The Basics of Freelance Photography

So you want to be a freelance photographer. It certainly sounds like a good idea: you control how much you work, what jobs you take, how much you get paid. Good work if you can get it.

Unfortunately, having everything in your control also means that suddenly, YOU have to handle all of the countless details involved in running a business–most of which have nothing to do with taking pictures. Let’s take a look at some of the factors involved in freelance photography that might not be a part of your dream.

What Does “Freelance” Even Mean?

What does it mean to be a freelance photographer? First off, it means you’re going to be self-employed–and that is a double-edged sword. As far as Uncle Sam is concerned little ol’ you will be a legally operating business entity. This could take the form of a sole proprietorship or LLC (Limited Liability Corporation), or you might decide to incorporate.

Before you decide, you’ll need to talk to an accountant or tax expert … or spend yours doing researching local, state, regional and national business and tax codes. You’ll normally have to get a federal tax ID and register with your county, township, or state. Don’t think you can operate “under the radar” here: not only do government agencies and local business organizations tend to frown on that, establishing an official business allows you to write off rent, equipment, and supplies as tax deductions.

This sounds like a hassle, and it sort of it: you’ll need to plan ahead, extremely organized, and learn to see the “big-picture” as you go. YOU function as your business around the clock, 24/7: as a freelance operative, you’ll be wearing many hats and trying to keep multiple plates spinning at any given time. Essentially, you have to consider yourself a business professional as much if not more than you consider yourself an artist. Most freelance creatives will tell you they’re lucky to have 30% to 40% of the workday actually taking pictures; the rest is marketing, sales, and bookkeeping.

Marketing? Sales?

Afraid so. Did you expect work to just walk in the door? If you get to the Annie Leibovitz-level, maybe … but in the first few years, marketing yourself could well be your main job. Thankfully, the internet offers a world of opportunity unheard of 20 years ago:

Stock Photos – these days, many freelance photographers either specialize in or simply supplement their income through stock photography sites like iStock which allow anyone to purchase licensed photographs for a wide variety of uses. Most advertising agencies, publishers, and graphic designers fall back on stock imagery for every project. It’s a great way to establish an ongoing market base.

Your Company Website – Having an attractive yet functional website allows you to post galleries of downloadable or printable available for purchase. A website is also a great way to promote your specialty, whether it’s sporting events, travel or local color, or the old stand-by, wedding photography.

Social Media – We live in the Age of the Tweet, so don’t be afraid to promote your work through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or any other social site. The fact that you can sell your work here without spending money makes social media one of the most financially viable ways to market yourself, especially in the beginning.

Start with Professionalism

This recent post outlined some of the main frustrations business leaders have with freelancers. They go on and on about how often professional freelancers aren’t … well, professionals. Don’t be that person.

Sure, you’re doing this because you’re passionate about photography; we get that. At the same time, you must always remember that you need to keep the lights on and the cupboard stocker, and sometimes that means going above-and-beyond: deliver what you promised, with quality that exceeds expectations; be respectful of client’s time and schedule; and never hesitate to give them what they need rather than simply a piece you’d love to have in your portfolio.

A Final Word

Never underestimate the value of realistic expectations. You’ll only ever accomplish your goals by approaching them realistically. Dream–dream big, even–but as you establish yourself and start to understand what’s really required of a freelancer, always strive to compare this to the reality of what you can actually get done.

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Creator or Maintainer? Why Entrepreneurs Leave the Businesses They Start

Entrepreneurs are puzzle solvers: they see a whole where others see pieces…they see opportunities where others see obstacles…they see gold where everyone else is just looking at hole in the ground.

It’s not just having a vision, although that’s certainly part of it. It’s more an innate need to create. coupled with the ability to pull various pieces together in a way that others often don’t understand, even after the fact. That’s painting the picture with a fairly broad stroke, of course, but it’s not something that would be argued by most people–up to and including entrepreneurs themselves.

But while entrepreneurs are fantastic creators, they often aren’t good maintainers. They may be able to build a successful company, but tend to be less skilled–or perhaps simply less interested–in actually running that company.

So why do so many entrepreneurs seem to lose interest with whatever it is they create? Part of it is based in the same qualities that makes them great entrepreneurs in the first place: that ability and drive to build something out of nothing. But creation itself is the reward: once that is accomplished, they often get bored and start itching for a new challenge.

Again, that is a generalization that doesn’t apply to everyone. Some entrepreneurs–Mark Zuckerberg comes to mind–run the company but continue to push the boundaries of innovation. But entrepreneurs as a rule don’t seem to be good at the day-to-day of treadmill of running a business. There are some fairly common reasons as to why this is–things that all entrepreneurs need to be aware of:

“Where do we grow from here?”

Starting a business and making it a success usually requires a perfect storm of conditions: opportunity, market timing, financing, and more all have to come together in order to make it work. Entrepreneurs are master of recognizing how these individual pieces can come together into something greater than the sum of the parts. The problem is, what next? The world at large is expecting another miracle, even bigger than the one before.

But it’s hard to keep capturing new lightning in the same bottle. Steve Jobs managed to do it, but it could be argued that his greatest successes–ipad, ipod, and such–weren’t his goals. They may’ve been significant leaps along the path to building a company now worth over a trillion dollars…but that was never really his end-game, either. He was ever looking beyond devices to how computers as a whole could seamlessly serve mankind. He never seemed to be trying to top his successes, because he hadn’t yet reached his ultimate goal.

Others have struggled trying to leapfrog their initial success. Amazon, for example, is America’s marketplace…so how does a company keep growing after that? The company’s most ambitious attempt has been Alexa. There are currently some 50 million Alexa-capable devices out there in the consumer market place–that sounds like a success story, right?

In terms of market saturation, yes; unfortunately, by most accounts, Amazon isn’t making much of a profit per device sold. And since it’s hard to image people trading in Echoes like they do smart phones every couple of years, Amazon considered the devices themselves a type of loss-leader to usher in the next new wave of retail: sales over voice-enabled devices.

According to a USA Today article a few months back, purchases made through Google Home, Amazon’s Echo, and the like are projected to leap from $2 billion to $40 billion by 2022.

To date, however, it’s been like a party where no one received their invitation: according to The Information–citing reliable accounts from Amazon insiders–only about 2% of the people with Amazon’s Alexa intelligent assistant have made a purchase with their voices so far in 2018. Of that 2%, roughly 90% didn’t try it again. That means that the percentage of owners who do any kind of ongoing voice shopping is considerably below 1% … statistically, it’s pretty much 0.

So in Round One, Jeff Bezos created a business that succeeded where no one saw a market; in Round Two, he saw a market that–as yet–doesn’t seem to exist. Oops.

“Don’t bother me with details!”

Entrepreneurs are drawn to doing that thing that others wouldn’t even consider: can we get the public to buy an electronic tablet even though so far it has no real application except playing solitaire? That’s the kind challenge entrepreneurs thrive on. It’s much more of a rush than dealing with the thousands of ongoing details that go into keeping a business going.

And that is just the normal stuff, when everything is going as planned. What about all the other “out of the blue” things that wreak havoc on a business? Things like natural disasters or new OSHA requirements or discovering your company is getting pounded by friendly fraud. For people who live for goal achievement, it’s like putting all your resources into treading water. Hard to see the appeal in that.

None of which is to say that entrepreneurs are right or wrong–only that there is a different mindset. This is something that all would-be business owners need to consider carefully before getting started: are you a creator or a maintainer? Either is fine, but being both is rare. Put your effort where your talent lies, and surround yourself with competent people for the rest.

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How Your Broken Flash Is Killing the Environment

How much gear do you have?

Admittedly, being a pro photographer doesn’t require as much equipment as it used to, and unless you’re developing silver gelatin prints, what we do use has a much smaller footprint.

On the other hand, what we use now can also be pretty awful for the environment. More specifically, what we throw away: as we have moved to an increasingly digital process, we are generating more and more electronic waste. In 2016 alone, according to one study, close to 45 million metric tons of e-waste were created. University of San Diego’s Electronics Recycling Center reports that e-waste represents about 2 percent of the totalwaste in a landfill, but nearly 70 percent of all hazardous waste—and it’s getting worse.

What is e-Waste?

The term e-waste refers to all electrical and electronic equipment or parts that have been discarded by its owner as waste (without the intent of re-use–handing your old flash down to your kid brother doesn’t count, natch).

For photographers, that could mean anything from used batteries or bulbs to monitors, printers, or photovoltaic panels. Even things we don’t necessarily think of as equipment can be bad when tossed: fans, postal scales, calculators, routers, cell phones: face it, as Americans, we love our tech … right up until the time something newer catch’s our eye, and that toy we couldn’t live without yesterday becomes tomorrow’s hazardous waste.

Of course, that’s not all on us–there are roughly 90 million iPhone owners in the US alone–but photographers do use a lot of tech, and we can be as guilty as anyone of simply chucking it when we’re done. But seriously, what else can we do? Besides filling our homes with a ton of electronic paperweights? Plenty, as it turns out. Just like all our other trash, we need to think in terms of environmentally sound management of electronic waste and make efforts to minimize its adverse impacts on human health and the environment.

With planning, we can substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, repair, recycling, and reuse–just like we do with other waste.

Cutting Down on eWaste

A Google search for things like “electronics recycling” will usually turn up multiple disposal options in your area. Some specialized businesses only handle e-waste, selling anything salable and parting the rest into specific categories. It’s the easy way to safely and responsibly dispose of your old tech. If it happens to be a non-profit, you may even get a tax deduction.

You can also recycle simply by passing along, like to that kid brother we mentioned earlier. Or, if it’s working, donate your tech to a shop that sells used items back to the community. You’ll need one that specializes, though: Goodwill or Salvation Army centers generally don’t appreciate old electronics that have no general market value, like CRT monitors.

In fact, if you do find an e-waste center that offers pre-owned tech, you can save even more money by shopping there first if you need new equipment. Not only does buying used save you cash, it helps maintain the cycle of avoiding landfills.

It’s Time to Rethink Old Tech

With so much consumption of new technology in our country and around the world, it has become critical to make our tech use more sustainable by raising awareness levels, specifically in the area of electrical and electronic equipment disposal. And since we, as photographers often use more than our share of such devices, we should be leading the charge.

So think twice when it comes to getting rid of old tech. If you can avoid throwing away old items out of convenience, you’ll doing a big favor for yourself and the environment.

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Pro Photography Business: The Sad Harsh Truth

One question I often get from would-be pro photographers is “How do I get started?”

There are multiple ways to interpret that question, but mostly I can look in the eyes of the asker and have a pretty good idea of what the person wants to know. And generally speaking, it’s not the question he or she should be asking.

Too often, what they mean something more like “How can I set up a business so that I can quit my crummy day job and be free?” In which case I start talking about carts going before horses. If your rationale for starting a photography business is wanting to lie around your fabulous Soho loft while picking which jobs you want to do out of the hundreds of people who are banging on your door and begging for your services …

… yeah. No.

That’s not just photography, that’s any small business. And most people have at least a clue that striking out on their own will require a lot of work. Creatives, for some reason, seem to have trouble with that concept. Too many of them seem to believe that being your own boss is simple (Hah!) and highly profitable (HAH!).

Well, here it is: the cold, hard truth. Unless you are an absolute phenom and have been written up in Time or Variety, nobody outside of your immediate family cares about your work. Sorry. That’s reality.

So instead of worrying about the money aspect of it right off the bat, I try to convince would-bes to concentrate on their craft. Do it in your spare time. ALL your spare time, not just the corners where you’re not hanging with friends or playing video games or posting cute pictures of kittens on social media. If you want to be a pro photographer, you need to live and breathe photography.

Develop your eye first. If people want to pay you to take pics, great–if not, take pictures anyway. Keep taking pictures until you have to struggle see the world without a lens. Post your work, print your work, whatever it takes to be seen. Keep filling your days and nights and weekends behind a camera until you barely have time for anything besides your job and your photography.

If you’re at that place, you can start advertising for clients. You’re not ready to run yet: now you’re in a holding position. Because being a great photog is only part of the equation: sadly, unless you’ve got family who will support you, you’ll probably need to hold on to that day job until the money starts trickling in.

You see, it’s not enough to spend all your free time taking pictures. You have to spend all your free time getting PAID to take pictures. And that’s when you can start seriously thinking of putting in your two-weeks’ notice.

Even then, your days are going to be full. You have a business to run–and the product you sell is YOU. You’ll need equipment, a location, and probably an assistant. You’ll have to think about credit cards and debit cards, whether you’ll accept Paypal, what kind of hours you will keep.

There are a lot of “what-if”s involved: what if you have a slow month and can’t make the rent? What if you get sick two days before the big wedding you’re supposed to shoot? What if your client is unhappy and asks the bank for a refund on his or her credit card (yes, banks do that). What if, what if, what if?

Scared yet? Good.

Because going into business for yourself is a scary proposition, and it doesn’t get any easier by ignoring that fear. Like most things in life, the best way to ensure success it to look at the problem square-on, weight pros and cons, and make a decision based on how hard you’re willing to work to be able to do something you love.

And that’s where you start.

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4 Marketing Mistakes Photographers Should Avoid

Do you want more customers for your photography business?

Before you answer, let me throw this stat out: according to the National Retail Federation, customer returns accounted for more than $260.5 billion in lost sales for U.S. retailers in 2015 alone. Obviously, the services we sell aren’t exactly retail merchandise, but it’s still worth paying attention to the numbers.

So let me clarify: you DON’T simply want more customers. You want more GOOD customers. How do you find them? Well, the easiest way is to have a lot of happy customers in the first place … and one of the best ways to get those is to avoid these common marketing mistakes photographers make:

1.       Relying on discounts. Sometimes offering a coupon or discount makes sense (I’ve had great success with Groupon), but it shouldn’t be your first tactic, and you should never make it a way of life. The reason we want more customers is so we can build revenue streams; if you start pulling in a bunch of clients at a lower rate, you’ll end up doing a lot more work without making significantly more money.

Cut-rate pricing devalues your brand: if you were worth more, you’d charge more, right? That’s what people think. You’re not going to build a stable of loyal, long-term customers on a reputation of being “The Cheap One.”

2.       Using cheap/generic marketing materials. Remember those old Hallmark commercials where people would flip over a greeting card to see is you “cared enough to send the very best”? Nowadays, people are checking the backs of business cards for the VistaPrint logo, to see if you’re the cheapskate who’d rather have someone else’s ad on your card than pay even the discounted price. So don’t be that guy (or gal).

The collateral you leave with potential customers speaks volumes about you and reflects on your work. A cheap–or, heaven help us, homemade–card or brochure indicates that you are less an artist and more of a pedestrian. Until you do work for them, that card is all that clients have to remember you: make sure you’re leaving them with a good impression.

3.       Marketing in the wrong places. A supermarket bulletin board is NOT a viable marketing medium. Sorry. Have you ever hired a professional by tearing off a perforated number from a “community services” board? Yeah, didn’t think so.

When it comes to something as personal as family or wedding photography, potential customers impact … not the number of a random stranger hanging between ads for lawn care guys and lost kittens. Try offering a discount on family portraits to a local business (or 2) on the condition you can hang a framed pic from the session in their office or waiting room. Much more personal, much more effective. And while we’re on the subject of marketing mediums …

4.       Forgoing a website. No, no, no. In this day and age, people are searching for services at all hours of the day or night. Maybe they’re on the office computer, or on their phones in traffic, or on a tablet while in their PJs. Whatever, skipping the online portfolio is simply NOT an option anymore.

And don’t try to get away with a few posts on social media, either; there’s not that much of a link between having thousands of followers and gaining new customers. Think about it: posting on Instagram is fast, easy, and free. So you can bet every single one of your competitors are already doing it. Use social media for keeping in touch with current customers … not as a way to gain new ones.


Making any of these mistakes isn’t the kiss of doom, of course, but they are methods that will make reaching your goal much harder. Invest in professional materials and mediums to gain more and better customers … and eventually, those customers will bring others to your doorstep.

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