Almost everyone has dreamt of “being their own boss”. Why not? It means that you are in complete control of your workday, your pace, and how far your career might take you. Of course, it also means that you are going to have to take care of most of the “details” that are often managed by a few additional staff members. This applies to people in the creative industries just as much as it does to “everyday” businesses too. For the purpose of this discussion we will consider the many factors involved in freelance photography, including the administrative, sales, organizational, and marketing work that is a huge part of the creative work of the professional photographer.
Be a Professional First
Here we have just used a very significant word – professional. Yes, you want to enter the field because you are passionate about your photography, but you must understand that you need to keep a roof over your head and food on your table. This means that you must deliver the product you guaranteed at a quality that exceeds expectations, and always according to schedule. You must never adjust pricing, unless your client changes the terms, and you must always strive to give them what they need rather than what you want.
This last point is a particularly difficult one for many start-up freelance photographers. Understand that it is entirely acceptable to have your own vision or style, but a huge majority of the work you will do as a freelance agent will be for individual clients, and these clients are always going to have visions of their own. Work to give them what they need, at an extremely competitive price and at the quality you demand of yourself, and you are sure to succeed.
Defining the World of the Freelance
Before going any farther, however, we may want to take a moment to understand exactly what it means to be a freelance photographer. First of all, you are going to be considered “self-employed” and this means you must establish yourself as a legally operating business entity. Often this is done under the official heading of “sole proprietorship”. You will need to research the business and tax codes in your specific state or region to understand exactly how you need to get formally organized (usually this means getting a Tax ID and registering with your Secretary of the State or local business office). Don’t skip these steps because they will allow you to enjoy tax deductions and will keep you in line with official government agencies and local business organizations too.
This means that you will have to plan ahead, participate in the business around the clock, and remain extremely organized if you want to work for yourself in the field of photography. Fundamentally, you must realize that as a freelance agent you will have to “wear many hats” and this means you are going to be a business professional just as often as a creative artist – if not more so. Some freelance photographers admit that only 25% to 30% of their workday goes to the actual photography and that the rest is bookkeeping, promotion, management and sales.
Selling Your Work
How do you sell freelance work? The modern world of the Internet makes it possible for you to live in almost any location and still sell your work all around the world. Consider that you can sell:
Via your own website – this will allow you to post galleries of work that can be sold as downloadable files or even as high-quality prints. You could use self-publishing sites to make your own books and calendars too (many savvy photographers travel around their local area and make annual calendars of regional photographs by this approach). A website is also a great way to promote your specialization as well. Whether you are a wedding photographer, photojournalist, travel specialist, or someone who prefers portraiture you should continually update galleries of your work to show potential clients what you have to offer them;
Through stock websites – many freelance photographers eventually establish a very steady and consistent stream of income through these sites which allow all kinds of people to purchase and download copyright-free photographs. Consider that many advertising agencies, publishing firms, graphic designers, and even large corporations use stock imagery on a daily basis. This means it is a fantastic way to get your proverbial foot in the door and to develop an ongoing audience; and
Through networking – don’t think that you are crossing some line when you promote your work through such things as a Twitter or Facebook account, because this is currently one of the most financially viable ways to market any type of business.
Lastly, there are many successful professionals in all kinds of industries who speak about the value of realistic expectations. This applies quite strongly to freelance photography because you can only meet your goals by approaching them with a realistic attitude. It will take time to develop the tools you need to get more and more clients, but if you really want to reach this goal you need only set your mind to it.
Top image by Mike Baird