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How to thrive as a freelance photographer

Thinking about going freelance with your photography? Here are some tips to help you succeed.

Many people dream of being a freelance photographer and getting paid to pursue their passion. There are plenty of websites out there that extol the freedom of the freelance lifestyle, with amazing perks like flexible schedules and opportunities for travel.

But the reality of that life can be difficult. There is no steady income and no guarantee of when the next job will appear on the horizon. Still, many people make it work and create flourishing businesses in the process. So if you’re thinking of taking the plunge, here are some useful tips to help you thrive as a freelance photographer.

1. Understand the economics of freelancing

To have a healthy business, you need to know what thriving looks like from a financial standpoint. Though many creatives don’t want to involve themselves in financial nitty-gritty, understanding the economics of their businesses can empower and help avoid burnout. First, ask yourself how much you need to make as a freelancer, how many projects per week you want to take on, and how many weeks out of the year are you able to work without burning out? These are all vital questions intrinsic to your business.

If you need a salary of £40,000 a year and only foresee yourself taking two weeks off, this averages out to £800 per week. So how many projects, and what projects would you need to hit this salary goal? Now that you have determined how much you need to pay yourself, estimate your taxes and overhead. Don’t forget studio and equipment expenses or insurances. Build this additional amount into your overall calculation.

Also keep in mind that all businesses are seasonal. Even if you plan on working 50 weeks out of the year, not all of those weeks might be busy enough. Ask other photographers in your network what their seasonality is, so you can plan and not fall victim to the feast or famine cycle.

As you take on projects, track how much time you’re putting into each one to make sure you’re earning a healthy hourly wage. Note where your projects get stalled, and where you lose profitability in your projects. For example, if you find that you get bogged down in culling or retouching a project, do some research to see if it makes more fiscal sense to outsource these tasks. If so, build this cost into your future pricing.

2. Define your ideal client or niche

As a freelancer, it’s tempting to take on any job that comes your way to pay the bills. But to thrive long-term in this industry, it pays to home in on a niche and become a specialist. Though common wisdom is that the generalist can cast a wider net, and therefore get more clients, by using the generalist’s net, you also risk catching clients who aren’t a good fit. These are the kinds of clients who question your pricing, undervalue your time and artistry. Higher-end clients that command larger budgets look for photographers with specialised skill sets and experience and know the value of that experience.

So ask yourself who you want to work for, and the work you want to be doing. By defining an ideal client type and the industry you want to work in, you can refine your portfolio over time and dominate your chosen niche. This will allow you to pitch for the kinds of jobs you enjoy, and with clients that value you.

3. Go pro with your marketing

As a freelancer, you need to have a professional online presence and market yourself accordingly. This means having a professional website and personalised URL. While having a portfolio on a site like Behance or 500px can enhance your online presence, having a website as a hub for your photography makes you look more serious about your work.

Also, consider developing an SEO strategy for your website. Although it is an investment of time and effort, it can pay off in the long run. Today, SEO is not about adding as many keywords as you can to your website. Search engines favour websites that offer authoritative answers to users queries. Keep the kinds of clients you want to work with in the forefront of your mind and ask yourself what kind of photography they would search for, and what their questions might be in that process. Use these answers to help optimise your website. For example, if most of your business revolves around newborn photography, you might create articles that answer new parents’ questions like what the best age is to have professional baby photos done, and how parents can best prepare their newborns for a successful session.

As you advance with optimisation of your website, you can develop a marketing funnel or lead pipeline to help you prime prospects. A lead pipeline is the stages that you go through in your marketing to convert a prospect into a customer. Many successful businesses are able to automate parts of this process through email drip sequences that prime someone’s interest in booking or purchasing. For your business, this might look like having an informative article on your website that invites a prospect to sign up for a newsletter with an email automation on the back end with a drip designed to convert prospects into customers on auto-pilot.

Don’t forget to take your marketing offline as well. Attend networking events and get to know business owners in your area who fit your ideal client type. Some areas even have groups dedicated to networking like Business Network International, which has local chapters. Don’t be afraid to network with other photographers either. Good relationships with others in your field can create a solid referral network that benefits all involved.

4. Set healthy boundaries and expectations with clients

Part of thriving in freelance photography is having healthy relationships with clients. Most conflicts with clients come from misunderstandings, so outlining what a client can expect from you and vice versa can begin the relationship off on the right foot.

This can take the shape of a defined project scope or an in-depth timeline. Make sure you don’t over promise and under deliver, as this is the quickest way to sour a relationship. Strong contracts are also helpful, but make sure you discuss what it entails with your client. For example, if your contract does not allow for a release of RAW images or the client editing your images, verbalise this with them to make sure there are no misunderstandings.

Set clear office hours for yourself, and let your client know ahead of time when you will be available for communications. This lets you off the hook for answering late-night emails and text messages. If it will take you time to get back to your client, for example, with a revised budget proposal, let them know when they can expect to hear from you.

There are also times where clients will push to see if they can get something more, beyond your outlined deliverables. Know that it is up to you how you respond. A ‘value add’, such as additional edits, can be a great way to deepen a relationship with a good client. But if their requests are outside the defined scope of your project, you can set a boundary and say no, or let them know what the fee is for any additional work requested.

5. Stay positive

Keeping a positive attitude can make or break your freelance business. When you stay in a positive mindset, you are less likely to take on clients that are a poor fit. Although sometimes it is a fact of making ends meet, taking on clients that are a bad fit can mean selling yourself and your talent short—enough of these bad clients can burn you out.

Use slow seasons to give back to your community by donating work to non-profits or charities, or to work on personal projects. Although these activities don’t often directly generate clients, they give you the opportunity to meet new people and develop your creativity.

With a healthy mindset, you’re also more likely to foster community with other photographers instead of looking at them only as competition. When you have a solid community in place, you have more opportunities to refer clients that aren’t a good fit on to someone else that’s a better match.

Over time, you will also need to raise your prices. Part of this is because of the increases in the cost of living, but part of this will be that your skill sets will have improved over the years. Many business owners worry they will lose clients when raising prices. But if you give existing clients enough lead time, they can budget and prepare for your increases. And if clients leave, think about it as giving you room to add new clients to your roster that can afford you.

In conclusion

As you grow in your freelance photography business, you’ll learn what works for you and what doesn’t. Keep believing in yourself and remember that bad experiences can help you define the good. Every tough client you have gives you solid information about who you would rather work for, and how to keep better boundaries. Extract the learning from every encounter and reinvest it back into your business, and you will build a solid foundation on which to grow and thrive.

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.