How To Not Kill Yourself as a Freelance Photographer

We’re fans of Mark McInnis work (evidenced here and here) and we’ve watched over the recent past as he’s gained more notoriety within the industry. But we know that as a freelance photographer it can’t be easy to get jobs and retain clients, especially now that everyone is so concerned about the bottom line (which usually means creativity and artistic prowess get thrown out the window). So he’s put together some thoughts on how to make it in this cut-throat (yours or someone else’s) world of contract labor. It might sound glamorous to work for yourself in the creative field of your choice, but read this so you at least go into it with your eyes wide open. And if you’re a freelancer making it happen too, we’d love to hear your thoughts on this list in the comments. Stay up, folks.  

How to Not Kill Yourself as a Freelance Photographer

By Mark McInnis

***Let it be known that I have never, not once, ever, wanted to off myself for any reason. More specifically, I have never dreamed of offing myself due to my chosen profession. I have, however, because of this profession, dreamt of offing others, quitting, running away and entering the witness protection program. Enter this career at your own risk.***

The following is a brief but specific guide to staying sane as a freelance photographer. Every freelancer faces their own unique obstacles and finds a method and routine for overcoming those obstacles which fits his or her own personal business model. Keep in mind that this list is in no way complete. There are a million different things that are important when it comes to being successful. These are just a few things, in no particular order, that I have learned work for me. Hopefully they help you too.

1: Be Persistent. 

Whether you’re approaching a future contact by e-mail or phone, be persistent. Start with an introduction about yourself, what you offer and why you think working with this specific client would benefit you both. If you don’t hear back within, oh, I don’t know, 10 days or more, follow up.

Repeat that process until one of three things happen: One, you get a response from your future client saying that they appreciate your interest, but have no photographic needs. Two, they love your work and would love to find a way to collaborate on something. Three, after 10 failed attempts you find yourself in the middle of the 11th e-mail wondering if you’re coming across as desperate, begging, psychotic or a combination of all three. At this point, move on to another target.

2: Know Your Client. 

Research the brands you want to work for and learn where they fit in their specific market. Do you think Nike wants a photo of a finely sculpted Brazilian rear end or that Reef is interested in an image of a sweaty dude running through mud? No. Do your research, read about the brands you want to approach and inform yourself about what they value. The more you know about the brand, the more you can offer in terms of imagery.

3: Go to Work. 

That seems obvious. But seriously, get up in the mornings and establish a routine. If you want to succeed, you can’t think of freelancing as a job that you can do when it’s convenient. You’re starting a business and businesses don’t succeed without hard work and long hours from their founder (you). Sure, photography is fun and allows us to be creative, but you need to know how to run the business portion of it as well. It’s something I learn more about every single day and can’t stress the importance of enough.

4: Make Lists. 

The more successful business owners I meet, the more I realize that they share this habit. Make a list of where you have current submissions and routinely check in with those editors. Make a list of people that owe you money for the outstanding imagery you’ve created for them and make sure they know that they are on your list (in a nice, calm and respectful manner, of course). Make a list of future clients and contact them when you feel you are ready. Make a list of people that you need to thank for helping you establish your career and thank those people regularly. Lists are worth their weight in gold. Use them.

5: Stay Positive. 

This is the most important thing to being a freelance photographer. Shoot, this is the most important thing in life. I am guilty for being negative at times. We all are. However, when one door closes, another one opens and that is the truth. If one person isn’t into your work, another one will be. If you never get a shot run in X magazine, no worries, Y magazine will run a photo next month. If you believe in yourself, are confident in your work and maintain a positive attitude, good things will happen.

6: Be Honest. 

This goes across all platforms of running your business. First and foremost, be honest with yourself. Can you afford to do that job for trade? Can you deliver 100 images by that deadline? Be honest with your client in terms of what you expect from them and also what they expect from you. Open, honest communication will create strong working relationships and save you loads of hassle and regret down the road.

7: Get Insurance. 

This should go without saying. Get insurance and know what it does and doesn’t cover. I’ve had lenses stolen that were replaced a week later thanks to my insurance. On the other hand, I just dropped $3,500 worth of lenses down a deep canyon only to find out that my insurance doesn’t cover accidental loss. Lesson learned. Know your policy.

8: Continue Learning. 

This is harder than it sounds, but the more you learn the more you have to offer as a business. Continue learning about your clients. Continue learning about your gear. Continue learning about successful businessmen and women. I will tell you right now that this is hard for me. I know how to use my camera. I know what I do and don’t do. I feel like I know all of these things, but there is still so much to learn. Be open-minded and seek knowledge. There is always more to learn.

Well, I suppose that’s it for now. Notice how nothing was said about technical proficiency with a camera or rule-of-thirds or post processing? That stuff is literally 0.001% of what it takes to be successful as a freelance photographer. Remember, this is your business and to succeed you need to know how to run it efficiently in order to be productive. That said, please know that I am no expert. I’ve been doing it for a handful of years now and still run out of gas, still have to hassle people for that paycheck that was supposed to be here last month, still lose sleep thinking about getting bills paid, still buy the occasional frozen Totinos pizza for $0.89 because I only have $1.00 in my bank account and still wonder why the heck I insist on pursuing this insanely difficult profession. But then I remember that I’m creating a life for myself that I feel good about leading. At the end of the day, if you’re not happy, you’re in the wrong field of work my friends. Best of luck to you all.