5 Tips for aspiring Freelance Photographers

Read on if you want to succeed as a fulltime photographer

One of the most common questions I get asked when I go out on a job is “Do you make a living from this?” The ‘this’ in question is photography, and the answer, of course, is yes. Thankfully.

But it hasn’t been easy, and if you’re just starting out in the world freelance photography then you might be finding it tough, too.

If I’d decided to stay in my home town – hell, even my own country – then starting my own business would’ve been much easier in comparison. I would have had a strong network of friends and former colleagues, I would have had a strong credit rating to fall back on for loans and financing of equipment, and I would have been able to communicate in my own language and therefore understand the needs of my clients. But instead I went travelling, spent all my cash, and eventually settled down in Denmark.

I’d be lying if I said I’d not made a single mistake or error of judgement. There’ve been days and nights where I’ve just thought, fuck it, I’ll just move home and get a ‘proper’ job. For instance, one job I did ended up costing me money, because the cost to park outside the venue was more money than I made all night. I came home feeling like shit, especially because my partner was pregnant and my in-laws were visiting for the weekend. I had to borrow money to pay the rent and the work didn’t seem to be improving.

Then one day I reached out to a friend. Dom Romney and I studied together in Sheffield and he had gone on to have a fantastic career as a motorsport photographer. He takes pictures for Top Gear magazine, Formula 1, and dozens of automobile firms around the world. His advice got me on the path to forging my own successful career and business has been booming ever since.

So instead of sitting on this fine advice I thought it was about time I shared some of the most important bits with you.

Photoshelter Guides

Without these I don’t know where I’d be today. Quite simply the best FREE advice for photographers out there and available from photoshelter.com For over two years now I’ve been downloading as many of these babies as possible: Pricing your Work; Email Marketing for Photographers; Social Media for Photographers, and so on and so on. Their guides are in PDF format and easy on the eye, so you don’t get bored to death whilst reading them. They’re created and updated regularly, so you can be sure that the info is as up to date as possible. After 18 months I decided it was time to give them some cash and they now host my main website, photographybymatthewjames.com. Which leads me nicely on to my next point…

Website

This one really is a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many people get it wrong. Whatever your age, competence, or opinion about the worldwide web, this is the place people go to do their research. Therefore this is the place where you have to shine and sell yourself to your potential clients.

There are a multitude of options out there to design a site yourself (cheaper but can be time consuming and difficult to get the site working fast and smooth), or hire a pro or someone fresh out of college. All you really need to do is choose the content and be able to make changes whenever necessary. You don’t want the web designer on holiday in Borneo when you really need to upload a new portfolio. Choose only the best pictures to display there (quality not quantity) and have a short but sweet Biography page that promotes you as a person, but also talks about what you can offer your clients. Don’t overload it with crap and make sure every link works and every picture loads quickly. A slow site will lose you customers in a heartbeat.

Make sure your contact page is clear, easy to find, and in full working order. Funnily enough, I once saw the results of a survey which stated that Editorial clients don’t want to see an Enquiry Form on your Contact page. When I finally added one I started receiving more enquiries for jobs, even though my telephone, email, and social media details were all there. So include everything.

Finally, make sure it’s looking good and working perfectly before you officially launch it. Ask friends and family to take a look using different internet browsers and ask them to note down any broken links, missing images, or slow pages. You can make any necessary adjustments before you spring it on the world, and regularly check back on it and update it as your career progresses. A stale website is a dull place to be.

Niche

This can be very difficult to decide, because you might be good at one thing, but realise there’s a market for something else. I trained and worked as an editorial photographer, but once I went freelance I discovered it was hard to find regular and well-paid work in this field. So I took any job I could find, like weddings, parties, events etc. In the beginning this works fine, but make sure you can still find the time to photograph the things you want to be recognised and hired for in the long term. Keep adding these images to your portfolio and website, and keep marketing them whenever and wherever. If you carry on doing every job that comes your way you’ll never stand out from the crowd, and you’ll be just another Jack of All Trades, Master of None.

Gradually I realised that my passions were Portraits, Sport and Corporate Photography, and these now make up the bulk of my jobs. I still get emails asking me to cover events, parties and weddings – and I’m more than happy to do them – I just don’t really promote the fact that I do. People can see from your work that you’re a good photographer and they’ll decide whether to contact you or not.

Networking

Go out and meet people. Definitely get a few hundred business cards made up, but don’t hand them out willy-nilly. Most people will throw them away without ever looking at them; instead choose that one person who sounds genuinely interested in what you do and sounds like they might require your services (or know someone who does) in the near future. Ask for theirs, too, so you can send them a gentle reminder again a few days later.

Social Networking is also hugely important. This is a chapter for another day, but experiment with Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other channels. Your customers might not be using all of them, but there are advantages and disadvantages to each and every one, and even I’m still finding this out.

Rosh Sillars is a great guy to turn to if you’re looking for more networking and marketing info. His website and podcasts are always full of interesting and useful content, and I make sure to tune in as I cycle in to the office. A 20 minute fix of Rosh gets my mind pondering the endless possibilities of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and it feels nice to have someone in your corner.

Pricing

Definitely a tough area to figure out and most of us still are. Many photographers and marketing experts have pretty much the same opinion, though: don’t undervalue your work.

The best place to start is by looking at your competitors – what are they charging and why. Let’s take a look at two types of wedding photography as an example, using two real case studies. Photographer A – let’s call him Martin, because that’s his real name – charges a staggering $2000 for just one picture! He has people queuing at his stall during wedding fairs (people with plenty of cash), and he’s happy to walk around bragging about his awards, prices and number of clients. He also dresses very very simply and actually reminds me of a farmer. Lots of other wedding photographers look up to him and, to be honest, he knows it.

But the difference is, his work is fantastic and totally original. In his own words, he creates a work of art. A picture that could easily hang on an Art Gallery wall and sell for thousands (dollars, that is) so naturally he charges that price to his clients. It’s likely that these same clients also hire a second photographer to cover the rest of the day and get all the normal shots of the service and cake cutting etc.

But Martin can sell them something that nobody else can and therefore he’s unique. He’s free to charge whatever he thinks he can get.

Photographer B on the other hand will document the whole wedding, from start to finish, on her own, carrying a load of equipment around and trying to capture everything that happens. Afterwards there’ll be at least a thousand images to go through and edit before handing over the final batch a few weeks later. The price is the same.

So which one are you? Which one do you want to be? Maybe you’re neither of these people and you do things entirely differently. Either way, the one thing you aren’t is Walmart or Amazon. You can’t offer a bulk service where you send out a dozen photographers to a dozen weddings each Saturday – your time and expertise is the value here and should be charged accordingly. If you decide to always charge less than everybody else then you’ll always be known as that guy. Clients will recommend you to their friends as a cheap photographer, and you’ll be working every hour under the sun just to make ends meet. Clients who don’t value your work and prices don’t value you.

If you want to make it as a professional (and full time) photographer then you need to set your prices accordingly so you don’t go out of business. So below I’ve described a basic formula that will help you arrive at your price.

Cost of Doing Business (CODB)

This is your first port of call. To calculate this you need to add up all your expected costs for the entire year. It can be a bit daunting at first, especially if you have no idea (just like I did). You should definitely include the following:

All camera equipment
Computers, printers, stationary, office equipment
Internet, phone bill, insurance, office rent (or you can even include a percentage of your house rent if you work from home)
Insurance (yes, you need it)
Accountant (yes, you need one of these, too)
Marketing (set yourself a monthly budget based on what you can afford to spend – at least $100)
Miscellaneous (add between 5- and 10 per cent for emergency / extra costs that spring up)

How many jobs / days do you want to work per year

Now you need to decide how many hours / days you want to work per year. By work I actually mean days of physically taking pictures. I usually say 100 days, based on a five-day week. This works out at two days per week (1.9 to be precise), which leaves me with three days to edit, write a blog, tackle emails, pay bills, create invoices, update my website, network (face-to-face and Social Media) and all the other things I need to do to keep the business running smoothly. You can’t shoot five days a week and expect to find time for everything else that needs doing, including relaxing!

Adding it all together. Or dividing, in this case

So now all you need to do is take the CODB figure and divide it by 100 to arrive at your absolute minimum call-out fee. But remember, this fee only covers your expenses for the business and not your own wages and profits.

To arrive at this figure is much simpler. You can either add up all your living costs – mortgage / rent, food, loan, fuel bills etc – or you can choose an annual salary that you’ve easily survived on in the past. Remember – don’t start too big when just starting out. Chances are you were on a trainee wage when you started out at a previous job and it went up over time. Apply the same methods here.

Finally, if you want you can add a profit percentage that you’d like to achieve. No harm in this, but don’t be too greedy in the beginning. 25 per cent is a realistic and achievable figure.

If we add all this up it might look something like this:

CODB – $5,000
Salary – $20,000
Total – $25,000
25% Profit – $6,250
Total – $31,250
Divide by 100 = $312.50

This final amount tells you what the minimum charge per job should be if you want to survive and continue next year. It’s not a lot, really, though some people might not want to pay it. You have two options here: A) Decline the job B) Negotiate a price based on their budget, but make sure you remove parts of your service to accomodate it. For example, spend less time on the job, or deliver fewer images etc. Even though you might not have made enough money on this job, you’ll probably make it back somewhere else to balance it out. Just don’t go crazy when reducing the price. Your prices are set for a very good reason.

Tip of the Iceberg

Man, there’s a lot of stuff we’ve just covered there. I’m hoping that you find most of it useful, even if you knew some of it already.

You’re always more than welcome to contact me and ask me any questions regarding getting in to freelance photography. Or alternatively, sign up to my newsletter and receive updates every few months so you don’t miss out on future blog posts.

I should sign off by saying a huge thank you to Dom Romney, the Photoshelter team, Wonderful Machine, and marketing guru Rosh Sillars. You can follow any of these people / companies in all the usual places and get more detailed tips and advice from those who know it best.

P.S. It’s pronounced neesh, not nitch!

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