The Freelancer’s Guide to the Industry - Chapter 1

The Freelancer’s Guide to the Industry - Chapter 1

Freelance photographer is a term widely used inside our craft. Yet what does it truly mean to be a freelancer? And more importantly, what aspects should you take in consideration in order to make freelance photography work to your advantage?


By definition, a freelance worker is a person who is self-employed and hired to work for different companies on particular assignments, rather than working on a regular salary basis for one employer. From that definition, you can tell there's going to be a lot of pros and cons to freelancing. It’s obvious that a salary gives you regularity and security, but on the other hand being self-employed gives you something many creatives cherish, which is freedom.

However, you must not get carried away by the saying, “I am my own boss,” because while it holds a certain truth, it also means that you are your own employee, secretary, marketing director, community manager and sometimes even assistant and retoucher.

In a way, I think freelance work is kind of a boot camp for entrepreneurs. This is because after you successfully deal with working on your own and taking care of all the parts in the process single-handedly, you become ready to be someone else’s boss and run a startup business.

In any case, freelancing is not a path for everyone. The purpose of this guide is to help you in a journey which at times, due to a lack of social interaction with coworkers and industry peers, can be very hard and confusing to begin with.

Chapter 1 – The Journey Begins

You find yourself, probably fresh out of school or tired of working in an office, so you decide to take on the road of freelance photography but don’t know exactly where to begin. Trust me, that's normal, I’ve been there and even if my path may differ from yours, I’ve messed up enough times and I can share what I learned with you. 

Most freelancers, myself included, believe that the best way to start is by getting clients. That seems logical enough, but the thought itself is faulty and perhaps fueled by the growing desire and desperation of making money, and making it fast. When we take a second to relax and think about it, the first problem to solve is not “getting clients” but actually “how can I lure clients in.”

I find the first step of this process one of the most important parts of freelance photography, and in fact for any kind of photography. You have to decide what kind of clients you want to lure in, or in other words who are you going to sell to. This concept, easy as it may seem, will determine everything about your work because in order to capture the type of client you want you'll have to mold your portfolio and your service to their expectations.

Contrary to what some people say, the fact that you're choosing to focus on a specific market doesn’t mean that you can’t do other types of photography. For example, if you decide to do wedding photography for high-end couples with high purchasing power, you could still shoot other events and even do portraits from time to time. The financial stability of a freelancer has its ups and downs, especially in a seasonal market such as weddings. Oftentimes the exploration of alternative markets could mean the difference between paying the bills or scraping for money each month. The best thing would be to not mix everything into one portfolio, or even one website. You want to focus your efforts into attracting the right crowd.

Once you have determined who you’re going to sell to, the next step would be working on what you're selling to them. We're talking about the type and style of photography that you're going to showcase in your portfolio, which I think is something that many photographers who are just starting out take for granted.

I have a couple of friends that use Behance as their main portfolio site, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Sometimes when you're starting out it can be hard to put together a website, or you just don’t have enough time or money to deal with that. What really drives me crazy is the amount of notifications I receive each time they upload a project. They flood their portfolio with every single thing they do, big or small, awesome or worthless. They upload everything thinking all of their work is good. Well in my humble opinion, that’s completely wrong.

In my own site I have a tab just for my curated portfolio, which features only 13 images I like the most.

Your portfolio should be a concise and thoughtful compilation of your best work. It should have the projects that best represent you and have the most appeal for your potential clients. Uploading every single thing you do just to make it seem like you’re busy is actually counterproductive. Truthfully, a single well-done piece conveys a more powerful message than a hundred mediocre projects.

Now many of you may object and say that you don’t have enough material that relates to the segment you want to capture. That you need to fill your portfolio with what you’ve got right now in order to have something to show. All valid points, and perhaps acceptable in desperate situations, but the fact is you have to work in order to get work. By that I mean if you find yourself lacking a strong portfolio, then you must certainly work on it. The beauty of it all is that even the process of creating your own star pieces could become an opportunity to gain contacts and meet potential clients.

Take for example my friend Charlie. He actually studied product photography, but never really got to work in that market. These days he's looking to take on the world of gastronomic photography, but he didn’t have any actual pictures of food. Clearly, approaching a high-end gourmet restaurant and showing them pictures of models in order to sell yourself as a food photographer is just plain dumb. So what he did is contacted a couple of these restaurants and offered to do a test shoot for a couple dishes on their menu in exchange for letting them use some of the pictures for their social networks. He ended up getting paid to take more pictures in one of the places, and now works with them regularly.

Basically, determining a potential niche in the market and working to develop a solid portfolio is the first step towards becoming a freelancer. This process also gives you the opportunity to interact with potential clients, and get you contacts that can be used for future projects. Working as a freelancer, you have to concentrate your efforts towards getting customers and then managing those clients. Unfortunately, the truth is that you will have little time to actually take pictures.

In Chapter 2 we talk a bit more about marketing, check it out! 

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Joshua Brangenberg's picture

I really appreciate this article. I am about to graduate school with a multimedia journalism degree and I want to start freelancing when I get out. I already have connections at a few publications, but I want to expand beyond editorial photography and photojournalism. I cannot wait for the next chapter!

Felipe Zabala's picture

"To expand beyond editorial photography".

That right there is great thinking, editorial is great for starting a portfolio and getting your first work out there. But when it comes to getting clients and entering the real commercial game, there are better ways than being published and expecting for a client to call. :)

Ralph Berrett's picture

On piece of advice when talking to commercial clients deemphasize the journalism part. From experience it can have a somewhat negative response.

Hessam Yekta's picture

I really enjoyed this topic! but there is on thing i wanna know about it and thats about how to build up right and clean portfoilo (knowing what project is right or isn't right for a freelance photographer). I wanna know is there any tips or rules for it?

Felipe Zabala's picture

I really don think there are rules for anything, just guidelines. In any case, the variables you want to take in account to create a clean portfolio are:
- Appealing to a well defined target market.
- Being effective. Use few images, but make them your best.
- Sometimes is great to share the portfolio you put together with some colleagues and even a potential client in order to get feedback.

And if by any circumstance you don't feel so great about your pictures. Get out there! Search for a potential client and offer to do a couple test photos (which is different from working for free, since you both can profit from it).

I hope this helped.

Hessam Yekta's picture

That was so helpful.. Thanks for reply.

David Justice's picture

I'm actually working on my own fake apparel band so I can start doing my own fashion photography. I'm creating my own opportunities

Felipe Zabala's picture

That's great, but also remember that you can approach actual brands or maybe stylists or producers and put something together in order to exchange material, contacts, and start working with a team.

Ralph Berrett's picture

Speaking as someone who has works and hired freelancers I agree 100% with what has been stated. First off less is more and you are only as good as worst image.I have seen photographers try and flood the zone and what happens is the worst image is the one remembered. Also a good portfolio will get your foot in the door but you have to push open the door yourself.

Felipe Zabala's picture

I agree! It's often said that a good impression can get you at least 3 recommendations, but a bad one will lose you at least 10 clients.

Paulo Macedo's picture

Damn, i thought this was some real paper book! Love those! I was about to press buy! :P