Freelance work can be an exciting way to make a career out of your creative passions, but the path to long-term success is rarely as simple as being gifted in your craft.
“Photography is not just looking behind a camera and clicking a shutter,” says self-taught freelance photographer Andrew Kung. “It’s learning the ecosystem of what drives the craft.” Here, Kung shares how he left his desk job to pursue freelance photography—and what reproducible steps he thinks have contributed to his success.
Kung started taking photos as a hobby. A business school graduate with a promising full-time gig at LinkedIn, he moved from the Bay Area to New York five years ago to pursue his passion, landing enough photography work to go full-time freelance within just a few months. Now, Kung balances commissioned work for clients such as Beats by Dre, HBO, and Glossier with meaningful personal projects—many of which have expanded his perspective and solidified him as a rising leader in the industry. “My vision as a photographer is to normalize Asian-American beauty, belonging, and individuality,” he says. “That’s the core of what I create.”
The Creative Pivot
“I think a lot of early photographers are caught up with the idea of, ‘Oh, I’m going to create a singular, iconic image that’s going to take my career to the next level,’” says Kung. But the decision to quit a full-time gig shouldn’t hinge on a single milestone. As a freelancer, you’ll also be the head of accounting, business development, marketing, and project management for your small business. Anyone mulling a career pivot should consider not only their chosen craft but also their ability—and desire—to manage the less creative work, too.
Four Steps to Becoming a Freelance Photographer
1. Engineer Serendipity
“Put yourself in spaces that you typically might not be comfortable in, and trust that good things will happen,” says Kung. It’s a concept he saw play out firsthand when he moved from the Bay Area, where he grew up, to New York, where he felt he could place himself at the center of the editorial photography industry he wanted to enter. “Some of the relationships that I built in the most random, spontaneous ways led to some of my craziest and biggest commercial work,” he says. It all started with getting out of his comfort zone.
- Attend Local Events: When Kung moved to New York, he was still working a full-time gig with Linkedin, relegating his photography work to all-nighters and after-hours shoots. Still, he made a point of attending community events—a priority he considers crucial to his success. Seek out opportunities to meet new people in your city, and don’t just focus on other photographers and creatives.
- Join Online Communities in Your Field: Social networks like Slack or Facebook can offer a supportive sounding board, whether you’re just starting out and looking for tips or an old pro looking to solve a specific, advanced quandary.
- Take Portraits or Event Photos for a Friend: Kung started out with corporate work, like employee headshots, to keep the bills paid and build a portfolio while he pursued the editorial work he was more passionate about. Maintain an amicable relationship with past employers and professional contacts: You might be surprised at where it can lead.
2. Build Relationships
“Oftentimes, people think about building your network as a very transactional event: ’Oh, let me hand out my business card to as many people as I possibly can,’” Kung says. “Think about building relationships and friendships first. Everything that comes after is a byproduct of that.” Focus on building person-to-person connections, and sustaining those genuine ties over a long period of time—even if there’s no immediate, obvious professional payout. Your biggest champions are usually those who truly believe in what you’re doing, and you can’t build those kinds of friendships with surface-level interactions alone. Kung’s most fruitful relationships weren’t always in the photography space, either. From technology and start-up circles to finance or recruiting, your next big client might be waiting where you least expect it.
3. Find Your Voice
Having a unique artistic viewpoint will set you apart from the competition and help attract clients, peers, and fans that align with your values. Personal projects, like Kung’s work documenting Chinese-American populations in the Mississippi Delta, have helped strengthen and inform his editorial work. They often find audiences of their own, too, garnering publication in wide-reaching publications like the New York Times or sparking interviews that allow him to share his perspective. “When it comes to image-making and storytelling,” explains Kung, who now devotes about half of his time to such work, “it’s important for artists to have a voice in what they want to say and how they want to say it.”
4. Making the Leap
There’s no universal formula to calculate when your photography should go from after-hours side hustle to full-time focus, but there are ways to prepare. “Be smart with how you make that leap,” he says. Figure out the minimum savings necessary to cover your monthly expenses for a while. Then, create systems that allow you to maintain an ongoing pipeline of upcoming work. “If you have the confidence that you’ll be able to sustain yourself for a year or even six months, then it’s like, ‘Okay—it’s time to jump.'”
- Build a Prospect List: Once you feel good about your portfolio, maintain an ongoing list of potential clients and reach out to a set number of new potential contacts each week. You won’t hear back from every cold email, but it pays—literally—to build good business development habits and get comfortable putting yourself out there.
- Share Your Work: Make noise about what you’re working on, whether it’s a series of portraits where you nailed the lighting or a narrative project that shines a light on an important issue. You never know who’s watching on LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, or other social platforms: The right “like” or “share” could turn into your next gig.
- Follow Up: Once you reach out to a client—old or new—don’t be afraid to politely follow up. Set calendar reminders to encourage yourself to check in with your list of prospects and clients regularly.
Self-Taught vs. Not: Overcoming Imposter Syndrome
“In my first year, I had a lot of moments of doubt,” admits Kung. “Did I make the right move?” Stave off negative thoughts by embracing community and maintaining a willingness to learn. The best competitive edge lies in your unique personal point of view, not a singular course or certificate. “It wasn’t until I had a little bit of clarity around the different elements of my business—and more of a voice as a photographer—when I started to realize that I made the right choice,” says Kung, ”and I feel confident in where I am.”
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