Within my immediate circle of photo enthusiast friends, I’m perhaps the least qualified to expound my wisdom on being a freelance photographer, largely because I’m new at it, but the one flaring edge I may have over them is my fondness for writing and chronicling my experiences regardless of whether my thoughts will be accepted, embraced, thrown in the trash or worse — never read.
For me, writing is the straightforward equivalence of purposefully loosing yourself in a culturally diverse neighborhood or even a country with the purpose to indulge and experiment food you may know nothing about. The reason I write and taste is to make sense of shit. As the saying goes, the more you learn the more you realize how little you knew.
They say you should always write for yourself first and selfishly enough, that’s essentially the motivation behind these freelancing observations. To be able to look back a few weeks, months or years from now and take note on how much I’ve complied with what I’ve learned along the way.
Up until now, I’ve been discouraged in sharing anything I’ve learned from freelancing because there’s always been this cloud of doubt as to how much value could I possibly offer from having done it for such as short amount of time but then I kept internally vocalizing a statement Sean Wes had made in reference to Why You Shouldn’t Wait to Start Teaching What You Know regardless of how little you may think you’re familiar with -
“It doesn’t matter if other people are teaching the same thing or if other people have more experience than you. Teaching what you know is invaluable, and it’s not only good for establishing yourself as an expert but it helps you understand what you know even better.”
The habit of waiting until you’re “ready” is one of the most nefarious ways to procrastinate, which is why I thought I’d round up some of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned so far from having freelanced a bit with my photography in the last 5 months.
- There’s no such thing as clients from hell, only photographers from hell who allow themselves to take on those clients. This is a tricky one depending on what your take on it is. I’ve learned it’s ok to say “no” to jobs. Wait what? This had been my biggest dilemma. Initially I was narrowly focused on trying to make as much money as I could by providing a vast array of services to anyone who noticed I was “into photography.” One could have easily have said my target audience was anyone who was willing to pay to have anything shot.
I said “yes” to gigs you probably never knew about and to be fair I never even publicized, largely because it involved work I was never excited about to begin with which is by far the worst feeling ever. Of course the compensation aspect was gratifying but as a creative, a gigantic portion of what we do with our craft is the ability to share the result and when you have nothing to show for it because it’s borderline embarrassing or simply not representative of the work you want to be known for, you immediately get that feeling as if you’ve wasted your time chasing money rather than value.
For whatever reason, most freelancers start off along the same path. What often tends to perpetuate this notion stems from advise you hear over and over again from anyones who’s become aware that you’re pursuing your passion on the side and it’s this mentality that one needs to keep their mind’s open about potential jobs. This is their way of saying “take on anything that comes your way.” Obviously they’re looking out for our best interest with hopes that any job will inevitably offer us experience and instill the confidence one typically lacks at the outset, especially when we question ourselves as to whether we’re “good enough”.
Everyone’s circumstances are different, so my decision to turn down jobs may be different from yours but what’s shifted my thinking dramatically, I attributed to this Scarcity Mindset Mentality Sean often refers to. Bottom line...I no longer feel the need to compromise on taking gigs I don’t feel strongly about regardless of how much it pays because I have a day job that takes care of our family already, so I have every single right to cherry pick those projects that resonated with me more on the content rather than on the payday.
- Keep all your paperwork. This is an important one. When you freelance, you often think about the amount of time it’s going to take you to complete a project and of how much you’re going to be making from it but very little thought is given to the amount of administrative baggage that comes with it. The moment you have invoices going in and out, business related receipts or just anything, there's honestly no questions how quickly messy all this shit can get. I’m not booked with gigs back to back every week so even if I’ve slacked off in organizing, I can’t stress enough the importance of keeping stuff in order as you go.
- Keep a list of personal projects to focus on when you don’t have anything booked. This is a topic I’ve linked to numerous times on the site, so at the risk of sounding trite - personal projects are obligatory. If you only whip your camera out for paid assignments, you will unquestionably fall victim to being seen as someone who doesn’t do what they do for the craft but for the money.
If you were to quickly browse through the Stories section of my site, 90% of what you see was non-paid. In fact, it was me spending money on gas, or renting space to make any of that happen and the gigs I’ve acquired have been a direct result of people seeing what I’ve done on my own time and not anyone else’s. What you choose to produce with your camera on your own time is your sole vision and not the extension of anyone else’s, hence the value end product.
- Set Expectations with a Contract / Agreement. I had to learn this one the hard way and while I have no intentions of ever working with a company that we’ll keep nameless, it was probably my fault for not covering my basis and all this goes back to learning from experience hence this reflection post.
This is nothing novel but for my own record, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with requiring 50% deposit on any project you take on. In fact, you should probably take nothing less than that. I’d also suggest not ever surrendering completed work until you’ve received final payment. All of this information should unquestionably be stated firmly in the contract but in addition to that, in having had a conversation with Chris who’s been really helpful in providing me life lesson and business tips, you should also include in the contract what the penalty for late payment would be if client doesn’t adhere to what was agreed upon.
I can tell you one thing. You definitely do not want to be figuring this stuff out when the client is already late. If you don't have a contract that stipulates late fees, then you’re already late to the train. Late payment fees are a way of adding a little bit of bite to the expectations so it doesn’t necessarily have to be a lot but there should unquestionably be one just so you can also make up for the time that passes in which you’re dedicating time to chasing clients to pay rather than focusing on producing work.
I feel as if there’s this pervasive myth about freelancing. This false notion that in some dramatic fashion you discover your passion, you quit your day job, and everything you’ve hoped for falls into place the moment you’ve freed up your time to dedicated 100% of it, to this thing you often daydream about. I would say I didn’t start taking photography seriously until 2 years ago and before that, the idea of charging for what I produced with my camera seemed so far-fetched but the more I badly overexposed photos, failed to set the shutter speed fast enough to preserve a significant moment or failed to dial up the ISO to compensate for lack of light, the more confident I became not just with the mechanical intricacies of operating a camera but more importantly in the type of work I would hope to be hired for.