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Making the Jump: Is Freelance Professional Photography Right for You?

This post is part of a series called Freelance Photography.
How to Build a Sustainable Career in Photography
When and How to Volunteer Your Time as a Photographer or Videographer

You’re thinking about making the leap from hobbyist to professional photographer but are wondering how to get off the ground. Great! This article will look at some of the key things to think about when venturing into the world of freelance photography.

Deciding you’d like to start earning money as a photographer is really exciting. You’ve likely spent years taking photos because you enjoy it and being paid for what you love do can be the best feeling in the world. Like any new venture, it can be a bit scary, too.

According to Dane Sanders, author of Fast Track Photographer; in the first year of business 60% of photographers will fail. Another 25% will go in the second year (stats may have changed since publication, but you get the idea). So how do you become one of the 15% who succeeds? We’ll look at some of the tactics and bust some of the myths related to becoming a pro photographer.

Start Small and Work Slowly

snail
Start slowly. [Image: CCO Public Domain via Pixabay]

Do you have a business plan? Will you need funding? Do you have a plan B? These three things are crucial when starting up any business.

Have a Plan

A business plan sounds incredibly boring and having written one myself, I can tell you, it is. But, it’s worthwhile doing one. Not only will banks or business start-up funders require one but it really helps you focus yourself, lay out some goals and think realistically about what it is you’re going to do and charge. It's hard to fully understand a photography market without participating in it, but making a plan will help you find your niche and avoid wasting time and money.

Start With Enough Money to Keep Going

Think carefully about whether you actually need a studio. When I started out, I thought about this carefully and decided I didn’t. I think it was the best decision I made as I’m pretty sure I’d have been drowning in bills during that first year. It obviously depends what kind of photography you’d like to do but consider cost implications and the task of getting people to where you are before making any huge leaps.

Do research into loans and grants for start-up businesses. Local and regional development agencies are a good place to start. You might have to fill out a lot of paperwork and jump through hoops but it’ll be worth it if you don’t have to fork out for new equipment on your own. When I started, I managed to get a grant of £1500 towards a new camera and that helped massively. The money is out there but they understandably, they want you to earn it, so take pride in your budding business and have confidence in what you do when applying for anything.

Extra Revenue Helps Get You Through the Rough Patches

So, what’s your plan B? I would rarely recommend anybody to give up their full time job and leap into the freelance world. If you’re ready to test the water with professional photography, try building up business on your days off. If that’s too tiring or limiting then maybe drop your hours to part time if you can afford to. I remember speaking to a person about to start up their business who had forecast themselves to be in profit after three months. Unless you’ve somehow already built up an extensive client base then that’s unfortunately very unlikely to happen, so make sure that you can still afford to live if the money doesn’t come rolling in immediately.

Even when you do start making money as a freelancer it can be inconsistent: one day you're eating caviar, the next sardines. All businesses go through normal cycles up and down, but with a new business even a little wobble can be fatal. When starting a business you will likely need to re-invest a large part of what your business makes back into the business, be it for marketing, improved equipment, increased capacity (hiring a book-keeper, for example), or the  numerous unforeseen costs that inevitably arise in starting anything. That investment is how your business grows.

Beyond the basic fragility of starting a "bootstrapped" business, the photography market is notoriously fickle. It's generally very local, mostly word-of-mouth, and reputation is everything. Business networks and relationships take time and energy to build. Having a supplemental income from a complimentary business like design, writing, or teaching can help provide stability while your photography business gets rolling.

The best opportunities won’t always be obvious. Use other skills you might have to open up other avenues for revenue potential. If you have writing skills, can you make more of blogging, articles, or reviews? If you’re great with kids then is there an opportunity to teach some photography at your local college or school?

If you have had another job, are those skills transferrable? It seems like people in creative industries make the transgression to other creative businesses more easily. I used to work in media and through experience developed my communication and writing skills; something that’s really benefitted me in what I’m doing now. Don’t dismiss what’s come before, every experience and skill learned is valuable, just think about how you can shape it to fit what you’re doing.

You Do Not Need a Degree in Photography

school
You don't need a degree, but classes can help fill knowledge gaps [Image: CCO Public Domain via Pixabay]

In short, you do not need a photography degree to build a successful photography business. When it comes right down to it your clients will not care, at all, where you've gone to school and it's their opinion that matters.

Some people can be snobby about this. In online photography groups I’ve often seen photographers being quite rude about those who don’t have a degree in photography. I’ve also seen those with a degree in photography who take terrible pictures. Having said that, a formal qualification of any kind is always a boon, so it’s great if you already have one but don’t feel you need to spend thousands of pounds and years of time gaining one. If you are in college, then make sure you get some work experience while you learn or you may find you struggle once you graduate.

What I would say is that if you feel you have an area that you lack confidence in, then a workshop or class might really benefit you and you could learn some great new skills. Personally, I the most important thing for a client is to see examples of great work and someone who’s easy to work with.

Learning online is so huge now, you can pick something you want to study and pretty much guarantee there’ll be an article or a course teaching you how. If you’re already looking here then that’s a great start—be a sponge and soak up anything and everything you can. Be wary of misinformation and opinion disguised as fact though, always learn from trusted sources.

The Camera Does Not Make the Photographer

camera
Having a camera is a great start, but we need the skills too [Image: CCO Public Domain via Picjumbo]

Having a camera no more makes us a photographer than owning a pen makes us an author. It’s really hard to judge your own work, I find people vary from ‘I’m the new David Bailey’ to being so overly critical of themselves that they never actually put their work out there. Don’t show your work to friends and family and expect to get an honest opinion, they’ll generally tell you exactly what you want to hear because they’re trying to be supportive and that’s great, but it’s not going to help you professionally. Although very valuable, independent portfolio reviews can be brutal, not to mention expensive, so if you’re not up for that then why not find a successful photographer local to you and ask them to give you some critique and advice?

Mentorship

Having a mentor can be a rewarding and enriching experience. Don’t be fooled into thinking you need someone who is doing what you want to do though; a photographer won’t always make the best photographer’s mentor. Instead, think about areas you lack knowledge in. Maybe that’s doing your tax return or accounts, in which case an accountant could be a good mentor. If you struggle with putting yourself out there then a PR/Marketing guru could be best to help guide you.

Many start-up programmes and businesses designed to help newcomers into business can put you in touch with a mentor, so research your local area and find out where to go. Failing that, contact the person/organisation yourself, explain what you’re doing and ask if they have the time to help you out; the worst they can say is no and you’ve lost nothing.

Your Photography is a Service

Professional photography is an amazing service. What you are selling is the ability to walk into any situation and make the absolute best pictures possible.

Value Your Service

Anyone can throw money at equipment but you, a professional photographer, can get a great picture, whatever the kit and circumstances. Value what you do: it's taken dedication, training, and smarts to get to the point of going into business for yourself. It will take even more to stay.

You will often be asked to give away your time for free. This is an entirely personal choice (as for when to work for free, read my article on how to volunteer your time); people won’t always understand that it’s so much more than ‘point and shoot’. That's OK, part of your job is educating your clients.

You’ll often be turned down because ‘so and so has a camera so they can just do it for us’. Don’t be disheartened if this happens, if they don’t have the budget or they’d rather go with the tilted, slightly blurred skills of their own staff then they were never your clients anyway. You will find a client base that’s right for you.

Give Yourself the Power to Say No

Your photography business does not need that many clients for you to make a living. You can likely make do with three repeat customers; you can make good money with five. Every moment that you waste servicing clients who want to use you up and bleed you dry is a moment that you're not out finding your next good long-term client. 

Know that you may, in the course of your business, also need to fire a client or two. There are clients who start out well and then turn sour, for a variety of reasons. It's disappointing when it happens. It's a bit scary sometimes, too, because often when a relationship goes wrong it's with someone you've built up some trust. Knowing exactly what your boundaries are, both financially and interpersonally, will help you know when your clients have crossed the line. When it does happen be courteous and professional: end the relationship on a positive, as much as you can, and move on.

The key points here are, one, to go into all new business relationships with everything you need out in the open from the get go, and, two, to always act in good faith. Having good documentation and a lawyer handy when you really need one is a big plus, too.

A Very Small Percentage of a Photography Business is Actually Photography

Bookkeeping
There's so much more to a photography business than just photographing things [Image: CCO Public Domain via Pixabay]

We can be lulled into thinking that we’ll work our own hours (only if by that you mean evenings and weekends) and spend our days in a photographic haze. Sadly this is not the case for most of us. Professional photographer Jeremy Cowart says in his blog

As a commercial photographer, I probably spend 5-10 days a month taking pictures. Sometimes less. Granted most of those jobs are good jobs that pay my bills, but that leaves a LOT of other time. And I spend all that time hustling like crazy. Business, marketing, money management, email, relationships, strategy, more business and more marketing. And lots of social media of course. But that’s included in all of the above.

There’s so much more to a business, any business than what you see at face value. A good business head can be more valuable than all the artistic talent in the world because if you don’t know how to put it out there, how will people know your business exists? Even somebody who has ‘made it’, like Jeremy, can’t spend all his time taking pictures. A good business will have a lot of plates spinning at once.

A safe estimate is that you will spend half your time finding your next client. Maintaining your existing relationships with clients comes a close second. If you are going to do a class in one thing for your business, make it a business class.

Failure and Disappointment Will Happen

failure
Don't be afraid to fail [Image: CCO Public Domain via Pixabay]

As your business grows your priorities will change, things won't go to plan, and you'll be pulled in directions you simply hadn't anticipated. Something will go wrong. It’s how you deal with that and roll with it that will shape you.

When I started out, I’d planned to do mostly portraits–I’d written my business plan based around it! I quickly realised, though, that people could get this service on the high street (with prints) really cheaply and that it just wouldn’t be worth my time or resources persisting with it. Rather than mindlessly pursuing it because I’d said I was going to, I decided to drop that entirely and focus elsewhere. I turned to commercial photography and I’ve not once regretted that decision. Better to make the tough decisions early and cut your losses than plough on until it’s too late to turn back.

It’s completely okay to change your mind about what you want to do or what’s viable. This is your business and you have to do what’s right for you, so don’t be pressured into decisions by anybody else.

Try not to be a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’. Specialise in something if you can, it will make people remember you for something and the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it. I’ve seen start up photographers bounce from service to service trying to ride on the back of a passing trend’s success. Think long game and sustainability; build up a reputation.

Conclusion

While, if you build it they will come might not be a mantra you should rely heavily on; if you build it, you work hard at it, you market it, develop it and put everything into it, then you have every chance of ‘them’ coming and it’s up to you to keep them, nurture them and make them repeat clients.

I’ll finish how I started, by quoting that only 15% of photographers make it through the first few years in business. That statistic is not designed to put you off, or make you think it’s not worth trying. Hopefully it will do the opposite and inspire you to raise the bar and keep pushing until you make it. Here are some of the most important points from the article to remember:

  • Start slowly: Have other work until you build up business and always have a plan b, just in case. 
  • Fill any gaps in your knowledge with a course, by reading articles or shadowing someone who knows what they’re doing. Be a sponge for information!
  • Have someone objectively review your portfolio.
  • Find a mentor in an area you struggle with to help you
  • Value your service! If you don’t value what you do, nobody else will either.
  • Don’t expect to spend all day snapping
  • Invest in all areas of your business and devote time to marketing and networking.
  • Think creatively. Use other skills you’ve developed as well as your photography.
  • Don’t be afraid of failure; just learn from your mistakes and move forwards.

The base line is this: you never know until you try. I probably wouldn't have left the comfort of a full time regular wage, had circumstances not forced my hand. Truthfully, it's been the best move I ever made. There will be days when you wonder if it's all worth it (usually the sardine days!) but push through and you'll eventually see the light at the end of the tunnel. It takes a while to build up a business, but if you're willing to adapt and change as you seek out the best business opportunities, and you put in the hours and work hard then there's absolutely no reason why you can't make this a success; after all, someone has to be in that 15%.

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