What does it really take to get by in an industry where any Tom, Dick, and Harry has it in them to harvest likes on images like basking sharks devouring krill? Who’s doing it better? Well, everyone, right? What’s happening, day to day, week to week in the life of an active professional photographer? Well, I’m laying it all on the line. Telling it like it is. Here’s a desperately honest account of what happens in an average week for me, an honestly average photographer.
Generally, I’ll wake up when my partner does, around 7:00 am. She’ll leave for work around 7:30, cursing the fact that I’m lying in bed pandering for a cup of tea and scrolling through Instagram. I’m not one of these creatives who stays up all hours editing, thinking deeply about my craft, or experimenting with lighting. As a result, it’s important for me to get an early start, before the agencies and companies I freelance for are active, and smash a few hours on the laptop from bed at the start of each week. Mondays and Tuesdays tend to be the days I’m dedicated to admin and writing. I freelance as a photography consultant for a company here in London, and part of this role involves grading shoots completed by our photographers, writing up a monthly newsletter, and dealing with the onboarding of new photographers as and when we need them, so I’ll dedicate a few hours to this every week.
It’s also the perfect time to write for Fstoppers. I find writing a therapeutic process, and the mornings seem to carry that quiet, reflective calm where the day is clean and my thoughts aren’t bogged down with the intrusive memories of a day just gone. By this point, I’ll have likely ground some form of light roast, Ethiopian coffee bean (like the true hipster I am) and made myself a barista-style cappuccino, resisting the urge to Insta my latte art for yet another morning.
I’m up and about from around 10 am, replying to emails and editing any shoots that have had the misfortune of being left alone over the weekend. I’m an advocate for tying up any loose ends in a neat little bow before the weekend kicks in, but of course, this isn’t always feasible with bigger shoots happening later in the week.
I can be a scattered individual. If I’m not totally invested in what it is I’m doing, then home can be a treacherous place for me to work, so often, I’ll head into the city to work from a quieter space, drinking yet more coffee. Other times, I’ll stick about at home. It’s likely the sourdough starter will be fed at some point on Monday (told you I was hipster), and from then on in, the kitchen can very likely see some serious action. I love cooking and will often prep dishes for the week ahead or even simply for that evening’s dinner, with a view to setting up my lighting and shooting them. This process is one filled with self-satisfaction and pays tribute to the joy of shooting just for myself. Not unlike a test shoot, these hours go towards keeping me in tune with what I’m capable of producing and the results I hope to achieve in the future. It’s important that I give myself time to simply love doing what I do.
The afternoon hours will wind away with more editing, tweaking, researching, sorting and chasing invoices, and generally working on marketing — Instagram post schedules, website and portfolio updating — and more recently, touching base with new potential interested parties for future bookings.
Tuesday morning plays out much the same as Monday. However, this is usually where I tend to see shoots roll in. Though I’d love to tell you all that I book are significant, £1,000+ shoots a few times a month and do little else the rest of the time, it simply isn’t true. The numbers game is alive and well in the gig economy, and I indulge rather smugly in it. Many middleman companies exist out there, boasting photography for global partners, such as Just Eat, Deliveroo, and AirBnb, paying frustratingly low amounts and leaving little satisfaction to the creative within us, using their photographers as nothing but robots adhering to boring and structured shoot guidelines. I’ve shoveled the dung in my time, lost all faith in photography, and threatened to give it all up over and over, or at least to work harder than ever to phase out this kind of work.
All that said, there are agencies out there that can be used to one's benefit, ensuring steady cash flow and the flexibility to be moved when the big hitters do drop into the inbox and require priority and can be a really smart way of networking with industry professionals regularly on the lookout for photographers. Nowadays, I pick my battles carefully and use a particular number of these companies, which are mainly interior and design based, to pepper my week with shoots. I can contact clients directly, push back, move forward, or even cancel altogether should there be enough notice to the agency when I need to. Even when the old "we handle the editing so you don’t have to" idiom comes disappointingly into play, I now see the positives and edit anything I might be particularly proud of for the portfolio or the website and free up precious time for pushing the areas in which I really want to be succeeding.
If we take a mean average of the weeks since I moved to London last year, I can comfortably say that hump day is when things kick up a gear. I shoot all over the country, and though London is an enormous, juicy peach waiting to be devoured, it’s also dripping with talented photographers, many of whom have had years to find a firmer footing. Manchester and the North West of the UK is where I cut my teeth for close to 10 years and play host to many wonderful and faithful clients that still want me to shoot for them, paying appropriately for me to travel to do so.
Wednesday may well be a day of frustrating travel, but one that is always worth it come Thursday.
When my weeks are free from extensive countrywide gallivanting, I’ll reap the benefits of the work I’ve been putting into the London scene, shooting for hospitality agencies and restaurants, or continuing to shoot more local, quicker jobs that keep that background £ count ticking over nicely and steadily. I’ve phased out my hourly rate. Many photographers will tell you it’s not applicable and impossible to adhere to as every shoot varies. Most will also say that this is true of half-day rates, but I still have one. The nature of my work is such that a little travel is necessary, and I tend to simply include editing time in my half- and full-day rates, so as to present clients with a package rather than just shooting time. Though a half-day may constitute most of my Wednesday, it can still be punctuated with shoots before and/or after or the odd interview or writing session and is still a very important rate in my pricing structure.
We shoot! Meeting the clients, setting up lighting, testing, and getting to grips with the briefs circulated earlier in the week. It’s exciting, it’s fun, it’s creative, and I always come away completely excited to edit. This is what it’s all for, it’s why we do it. Harrogate, Yorkshire was the destination for an incredible full-day, high-end interior shoot recently. It was Manchester the following week for two different restaurant shoots for a London-based restaurant group. It’s not just the shooting, it’s the engagement with chefs, staff, agency reps, and people that I haven’t seen in months. It’s an opportunity to discuss past shoots, future ambitions, and changes. It’s networking as much as it is executing the task at hand. There are no days better than these, the days when all that hard work pays off.
Now, in the interest of balance, let’s take a quick look at an example of when things don’t go quite to plan. This week, I was sent to Edinburgh! An enormous trip that saw both my partner and me indulge in the chance to catch up with family and friends en route. It was planned, briefed, and locked in months ago. The shoot was pulled entirely. Canceled, 12 hours prior no less. Travel, hotel bookings, and excitement all completely crushed. It happens. Not always on such a monumental scale, I’ll admit, but it does happen, and when it does, it’s critical we have the right contracts in place to ensure compensation for the frankly priceless time wasted. In this case, it was a full and immediate payment of the agreed fee. We enjoyed a wonderful evening in the Scottish capital nonetheless, but it’s the silver lining on a dark and stormy cloud that quite frankly, in this case, could have been completely avoided with foresight and conscientious decision-making from the client.
I mean, if I said I didn’t get that Friday feeling like anyone else, I’d be lying through my teeth. The odd shoot, maybe a bigger booking, though these don’t tend to happen on Fridays for obvious reasons. By 2 or 3 pm, my friends, I’m in the checkout lounge. I’m thinking about what wine to open, finishing edits, and looking forward to the weekend. In the past, I’d perhaps have the odd wedding shoot or weekend workshop to prepare for, but these days, my weekends are generally freed up. My aim is always to have edits sent off, but when that can’t quite happen, I always find it worthwhile sending a partial transfer, just to keep people happy before the end of play. Admittedly, this is where an enormous journey back from Scotland isn’t ideal. I get very tetchy when I know I’m wasting work time and when there is no shoot to speak of, 8 hours traveling the length of the country is far from fun. But hey, these things do happen, and in the world of the self-employed creative, we sometimes need to put difficult situations behind us and move on with what’s to come. I’m also guilty of a little edit time here and there over the weekend, maybe a Sunday evening, but that’s essentially down to just how much I love what I do. I’m not living for the weekend, and there’s no such thing as the Sunday blues — quite the opposite, in fact. Whenever we have a bank holiday Monday here in the UK, I’m often a little frustrated! The country's workforce is enjoying a guilt-free day off, and don’t get me wrong, I’m reaping those benefits too. But I’m always at least a little conscious of the time I’m losing when there is no statutory holiday pay or a contracted salary to keep me sweet.
Hopefully, this little insight can guide some of you if you’re on your journey to becoming a self-employed photographer. I know others’ weeks will differ massively, and that’s all part of the fun. We carve our own path in this industry, to varying degrees of success. But the end goal is to be able to provide for yourself and live a happy life with an even happier work-life balance.
Love the article and the GIF!
Thanks Michelle :)