How to be a successful freelance photographer

I've been freelance for *sucks teeth* ten years this year. Over that time I've gradually segued from all the words, all the time, to almost exclusively photography. Studio shoots, location shoots, workshops, some video work here and there, you name it.

It's awesome. It's a HUGE amount of work. The cry of MAXIMUM EFFORT often echoes through the vast corridors of Stevenson Towers.

Here, in handy, shareable (PLEASE GOD SHARE THIS), listicle form, are a few of the things I've learned. If you're going freelance, thinking going freelance, or are already freelance, maybe this will help.

  1. You're a professional. Act like it.
    Set an alarm. Get out of bed. Eat breakfast. You're not a student. You can't freelance in your pyjamas while Homes Under the Hammer plays in the background.
  2. Freelancers only tell you about their success.
    You know what I don't tweet about? Every knockback, refusal and unreplied-to-email I get. These vastly, VASTLY outnumber positive responses.

    Things I do bang on about: that time I was paid £££ to go and shoot the Northern Lights for a TV company, or when one of my images was used in National Geographic, or how I'm the Zoological Society of London's exclusive workshop leader.

    Things I don't talk about: how once a mag editor turned down a selection of my images and sent me a link to a competitors' website where their Photoshopped-beyond-imagination images leapt off my screen and singed my retinas as an example of something they wanted instead. Or how I was once fired from a social media account for "not being funny enough". Weirdly, I keep quiet about those.

    Everyone does that, and it means what you see online, from every freelance but particularly creatives, is distorted. We all get knocked back and told no; we just don't tell YOU about it. Don't take your lead, or measure your success, from what fellow creatives are saying on social media. They're all LIARS. Including me.

3. Good work is only part of the battle

I take a pretty good picture these days, though I can still balls it up with the best of them. I know there are countless talented photographers out there: I get work because I understand that clients don't only need quality images. They need a photographer who'll stay chipper as an eight-hour day turns into a 15 hour haul; someone who will lug equipment (not necessarily theirs) up and down four flights of stairs; who won't bitch when the catering extends to a Kit-Kat and a weak tea.

Neil Gaiman puts it quite nicely:

People keep working, in a freelance world – and more and more of today’s world is freelance – because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don’t even need all three. Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. They’ll forgive the lateness of the work if it’s good, and if they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as the others if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.

This has been summarised in a billion viral venn diagrams but you can hear it from the horse's mouth in this excellent commencement speech. Be more than just a snapper for your clients; go further; lift more; be helpful. That way if your images are a pile of shite you might get more work anyway.

Me, absolutely crushing it on a shoot last year.

Me, absolutely crushing it on a shoot last year.

4. Beware Hollywood math
Hey! Guess what cost me over a grand this year! So far! Christ!

That's right, it's getting to work. Between kit, insurance, repairs, parking, trains, paper backdrops and miles and miles of gaffer tape, being a photographer is expensive, and that's before you get a bill for your tax. Treating your gross income as money you actually have is dangerous, and it's memorably described in this exposé of Johnny Depp's economic clustermess as "Hollywood math".

All those guys turning up to do headshots for Instagram influencers for £90 a day will be out of work this time next year because you cannot afford to be a working, profitable photographer for that kind of money. Sustainable clients worth working for understand that and expect to be billed sensible amounts.

5. Rates are a negotiation
Just because your client declaratively tells you what their budget is does not mean they're telling the truth, nor does it mean they can't find more money. Every time you say "yes" to a client without first saying, "more, please" you are leaving money on the table. I have lost work because I was too expensive; I have never lost work because I asked for more. In quite a lot of cases I have ended up with, you know, more.

Does that help? I hope so. I'd have liked to have known it a decade ago when I was stressing about work and clients and taxes and invoices and WHAT IF EVERYONE HATES MY WORK. Now if someone with ten years' more experience than me could chime in with everything they know that'd be great.