Have you been told to stop messing around shooting models and get a job? Do your loved ones wish you'd do something more stable instead of wondering when the next job will drop into your email? Well, I believe they're on to something.
Ever since I was in college, the photographers around me have been expressing avoidance or even disdain for the idea of getting a job. Self-help gurus and photography whizzes sell courses on how to make six figures escaping the daily grind and working for yourself. A job is what you do when everything else falls apart and you just have to make rent. Right? Maybe for some people. For me, full-time work has been a great boon. It has enabled me to stay in the game, travel, learn business, build long-term friendships, and raise my four children, all while building an opportunity-making portfolio.
Here are all the things about being employed full-time as a photographer I feel are underappreciated by many photographers considering going pro:
While putting all your eggs into one basket can be risky, the upside is always knowing when the next paycheck will come and exactly how many dollars you can expect to receive. Nothing is risk-free, and getting laid off or fired can certainly turn your world upside-down, but this can be insured by keeping your portfolio up by doing personal work and occasional freelance jobs on the side. It's also wise to stay abreast of jobs available in your area, companies who hire, and keeping communications alive with old friends and colleagues in the event that you need help finding a new job.
Working for a good company will give you access to all the best gear available. Need a new drone for a certain video you're shooting this week? Buy it. Need to shoot in 8K to nail a cinemagraph for an ad? Buy a new camera. Need lights that won't fail on you? Buy the latest and greatest. Not all companies are willing to do this; however, I've found that after showing them what you can do with good gear, they're more than happy to make the investment.
Companies with outdoors-related products, even if they don't always plan far enough ahead, need images year-round that show their items in use where trees are green and snow is absent. This, and other considerations, result in opportunities for frequent travel. Here in Utah, trees are leafless and snow is deep half of the year, so flying to Washington State, California, or Florida is important. Having a wide variety of locations in your portfolio is a great way to separate yourself from the other locals.
It may seem like working full-time shooting product is not only boring, but financially unimpressive. While it's true that jobs start around $30,000, there are also jobs that pay $70,000+. That's not on par with an IT director or dentist, but where the average photographer's income is less than $25k/year, I'd say it's pretty good. If you do well and stay with it, you can move into more advanced positions like photography manager, art director of photo/video, or director of photography, all of which can pay much more.
As a freelancer, you're often left out of the details of a project unless you truly insert yourself by insisting on more information. A company will hire you, give you a brief, and hope to not talk to you again until absolutely necessary. It can be difficult to understand the motivations behind good or bad behavior, changes in schedules, creative direction, etc. Working full-time for several years gives you a window of insight into what's happening behind the scenes. My experiences as an employee and as an art director have made me a better freelancer. I understand what needs and pressures exist for my clients, as well as where I can create boundaries and insist on certain things. I have had lengthy one-on-one conversations with CEOs and marketing directors about their hopes, fears, and concerns for my projects, their roles, and more, because I've worked long enough in similar organizations to understand them.
This one is a bit of a double-edged sword, but hear me out. Working freelance gives you more time during the day when your kids are around. Theoretically, this means more time with them. I've been a freelancer before, and while I was at home more, I was also constantly invested in marketing myself, shooting personal work, shooting high-pressure client work, and making sure ends meet. So, I was home, but it didn't mean a utopia of never-ending child-parent bliss. Since my work was self-directed, it was more difficult to justify to my wife why I couldn't do this or that during my work hours, even if I really was doing something important. I wasn't efficient. Now, I am a remote worker. I'm home all day every day. I have clearly defined expectations, schedules, and meetings, so it's easy for me to take time to talk to my boys about their LEGOs, jump on the trampoline, or read a book. I can adjust my schedule to get the work done where needed. And when work is over, it's over. As a business-owner, it can be more difficult to shut it off at the end of the workday.
I have many good friends and contacts from my freelance work. But the fact is I only see or hear from those people a few times each year. We have a great rapport, but it's not the same as working face to face and traveling with a team over several years. I talk with my co-workers about my fears and concerns, about my family and aspirations. I have them over for dinner. I go out of my way to save their bacon in tricky circumstances and vice versa. These are much stronger bonds and shared experiences that last longer and mean more. CEOs and other team members you'd never hear from as a freelancer frequently have projects for you as a full-timer, and it gives you a chance to catch up with them and learn how things go at the top level. This year, I went up in the corporate jet with a CEO to get some aerial photos of the company's new airport hangar. It meant a lot to him (I was sick for about six hours), and I got to know him a bit. That project wouldn't have justified hiring a freelancer.
As a full-time photographer employed at a company, I regularly shot up to four days/week on-location. Shooting that often week after week is a terrific way to sharpen your skills. If the subject matter is boring, I spice things up by trying new lighting techniques, shooting new angles, or finding interesting locations. Doing anything that often, especially with ambition, will inevitably result in irreplaceable growth. As a freelancer, I shot much less often, with more effort spent on blog writing, SEO, emails, networking, etc.
In the end, freelancing is definitely a great fit for some people. If you're having a blast and making a killing, by all means, keep it up. For others, the stress, instability, boredom, and fear associated with freelance work isn't worth the payoff. I'm a believer in playing for the long game, and to me, being employed and building a resume and portfolio together is a strong way to make it for the long haul. I can still do fun freelance projects on the side, but my growth is steady, as is my pay schedule, and the friends and experiences I'm getting out of it are invaluable.
Do you think full-time employment is for sell-outs? The last resort? Or something to aspire to?