What It’s Really Like Being a Freelance Photographer

It’s been almost 3 years since I moved to London to pursue photography as a career. I’ve learnt that there are many misconceptions about those who take photos for a living – so here I’m setting the record straight about what day-to-day life is really like for a portrait photographer in one of the world’s biggest cities.

Moving to the city

“I’m doing it. I’m moving to London.”

A friend of mine living in South-West London had just told me a room in his house was going to be vacant from the end of the month. That was all the convincing I needed – I was at breaking point feeling like life was passing me by as I was stuck back home in the Isle of Man. Mum wasn’t as sold that the timing was right.

I’d been working solidly, seven days a week for the best part of six months since finishing University. I was working two retail jobs, with only the thought that they were temporary, getting me through each day. I couldn’t accept working 9-5 for the rest of my days, least of all because it left me with no time to shoot. I handed in my notice at both jobs the day after learning about the free room, and I moved to London two weeks later.

I’d always felt excitement upon arriving in London as a tourist, and moving there was no different. For the first two weeks I did nothing but take the train into Central and explore the city. I couldn’t believe I was finally living in the place I’d thought about every day, after wanting to make the transition for so long. But soon, reality set in and I knew that it was time to start making a living from taking photos. I knew the types of projects I wanted to be working on – portraits, for musicians, actors and models – but I wasn’t sure quite what the pathway leading to that point was going to be shaped like.

Reflecting on past achievements… and moving forward

I sat down at my laptop. I was entirely freelance… Which also translates as being entirely alone. Not only metaphorically, but also in a literal sense, since all my housemates were at their respective salary jobs during the day. I only had a handful of friends in London, with even less contacts and zero knowledge of the industry. Being self-taught, and having studied English Language at University, I had to survive knowing only the things I’d learnt through experimenting with my camera.

I thought about the success I’d had thus far; two months previously, in September 2012, I’d shot press shots for musician Charlotte Church, which lead the campaign for her then-new album. That was easily the biggest client I’d worked for, and it had stemmed as a result of making contact with Church via Twitter. My fascination with messaging potential clients via Twitter started when looking for distractions whilst writing my dissertation. At this point, I was aiming to approach management companies that looked after several artists, offering to shoot numerous of their acts for one large, overall reduced rate. It occurred to me that a lot of these companies had Twitter, and that their account on the social network interacted with lots of similar businesses. I began exploring each company’s followers, finding endless management and PR contacts to get in touch with. It continued to snowball as Twitter recommended more and more similar accounts. One day, I stumbled across a production company that specialised in live, acoustic music sessions. It didn’t feel quite like what I was looking for, but I copied and pasted the same email to them anyway. Soon enough, the owner replied. We got together for a meeting, ended up working together on a few small projects, and it turned out the same guy also worked at one of the largest radio stations in the country. A few months later I was shooting for the radio station too, and photographing A-List names. I was learning quickly just how small the creative industry in London is, and how accurate that old phrase is: it’s all about who you know.

For the most part, I’ve given up contacting people on Twitter, and now tend to stick to emails for all things business. Emails have become the centre point of my entire existence. I live by them. My email tab never closes. I’ll aimlessly refresh the email app when out in public. Which is just as well because quite often, work offers come through incredibly last minute. There’s no time too late at night for an email to appear in my inbox. The best example I can give you occurred when I was settling down for a night of editing at 11:30pm (I’m somewhat of a night owl – but we’ll come back to that shortly…), only to receive an email asking if I could be in Essex for a 7:30am start the very next day. That was, to be on set in eight hours time. After negotiating rates, it wasn’t until 1:30am that the client confirmed me for the job. By that point, I could only manage to clock a little less than four hours sleep before I had to make my way to the address I’d been sent.

Being your own boss

To me, there are three major factors that define being freelance.

1) Having absolutely no structure to your working week. I don’t currently have a studio of my own (I simply hire one on the occasion that a client requests one) and as a result, I work from home on the days that I’m editing or doing email admin. Naturally, if you have no office to get to, nor do you have a boss watching what time you’re clocking in, it’s all too easy to fall into a rather unconventional sleeping pattern. I find that most of my editing gets done late at night, usually any time between 10pm and 3am. Sometimes, if it’s a productive night, I’ll continue until 4 or 5am. These may seem like some crazy and unsociable hours, but I just seem to be in my prime during the small hours and find this is just when I get most of my work done. Likewise, I’m lucky in that I often get to be selective with call times for my shoots, and prefer scheduling them for mid-late afternoon. This complements my editing (sleeping!) pattern too, meaning that I can sleep until late morning. It also means I’m free to do any errands or meetings at off-peak times – much cheaper and quieter than that of someone with a ‘regular’ job. I hear horror stories of the peak-time commute for those working in the city, but it’s something I rarely have to experience.

Another noteworthy point about a freelance photographer’s routine is that whilst many industry jobs take place throughout the week, you can often find yourself working with, for example, amateur musicians who hold down a Monday-Friday job – meaning they’re only free to shoot across the weekend. As a result, I’ve essentially lost track of weekends. These days, I’ve found I work with better with dates, as weekdays and weekends tend to blend together. If you ask me what I’m doing next Monday, I’ve likely no idea. But if you ask about the 16th, or the 23rd, I’ll be a little more clued up. I designate free time for leisure simply as and when I have the chance to take it. Sometimes I’ll be relaxing throughout the day and be working through the night. It may seem unconventional, but I enjoy what I do to the extent I’m happy to work as and when I’m required to.

As for what a normal day is like for me? I’m either out shooting, at home editing and doing emails, or travelling to every corner of London for meetings or location scouting. I find it’s quite a nice balance, as I’m never stuck doing the same thing for too long.

2) You really never know where your next paycheque is coming from. In a world where you don’t have a guaranteed salary or a designated payday, you can really end up living month-to-month. I feel lucky in that I’ve managed to live comfortably thus far; but the fact of the matter is, there’s no security. There have been weeks that I’ve had 5 or 6 shoots crammed in – sometimes several on the same day – only for a quiet period to follow. Picture me refreshing my inbox, beginning to hope that maybe my email system is just down. Somebody wants to hire me, surely?! It can be incredibly testing at times, and being freelance involves mastering the skill of making your money stretch.

A positive about freelance work is that payments can be staggered more regularly than a salary job, resulting in several paydays within close proximity. It means a lump sum doesn’t drop into your bank account at one time, so there’s less temptation to spend a ton of money.

There have been many occasions that I thought it was all over. You go through a dry spell where the only job offers include the all too familiar lines of “…we currently have no budget, but…” and “Think what this will add to your portfolio!”. It’s funny where jobs sometimes come from – the friend you worked with in retail years ago… a stranger who just Googled ‘Photographer in London’ and happened to stumble across your site. Every time I’ve felt like I could really pack it all in, something always seems to come through out of the blue to see me through.

3) The next element of being freelance is my personal favourite – being entirely in control. Being freelance brings with it a whole world of freedom. The best thing about that is that you can take a step back and really think about what direction you want your career to head in. You can cater your portfolio to the type of audience you want to attract (mine is aimed at musicians, actors and models – although I have PDFs for corporate clients and those seeking ecommerce work).

I did try having an agent for a short while, but it didn’t work for me. I’ll be the first to admit I’m a complete control freak and, although my agent could prove her industry experience, I didn’t feel comfortable letting someone else speak to potential clients on my behalf. We parted ways amicably and since then I’ve been embracing the freedom again. This leads me on to my next point.

When you’re working as a one-man (or woman!) team, it’s worth remembering that nobody is going to help you out except you. You are responsible for marketing yourself and bringing new clients in. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc are all great ways in which you can do just that; you’d be surprised how many business enquiries you can get through social media. They are all free tools that you can use to showcase your work and use to get your audience and clients invested in you as a person and as a brand. Like I said, you really never know where your next paycheque is coming from.

Experience doesn’t pay the bills

Arguably the most important factor in making things work as a freelancer is learning the value of your work. The creative industry seems to be plagued by the belief that promises of future work can be accepted as currency. The last time I checked, my landlord didn’t accept promises or experience as a form of rent.

Working for free is an essential part of being a creative; often, clients don’t ask for proof of a degree or a qualification, but merely a portfolio of work relevant to their requirements. It’s inevitable that you’ll spend the first few years working largely for free. Try to remember that you do actually enjoy what you do, and that free work can be enjoyable. Continue building your portfolio until there comes a point where you find that you’re asking yourself, honestly: is working on this particular shoot – putting the time, effort and stress in – actually going to enhance my portfolio? Is there something about this project I’ve been proposed with a zero budget that is really going to increase my marketability to future paying clients? When the answer becomes no more occasions than not, it’s time to head back to the drawing board. Devote some serious energy to crafting your portfolio into the best representation of what you do as possible. Your portfolio speaks on behalf of you, your work and everything you’re about. Be firm with yourself and make sure only your best work makes the cut.

Decide on a set of rates. So many projects can vary in requirements that it can be hard to land on set figures, but try and set out a guideline for yourself. Once you’ve decided these, live by them. Be prepared to lose some jobs at the hands of the threat of “Well, if you won’t do it for free, I’ll just find someone else who will”. Keep at it and I guarantee before long you’ll get so much more from sticking to your guns than being taken advantage of. To feel that your work is actually worth something, and that somebody couldn’t afford your skills will fill you up with a whole new sense of self-worth. And let’s not forget, there are good people out there who are happy to pay for their photos knowing that a good job is going to be done of it. What does it say about your work if complete strangers have you working for absolutely nothing in return?

It’s totally worth it!

There’s a lot to be said for being a freelance Photographer. It can be scary. It’s totally unpredictable. You’re fighting for your place in an industry where everyone tries their hand at the camera, and one where some people think camera phones are suitable – but that’s a whole different argument!. Being freelance can leave you panicking in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon feeling like you should be in an office somewhere, doing a ‘real job’. But it’s also the best decision I feel I’ve ever made. I feel incredibly lucky that I get to pursue my passion as a career. It has its moments, sure. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t quiet periods or times I felt as though I’ll never work again.

The bottom line is, if you’re passionate about what you do and strive to be good at it, you’ll always come out on top. Being freelance means the power is all yours.

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