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How to Become a Freelance Photographer: Tips and Tricks to Succeed in the Freelance Market

by Stephen Ironside
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In high school, I realized I wanted to become a professional photographer. I wanted to study photography in college, but unfortunately my university, which I had scholarships to attend, didn’t offer photography as a major or even a minor. So, instead, I studied what I want to shoot – nature and people – via the biology and anthropology routes, and taught myself photography along the way. When I graduated, the big question came up: What now? I became a freelance photographer, and have never looked back.

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Getting into the freelance game is not an easy task — back when I was starting out as well as in 2018. Instead of getting a job like a “normal” person, freelancers take on the risks (and the rewards) of going into business for themselves. If you decide to become a freelancer, you won’t have the luxury of just being a photographer. You’ll have to be everything from an accountant to a marketing executive to a janitor. You’ll wear many, many hats. But in the end, it can be worth it if you do things right. Here are some things to keep in mind if you have your eye on getting into the freelance photography community. It’s not all just about figuring out how to make money. It’s also about managing your life in the best way possible.

Pick Your Poison

The most important thing before starting is to decide what kind of photography you want to do. Whether it’s portrait photography, product photography, wedding photography, or stock photography – or a combination of multiple genres – you’ll need to decide what you’re good at, or would like to become good at. Having a focus will help your marketing strategy and will make it easier to land freelance photography jobs. Most importantly, you need to figure out what you (will) love to take photos of. Because once you decide that, you’ll need to…

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Invest in Good Photography Equipment

It is going to take a lot of money to become a proper professional photographer. I’m not saying that consumer-level equipment is a bad way to start out, but eventually, you’ll learn the limits of that essential equipment and want to upgrade anyway. I have tens of thousands of dollars invested in everything from camera bodies (you’ll need more than one) to lenses to lighting equipment to computers to all of the gizmos and doodads that make a photography studio run smoothly. It might take time to build up your arsenal, but don’t think you can get away with a Canon Rebel for too long.

Get Legal

This one can’t be understated. Before you figure out your hourly rate and design a logo, you need to get legal! Figure out what it takes to become a legal business in your city and state. Get your sales tax license, figure out a business structure that’s appropriate for you with the help of an accountant, get that W-9 filled out, etc. You’re running a small business, so you better act like it. If you don’t, it will surely come back to bite you later. And don’t forget the equipment and liability insurance. You won’t ever regret having it once you use it the first time.

Now that the basics are out of the way, there are some things you should remember about the freelance life that will make or break you. Freelance photography is as much a mental health game as it is a photography game. Of course, these things apply to freelance work in general, but photographers are no exception.

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Treat It Like A Real Job

When you work for yourself, it’s easy to forget that while you’re your own boss, you’re not actually your own boss. You own a freelance photography business. Each and every new client you have is your boss, even potential clients! Customers (or potential customers) can give you a performance review at any time. You’ll have deadlines you have to meet, standards of quality you have to achieve, and “coworkers” you have to schmooze.

Form A Routine

It’s incredibly easy to think of the freelance life as not being real life. If you form a routine (which helps you treat it like a “real job”), it will help avoid being sucked out of the real world. Try and keep a “normal business hours” schedule as best you can. Get up at about the same time every day. Put on pants even if you’re not leaving the house. Try to finish your work for the day by the time friends and family get off work so you can spend some quality time with them.

Take Time Off

That said, one of the perks of the freelance life is flexibility in your schedule. Don’t forget to take time off. Go on trips, see new things, get outdoors, and recharge. Self-employed people tend to work well over 40 hours a week, so it’s vital that you make the time for leisure or you’ll burn out more quickly than you think.

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Work Smarter, Not Harder

When you’re in business for yourself, you have to do a lot of people’s jobs in a limited amount of time. There are a lot of ways to work, and I suggest working smarter, not harder. Spend the money on the apps that will save you time. Pay an accountant to file your business taxes to save the time of doing it (probably incorrectly) yourself. Sync your calendars across your devices. Multitask like a pro. Schedule time for social media to avoid constant distractions. Use sync features in Lightroom to speed up your editing workflow. The list goes on.

Meditate

When it gets tough, the best thing I’ve found is to take some time for yourself and just sit. The act of “sitting” is not as easy as it sounds. Just find a quiet place, and try sitting still, focusing on your breath, for 5-10 minutes at a time. Your mind will try and drag you back into the thick of reality, but the more you practice, the easier it will become to observe your thoughts from a distance, organize them, and then clear them away. Your stress levels will go down, and you’ll be able to manage this lifestyle a little better. And then you can step outside, take some photos for yourself instead of a client, and remember why you started doing this in the first place.

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Stephen Ironside

Stephen Ironside is a commercial and portrait photographer with an outdoor twist born & based in Fayetteville, Arkansas. In an effort to work towards his career goal of working for international NGOs and non-profits focusing on environmental and cultural conservation, you can usually find him in the woods, in another country, or stuffing his face at an Indian buffet.