14 Tips to be a Successful Freelance Photographer

For some, working for yourself is one of those great dreams. The satisfaction, freedom, nobody looking over your shoulder (except your significant other), ah the life right? Well not in every case. The freelance photography life can be hard.  Long hours for little pay, alone with no co-workers to speak to or have lunch with, the lack of stability of a weekly check. You have to be dedicated and follow some specific rules to make it work. Save this list and come back to it frequently to remind yourself of what you can improve at.

1.  Create a good website with a daily blog
Your website is going to be your most important ally. It is what most people will look at when considering you for a job and so your effort and/or money should be invested here.  Make sure it is easy to navigate and in HTML (NO FLASH!).  Keep in mind that you are only as good as your worst photo, so don’t just throw up every photo that you think looks decent. Sometimes less is more.  

If you don’t have enough content, create some!  Set up shoots with friends or seek out aspiring models who are willing to work in exchange for photos.  As long as the finished product looks great, your clients don’t have to know that these weren’t paying jobs. After all, it’s your ability as a photographer that counts, right?

Set up a daily blog.  Update it every day with a photo, religiously. You can take Sundays or the full weekends off.  The effect of a daily blog are wide ranging.  Unfortunately, when you start a freelance photography business, the one thing that often goes out the door is actually taking pictures.  You focus so much on getting jobs and doing them well that you forget to actually shoot for yourself.  A daily blog will keep you doing this, shooting things that you love, and it will help you improve on a daily basis.  It will also add a personality to your website and help to steadily build a community of people who are interested in your work.

2.  The jobs that scare you s***less are the most important ones
If you are starting out as a freelancer, you will probably get offered jobs that you are scared silly doing. Photographer Joe McNally does a great impression of a young, shivering photographer being asked how much he would charge to shoot his first wedding:  “Ccccan I pay you to do it?” he sheepishly asks.  

Just remember that the jobs that scare you the most are the most important ones to get under your belt. You won’t be nearly as scared the second time around. Even the best photographers in the world were once scared by certain jobs, and most still are.

3.  The most valuable question in the world: “What is your budget?”
This question is the most valuable tool in a photographer’s belt. Pricing can be the most annoying thing to figure out, especially if you are not so confident in your abilities. We don’t know how much a client has to spend.  We don’t want to underbid and either look like an inexperienced photographer or sell ourselves short for our services. And we don’t want to overbid by too much to lose the job.  The simple question, “what budget are you trying to work with here?” puts the power in your court.

Avoid quoting prices in the first contact. You can say, “let me take down all of the details and get back to you soon with the price.  Is there a particular budget that you a trying to stay within (or is there a particular amount you are trying to spend on this)?” This gives you some time to figure out the right price.

*As a side note to this, make sure to flesh out all of the details of a project before you agree to a price. This is probably the most annoying and time consuming mistake that you constantly make when starting out. If someone asks you to go above and beyond the initial agreement, don’t feel bad about explaining this and asking for additional payment.

4.  Respond to emails and phone calls as fast as you can
If you are contacted by someone looking for your services, chances are that they just spent the time to look at your work, liked it and now you are fresh in their mind.  Every second that you wait dissipates this freshness. Get the dialogue going quickly and the person will often not look elsewhere.

5.  Keep lists!
Lists are so important.  Big goals are reached not at once, but through series of small tasks, in list form. With freelancing there is always so much random stuff to keep up with, often stuff you don’t feel like doing. Having these things in a list makes them tangible and keeps them fresh in your mind. And the rewarding feeling of crossing these things off is necessary to keep from procrastinating on the less urgent tasks.  

6.  Set up specific web surfing times for the day
While reading informative websites and such during the day can seem like it is productive, it fragments your attention. Try to set aside specific times to surf the web. If you have particular trouble with certain websites, there are ways to block these websites on your computer (you can find out how by googling.)  
7.  Separate your personal life from your work life
Yeah right.

8.  Keep a consistent schedule
Start work at the same time as everyone else. Work and sleep the same hours hours every day. You will have much more energy and get much more done if you keep the same early schedule every day.

9.  Low energy days and the 15 minute nap
Sometimes having a boss looking over your shoulder can be a good thing.  Retouching skin for hours on end can make your eyes droopy and have you feeling like shoving a screwdriver into your brain. All those dreaded tasks piling up, just mocking you from your list.

Besides consistent exercise and coffee, the 15-20 minute power nap can be a crucial thing. An up and coming tool often used by CEOs, but yet still frowned upon in the work place, the quick mid-day nap can clear your head and reset your energy for the day. It is also a great way to break up a long retouching session when you get to the point where you can’t tell red from green.  

10.  Figure out where the jobs are supposed to come from (and go out and get them!)
There is nothing wrong with contacting potential clients and letting them know about your work. Take time to think about where you would like your jobs to come from and then figure out ways to reach these people. The friendly email can go a long way.

Contact owners of blogs and see if they will be willing to feature your work. Tell them you think their readers might be interested in it and if your work is good enough they will often be willing to do this without anything else. You are offering them value for their site. If they need more, offer to write a small post, some tips or valuable info for their readers.

11.  Don’t over promise
If you think you can get a job finished by Friday, don’t say Friday.  You never know when something crazy will come up. Give yourself an extra few days to work with and when you are actually able to get that job finished on Friday, the client will be very pleased with your efficiency.

12.  Speed (use Lightroom.)
Being fast is so important.  It is a skill that is really built up over time, as you gain more experience.  Use Adobe Lightroom. If you don’t use it already, it will be the best money you’ve ever spent. The program is so intuitive and it has transformed the speed at which photographers able to edit their work. Really learn how to use the entire program and learn the keyboard shortcuts as well. Keyboard shortcuts are amazing!

13.  Keep learning
The investment of getting a Lynda and/or Kelby training account will be a million-fold. For those of you that don’t know, both of these are educational, video-based resources taught by highly qualified and amazing teachers. Compared to traditional education, the value is unreal.  

Each lesson is split into 5 or 10 minute videos so you can watch them at your own pace or pick out the specific information that you want to focus on. Lynda.com is based more on the computer side of things, with an enormous amount of Photoshop, Lightroom and web design lessons. Kelby training is focused more on actual photography (and Photoshop).  Both are incredible investments.

14.  Have confidence!
You can do it.  It’s not easy, but believing in yourself is the most important tool to keep yourself going. Put yourself out there. You will screw up sometimes, but screwing up is a good thing. It means that you are learning. Just try not to make the same mistakes twice. And keep in mind that the work you do during the tough times is what makes the good times happen.

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