A few weeks ago, the Houston-based commercial/advertising photographer Nathan Lindstrom gave some advice to an assistant who was thinking about shooting full-time. The way he saw it, there were two ways to enter the industry: you can work on staff for someone else, or you can shoot freelance and work for yourself. To do the first one, you need to be a great photographer. To do the second, you need to be a great photographer and a fantastic business person.
“To run a successful freelance business or studio, you are going to be the marketing department, the sales department, the accounting department, the legal department, the customer service department, HR, and IT,” Nathan tells us. “After all that, then you get to be the photographer. For a minute. Then you have to go back to running the business.”
While some genres require more business acumen than others, Nathan’s experience isn’t unusual. According to a 2019-2020 survey from the UK company Your Wedding Photographer, the average professional in that industry spends just 4% of their time taking photos; the rest is allocated to editing, culling, business and admin duties, and communication.
In 2020, with more people than ever viewing freelancing as a long-term career path, we took the opportunity to ask the experts about how they navigate a challenging market and combine their creative skills and business expertise to foster a successful photography practice. Read on for their best tips.
1. Charge what you’re worth
“Know what you’re worth, and don’t be afraid to ask for it,” the Texas-based photographer Sarah Lim urges. “Educate yourself about industry pricing so that you’ll be confident enough to hear ‘no’ when a client cannot or will not pay you a fair rate. It’s a tough industry, and hearing ‘no’ can be hard. But your time and unique talents are valuable assets, so take that into consideration when creating bids.
“Don’t be afraid to openly discuss bids and pricing among others within the community. It’s how we hold the industry, the clients, and ourselves accountable to ensure the viability of the profession. And it’s especially important for helping to close the wage gap for women and persons of colour.
“Most importantly, advocate for yourself. Educate your clients. Because at the end of the day, no matter how much you love your job, it’s a job. You’ve got to eat, and talent alone doesn’t pay the bills.”
2. Find a mentor
“My most important business tip is to get as much experience as you can,” the wedding photographer Rebecca Yale says. “Learn from other photographers. Assisting, second-shooting, interning, or taking part in educational workshops or mentoring programs is an essential part of being a successful business because there are so many things that you don’t know you don’t know, and by the time you realise you should have known, it’s too late! Finding a mentor is the best investment you can make as you grow your business because you get to learn from their experience. It was invaluable to me when I was starting.”
“This photo is from an editorial I photographed in Italy in 2016. Editorials are a great way to test out and build new skills.”
3. Get your books in order
Whether your business is small or large, a side-hustle or a full-time career, it’s important to set up a seamless process for invoicing, taxes, bills, and client communications. Get your spreadsheets, calendars, and to-do lists up and running, and select the management software that works best for you.
“I think the main thing is to get your books set up in a way that you can start small and scale them as your business grows,” the Los Angeles-based photographer and director Elizabeth Weinberg says. “Get your business structure set up, separate your bank accounts and credit cards into business and personal, and figure out what system works best for you for tracking deductions, expenses, and invoices (for me, it’s Quickbooks).
“Once you have everything locked down, the ecosystem begins to run on its own and can grow with you. I wish I had learned to organise all of my expenses better because those tax deductions can really make a difference when the bills come.”
4. Follow a budget
“Knowing your operating costs, setting budgets, and keeping track of your income and what you need to insure can give you the freedom to make decisions for your business without constantly having to guess or risk overextending yourself when things go wrong,” the NYC-based photographer Chelsea Kyle tells us.
“I think one of the most important lessons I’ve learned while in the field is how to run a business properly. By that, I specifically mean managing your finances, having insurance, and staying organised.” Calculate your overheads, and make sure you have enough savings to fall back on during the slow months. No brand-new gear or studio is worth getting into debt.
5. Know your usage rights
“My number one business tip is to learn about usage rights, licensing, and how to negotiate using those terms in conjunction with your day rate and fees,” Chelsea continues. “This is so important when you are starting out because you can easily be taken advantage of when you don’t understand what usage rights you may be signing away.
“Understanding the value of your photography assets is valuable not only for each individual client negotiation but for additional revenue in the future if that image were to be used again.
“Stock photography and re-licensing are huge, especially during a difficult time for clients to be creating new work because of the pandemic. Staying organised with your contracts and agreements and knowing which photos you can offer clients should they need them can bring you a lot of additional income.”
6. Put your clients’ needs first
“Leave your ego at the door,” the Los Angeles-based photographer Emily Sandifer advises. “This may not seem like a ‘business’ tip, but it’s been the single most important way I’ve gained referral after referral.
“Communicate clearly with your clients. It’s your job to figure out how to alleviate any concerns they might have. I’ve become a better photographer technically over the years simply by genuinely listening to my clients’ criticisms and finding a solution.
“Photographers, in my opinion, should always work to achieve a collaborative spirit with their clients. Put the client’s needs first. It’s not about you. Learn to communicate in a way that benefits your work, time, and your client’s integrity. If that means re-doing a retouch, take the time. If that means chatting more with a client before the session starts about what they want and what they’re worried about based on previous experiences, take the time.”
7. Be a problem-solver
“When approaching potential clients, I’ve learned that it’s important to be solving a problem for them, not creating one,” the Iceland-based photographer Cat Gundry-Beck says. “For instance, if I want to shoot for a shoe brand, and I contact them saying, ‘Hey, let me do some photos for you,’ I’m creating more work for them because they then need to figure out what they could use these images for, research whether it’s worth the investment, etc.
“But if I approach a shoe brand explaining that my photos could help with their brand’s visual identity, that I could create eye-catching images that would increase their social media presence and drive traffic to their website, then brands are much more likely to be excited to work with me. This is because I’m showing them how my work can help them grow rather than just offering a set of photos that they then don’t know what to do with.
“I’ve also learned that I need to have some packages and prices firmly in my head at all times, because people regularly ask me how much a shoot would cost. When you go to a networking event or a meeting with more of a clear number in your head, you’re much less likely to get intimidated and say a low number that you’ll regret later.”
8. Be kind to your crew
“Be kind, and work with people you believe in,” the New York area photographer Natalie Chitwood suggests. “It seems simple to treat everyone like they are valued and have something to say, but we all have worked with those fearful of someone taking their job.
“The truth is we can learn from the younger generation, just like we can learn from the older generation. I assisted my fair share of arrogant photographers, but I feel the industry has changed a lot since the early 2000s. I wanted to model my career after the photographers who were kind, and I’m fortunate to have collaborated with some of the same incredible brands and people for the past ten years.”
Develop a team of people (makeup artists, stylists, art directors, etc.) you admire and trust, and try not to micromanage them. You hired them for a reason; let them do their thing so you can focus on yours.
9. Stay consistent
“I cannot over-stress the importance of having a cohesive body of work and a consistent style,” the Seattle-based photographer Amber Fouts explains. “I see many portfolios with a wide edit to cater towards many facets, presumably in the mindset of having a wider range of clients.
“However, you cannot cater to all needs and perform at your best. Having a cohesive body of work and consistent style will land you the clients that will better align with your work, making it that much more enjoyable. Additionally, it is more likely you’ll retain a client that is aligned with your style.”
10. Be persistent
“Don’t be afraid to follow up!” the Los Angeles-based photographer Hannah Criswell urges. “People are busy. That person who didn’t reply to your email after you gave your rates? They might not be interested anymore, but they also might be busy and forgot to reply to you.
“Don’t be afraid to follow up once or twice, and keep a record of who you’ve been in contact with. Even if someone decides to not book you, it’s important to be professional in all of your correspondence. You never know if someone might think of you in the future and either book you or recommend you to someone else. I’ve had this happen several times—you never know who will be an important connection to have in the future.”
11. Optimise your website
“Discoverability is key,” the Tel Aviv-based photographer Sivan Askayo tells us. “Your portfolio website is your business card. You want it to look good, and you want it to be seen by the right people within your target audience. Aim for a website that’s well-curated and photo-centric.
“Show only your best work. When I first started, I used to consult with established photographers and asked for feedback. Additionally, invest time into creating a super fast and SEO-friendly website. Add metadata to your images, and add the right keywords to improve your discoverability.”
Also, remember to link to your social media feeds and market your work there. Keep your pages curated and professional.
12. Make time for personal work
“I feel that the most important lesson that I’ve learned during my 30 years as a commercial photographer is that we are always artists first,” the Boston-based photographer Francine Zaslow tells us. “As a commercial photographer, your business is based on creating images for clients, but at the end of the day, it’s still your vision and technique that will craft the image.
“Early on in my career, I found that it was often the personal work in my portfolio that inspired Art Directors/Designers to hire me for jobs. I would see my personal images in the layouts that were presented to their clients, setting the tone for the project. The Art Director understood my vision and wanted to see how I could bring the same inspiration to their projects.
“I’ve built so many long-lasting relationships with clients that continue to come back and hire me for various projects. They recognise my style, my aesthetic, and most importantly, my signature lighting. Meanwhile, I’m still searching for new projects, staying inspired, feeding that part of me: the artist.”
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.