Scott Suchman became a full-time freelancer straight out of college. Victoria Wall Harris cut her teeth over seven years as a digital tech, soaking up everything she could before setting off on her own. William DeShazer worked as a photojournalist for eight years before going freelance. And Joseph Weaver worked in the restaurant industry for nearly two decades before embarking on a career photographing food for top publications.
We asked seven established pros with years of experience to share their tips for those just getting started in the business. Here’s what they said.
1. Assist established pros
This tip was mentioned by most of the photographers we interviewed, making it the most important of the bunch. “I would not trade this experience for the world, and honestly I wish I’d done it a bit longer,” the Brooklyn-based beauty and concept photographer Julia Comita tells us.
“I’m a commercial photographer, so I understand this may not apply to everyone, but for me, what made this experience so essential was getting a first-hand look at what goes into production and what happens on set.
“I had the opportunity to ask questions about billing, estimates, and general workflow/business maintenance to the many photographers I used to work for. Everyone has a slightly different approach to things, so I was able to take all of that knowledge and combine it.”
“Social media is how a lot of clients find creatives these days, so your online presence is super important… you don’t need to be perfect on social media; that is not what I’m advocating for. But you need to show up, and you need to show up consistently and with one voice.”
2. Build a consistent social media presence
“Social media is how a lot of clients find creatives these days, so your online presence is super important,” Julia says. “One common business mistake I notice is when photographers don’t take advantage of social media (Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and so on)—these platforms are some of the most quintessential business tools for a photographer that I can think of, and now so is TikTok. You don’t need to be perfect on social media; that is not what I’m advocating for. But you need to show up, and you need to show up consistently and with one voice.”
3. Learn an additional skill
“It’s important to evolve with the times and have multiple skills,” Julia adds. “Unfortunately, being a photographer alone is usually not enough. If you can offer something else as part of your business (graphic design, video, creative consultancy, digital assets, etc.), then you give clients a reason to spend more money with you.
“The photographic piece usually only pays for the length of the actual job–one day or several days—and then ends there. You need multiple income streams to compensate for the slow times or when you’re not physically shooting.”
4. Create a safety net
“Perhaps it’s not very fun, but I’d say the most important thing I did before I jumped into full-time photography was to save a safety net to allow for expenses for the first several months (or as long as you can, really!),” the Los Angeles-based food photographer Rebecca Peloquin, who’s been in the industry for more than fifteen years, shares. “When I started, I had not only my bills covered but also enough to cover my marketing—which is a very real cost that will vary person to person.
“Even though I had been working as a photographer for many years, I knew cutting off the steady income of a side job or part-time work can put a lot of stress on your decision-making process as you embark on your career. Having a bit of a safety net means you can make sure you are making good career choices and taking on the best projects while still having enough in the reserves to not worry about the day-to-day expenses.”
“It’s okay to figure things out a bit as you go, and pivoting or evolving will be organic and crucial throughout your career. But at the start, knowing exactly what you are offering to clients, how you will find those clients, how much money you (realistically) will be able to make, and how much money you actually need to be okay is vital.”
5. Make a plan
“I think the most common mistake people make is jumping into full-time freelancing without a very solid plan,” Rebecca continues. “It’s okay to figure things out a bit as you go, and pivoting or evolving will be organic and crucial throughout your career. But at the start, knowing exactly what you are offering to clients, how you will find those clients, how much money you (realistically) will be able to make, and how much money you actually need to be okay is vital.
“We all learn as we go, with some mistakes along the way, but you can avoid some of the newbie pitfalls by reading everything you can, taking courses and watching webinars and tutorials, and joining networking groups. This will help you out so much with the stuff that can feel complicated, like setting rates or navigating client problems and contracts (never shoot without one!).”
“Take classes on finance, tax law, marketing, investments… the whole thing. Being a full-time photographer is not just about the art and imagery; it’s about the business of art and imagery.”
6. Take a business class
Next to assisting, this was the second most cited tip among the artists we interviewed. “Nobody told me this would be a good idea when I was just starting out, and that is the one thing I would go back and do over,” Scott Suchman, a Washington, DC-based editorial food photographer, explains. “Take classes on finance, tax law, marketing, investments… the whole thing. Being a full-time photographer is not just about the art and imagery; it’s about the business of art and imagery.”
7. Edit your website
“Make sure your site is well edited,” the Los Angeles-based photographer and director Victoria Wall Harris advises. “I highly recommend hiring a site editor or just having a trusted friend or mentor in the industry take a close look at your edit. We can get really attached to shoots or detached to some work that is good to show, and someone else will have an unbiased opinion on your work.” Your site is your chance to make a first impression, so only include the pictures you’d want your dream client to see.
8. Understand your worth
“Being confident in yourself and standing by your pricing, while very difficult initially, is incredibly important,” the San Francisco-based photographer Joseph Weaver reflects. “Everyone has stories about clients who offer to pay you with exposure, and when you don’t have a strong client list, that might sound appealing.
“I remember thinking, ‘I’ll work for free this time to build a relationship, and then next time they will pay me.’ But accepting offers like this makes it very easy for clients to devalue your work, and I never actually was paid for future work by any of those clients. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t work for free or do personal work; just do it on your terms and for more than just the exposure.”
9. Ask questions
“I think emerging photographers have a tendency to underbid,” the West Coast-based commercial product photographer Rodger Hostetler explains. “This sells their skills short as well as other photographers.” His advice for avoiding this mistake: build a network. “Ask, ask, ask,” he suggests. “Ask colleges. Ask agents. Ask anyone who might know what a good rate for a project would be. And if you don’t get the project, ask who did and how close to their bid yours was. The worst thing that can happen is they won’t tell you. You really have nothing to lose.”
10. Learn to collaborate
“Don’t be afraid of collaboration,” the Nashville-based photographer William DeShazer urges. “As a former newspaper photojournalist, I use to see myself as an island. I didn’t see the value in getting other people’s opinions unless they were also a working photojournalist. That can be a huge detriment to your work, career, and growth. Collaboration is the key to a successful commercial shoot. Other people’s input at that stage will only help develop a better end result and thus a happy client.”
Finally, there’s one thing you don’t need to do before going full-time, and that’s spending a fortune on gear.
“It’s a mistake to think that you need to invest in the latest and greatest technology first in order to run your business,” William says. “Remember that a camera is just a tool. A lot of companies looking for content are just hiring you to make work for social campaigns, and you don’t need a 50-megapixel camera for that type of content. Any old camera will work, as long as you know what you’re trying to accomplish. Hold off on the big budget items.” You can grow your kit as you grow your business.
About the contributor
Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.