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14 Tips to be a Successful Freelance Photographer

For some, working for yourself is one of those great dreams.  The satisfaction, freedom, nobody looking over your shoulder (except your significant other), ah the life right?  Well not in every case.  The freelance photography life can be hard.  Long hours for little pay, alone with no co-workers to speak to or have lunch with, the lack of stability of a weekly check.  You have to be dedicated and follow some specific rules to make it work.

Image: My office as I’m writing this

My office as I’m writing this

So I thought I would write a list of things that I have learned over the years as I have progressed from a small desk in my bedroom to a slightly larger work area in my living room (gotta learn to work in small spaces here in NY).  I have made every mistake in the book over the years and here’s to helping you avoid these mistakes and to becoming more productive.

Now as a side note, I’m not going to pretend that I do all of this stuff all of the time.  I have good streaks and bad ones, but I try my best at it.  Save this list and come back to it frequently to remind yourself of what you can improve at.

1.  Create a good website with a daily blog

website.jpgYour website is going to be your most important ally.  It is what most people will look at when considering you for a job and so your effort and/or money should be invested here.  Make sure it is easy to navigate and in HTML (NO FLASH!).  Keep in mind that you are only as good as your worst photo, so don’t just throw up every photo that you think looks decent.  Sometimes less is more.

If you don’t have enough content, create some!  Set up shoots with friends or seek out aspiring models who are willing to work in exchange for photos.  As long as the finished product looks great, your clients don’t have to know that these weren’t paying jobs.  After all, it’s your ability as a photographer that counts, right?

Set up a daily blog.  Update it every day with a photo, religiously.  You can take Sundays or the full weekends off.  The effect of a daily blog are wide ranging.  Unfortunately, when you start a freelance photography business, the one thing that often goes out the door is actually taking pictures.  You focus so much on getting jobs and doing them well that you forget to actually shoot for yourself.  A daily blog will keep you doing this, shooting things that you love, and it will help you improve on a daily basis.  It will also add a personality to your website and help to steadily build a community of people who are interested in your work.

2.  The jobs that scare you s***less are the most important ones

Image: Street photography often takes you out of the realm of comfort

Street photography often takes you out of the realm of comfort

If you are starting out as a freelancer, you will probably get offered jobs that you are scared silly doing. Photographer Joe McNally does a great impression of a young, shivering photographer being asked how much he would charge to shoot his first wedding:  “Ccccan I pay you to do it?” he sheepishly asks.

Just remember that the jobs that scare you the most are the most important ones to get under your belt.  You won’t be nearly as scared the second time around.

Even the best photographers in the world were once scared by certain jobs, and most still are.

3.  The most valuable question in the world: “What is your budget?”

This question is the most valuable tool in a photographer’s belt.  Pricing can be the most annoying thing to figure out, especially if you are not so confident in your abilities.  I still struggle with pricing.  We don’t know how much a client has to spend.  We don’t want to underbid and either look like an inexperienced photographer or sell ourselves short for our services.  And we don’t want to overbid by too much to lose the job.  The simple question, “what budget are you trying to work with here?” puts the power in your court.

Now I rarely quote prices in the first contact, it’s just not my thing.  I say, “let me take down all of the details and get back to you soon with the price.  Is there a particular budget that you a trying to stay within (or is there a particular amount you are trying to spend on this)?”  This gives me some time to figure out the right price.

*As a side note to this, make sure to flesh out all of the details of a project before you agree to a price.  This is probably the most annoying and time consuming mistake that I constantly made when starting out.  I have nightmares of the never ending job where I was too afraid to ask for more money.  If someone asks you to go above and beyond the initial agreement, don’t feel bad about explaining this and asking for additional payment.

4.  Respond to emails and phone calls as fast as you can

If you are contacted by someone looking for your services, chances are that they just spent the time to look at your work, liked it and now you are fresh in their mind.  Every second that you wait dissipates this freshness.  Get the dialogue going quickly and the person will often not look elsewhere.

5.  Keep lists!


Lists are so important.  Big goals are reached not at once, but through series of small tasks, in list form.  With freelancing there is always so much random stuff to keep up with, often stuff you don’t feel like doing.  Having these things in a list makes them tangible and keeps them fresh in your mind.  And the rewarding feeling of crossing these things off is necessary to keep from procrastinating on the less urgent tasks.

Up until 4 months ago I was a paper list man.  I would have paper scraps of lists everywhere.  I could never find an online list service that I really felt comfortable with, until I found teuxdeux.com.  It’s so simple but oh so perfect, a weekly list that you can access from any computer.  It has vastly improved my life.  Try it out.  Set your homepage to it.

6.  Set up specfic web surfing times for the day


This is a tough rule for me to follow because I have pretty bad ADD, and I like to read the internet.  While reading informative websites and such during the day can seem like it is productive, it fragments your attention.  I try to set aside specific times to surf the web.  I get it out of my system in the morning while I eat breakfast and then again at lunch.

If you have particular trouble with certain websites, there are ways to block these websites on your computer (you can find out how by googling.)  Block them every morning and then unblock them at night.

7.  Separate your personal life from your work life

Yeah right.

8.  Keep a consistent schedule

Probably the most annoying question that I get from my friends is how awesome it must be to work in my boxers.

I consider myself a professional.  I wake up every morning at the same time, shower, get dressed, put on shoes–well slippers, eat breakfast and start work at 9 (and work the same hours every day).  Start work at the same time as everyone else.  Work and sleep the same hours hours every day.  This was something that I did not do when I first started out and I lost a lot of productivity and it made work a lot less fun.  I often think about that almost ‘romantic’ ideal of the semi-deranged writer spending coffee fueled nights churning out those magical pages.  That is a tough lifestyle to succeed on.  You will have much more energy and get much more done if you keep the same early schedule every day.

9.  Low energy days and the 15 minute nap

The dreaded low energy day, the bane of my existence.  Sometimes having a boss looking over your shoulder can be a good thing.  Retouching skin for hours on end can make your eyes droopy and have you feeling like shoving a screwdriver into your brain.  All those dreaded tasks piling up, just mocking you from your list.

Besides consistent exercise and coffee (which I try to save for those rough days), the 15-20 minute power nap can be a crucial thing.  An up and coming tool often used by CEOs, but yet still frowned upon in the work place, the quick mid-day nap can clear your head and reset your energy for the day.  It is also a great way to break up a long retouching session when you get to the point where you can’t tell red from green.  I don’t do this daily, but it is a wonderful tool for those rough days.

10.  Figure out where the jobs are supposed to come from (and go out and get them!)

There is nothing wrong with contacting potential clients and letting them know about your work.  Take time to think about where you would like your jobs to come from and then figure out ways to reach these people.  The friendly email can go a long way.

Contact owners of blogs and see if they will be willing to feature your work.  Tell them you think their readers might be interested in it and if your work is good enough they will often be willing to do this without anything else.  You are offering them value for their site.  If they need more, offer to write a small post, some tips or valuable info for their readers.

11.  Don’t over promise.

If you think you can get a job finished by Friday, don’t say Friday.  You never know when something crazy will come up.  Give yourself an extra few days to work with and when you are actually able to get that job finished on Friday, the client will be very pleased with your efficiency.

12.  Speed (and why I use Lightroom.)

lightroom1.jpgBeing fast is so important.  It is a skill that is really built up over time, as you gain more experience.  But I can’t say enough how Lightroom has changed my life.

If you don’t use it already, it will be the best money you’ve ever spent.

The program is so intuitive and it has transformed the speed at which I am able to edit my work.

Really learn how to use the entire program and learn the keyboard shortcuts as well.  Keyboard shortcuts are amazing!

13.  Keep learning

kelbytraining.jpgThe investment of getting a Lynda and/or Kelby training account will be a million-fold.  For those of you that don’t know, both of these are educational, video-based resources taught by highly qualified and amazing teachers.  Compared to traditional education, the value is unreal.

Each lesson is split into 5 or 10 minute videos so you can watch them at your own pace or pick out the specific information that you want to focus on.  Lynda.com is based more on the computer side of things, with an enormous amount of Photoshop, Lightroom and web design lessons.  Kelby training is focused more on actual photography (and Photoshop).  Both are incredible investments.

14.  Have confidence!

You can do it.  It’s not easy, but believing in yourself is the most important tool to keep yourself going.  Put yourself out there.  You will screw up sometimes, but screwing up is a good thing.  It means that you are learning.  Just try not to make the same mistakes twice.

And keep in mind that the work you do during the tough times is what makes the good times happen.

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James Maher
James Maher

is a professional photographer based in New York, whose primary passion is documenting the personalities and stories of the city. If you are planning a trip to NYC, he is offering his new guide free to DPS readers, titled The New York Photographer’s Travel Guide.
James also runs New York Photography Tours and Street Photography Workshops and is the author of the e-book, The Essentials of Street Photography.

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