Jumping into freelance photography as a career can be exciting—and overwhelming. Many creatives are attracted to freelance careers for the potential flexibility in your schedule and freedom to choose your projects. But succeeding as a freelancer isn’t easy: You’ll need to start by creating a solid portfolio, building a network of contacts and clients, and gaining an understanding of how to manage your time, resources, and finances like a business owner.
Whether you’re an experienced photographer looking to branch out into the freelance world or you’re just starting to think about learning photography, consider the following guide a primer in building a freelance photography career. Here, we’ll share resources, ideas, and advice from experienced creatives that will help you launch your freelance career. Use this information to find consistent assignments, manage your workload, and achieve long-term success as you follow your passion in photography.
What You’ll Need to Get Started
Before your photography business can take off, you must focus on the photography part: purchasing the right gear, building a portfolio, and brushing up on the skills to make you competitive in the marketplace. Here are a few good places to start.
Developing Your Skills
Freelance photography is competitive. You’ll need to build your skills before you can bring in top-paying clients. Whether you’re just starting to play around with iPhone photography or developing your eye behind a DSLR, there are a variety of resources and photography tutorials that will help you expand your skills.
For instance, you can:
- Find a workshop online.
- Shadow an established photographer.
- Take a class at a local community college.
- Seek feedback and make connections on Instagram.
- Focus your practice on events, lifestyles, or portraits.
Getting the Right Gear
A great eye for photography is important, but even the best photographers can’t get their best shot without a decent camera. If you’re serious about building a freelance photography business, start by investing in a professional-level camera—probably a DSLR—and a few lenses to accompany it. Depending on your location and photography style, you may also consider purchasing reflectors, lights, and diffusers. “You don’t need to go all out and have the most expensive equipment,” says Justin Bridges, whose Skillshare Original Portrait Photography Essentials: One-Light Setups offers an introduction to lighting and gear. As you practice and work, you’ll identify new needs and slowly assemble a more complete gear bag. There’s no need to purchase everything at once, especially if you’re still learning to use the equipment you already have. Just be deliberate with your purchases, and maximize the equipment you do have.
Building a Portfolio
As you gain practice and experience in the photography world, flag your best images to include in a portfolio. Potential clients will want to see your previous work in order to get an idea for your style. If you don’t already have a portfolio, create one:
- Grab some friends or family members and put together a shoot.
- Offer free or discounted sessions to people in the community.
- Partner with local models—they need portfolio content, too—to stage any shoot, whether it’s a corporate event or a wedding.
Highlight images that reflect the kind of work you want to do. For example, if you want to shoot portraits, be sure to include a variety of headshots and portraits in your portfolio. Continue to practice and develop your portfolio until you’re satisfied with the results and proud of your showpieces.
Editing Your Photos
Taking a great photo is important, but as a professional photographer, it’s just as valuable to know how to edit one. Most professionals do this with Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop. Like actual photo-taking, there are a number of classes, workshops, and online tutorials that will teach you both the basics and the more advanced approaches of editing.
Photography trends and editing technology are constantly changing, so don’t stop learning, even if you feel like you already have a grasp on things. To expand your skill set and stay up-to-date about new ideas and techniques, take online photography classes and keep an eye on what your peers and role models are doing.
Brush Up on the Basics of Photography
Improve your skills behind the lens, from understanding aperture and ISO to learning new editing tips and tricks.
Successful freelance photographers are both marketers and artists. You’re responsible for bringing in all of your projects, so it’s critical that you create a brand and market yourself.
Start with a professional website that showcases your best work, your contact info, your approach to photography, and any other relevant information. Be sure your website is easy to navigate, and keep it updated with your newest portfolio pieces and your level of availability.
“Your portfolio can just as easily seal a deal as it can break it,” says art director Alan Lavery, who teaches the Skillshare course How to Turn Your Photography Hobby Into a Career. “It’s such an important factor to get right.” Aim for quality over quantity. Don’t feel the need to post every picture you take. Instead, choose the ones that best represent you as a photographer. “Less is more,” Lavery says. “It’s all about conveying your talents quicker.”
Many photographers also maintain blogs on their portfolio websites, where they write thoughts about recent shoots, share tips with other photographers, or give insight into the life of a photographer. A blog can produce new traffic, especially if it’s optimized to show up on search engines. But it must be updated regularly.
Social media plays a huge role in finding clients and building your brand, too. Many photographers post highlights from their sessions on Facebook or Instagram accounts specifically for their business. Any opportunity to share your work and your process could lead to your next client, so get creative about sharing your process with the world.
Especially at the beginning, it can take a lot of time (and likely a lot of rejection) before you start to receive a steady stream of work. Until then, you can:
- Network with other photographers and magazines.
- Offer services to local businesses.
- Start a referral program.
- Reach out to editors, bloggers, or other gatekeepers about collaborating or featuring your work.
Talk to everyone about your photography. It takes time and effort to grow a business, but the photographers who market themselves well are typically the ones with the best client lists.
Once you’ve landed a client, stay in touch with them. Take advantage of social media or email newsletters to update your clients on your latest projects and grow your network. The more often people see your work—especially after using your services—the more likely they’ll be to give you a referral.
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Set Your Rates
Many freelancers struggle with how much to charge for their services. It’s a balancing act: You don’t want to charge so much that it drives away potential clients, but you also want to earn a fair wage for the work you do. “Freelancers that are just starting out can tend to underprice a little bit,” notes Oliver Ginsburg, who teaches the Skillshare Original Building Your Freelance Business: From First Steps to Getting Paid. “They’d rather get their foot in the door, really get a few clients and jobs under their belt, so that they can start to charge higher rates.” But that can set you up for low pay, long hours, and undervaluing your work later in your career. “It’s super important that you don’t undervalue yourself at any time,” he says.
First, research your market and talk with other photographers in your area about what they charge for a typical shoot. Then, tailor your own rates around your skill level and time requirements. When working for editorial or corporate clients, you can also start by talking to the client about their budget and adjusting your rates accordingly—an especially helpful tactic when bidding against other photographers.
After you agree on a price, be sure to sign a written agreement with your client. From the beginning, you want to be on the same page. Nothing is worse than thinking your rate includes 10 edited images when the client thinks they’re paying for a full shoot with unlimited rights.
Manage Your Time
Learning how to manage and track your time, especially with multiple projects and clients, can be challenging for any kind of creative. But the more projects you complete, the more efficient you’ll become. Start by estimating how long it takes for each individual aspect of a project, such as preparation, shooting, and editing. In most cases, the editing process takes much longer than people anticipate, especially when first starting out, so don’t overpromise. It can be tempting to say you’ll turn around a shoot with finished images in just a few days, but don’t do it at the expense of your own sanity or the quality of your work.
Set a schedule for your workday, and pencil in your non-working hours, too. As much as possible, try to avoid scheduling shoots during those non-working hours. Labeling certain time blocks or days as off-limits for work can help you build a sustainable schedule and avoid burnout.
Many freelancers use online calendars and schedulers, which make it possible for your clients to see when you’re available. When you’re getting started, try to be as organized as possible, blocking out chunks of time to work on each project. Sticking to a schedule can help your freelance endeavor become more professional, which is something clients will notice.
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Understand Business Basics
Freelance photography allows you to have freedom with your clients, but it also gives you the responsibility of running an entire business. When you set out to be a freelancer, you’re no longer just a photographer—you’re also an entrepreneur. So you need to have a business-focused mindset in everything you do.
Keep your business accounts separate from your personal accounts, and consider investing in a small-business accounting software that will manage your expenses and income. “Doing bookkeeping consistently and doing it right the first time absolutely helps reduce the stress that you will experience at the end of the year come tax time,” says Emily Simcox, a training team lead with small-business accounting software Bench.
As a freelancer, you’re in charge of your accounting, finances, marketing, and human resources. It really all comes down to money. Keep track of how much you spend, what you spend it on, and how much you make. “Good bookkeeping gives you really good clear business insight,” adds Simcox, who covers best practices in her Skillshare Original class, Bookkeeping for Freelancers: How to Handle Your Finances. “It’ll help you optimize your spending and expenses. Perhaps you can learn that there’s a place that you’re spending too much and can move it to a different kind of expense to optimize your business.”
It can also help you understand your cash flow, track your year-over-year growth, and efficiently bill your clients. Many freelance photographers use invoice generators or billing software, which creates professional invoices and helps make sure that the money actually comes in. As your business grows, you might even be able to hire someone to work on the accounting or business side of things for a few hours a week, depending on the workload.
There are also a number of passive income ideas that will help you earn money from your photos without having to take much action. Some freelancers sell their landscape or lifestyle images online, and others sell stock photos that businesses and entrepreneurs can buy without having to schedule an entire shoot. Think of ways you can leverage your work to bring in more income without putting in more hours. That money could be the key to investing more in your business and helping it grow.
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Go the Extra Mile
Photography is a competitive business, so make an effort to stand out and be unique. Think about what makes you a great photographer. Is it your ability to connect with clients and draw out real emotion? Do you know amazing locations and poses? Are you a lightning-fast editor with incredible turnaround?
Zero in on what makes you special, then use it to your advantage. In a sea of photographers, stand out and market yourself. Your work should stand on its own, but people also want to work with a photographer who is professional and personal. They want someone they can trust for high-quality products, but also someone they can connect with.
You’ll want to find new ways to exceed customers’ expectations, too. Photography is a referral-heavy business, so delighting your clients is a great way to ensure that they pass your name on to their friends and colleagues. Think about the way you present a finished product, or how quickly you respond to phone calls. Clients will value your effort to make their experience a great one. When it comes to starting a freelance photography career, the most important thing is confidence. Believe in yourself and your skills. Freelancing can be an up-and-down journey, but if you hold tight to the reason you started freelancing in the first place, you’re bound to succeed if you continue to work hard.