8 Ways to Survive Long Stretches of No Work as a Freelance Photographer or Filmmaker

8 Ways to Survive Long Stretches of No Work as a Freelance Photographer or Filmmaker

Whether you’re a photographer, filmmaker, video editor, first assistant, or even just starting out as a PA, you’ve got to work to survive. There are many lengths of time where the work might seem to be non-stop; you work so much that when you do have free time, you might not even know what to do with yourself. The winds of fate can change quickly though, and you might find yourself all of sudden not having any new jobs lined up. After doing this dance for over ten years as a video producer and photographer now based out of Lexington, Kentucky, I’ve learned a few things about dealing with the stresses of when business is slow.

1. When work is plentiful, take as much as you can get

When things slow down, they always feel very slow. And when I'm not getting new corporate or documentary clients, I also don't seem to have any editing or writing jobs either. But this ebb and flow of work when freelancing can go both ways.

Without fail, whenever I’m booked on a long or complex video production job, I’ll have two or three other small editing or writing gigs come along that same week. What I’ve learned is that when you can get the work, do it. You might get a little burned out after a while, but you can bet that you’ll be glad to have made some extra income when things do slow down. A lot of other multimedia professionals I know and work with look at it as sort of a feast or famine– they’re either completely overwhelmed with work or are in desperate need of some paid projects. What's important is to work enough during the busy season to sustain yourself when the work is sparse.

Not only the quantity of projects I work on, but also the kinds of projects (an edit, a photo shoot, a corporate video, an adventure documentary) always seems to come in waves. By that I mean I’ll have a few weeks of nothing but editing, a month on a corporate job, etc. until one day hits where there’s nothing else on the calendar. Just understand that if you keep searching for jobs, and stay on the minds of your clients and peers, the work should eventually come.

2. Work on personal projects

Times when there isn’t much work should be seen as a great opportunity to not only rest, but to go shoot or produce a project that YOU want to see made. Maybe it’s just a hike in the woods on a fall day, taking stills for yourself, rather than a client. Or perhaps there’s a documentary project you’ve been longing to research and capture a couple of interviews for. Now is the time!

By utilizing time to shoot personal projects, you might be able to license images for editorials or for stock. The above photo is a great example of making the most of my personal time– I took a series of images like the one above and ended up making a few bucks the following year when magazines needed seasonal content. I had some free time and took advantage of my surroundings and set up a casual shoot while on a hike.

Even if you don't sell any images, you’ll stay sharp on your skills, and you never know who you might end up working with or meeting while doing your personal project– they might be the very contact that gets you your next major job.

3. Recharge your personal battery

I used to suffer from this problem a lot; I would never block out time to give myself a mental break. When work is slow, it’s a great time to do things like hit the gym, finish a book you were reading, catch up with friends you haven’t seen in a while, or even travel somewhere and crash on a friend’s couch for a few days. Keeping your body moving and your mind in a fresh state will make you that much more adept when the work does come, and you’ll be in great condition to dive in head first. A change of scenery or an evening of lively conversation with an old friend can be the booster shot of energy you need to get through the slow times.

I recently took a week off from work and travel to go climbing. On a rest day, I connected with some other climbers and photographers and ended up making several new contacts and getting some nice stills in the process.

4. Clean your kit, sell off old gear

The down time between jobs is a great opportunity to take inventory of your gear, and give it a real good cleaning. Not just wiping your lenses, but using canned air to blow out your sliders and stands, and wipe down any packs that have been in the field. I also try to go through all of my memory cards and make sure they are formatted and labeled properly so that they are ready for the next job, whenever it might come!

If you come across some gear you haven't used, it might be time to sell it. With no jobs on the horizon, you have the time to photograph the gear for selling on ebay, and make a little bit of money back too.

New gear and products come out so quickly these days that if I’m disconnected for a while, I fall behind. A great example are all of these new Sony cameras that have been all of the rage lately– I’m terribly behind on these new camera options that have come out but once work slows down, I’ll definitely scour my favorite blogs for some insight into what I’ve missed. Make a folder of bookmarks on your web browser that is full of blogs like this one, and when work slows down, pour a cup of coffee and do some reading!

6. Make a new reel or update your portfolio

Updating your video reel or photography portfolio should never be overlooked. It's definitely not my favorite activity, but it is also one of the leading things that will get me new work and clients. If you're considering re-working your video demo reel, I wrote an extensive two-part article last year on that topic. Going through your work from the last few months is also a great opportunity to delete old projects, or move them to a storage archive.

7. Make some money on the side

If things are especially tight on the money side of things, consider what you can do to make even a little bit to get you through the slow season. I’ve been fortunate enough to write for a few blogs and retailers to get some cash on the side, but if push came to shove I would not be above taking either a part time job or accepting some low-level photo/video work just to get some spending money.

I interviewed a very accomplished adventure photographer named Celin Serbo a couple years ago, and he openly admitted to driving a school bus part time just to help make ends meet when work was slow. This is a tough business and when you’re working in a niche as competitive and low paying as outdoor adventure, another source of income can be a necessity. As Celin put it:

It's important to be able to put some money away in the good months to ride out the bad ones. You have to able to ride out the highs and lows both financially and emotionally. This industry is not for those who need stability.

I’m not suggesting you let bottom feeders on craigslist take advantage of your skill and hire you for next to nothing, but when things get really tight, low-end family photographs or event videos can make you a quick buck, and you're still utilizing your skill and gear in those fields. If you must take a part time job somewhere, choose something that might offer you some fringe benefits to your freelance business, for example a place where you might meet new potential clients or get discounts on gear.

8. Collaborate

Last thing to do when work is slow is reach out to your friends, peers, and other photographer/filmmakers you know. If they don’t have any paid work that you can do, see if you can tag along or help them on their personal project. Good karma is never a bad thing to accumulate, and the more time you spend around people who are getting hired for jobs, the more likely it is you will be first on their minds when it comes time to crew up for the next gig.

How do you ride out the slow times? Any tips you have, leave them in a comment below!


Mike Wilkinson's picture

Mike Wilkinson is an award-winning video director with his company Wilkinson Visual, currently based out of Lexington, Kentucky. Mike has been working in production for over 10 years as a shooter, editor, and producer. His passion lies in outdoor adventures, documentary filmmaking, photography, and locally-sourced food and beer.

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Enjoyed reading this, thank you for writing it

Nice Article!
Let's Collab/kick it since you are in/near town now...!

9. Write articles for FStoppers. ;-)

It helps! Unfortunately the opposite is true as well though– when I'm (and other writers) are in the busy season, taking the time to crank out thoughtful, helpful content for online articles is tough, and we resort to reposting news topics or bts videos. When it slows down though, lots of experiences and insight to share! Thanks for reading Barry.

This might be the most useful article ever put up on F-stoppers. I'm a travel and advertising photographer, so my workload fluctuates like a 3-year old temper tantrum.

#1 definitely worked out this year, Though it meant weekends were a write-off and there were 7am starts (with tending to a 9 month old during the night), I'm grateful for the work I got. Useful article all round.

I think a perfect example is Jared Polin which he says a lot he didn't get work until he built FroKnowsPhoto and focuses on that now more it seems like. So basically make videos on slow times, build a following... if you don't intend to build a following with other photographers it will be tough to get non-photographers' attention like I want to see and make videos for educational purposes for people hiring and working with photographers but the likelihood of people actually watching them is very low. I make videos as much as I can even though I don't currently enjoy editing video and suck at the speaking part too.

I agree with the blog writing, but doing it for other websites/blogs its a bit tougher if you lack grammar skills or care for them unless you got an editor on hand or to hire when needed for those blogs. I write my own blogs for my websites to help with SEO honestly and hope leads read them but its unlikely. I know I get a lot more hits on blogs when its photography related to a photographer though than help a lead how to prep X type of shoot or how to avoid infringement and such, not an entertaining subject where most leads will look for.