How Do You Stay Motivated as a Freelance Photographer or Independent Filmmaker?

The Internet is loaded with articles on new gear or popular techniques. Everywhere you look, you will find some new unboxing video or review piece. Everyone promising that they will make you the photographer you have always wanted to be.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy looking at fancy new equipment as much as the next guy -- and I have written a few of those articles myself -- but do all the toys and tricks help my career in the long run?   Almost every day I find myself in conversations with young artists who are looking for something more – they are searching for help. How did you get started? How do you stay motivated? How do you get paid? How do you get new ideas? What keeps you going for so long?

Hearing these questions over and over, I realized that there seems to be a void in our community. Somewhere along the line, we stopped talking about what is important to all of us. How do you survive as an artist?

Have you heard the old saying that it takes over eight years to become recognized? That is can take even longer to finally get paid for your time? If that’s the case, then how in the world are you going to pay off all those student loans? The thousands of dollars you owe a college that promised you the skills to get paid? How are you going to stay motived when it seems like no one ever calls you back or looks at your work? Why shouldn’t I just stay in bed and binge watch the entirety season of Stranger Things again?

These are the real issues that every independent artist has to face today. 

These issues force young talent to undercharge for services, to take that ridiculously low salary position, and sometimes -- to just give up. It blows my mind how often people make these choices without talking to their peers. Why is that? Do we not have a community of professional creative willing to offer their advice freely and openly? Or are we all so desperate for works that we cling onto what we know and what techniques we have like scared squirrel’s bracing for the long winter?

I refuse to believe that it has to be that way. I believe in being as open and honest with my peers as possible. We should all be talking about how much we got paid to do that last job so that the next in line knows what the client can afford. That way they won’t grossly underbid. I believe in talking about systems and routines I use as a freelancer to keep pushing through those years of waiting. I believe in celebrating this lifestyle we chose. Throwing away stability and wealth for a life filled with collaboration and adventures that the “9 to 5’ers” can only dream about. I believe… oh shit…. Now I’m preaching. Let me just answer one of those questions.

How Do You Get Started?

To put it simply, I created a TO-DO list. A list of all the tiny steps needed to create a film, a project, a career. I break it all down into simple daily tasks, and then I pick one -- and get started.

Here is an example of what my list may have looked like 15 years ago when I started to call myself a photographer.


-    Set-up a DBA and open a new bank account.
-    Research logo designs.
-    Bi-weekly photo exercises. This week, shooting everyday still life. Work with natural lighting and proper exposure.
-    Borrow a lens package from classmate.
-    Learn how to use a light meter.
-    Do your laundry! You are out of shirts.
-    Research local photographers and have beers with at least two this week.
-    Start a folder of inspirational images on my laptop. Anything that jumps out at you. Lighting. Color. Posing. Lens choice. 
-    Search craigslist or job forums for assistant jobs. Go work for free.
-    Grocery shopping on Thursday, don’t forget deodorant!
-    Set up photo shoots with friends and family to practice people skills behind the camera.
-    Pick up seasonal job, mowing lawns, working construction, or some crew related gig for extra money.
-    Make a list of the magazines I eventually want to be published in.
-    Make a list of the brand I will shoot for some day.
-    Hang out with friends and family at least once a week!
-    Go get lost in the city.
-    Leave your phone home.
-    Have fun!

You may laugh at a list like that, but some many like are what got me to where I am today. The trick is to mix it up with normal everyday tasks that you can easily do. That way at the end of the day or by the end of the week most of your list is crossed off.  You will feel like you are accomplishing things fast.

On that note, I’m off to the next thing on my list. Color grade my last photo shoot.

If you want to hear me rant more about how to survive as a photographer and filmmaker listen to my new monthly podcast IN LOVE WITH THE PROCESS. I talk in depth with young filmmakers, successful veterans in the business, musicians, chefs, and artists about how they survive.  Together we celebrate the life!  

Next month's episode is with Jesse Leach from the Grammy-nominated rock band Killswitch Engage. We talk about the real world behind music videos. Stop by and give it a listen. We are on SoundCloud and ITunes.

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2 Comments

drugs, Mike, lots of drugs.