What they should teach freelance photographers (but don't)

Merely learning the craft of photography falls well short of what it takes to operate as a commercially successful freelance photographer. Courses might be able to make you technically sharp, but no aspiring photographer can learn from a classroom the ‘life lessons’ that help you survive and thrive as a freelancer. These finer points of running a one-person photography business were revealed to Freelance UK by three independent and established photographers – Julian Claxton, Liz Drake and Barbara Chandler.

It’s the photographer, not the camera  ***image1***

With the ongoing growth of digital technology, it is easy to get complacent with one’s photography by getting carried away with cameras and kit, says Julian Claxton, pictured, a creative editorial photographer. He has seen photographers become obsessed with cameras and peripherals, akin to ‘a weight lifter that wants all the latest gym equipment.’

“Numerous times I have heard, ‘If only I had x, I would have nailed that’ or ‘I’ll start that shoot when I get better equipment.’” The Suffolk-based freelance says it is far too easy for photographers to persuade themselves that they need a piece of technology to perform better.

By all means, equip yourself with equipment you know you can rely on, but he reminded: “You’re a photographer, but also a creative…Clients don’t care if the picture is taken on a £500 camera or a £5,000 camera; they want the shots that work and the ones which fit their brief best. It’s the basics of photography that shine through, no matter what you shoot the picture with.”

Evidencing his claim, Claxton said one his most popular documentary images was taken using a £300 budget DSLR, which he was only using because his primary camera was in repair.

He reflected: “It’s ironic to think that image has paid for the camera numerous times over and just goes to show, it’s not what you’ve got, but how you use it.”

Expect a lot of People-Work  ***image2***

Despite a one-person business sounding like a potentially lonely affair, with freelance photography your business is hardly ever just you on your own, says Liz Drake, pictured, a Warwick-based wedding photographer.

“[It’s likely] you will need to build up a team of great suppliers and contacts; a web designer, a printer, even a framer – not to mention other photographers in the business who will act as part of your team,” she said.

“And because you want your team to be as strong as you can make it, always say 'thank you'… [These two words] go a long way in terms of making acolleague feel valued”.

Your style, your brief - not the stock

One consensus among the photographers is that what works well today will not necessarily work tomorrow – and that what works well for one client will not necessarily work for another. Fashion and trends are somewhat accountable. But so too is the obvious fact that your requirements as a photography supplier will differ from client to client. Don’t revert to photography Style ‘A’, requested by Client X, when you’re shooting for Client Y, who only wants Style ‘B.’

Barbara Chandler, an internally acclaimed photographer and author of Love London, pictured below, recalled: “I have been out with photographers thinking all the while of the ‘library’ shot. [But] the pictures that work best for books and gallery prints are actually the ones which you took all of your own, alone and self-motivated.”

Julian Claxton Photography endorsed: “Don’t check the back of the camera after every shot. Feel comfortable and confident…Remember the basics of photography. Remember the client, the brief and what you need to do.”

Approach venues directly, but professionally

For freelance photographers, what’s available on your own doorstep can save both time and money. So unless you’re set on a niche, that means approaching venues speculatively and directly.

“Let venues know why your photography business is different from all the others”, advised Liz Drake Photography, a company whose strap-line is ‘Dare to be Different’. “Be the salesperson for your brand.” However “at all times”, and with clients or prospective clients, she urged freelance photographers to remind themselves that they are the head of professional photography business. They must act accordingly, no matter how informal a conversation might seem.

Don’t dismiss a Plan B

Mostly because pay rates for new freelance photographers are unlikely to catch fire overnight, attaching a second string other than photography to their creative operation is still a temptation, threads on the Freelance UK forum suggest. While purists may argue this distracts the freelance, some photographers say their business would not be viable without it. Other than the financial advantage, there’s another benefit to having a second income as a photographer.

My work has benefitted hugely from having another ‘day job,’” said Ms Chandler, ***image3***a design writer for the Evening Standard. “I have been able to concentrate on the photography I wanted to do, rather than fulfil commissions. I have worked with photographers who tell me the last thing they want to do is to take more pictures at weekends.”

It’s a lot of internet hours

Part-time or not, a freelancer’s commitment to photography will normally involve many hours online. Without a website, or at least an online portfolio of your work, you simply “won’t be taken seriously.” In contrast, those photographers who will be taken seriously – and who are maximising their chances of commission – are adopting social media, Ms Drake said.

Even if they only approached social media just to set up an extra online presence, she believes freelancers on Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook are using the most cost-effective and immediate way to let a prospective client know that “YOU are the photographer they need.”



27th July 2011

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