What Does a Professional Freelance Photographer Need? Clue: Not More Gear

The day you move from amateur to pro is one you never forget. But how do you decide to make that move? How do you know you’re going to cut it as a pro? How do you know if you’re ready? Will you ever be ready? Yes, you need a healthy interest from potential clients, and yes, you need a heap of camera gear. But what else? It is not all about the kit I promise you. That’s just a crutch. This is what you really need.

Motivation

If you’re the type of person who finds it hard to get out of bed in the morning, the career of a professional photographer is not for you. Rather sit down with a bucket of popcorn and watch the latest Netflix series than chase the perfect location/subject? You, my friend, are not going to enjoy the life of a freelance photographer. Those pay checks don’t come from lazing about. You need to have a spring in your step, be self-motivated, and able to pick yourself up when the chips are down. Resilience and motivation are probably 50 percent of the job. 

Waiting or Bartending Experience

No silly, I’m not suggesting you work some shifts at the local burger joint/bar to make ends meet. I am suggesting that the skills you learn waiting tables and pouring shots are invaluable as a freelance professional photographer. If you’ve dealt with a drunk abusive fool, a complaining purchaser of fries, or consoled a sobbing freshly single bar fly, then you will naturally be adored by your clients. Humility, mediation skills, and a long fuse do all the professional photographer maketh.

Black T-Shirts and White Shirts

OK, maybe you don’t need to wear black T-shirts or white shirts to make it, but my point is that photography is a sweaty, physically demanding job. You’re often lugging around heavy kit, squeezing into small spaces, and waiting for the perfect conditions. It’s hard work. It makes you sweat. Do everyone a favor and invest in some heavy duty antiperspirant and a uniform of black T-shirts and/or white shirts. There’s nothing worse for a client/model than being distracted by the photographer’s underarm sweat patches. 

Fear

This applies to pretty much any creative industry. You have to have the fear. You have to think you’re never getting another booking again. Why? Because the day you start to get complacent is the day your work gets stale. You should be worried. You should be filled with insecurities. How else will you always strive to be better? Learn to live with the fear and accept it as part of the job. 

Being Your Own Biggest Fan

How does this sit with the need for fear/an insecurity in your work (see above)? Well, this is more a fake it till you make it warning. You must, must, must share your work. You need to market yourself regularly and positively, though without being an arrogant show-off. It’s a tricky balance to achieve. 

Great Friends or a Dog

It can be very lonely working as a freelance professional photographer. You do need to be okay with your own company. But you also need to know when to bring other people in to stop you turning into a hermit/misfit. These people can be your family. These people might be your friends. These people might not even be people; maybe they’re a dog? Just make sure you get interaction outside of photography. It’s an industry that attracts obsessives, so get some perspective and spend time with people from outside it. 

A Photography Mother/Father

Maybe there should be a bona fide adoption scheme set up for fledgling photographers? We all need a wing to hide under. One of the things that helped me most when I started out was a mentor. What makes a good mentor? Someone whose work you admire, who you respect morally (and personally), and someone who has the time for you. A mentor is kind of pointless if they never have a window to see you. Importantly they need to be an honest type. Sometimes feedback can hurt so an honest mother/father photography figure with a good dose of empathy would be ideal. Then hang onto them. And don't tell anyone else about them. Good mentors are gold dust. Be selfish. 

Tech Ability

Ah, I struggle with writing this. In a perfect world it should not matter how techy you are. Sadly, the world is not perfect. You need to know your Instagram from your Facebook from your Mailchimp. You need to be a WordPress whizz. You need to be a Lightroom pro. And that’s before we’ve even touch on Photoshop (which admittedly is not in every pro photographer’s arsenal, but those without Photoshop skills are becoming fewer). You need to embrace new tech too. How many good, experienced pro photographers have I heard moan that they’re not getting as much work lately? Many. How many of those refuse to embrace the digital world? All. 

A Lack of Eeyore-ness

Is Eeyore-ness a word? Who cares. The idea is, you need to not be the mood Hoover in the room. Think about it. Are you the kind of person who opens their mouth and complaints spill forth? Are you that yawnsome individual who bores people regaling their dreams or their awful journey to work? If you are, find another career path or shape up. No one cares about this stuff, least of all clients, stylists, models, and all the other freelancers who come together to make great work. Be happy. Keep the boring stuff to yourself, even if it did take you three hours to find the location because you were given the wrong zip code. Just shut up already. No one likes a complainer. 

A Love for the Mundane — It Ain’t All Glamour

There is a height that some (read: few) photographers reach whereby another person files all their work, edits for them, and is generally tasked with the dull, mundane stuff. It’s nice to keep this as an aspiration, but it’s important to be realistic. The likelihood is that you won’t be a photographer who has a small team of underlings. So try to find joy in the mundane. If you can find love for the sweeping, the filing, and the invoicing then you’ll be a happier little professional freelance photographer than the next guy or girl.

Owning a Photographer's Watch

This isn't a special device that will help you find the perfect time for sunset. As a photographer, you are first on set and the last to leave. If I have clients in my studio for 10 a.m., I will be there at 7:30. If a car breaks down, the train gets canceled, or if traffic is horrendous, you need to still be there before everyone else. The world is split into two types of people: those who are early and those who are not. As a photographer, you need to sit in the early camp.

Are you an ex-bartending, habitually early, black T-shirt wearing, dog owning, techy, glass half full professional photographer? Do you agree? What attributes do you think make for the best professional photographers?

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13 Comments

Paul Seiler's picture

Wanted a dog. Apartment was too small. Ended up with 2 cats (go figure). Everything else = spot on :) Great read!

Kavak Agir's picture

Great article Scott. Accurate

Andres del Rio's picture

Very affirming, thank you Scott!

william mitchell's picture

good read thank you

Mario Jones's picture

insightful stuff

Tony Clark's picture

Good read, I should send it to my family and girlfriend so they might understand the realities of my career.

Ron Williams's picture

Totally spot on.

Scott Choucino's picture

There are certainly areas of photography that do require a LOT of kit. However, there are also big pros who use very little. Lara Jade is a one light photographer and only seems to use a 50 and 85mm lens, Annie Leibowitz does a lot of 1 light work, Loftus only carries one camera with him and doesn't use lights. I must admit though, I currently have 10 lights in my studio as I do a very wide variety of work. But the last 3 world wide adverts that I shot were on a £200 lens and with one light. It is very style dependent.

The only thing I would say is true after working as a pro for a few years is that with none of the above and all the gear, you will flop very quickly. With none of this gear and all of the above, you will stand a far higher chance. I have a friend who shoots ads for IKEA and brands of that size, he doesn't even own a camera. Everything he shoots is on rented gear.

stir photos's picture

I enjoyed this article.

I was a waiter (a very long time ago) and that was a hard (sweaty) job. I recall one of my first days alone a gentleman at the end of one of my tables motioned me over; once I got there, he motioned me closer, so I hunched over a bit and he palmed my hand and at the same time said, "hey, look this is a tough job I get it, but don't take it so seriously, don't take yourself too seriously either. Just inhale." I was a aware he put something in my hand and I was assuming it was money, but I didn't want to be rude and look, so I politely put it in my pocket and thanked him. He inhaled (sort of exaggerated) and motioned me to do the same... I felt dumb and couldn't help but smile, he asked for more bread for the table and to bring everybody another one of whatever they were drinking, "even if they're not empty". Later I discovered he palmed me a 50 dollar bill.

Robert Prosser's picture

Haha great read.. My dog has def gotten me through some hibernation periods, and whiskey 8o)

Brian Comeault's picture

These tips extend way beyond photography! A great post. :)

Michael Murphy's picture

I just figured out why I'm so desired as a photographer, I have all these traits. Who knew?

jean pierre (pete) guaron's picture

To bring people "out", you need conversational skills - skills to get THEM to relax and to talk a bit - so you find out more about the person and get a better idea of who and what you're photographing. There's something similar in non-portrait photography - trying to get from your client a clearer idea of what they want, or what might suit them or their business. And while they're talking, you have space to think about the shoot, and to set up properly.