Ten Things I Learned After One Year as a Freelance Photographer

Ten Things I Learned After One Year as a Freelance Photographer

A freelance lifestyle is a goal that many aspire towards in photography and videography. It’s a goal I achieved this time exactly one year ago. After a brief honeymoon period, I quickly learned some important lessons that I’d like to share with those who look to be making the leap across the great divide.

Everyone's journey to full-time freelance is different, so here’s a little background on mine. I had a corporate job in London for nine years, six years in I started picking up some work on the side in photography and loved it, thus began my pursuit of a freelance life. Having a mortgage and bills to pay meant that going cold turkey wasn’t an option, so I worked it until I was in a position that I’d be confident enough that I’d be able to generate enough income in photography to go full time.

The first few months were a blast. No boss any longer to pander to, unlimited free time, afternoon weekday meetings, and more opportunities to travel. But by month three, it was clear that I hadn’t been any more productive as when I was working it on the side. After spending so much time in a hierarchal corporate role, I realized that with no boss and no structure, it’s very easy to waste days doing stuff that’s not productive.

So here are ten lessons I’ve learned in the last year that have helped make sure I get the most out of this phase of my life, professionally and personally.

You Can’t Do Everything Yourself

Being a freelance photographer doesn’t mean you just take pictures. You also have to be a marketer, an accountant, a receptionist, customer support, a graphic designer, and everything else in between. So try to maximize your time doing the stuff that gets you paid by outsourcing some of these tasks where possible and within budget. I have my social media and bookkeeping looked after by a virtual assistant, for example, which probably saves me five to ten hours per week.

Be Disciplined With Your Time

This one is harder than you realize, especially if aren’t used to being your own boss. There are many techniques that can help with this, but I’ve found that only checking messages and emails at set intervals throughout the day helps massively. It keeps your head on the task at hand rather than getting constantly distracted.

Don’t Sleep In and Do Exercise

Getting up early for the gym or a run before you even pick up your phone or sit down at your desk will make you feel like you are already winning before you’ve replied to a single email. Or maybe it’s a ten-minute Headspace meditation, but whatever it is, set your alarm and do something good for the mind and body.

Find Time to Switch Off

Get it out of your head that you need to be on call 24/7. You might not mind it, but your loved ones certainly will. Nobody wins if you have your head in your phone replying to emails every minute of the day. When you’re not working, switch off and enjoy the time you have made for yourself with the decision to be in charge of your free time.

And if you are going to work whilst you’re on vacation. Set aside time specifically for working your photography business, then put it down and unwind. Being in charge of your time will increase your productivity and make you generally feel happier.

A Phone Call Trumps an E-mail

Here’s another super easy time saver, pick up the phone instead of sending that long email. Even better, organize a video call. It’s not only much more personable, it saves so much time. Just remember to jot key notes down in your Evernote to refer to during or straight after if your memory is as bad as mine.

Stay Organized

Find and stick to a system that tracks your projects so that things don’t fall through the cracks. With so many platforms for clients to communicate through, don’t expect yourself to remember what needs actioning day-to-day, write it down instead! Personally, I use the “Getting Things Done” technique through Omnifocus to run my whole life. By jotting every actionable task down that takes more than two minutes gives me peace of mind to be as productive as possible.

Keep Learning

This one is so important. No matter how good you think you are in your chosen field of photography, it will never be bad to know more. It will keep your vault of ideas constantly refreshed, and help you grow as a photographer. Find those online sources that inspire you, visit your local galleries and go to workshops. It’s so easy to set this one aside each week, but one year down the line, you’ll realize how important learning a little every week is, and how much better you are as a photographer and a business owner you are because of it. These days I shoot more video than photography and can't recommend Story & Heart and Simeon Quarrie enough as great resources.

Make Connections With Like Minded People

Being a freelance photographer can be an incredibly solitary experience for large parts of your week, mainly during heavy editing sessions. So scatter a few coffee meetings with peers to bounce ideas off and feel inspired by. Better yet and if your budget allows, look into working from a shared workspace. Networking with like-minded people in person is a great way to maintain your enthusiasm during heavy editing periods and meet people to collaborate with on projects.

Stay Clear With Your Goals

It’s so easy to say yes to everything. Your friends and family will recommend you to everyone who is looking for photography or video, but it doesn't mean you should take the work. I have dabbled in web design in the past, and once spent the best part of two weeks working on a site for a client at the beginning of my full-time freelance life. I got paid for my time, but have no intention doing web design going forward. That time could have been spent securing bookings in photography and video, or shooting stuff that would get me the work I want. It’s easy to be persuaded when you will get paid well for stuff like this, so just make sure that if you are taking it on for the right reasons.

Be Nice

This one is the simplest and most obvious one to me, yet I am astounded that so many people seem to forget to be friendly, courteous, and polite with everyone they come into contact with. So much of being a photographer, a film director, or a videographer is extremely personable work. Your portfolio will get you to the door, but your friendliness will get you through it. I have had countless recommendations, or repeat business from clients because the work is good AND I’m easy to get along with.

For me, freelancing was the dream and now I’m living it. I try to enjoy it every single day and remind myself of the hard work I put in to get here. But it’s the groundwork in the structure and organization I have put in place over the last 12 months that will give me the opportunity to make this period of my life an exciting and productive one. Please share your tips on how to make the most of a freelance career in photography or video below.

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10 Comments

Great article Mike and strong images too. Thank you.

Alex Dylikowski's picture

Great article. I would also love to let go the corporate career:-)

"A Phone Call Trumps an E-mail"

Many people are able to communicate better with the written word. Unfortunately that becomes more true as one gets older, where you are not able to think as quickly and as clearly.

Some prefer keeping an evidence :)

Good article but the point that is ENORMOUSLY important is: "A Phone Call Trumps an E-mail".

Far too many people will not call to make human contact with a prospective client.
Email is easy to let one off the hook for doing the harder work of asking questions and following up.
It also gives permission to the prospect to ignore you.

Email is great to have schedules and some interactions in writing. However, emailing ten minutes before a shoot to cancel or re-schedule is not one of them.

I cannot stand hearing "but I sent you an email" when an something goes sideways shortly before a shoot and they do not call.

11. It’s a business, so income must exceed outgo.
12. While it can be fun, a lot of the jobs are there just to pay the bills. You need to do the work professionally, and do it well, but it will never end up in the portfolio.
13. Never spend a check that is in the mail.

Man that's awesome. What a great article as I've been asking a lot of these questions over the past 3 weeks. Perfect timing. Cheers.

GTD: I've had corporate jobs where I was working on providing solutions.I was working on a problem with one project and on the commute home, I thought of a solution. I called myself at work from my cell phone and left a voice mail about a possible solution; other than keeping track of traffic and driving safely, I was "in the zone". Another time, I was taking a shower prior to going to work and I had another "Ah ha!" moment. I left another voice mail on my work number from my landline about the solution.

Thanks for sharing. As a freelancer myself, all of these resonate. I would also add that you should look for opportunities to give with your talents. One of the reasons I chose freelance is for the flexibility to be available to family, friends or anyone in need. It helps to recharge the batteries and remember why you love your work/art.

It's amazing how much freelance photographers followed a similar path and had to deal with similar obstacles. I've been in the corporate world and towards the end, fairly senior. It was not me. At 47 years of age I quit cold turkey. Could not do it anymore; but I've been disciplined. I get up with my wife and kids; make breakfast, pack lunches, do 20 minutes of yoga, meditate for 20 minutes, shower and start my day. I do however battle with switching off and mail currently trumps calls; cash-flow. I love what I do; I'm productive, I do everything; just not getting the business in as quickly and regularly as I would like. I use my spare time to learn and when I'm doing menial tasks, audio books.
Thanks for sharing your experience.