Lessons of a freelance photographer
The process of becoming a photographer takes many forms. Some begin in school and some are self-taught, while others are able to turn a hobby into a thriving photography business. As varied as our modes of becoming a photographer are our expectations for the future.
My journey began in college, carried me into the newspaper business and eventually to my current place in the butt-clenching world of freelance. Am I happy? Yes. Was this the path I envisioned during my intro to photography class way back in college? No.
Did I ever think that one day I would be shooting weddings? Hell no, I’m a “damn photojournalist.” How about baby or maternity photos? Not even close. And the epitome of mockery among myself and my classmates … the Santa photos. Ha, not in the furthest reaches of my mind could I have pictured myself wrangling screaming kids into the lap of a fake Santa, dangling candy canes and wishes in front of hopeful children.
So here we are in the present day. It’s been a year since I went freelance and there are several things I have learned in that brief stretch of time. Lesson No. 1: you always answer the phone. Lesson No. 2: think before you say ‘YES!’ to a job. Lesson No. 3: evaluate your ‘real’ expenses. Lesson No. 4 (yeah, I know I’m ignoring the rule or 3s): never tell a client you have ‘never done that before.’ Lesson No. 5: be prepared.
I hope to go into more detail in the future about all the other lessons I’ve learned, but five is enough for now. Lets just face it ,we just got up and we’re having breakfast here.
LESSON NO. 1: a simple one, but younger photographers especially pay attention. You must understand there is still a segment of the population that does not text, does not Facebook, or tweet or IM or yada yada yada. Some people prefer to talk to a human being on the phone, so you have to make yourself available. Last May, a mere three months after I went freelance, I received a call from a guy who needed photographs of a softball team participating in the NCAA Division II regionals going on in Louisville … in three hours. The call was unknown from Florida and I wouldn’t have answered it before I went freelance. But now I had a job that I didn’t have when I woke up. I shot it, and was promptly paid by the university. Answer thee phone.
LESSON NO. 2: think people, think. We all go through this, and it’s probably the hardest lesson to learn. Just because a job is offered does not mean you have to say yes. “Madness!” you might be saying (perhaps with a british accent), but there are a lot of jobs out there that are not worth your time. Lets face it, you’ve worked hard, you’ve set your prices and now someone wants you to do a favor or maybe help them out this once. Ultimately it’s up to you, and I already know that you’re going to do the job, but know that I know that you’ll eventually learn from your mistake. Moving on …
LESSON NO. 3: real expenses involve everything (and I mean everything). Know this: our beloved US government is going to try to take every last damn dime out of your pocket if you’re an idiot. Hire an account and get help. Let’s face it, you know how to make beautiful photographs, but you don’t know how to protect yourself from the all powerful tax gods. Now, I’m not against paying taxes, but when I owe thousands of dollars at the end of the year when I spent most of that time wondering how I could feed myself and my family, something isn’t quite far. There are rules and tricks to help you, but you have to be educated or you’re going to get screwed.
LESSON NO. 4: this all comes down to confidence. It’s absolutely acceptable to turn down a job when you don’t feel comfortable with the terms or conditions, but your first instinct should always be pure confidence. CONFIDENCE. Own it. (Well worry about fees later).
LESSON NO. 5: pull out your inner boy scout. Hold up those fingers in that dumbass salute and make it your mantra. You must be prepared for anything anytime anywhere. Understand that clients don’t always give you all the information about a job before you get there, and they love to spring things on you. Do yourself a favor and ask plenty of questions, but realize that things are going to happen that you are seriously not prepared for (see LESSON NO. 4).
This is a list, a horribly incomplete list of a few things I have learned as a freelancer. Everyone’s experience is going to be different (I expect), so the best thing to do is to start making images. Use the tools you have, or work on acquiring the ones you need. Create things and exercise that muscle.