Going freelance

I haven’t been freelancing for that long, just over a decade. But when I reflect on the fact that my first UK sales were a bunch of 35mm slides sent to my client by Royal Mail I do feel I may as well come from a different era – not unlike the bowler-clad gentlemen in the opening image.

My becoming freelance was a natural process stemming from a passion for travel and photography. It was as exciting as it was unplanned and haphazardly. Very much aware of my own career progression I decided to have a refresher session on freelancing, copyright and licensing at the Royal Photographic Society in Bath. I knew I was up for a bit of a shock, but what I couldn’t have anticipated is how those willing to take the plunge today need to have a radically different approach to freelancing and the photographic market.

The speaker, a Skillset Careers Adviser, threw at us very convincing arguments backed by blunt statistics. You think you are a good photographer, don’t you? Well, that’s fine, but it is estimated that being competent only accounts to 10% of the overall success of a freelance career. The image that you convey as a professional actually counts more: 30%. And you know what’s coming. The remaining 60% is to do with exposure, that is, how you market, advertise and publicize yourself.

I’ve never been very fond of statistics but the above figures definitely make you think.

Then the speaker asked us a few questions which proved surprisingly difficult to answer:

” What do you want? What can you offer? What is your USP? Why should I hire your services?

Which exposed my own transition into freelancing, back in the late 1990’s and based on the classic paradigm ” I take good photos, I may as well try and make money with them” as a completely flawed plan of action. By the way, your USP is your ‘unique selling point’. So while there are plenty of us out there who years ago went freelance because at some point we thought our photographs were good enough to make some money, any aspiring photographer now would be ill advised to take the plunge based on that single premise.

The above questions conceal the ultimate truth about freelancing: don’t bother trying until you have done your homework, until you’ve researched the market and know it inside out. However, researching the market is only the tip of the iceberg of a successful freelance career. Making and maintaining a contact list, setting contact action targets, reading relevant trade press and joining industry associations such as the AoP or the BIPP, are some of the tasks that will remind the freelance photographer that freelancing involves more than taking photographs.

More statistics for you. Time management. Freelancers have to prepare themselves for spending 50% of their working time marketing themselves. Only a fraction of the remaining 50% will be spent taking photographs – post-processing and digital asset management will keep the photographer occupied for a large percentage of that time.

The media industry is built on networking, which was clearly emphasized by the Skillnet Career Adviser. This is a reality check for many aspiring photographers who would rather spend their time thinking about f-stops than introducing themselves to prospective clients. The importance of professional-looking websites and online portfolios should not be underestimated; nor should the benefits of online professional and social networks and good, old-fashioned face-to-face interaction.

I left the RPS building in Bath with a renewed interest in my freelance career. My mind was racing with possibilities for making my work public. And while I am still thinking about what my USP is, I have a clearer idea of how to sustain a lifestyle into which I led myself by pure trial and error.

Are any of you reading this post thinking of going freelance? Are you already working as a part-time or full-time freelance photographer?

If so let us know about your experience, any tips you would like to share or tell us about your freelance plans.

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5 comments for “Going freelance

  1. 24 November 2010 at 4:39 pm

    Interesting post Jose. The issue of how to make photography pay is also picked up in an interview with Peter Stuckings on The Freeman View

  2. tom smith
    25 November 2010 at 3:13 pm

    Interesting article.
    But as I am currently only a student with oca and studying for a degree. And also in employment. I do not yet feel that I am quite yet qualified for such a task. Plus with the economy as it stands at the moment I feel that it would need serious thought before making the step, but worth thinking about for the future.

  3. RobTM
    26 November 2010 at 11:19 am

    Timely article, Jose, many thanks. I’ve just been made unemployed and have just ordered a bunch of books to research the idea of becoming a “pro” photographer – Visionmongers, Building Your Photography Business, Market Handbook… So yeah, I know that there’s a lot of reading and research to do.

    I need to sort my web presence too. And marketing, and, and, and…

    As for the USP – I’m glad I’m not the only one who struggles with this.

    I’ll check out the links, thanks.

    Any more like this would be much appreciated.

  4. Shelly Holland
    26 November 2010 at 11:31 am

    Good luck Rob.

  5. CliveW
    30 November 2010 at 10:15 am

    For those of you considering generating income from print sales direct to the general public; ask yourself how often you’ve bought another photographer’s prints and how much you’ve paid for them.

    Then look at your production costs and calculate what price point you would need to be sufficiently recompensed for making the print; perhaps 100% mark-up on all costs as a start.

    Would you be prepared to pay that price for a print that doesn’t have the added value of being by a known photographer or the credibility of being sold from a gallery?

    In bypassing galleries you save on costs but lose out on promotion.

    You need a multi-pronged approach to bring together small income streams into something more substantial.

    That means putting yourself out there, in whatever ways you can think of, and following the money.

    To paraphrase Banksy, if you wait for them (or the money) to come to you you’ll be waiting a long time, you have to get yourself noticed by people that will give you money for your photography.

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