don’t want to work too much during January or February after the holiday season rush, you can just leave your schedule blank or sparsely populated to catch your breath.

However, if this summer you want to work as much as possible, you can go down that path as well.

It’s all your choice.

Another advantage is the unpredictability of the job. One day you may be at a wedding shoot in your home town, and the next you could be driving to the tallest building in the capital working on a marketing shoot. Or if you’re lucky, accompanying your client to a beach shoot in a tropical location.

OK, that last one is a dream, but when you’re a freelance photographer, you never know who that next call is coming from, and that in itself is an advantage.

…and Downs

You should be aware of the disadvantages to this industry

Now, to the bads.

Being your boss means being responsible for yourself and your clients, all by yourself. There’s no secretary to schedule meetings, no manager to jot down tasks that need to be done, no sales manager to find clients.

It’s all your responsibility, and although it’s immensely exhilarating, it’s also immensely scary and stressful. Many freelancers straddle that fine line between ‘it’s a lot but I can handle it’ and complete burnout.

Another negative is the fact that your income is not guaranteed. There’s no set salary coming from your boss. You need food and to pay rent and all that, but will your income be enough to cover those charges?

There may be a few months where you’ll have to scrape, borrow, negotiate and/or steal just to get by, but that’s the nature of the freelance beast.

Although your salary can be unlimited potentially, in reality it will be quite unstable for the first few months. It’s times like these that you’ll start to miss your regular 9-to-5.

Even more, connected with this unstable salary, is the fact that photography equipment is expensive. For example, if you’re doing digital photography part-time, you’ll buy a camera for $350, and then include the software (legally purchased), filters, add-ons, and other equipment, it could get above $1000.

Or if you’re more serious, you can buy something like a Canon DSLR and a few telephoto lenses for $5000, and that’s on the low end.

And lastly, you’re a freelancer, so your time is your money, and if you want more money—guess what, you’ll be sacrificing more of your time. So whereas traditional employees work 40-hour weeks, you’ll probably be pulling closer to 60 or 80.

Once you really get into it, there’s always another job, another shoot, another edit you need to do. That’s right, your working hours include editing and you may even find yourself thinking about editing and in general overwhelming your schedule and your life.

But it’s all for doing what you love.

Getting started

Beginning your photography career will be a lot like running in a race--prepare yourself first
Beginning your photography career will be a lot like running in a race–so prepare yourself beforehand

Before you get out there buying your equipment and doing your shoots, you’ll need to put your house in order first.

Make a business plan

Any good business person will tell you that you need to write down your ideas before you begin any venture.  The same applies to your biggest current venture—starting your own business.

This is not just writing down what your dreams are in a random way and doodling clouds and a smiling sun.

You need to figure out things like cash flow, expenses, ownership, and competition. This will serve as a road map for where your business is going and how you’ll get there. Download our free business plan templates here!

While you’re at it, go ahead and plan 3 different goals: short-term, medium, and long-term. You need this to keep yourself on track and to keep your motivation high when the times get tough. They don’t have to be particularly specific, but you should use the SMART method to assist you in goal-setting:

Use the SMART guide to set specific goals for your photography career
Use the SMART guide to set specific goals for your photography career

Check your funds

You’ll need to assess how much you have and how much you need—and figure out where to get the rest.

As we mentioned, starting a photography business can be quite expensive, anything from a basic $2000 to the regular $17000 just in the beginning!

You’ll also need business licenses, professional website, marketing, insurance, and accounting software. Some software such as InvoiceBerry’s is surprisingly effective and simple for its power and flexible pricing, but others may be more expensive.

And what about workplace? Will you be working at home, or at a studio? You’ll need to figure in rent and utilities as well.

I don’t know your financial situation, but it’s possible you’ll need to find some funding avenues, and most photographers begin with those closest to them.

An NKC report showed that 63% of entrepreneurs self-financed, but that only 31% of that self-financing came from their own money. The most (47%) was from family and friends, and the rest (22%) came from a family business.

It can be expensive to start in photography, so check to make sure you have enough funds

Your second-best bet would be some small business loans from your own bank or another bank with better conditions. Either way, you’ll need to have assurances of these finances before you start.

In addition to that, you’ll have to understand that you probably won’t make your money until much later, so be prepared to live tightly in the first few months or year.

You can use this handy calculator to understand your costs and expenses before you begin and this one to see when you’ll finally break even.

Get professional experience

I know you like photography but…is that enough? I love watching movies, but I wouldn’t be able to make my dream movie (a logical combination of Harry Potter, Braveheart and The Matrix).

Similarly, you probably love it and may be very good at it, but is there anything you don’t know? As the saying goes, you don’t really know what you don’t know, do you?

So find out and try to get some professional experience.

Not only will it help expand your understanding of your profession and open up amazing new avenues for you, but it will also be crucial when you’re approaching potential clients.

Professional photography experience will not only expand your understanding of your profession and open up amazing new avenues for you, but it will also be crucial when you’re approaching potential clients.

You can do it in a wide variety of ways, but one of the best is to assist a professional photographer (either for free or hopefully paid) and get hands-on training for what is needed of your new career.

It probably doesn’t need to be said, but you should definitely have a good knowledge of the equipment, including the software you’ll be using, and the important aspects of photography (exposure, lighting, depth of field, perspective, composition, etc.) that will determine your success.

Get your site up and running

You’re a photographer—you’re in the visual arts, so:

(1) you should have a website, mainly because you were born near this century and know that no business can truly succeed without a compelling website, and

(2) you know that your career demands beauty, and so your website will not be some GeoCities atrocity (too old for you?) with scrolling text, but instead something beautiful, smooth, intriguing—just like your photography.

Word of advice here—I know it’s cheaper to do it yourself—especially once you’ve written down all your expenses like I asked—but this is one you’ll probably want to delegate out. Check out our list of Top 10 website builders here.

Not that you aren’t great at website building, but you’ll have other things to do, and someone whose career is photography will not be better than someone whose career is website building. You do all the images and take care of the visual representation and let him do the rest. Plus, you want to make sure your images look their best online, so make sure you customize your images accordingly. This way, you’ll have the best possible representation of your work.

Your website should showcase the best (not all) of your photos, with your gallery logically divided into categories.

Make sure your website is not a burden on the visitor to try and figure out exactly what is where. Make it intuitive, simple, and easy to use. Also, you should try and answer questions even before the visitor knows he’ll ask, including:

  • What exactly do you do?
  • Why are you more special than others?
  • Where are you located?
  • What are your usual rates?
  • How can I contact you?

It should also include some personal information and a photo, because photography in some sense is a very personal undertaking and you want people to be able to trust you first. Keep in mind that you can use other businesses’ websites to make your job easier. For example, you can use Mixbook to make a photo book for your clients using their pictures.

Check out these tips to create your perfect photography website
Check out these tips to create your perfect photography website

Getting Customers

Now that you’ve got all these basics set up, let’s check how you can get—and keep—your customers.

Network & be social

Your first and most important tool for spreading the word about your new business is networking. I’m not just talking about handing out business cards or asking people to check out your cool website. I mean networking your heart out. Hustling.

You need to go to meetings, conferences, join photography clubs, collectives, debate and discuss on social media, enter competitions—whatever is necessary to get word out about you and your amazing services.

Besides that, or in order to do that well, you’ll need to be quite sociable. As you know, photography is an intimate and social activity, and if people feel that you are warm, friendly, and approachable, not only will you have better shoots, but you’ll have happier customers.

One way to be make your clients happy is to be social and to find out what they would like from the shoot

Happy customers spread the word to other happy customers.

One tip is to schedule in an hour or so before your photo shoot—or a coffee with the bride or groom before the wedding day—and get to know each other, make small talk, and share experiences.

It will also be great to talk about expectations and find out what they would like to see.

They will probably leave all that to you, but everyone has ideas about fun or interesting compositions, so it’s good to hear them out and make them feel much more comfortable with you.

Use social media

The best platform for you to spread your art is on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and others. Social media now primarily depends on visual information so photographers would be really remiss by not engaging in that huge potential market.

Try your best to do photo releases on a regular time frame (with a watermark) or whenever the mood hits you. Use Facebook definitely, but also focus on more visual platforms.

There are many tips and tricks to use for your online presence, but the main point is this: social media is a huge market every photographer needs to tap.

One way to network and find more clients on Twitter is to follow and get followed by those who are in the photography field. There are many groups and lists that revolve around photography, and you can even do it based on your area.

You can search for users by hashtag of their interests or specific topic. You can post your photos on Instagram or participate in competitions or trends. You can network through photography clubs on Twitter and other platforms, or focus on specific niches.

It’s also a good idea to find makeup and hair people, either in your local or general area, and exchange contacts. This will hopefully lead to more work for you, as you need them and they need you.

There are many more tips and tricks to use, but the main point is this: social media is a huge market you need to tap.

Read our full social media guide here.

Set your rates

One of the first questions you get (and which should be part of your website) is how much you charge.

In the beginning, it’s very tempting to set a lower rate to attract new clients, but you don’t want to sell yourself too short.

On the other hand, you also don’t want to set your rates too high for someone of your skill level, experience and knowledge.

One way to figure out how much you should charge is based on how much you logically believe your hour is worth. If you figure it at $45/hr, remember that for each hour that you spend shooting, you’ll need about 3 for editing.

So with that figure, you should be charging $180 for a one-hour session.

This isn’t set in stone, but just a way to set your preliminary rates.

If you want to get an idea, Petapixel gives some averages rates for US photographers:

Photographer Level Per hour Per image
  Hobbyist free – $99
  Amateur $25 – $75
  Student $50 – $100 $25 – $100
  Semi-Pro $50 – $150 $25 – $125
  Professional $75 – $250 $75 – $250
  Top Professional $200 – $500 $250 – $1500

In order to figure out the rates best for you and your location, you’ll need to do a little homework of you own.

But, trust me, it’ll be well worth it.

Download our free ebook The Freelancer’s Guide to Photography for even more great tips.

To sum up:

Photography is a wonderful and creative field with potentially huge financial benefits. Some of these benefits include:

  • doing what you’re passionate about
  • being your own boss
  • having an unpredictable schedule

There are other disadvantages to consider, however:

  • having all the responsibility to find clients, make enough money, etc.
  • earning  unstable and unpredictable income
  • having to buy expensive equipment just to get started
  • sacrificing a lot of your personal time in the beginning

Even with these disadvantages, people love the field of photography and succeed. Here’s how to make sure you have the basics covered:

  • create a business plan
  • check your funds to make sure you have the basics, and get more money from your closest family and friends or bank
  • get professional experience either as an intern or working part-time with an established photographer
  • create a beautiful website that answers all visitors’ questions

From that point on, you should:

  • network and be social by attending conferences, joining groups, and be friendly, open and sociable
  • get a social media presence by being active on Facebook, Twitter, and most importantly, Instagram
  • set rates that are competitive, not too low or too high, and takes into account the amount of non-shoot work required

With these tips from this guide, and with your passion and camera at hand, you’ll be able to succeed in your new photography business in no time!

Got any other tips for our photographer friends? Let us know in the comments below!

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