Starting a freelance career might be one of the most stressful things a human can do to themselves. I am exaggerating, but you get my point. Naturally, your first instinct might be to start chasing every client possible and get as many jobs as possible. Here is why you should stop doing this and focus on something else.
When I started out, I chased every single job, every single dollar, you might say. This was perhaps one of the worst things I could do. Instead of focusing on what mattered, getting better, I focused on as many things as possible. Think of it this way: the more things you focus on, the slower your individual progress. If you are a guy with a camera doing all paid work, you will get low-paying jobs in all sorts of genres. In five years' time, you will be good at all of them, but a master of none. Trust me when I say it is impossible to land high-paying work if you don’t have a niche. So, instead of chasing every paying job, focus on getting better, if you can.
How Does Getting Better Work?
Let’s say you need a hundred hours to get better at a skill. If you spend ten hours every day doing it, you will become better at that one thing in only ten days. If you take the same skill and decide to become better at many things at the same time, it will take you more and more time. As soon as you see what you like, you should try to narrow it down. Finding that one thing you are enjoying the most will serve as a guiding beacon of light in bad times and a bearing when making decisions.
For example, if you are a guy with a camera who is chasing jobs that pay, you may be working in architecture, industrial, portrait, fashion, food, and maybe even family portraits. These all are individual genres of photography, requiring a different skill set and even gear. The truth is, when you’re starting out, it does seem like doing more things will land you more work. I was also like that. Having realized that I was essentially wasting time on doing work I am not interested in, I focused on what I love: fashion and beauty — one genre, still without a niche, though.
The way to get better at a genre of photography is to master its facets. The way I did it was by having as many shoots as possible. They don’t have to be paid as long as you can get by with the money you make and spend the rest of your time shooting and getting better. I invest in every shoot that I have. Usually, I am the one to pay the retoucher and the one to get props and other stuff.
The more you shoot, the better you will get, and the faster you will single out the niche you want to be in. When I was having my first shoots, I tried all sorts of approaches, from minimalist to maximalist, from black and white to color. The key was making sure it was different than before. Now, I can safely say that there is my way of shooting fashion, which is different from other photographers. Before, I was drawing a lot of inspiration from other people.
So, in order to get better, you need to be able to single out one genre you want to work on, and then try as many different approaches as you can. Shoot as much as possible, experiment as much as possible, and explore as much as possible. Do this as much as money allows you to do so. Don’t go into debt trying to explore, as this is not a quick process. I would suggest having an alternative source of income, if possible.
Market Yourself, Don’t Be Desperate
The other thing I see photographers doing is annoying marketing. This usually goes along the lines of sending as many promo emails as possible without really caring about the recipient. I know it because I’ve done it. It is honestly embarrassing to email an agency working with automotive brands promoting fashion photography services. Give me one reason an automotive brand would hire a guy who does not shoot cars, let alone know anything. And yes, mentioning that I love old episodes of Top Gear would probably slim my chances to negative probability.
Aggressive marketing to as many people as possible might work if you are a generalist. Cast a wide net and catch as many fish as possible. It is relatively easy to do that, and you will make money in the process, but if you are after a unique fish, even a small one, you need to do background research. There are only so many clients that you are perfect for, but once it’s a match, you will be making way more money while also doing what you actually love. It is unlikely a photographer casting a wide net might land a dream client. Not fully impossible, but unlikely. If you want to work with a particular brand, it is strongly advised you research and try to connect with the teams that have already worked with them. A personal connection goes a long way. Sometimes, it can even overtake the artistic merit by a tiny bit. This is why at a high level, you are not chasing every job as if you’re desperate, but instead emailing people you researched to some degree. Tailor the email to the specific person you’re sending it to, and make it so that they feel the effort. If there is no effort in marketing, will there be an effort in your photography?
To sum up, chasing jobs won’t get you far beyond a guy with a camera who does all the work that comes their way, is always stressed, and isn’t making much money. To do the work you actually enjoy, cut off the jobs that don’t interest you if you can. As far as marketing goes, don’t market yourself to the wrong client, do market yourself to the right people. It is way more rewarding to stop chasing all jobs and improve yourself. The reward is work that pays more and is more fulfilling. It's work that you want to do, not need to do.