How to Make It as a Freelance Photographer

reelance is amazing. Freelance is terrible. Freelance is for young people. Freelance is for people with work experience. Freelance is the worst. And the best. I’ve heard all of these things spoken constantly by working freelancers, often in the same conversation, and often the same sentence. And it’s all true.

Success in this game depends not just on top notch images and a ton of self-motivation, but a business plan that is a changing mix of targeted and flexible. Sure, you want to photograph movie stars, or pro athletes, or high-end weddings, but as a successful (i.e. pays your landlord on time) freelancer, you have to be willing to explore every possible income-producing option and diversify when and where it comes from. Once you find something that works for you, you will be able to cut out the extra stuff you don’t love.

Small steps

Often in freelancing, especially at the beginning, it isn’t realistic to expect that you’ll be able to make a living comparable with that of a job in a more traditional environment with its reliable paycheck and health insurance. The unpredictability of your next payday can be very stressful, compounded by spouses or kids who may be depending on you for y’know, food and stuff. Because of this, many freelance photographers ease into full-time over a period of years, using that time to sharpen their skills and build a client base. This is a great way to get your feet wet without risking too much.

This article doesn’t address the host of personal challenges freelancers face, like work/life balance and health insurance, nor does it talk about business-building and marketing. This article solely tackles the stubborn fact that we all need to get paid this month, so let’s dive right in.

Don’t knock it ’til you try it

I’ve made a list below of outlets and ideas you can explore as you pursue freelance photography. Some of them may wilt your artist’s soul, but in the interest of exploring every opportunity available I encourage you to give them a chance. You may even be pleasantly surprised to uncover some talent or interest you didn’t even know you had.

Weddings and portraits:

Weddings is often the first place people start when they begin freelance photography, since clients are people you already know and portraits are fairly low risk endeavors. There are hundreds of articles, workshops, and books devoted to this genre so you won’t have any trouble getting educated (but they’re just two of many photography niches out there). This market is vastly saturated, though, so sustaining business in only these genres will be very difficult unless you’re either 1) among the actual best and/or, 2) the only photographer in town. 

Partner with small businesses:

Trusted partnerships can make your whole freelancing year… for ten years. If you can help another business owner make their business better, be trusted with their clients, products, services, and staff, you (and they) can benefit from a long-term partnership and source of reliable income. This might mean building image portfolios for interior designers, taking pretty pictures of cupcakes for that new bakery that opened down the street, or even product photos for Ebay and Etsy businesses.

Stock photography:

Selling photos as stock has great income potential, but to make even a single sale you’ll need to become a master SEO/keywording genius. Keep an eye on stock sites’ wishlists and try to fill in the gaps in their content. Bonus: Learning the valuable skill of SEO can become another source of income all by itself.

Professional headshots:

If you can work out an agreement to do an entire business/association/group’s headshots in one day you’ll vastly increase your income for that job, since you only have to travel, set up, and breakdown once.

Sell prints online:

You can do this through your own website or on the dozen or so selling sites like Society6, Threadless, and Etsy. This will bring those SEO skills back into play, but once you’ve got an initial storefront set up it’s a great way to make passive income while you continue to pursue other opportunities.

Sell prints at local markets:

There will be some trial and error here, since it’ll require some light inventory management, but the sale of one or two well-priced archival prints could mean an entire month of pay or more.

Sell Lightroom presets or Photoshop actions sets:

Presets are a great source of passive income — and many photographers and social media influencers have found great ways to monetize them — because you can create them just once and sell them infinitely.

Concert/theater documentation:

This could be either for the performers or for the venue — just take a look at these tips from the pit to give you a better idea on how to capture those musical moments. 

Teach:

If you have lots of experience to offer, teaching workshops or offering mentorships can produce a good income. You can do this in person, via pay-and-download material, or online via communities like Skillshare or Udemy. Proceed with Caution: The photography industry is unfortunately fraught with fauxtographers who have few credentials but who are cultishly successful as “teachers”. They charge new, desperate photographers money and then feed them nonsense that will end up sinking them. Don’t be one of those people.

Journalism:

If you live in a city where a lot of important and newsworthy events happen you can make a decent living selling your images to news and entertainment outlets.

Real estate:

If you can be available to shoot with very little notice, create attractive imagery regardless of subject, and turn images around in a few days, you can create a consistent flow of income from this genre, especially if you can be reliable to one or two real estate agents who will happily outsource that part of the job.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but one that will hopefully be a springboard to help you become aware of the income-producing opportunities that are already all around you. Once again, freelancing is about being willing to try and when you inevitably fail, having the courage and grit to try again.

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