Guide to Starting a Freelance Photography Career

The gig economy is made up of temporary employment opportunities that are completed by freelance workers and independent contractors. Gig workers are an important aspect of the total U.S. workforce. Roughly 10% of U.S. workers use gig work and independent work for their primary income. More than 25% of U.S. workers engage in gig work or side hustles for supplementary income.

If you love photography and are looking for an option to earn money online with the opportunity to quit your main job and travel with a freelancing gig, a career in freelance photography might be right for you. A freelance photographer is an independent contractor or photography artist who sells fine art prints and/or provides photography services to produce photos and images for individuals, organizations, and businesses.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes a 4% decline in the job outlook for photographers and median pay of $36,280 per year in 2019. However, the decline in employment opportunities may be impacted by the rise of available freelance photography services.

Photography can be a lucrative way to make side money or you could earn enough to make it your main career, but you will need the proper equipment, training, and savvy business techniques to set you apart from your competitors.

Photography Equipment That You Need

The first hurdle to starting a freelance photography career is acquiring all of the necessary equipment. Photography tools and technology are expensive, and to be truly competitive you may need to invest in professional equipment. Much like any entrepreneurial venture, there will be startup costs involved.

If you have a routine way of making money, you may choose to start your side hustle while keeping your job, advancing your services as you gain experience, and are able to purchase more tools.

If you already have a strong background in photography and have the opportunity to start taking on freelancing gigs, you could prepare to get approved and apply for a credit card so that you can purchase the equipment you need all at once. Taking out credit to start a new business venture is not uncommon, but you should take care to learn about credit and debt management before going into credit card debt.

Camera Equipment

Professional photography is more than having a good eye and lining up a shot, you need the equipment that allows you to capture the moment, and to produce a product that suits your client’s needs. Camera equipment may include:

  • Professional camera: You may not need a top-of-the-market camera, but you will probably require a device with a large pixel size, a high ISO, fast and effective focusing and shutter speed, color accuracy, and preferably one that is durable.
  • Camera lenses: The standard lens or lenses your camera comes with will only do so much. Different types of camera lenses offer additional features such as the ability to capture a different depth of field, wider angle of view, or a closer perspective. Understanding the camera lenses and types will help you determine what type of lens is right for you. Lens types include all-around lenses, wide-angle lenses, fisheye lenses, telephoto lenses, or a prime lens.
  • Tripod: A tripod allows you to set up a shot while keeping your camera stable. They are essential for low-light situations and eliminating the blur that can result from a handheld camera. Tripods can also be used with a remote control camera or timer-activated camera so you can take shots from multiple angles at the same time.
  • Batteries: Your equipment is essentially useless if the battery charge runs out. Carrying back-up batteries eliminates the potential threat of being caught without a charge.
  • Memory cards: As important as batteries are, so are memory cards. Carrying multiple memory cards is essential to ensuring you have the capacity to take pictures throughout the length of the event or shoot. Make sure that your memory card is compatible with your camera.
  • Lighting: If you are hired to work an event, take product photos, or shoot headshots, you may need to invest in your ability to work with or control the lighting around your subject. Lighting tools may include a light meter, a softbox, a reflector, or an umbrella.
  • Bags: With the various camera lenses, tripods, batteries, memory cards, and lighting equipment you have, you will need bags to carry them. There are many types of photography bags that can safely store, organize, and make your equipment readily accessible.

Computer and Software

If you intend to sell photos, you are going to need a computer and some professional photo editing software. Regardless of whether you choose a Mac or PC, the most important things to look for in a computer you intend to use for photo editing are:

  • A monitor with a wide color gamut and high resolution.
  • A processor with at least four cores.
  • At least 16GB of RAM and compatibility to upgrade in the future when needed.

Through photo editing, you can highlight the subject, bring focus to an image, or manipulate color, exposure, or white balance to achieve the desired effect. A few popular software options include:

Business Resources

As a freelance photographer, you are building your own entrepreneurial photography business. A few things you will need to make your business run efficiently include:

  • Business plan and model: To become a freelance photographer, you’ll need a business plan that helps you identify how you plan to manage and grow your business. This will include details on how you gained the funding to make your equipment purchases, your marketing strategy, how much your products cost, and how you plan to conduct business with your clients and accept payments. Additionally, you may require licensure by your state or local municipality to operate as an entrepreneur and freelance photographer.
  • Accounting and bookkeeping: You will need to manage and record your expenses and income to report for tax purposes. Additionally, you may need to create a specific bank account that is set up for business use. You can do the accounting and bookkeeping yourself, or outsource these tasks to qualified individuals if needed.
  • Client management: You will need to know how to manage your schedule and your clients. You will also need to know how to properly quote a project, and how to manage client expectations and your deliverables.
  • Marketing software and social media: Marketing software can help you streamline communication with your target audience, create potential leads, and gain clients. It can also help you create and manage your marketing campaigns and you’ll have access to data to test efficiency and results. You will need to maintain a strong presence on social media to promote your business; marketing software can automate this process so that you can spend more time building your business and brand.
  • Business cards: Business cards are a crucial tool for networking and branding. The design elements of your business cards speak to your artistic creativity as a freelancer, and will provide a physical reminder of your interaction with potential clients, as well as your contact info so your lead can contact you for your services.
  • Networking and support: Starting a side hustle or small business is not an easy feat. Support from family and friends is critical, but you should also seek to network in your community and niche. Having a strong social and business network can help you get good advice as you navigate your new hustle, and may also prove helpful when seeking new leads.

Training and Education for Photography

In addition to the equipment, technology, and business resources you have acquired, you will also need the know-how to perform the necessary work as a freelance photographer. One of the best ways to grow your skills is to practice, to get out there and start taking pictures and editing them.

You can utilize friends and family as subjects in your photos to gain experience working on portraits or group shots, you can try shooting household items or foods to get better acquainted with product or food photography, or you can travel to practice and learn more about landscape photography. All of this practice is not only valuable in building your skills, but also provides you with the opportunity to build your portfolio.

If you are just starting out, or wish to learn skills in an academic environment, there are a variety of ways to take photography classes and gain structured or institutional knowledge to apply to your studies and progress as a photographer.

Photography Degrees

The field of photography does not have an accrediting agency that specifically certifies qualifying photography degrees, though you may choose to seek a program that has been accredited by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design.

When selecting a photography degree from a college or university, you may look to see what is locally available and should consider the curriculum and coursework that is required to earn a degree. Photography programs range from certification programs, associate degrees, bachelor’s degrees, or master’s level education.

Certification programs include:

  • Certified Professional Photographer.
  • Certified Forensic Photographer.
  • Registered Biological Photographer.

Associate programs may include classes such as:

  • Color photography 1.
  • Nature photography.
  • Studio photography.
  • Photojournalism.

Bachelor’s programs may include classes such as:

  • Contemporary photography.
  • Photographic lighting techniques.
  • Narrative editorial photography.
  • Advanced illustrative photography.

Master’s degrees in photography, also commonly called a Master of Fine Arts (MFA), typically take two years and are a more exploratory and application-based program that teaches essential business and marketing skills. Students of these programs gain more hands-on practice and usually complete the program with a final project and portfolio.

You may also have the opportunity to select a focus, emphasis, or specialty to study in your pursuit of a photography degree that may include:

  • Portrait photography.
  • Commercial photography.
  • Advertising and photo illustration.
  • Documentary photography.
  • Scientific photography.
  • Industrial photography.
  • Aerial photography.
  • Fine art photography.

Online Courses

There are many versions of online photography courses that range from entry-level beginners to experienced masters classes. Classes may be taught by a school, hosted by an individual professional, and may be specific to a type of photography such as landscape photography, or may focus on software and photo editing.

A few options to seek out online classes may be:

  • MasterClass: MasterClass offers a variety of coursework that is created by well-known professionals in the industry. All of the courses are available for a monthly fee.
  • KelbyOne: KelbyOne offers a variety of courses and classes that range from beginner to classes coordinated for specific areas of expertise. All of the courses are available for a monthly fee.
  • Udemy: Udemy offers a variety of photography classes from beginner to experienced, and includes classes focused on specific aspects of software or technology. Courses are available for individual purchase.
  • Skillshare. Skillshare classes are taught by experts in the industry and are offered at different levels of expertise. There is a free period to take classes, but continued use of classes requires a membership fee.

Tutorial Books

There are also many tutorial books available that can be bought online. A sample of tutorial books includes:

  • Read This If You Want to Take Great Photographs” by Henry Carroll. This is a best-selling book that acts as a guide for photographers of all levels of expertise. There are five sections of the book that offer discourse on topics such as composition, exposure, light, lenses, and the art of seeing.
  • Better Photo Basics: The Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Taking Photos Like a Pro” by Jim Miotke. This book caters to beginner or novice photographers who are looking for a guide through the basics. The book offers insight and explanations, and discusses common categories of photography such as portraits, still life, candids, landscape and sunset, close-ups, and monochrome shots.
  • The Digital Photography Book, Part 1 (2nd Edition)” by Scott Kelby. This book is less of a guide or tutorial and focuses more on providing tricks of the trade and using settings and tools to capture the desired image.

Building Your Brand

Once you have obtained all of your equipment and are preparing to begin your business as a freelance photographer, you may need to spend some time building your unique and professional branding. Your branding should showcase technical expertise as well as your creative flair. To build your brand you will need to consider the following elements.

Pick a Niche

There are many different types of photography that freelancers may choose to focus on. Choose your niche or a select few niches based on your strengths and interests as well as an understanding of how your services will compete within the market. Types of freelance photography niches include:

  • Wedding photography.
  • Event photography.
  • Maternity and family photography.
  • Newborn photography.
  • Portrait photography.
  • Landscape photography.
  • Wildlife photography.
  • Fashion photography.
  • Product photography.
  • Fine-art photography.
  • Food photography.
  • Still-life photography.
  • Corporate photography.
  • Photojournalism.
  • Real-estate photography.
  • Pet photography.
  • Travel photography.
  • Aerial photography.
  • Stock image photography.

Create a Portfolio

Your photography portfolio is going to be one of the most essential elements of your ability to find work as a freelance photographer. Your portfolio showcases your work, skills, and aptitude as a photographer and can be a major deciding point on whether a client wants to work with you, or not.

One of the best ways to showcase a portfolio is by creating a dedicated website or page that hosts images of your best work, as well as your prices and contact information. You can utilize your social media accounts to gain traction with your target audience and direct interested leads to your website or page so they’re able to take a deeper look at your products and services.

If you work in multiple niches, it is important to create specific pages and portfolios for each niche to keep your overall portfolio organized and easy to navigate.

Additionally, it can be helpful to select a few of your best or most powerful photographs to professionally print and keep in a physical portfolio to bring along to any meetings you have with potential clients. Bringing a sample of printed photos showcases how your work will appear as published materials if you are hired.

A few tips to consider when developing your portfolio:

  • Determine your style as a photographer and remain consistent. Your style will help to set you apart from your competition.
  • If you are just starting out, you may choose to offer your services for free or for a small fee to gain some experience working with products, models, and clients.
  • Only include your best work. You must use a critical and unsentimental eye when choosing what work to include. If you experience difficulty when deciding, remove yourself from your work for a few days and then come back with a fresh eye. You can also seek a second opinion by asking a friend or someone in your network to help you decide.
  • Consider the order of the images you select for your portfolio. Your strongest work should appear in the early part of your portfolio, and you should try to group like images that tell a story.
  • Think of the audience you intend to share your portfolio with — what will they want to see? What type of images would they be willing to pay for?

Networking on Your Website and Social Media Channels

Having a portfolio is essential, but to make it as effective as possible you will need to practice digital marketing to make your photographs available to the public and put them in front of your target audience. One of the best ways of doing this is to create a strategy around your business’s digital presence.

Choose Which Social Media Channels to Use

When choosing the social media channels you intend to use, it can be helpful to consider your personal bandwidth and how much time you intend to dedicate to your social media marketing. You may also want to consider the target audience, what channels they use, and how they use them, so you can best define your strategy of use.

A few social channels to consider include:

  • Facebook business pages: Facebook is one of the largest social networks, making it a noisy space to compete in. However, Facebook is a great tool because people primarily use it to create social connections. Tagging clients in photos you post gives you the opportunity to promote your work.
  • Instagram: Instagram is a popular photo-based platform and an exceptional social marketing tool that allows you to directly promote your photography.
  • Flickr: Flickr is a popular photography app used by photographers to share their work with a large audience.
  • LinkedIn: LinkedIn is a social channel that is largely used by professionals for networking, and business and marketing advice.
  • Twitter: Twitter is a great app to share information quickly and to the point.
  • Tumblr: Tumblr is an excellent option to post short, concise, and effective blog posts. Tumbler is also SEO friendly in that you can add tags to your images and set up Google Analytics to determine the popularity and effectiveness of your content.

Stick to a Regular Blogging and Posting Schedule

Posting regular content on your social channels is one of the best ways to get your audience’s eyes on your work. Regular posting builds marketplace awareness and keeps your brand relevant and your users engaged with your content. Each post offers the opportunity to gain a new follower, or to drive traffic to your portfolio. Inconsistent posting may undermine the value you gain by having a presence on social media, but posting regularly with poor content can be even more detrimental.

You should strive to create quality, unique, and engaging content that you can cross-pollinate across your social media channels. One of the best ways to do so is to create a content calendar that allows you to strategize and curate content ahead of time so that regular posting of quality content is achievable.

You may also choose to invest in a social media management tool such as Buffer, Hootsuite, or Later that allows you to combine your socials onto one dashboard, plan your posts in advance, and set automatic publishing.

Setting Up Your Business Details

Working as a freelance photographer offers flexible hours, freedom to work with clients of your choice, the ability to control your workload, and independence to run your business as you so choose. Among the many perks of running your individual side hustle, you are also ultimately responsible for the intricacies of operation. A few aspects of freelance finances and business operations that you will need to consider are detailed below.

Decide Pricing Rates

If you are working independently as a freelancer, you will have to decide on pricing rates that are comparable but competitive in your geographic location and in your specific niche. One of the first things you should do is research your competitors’ prices, which will indicate the general prices you may expect your customers to pay.

You may also consider a cost-plus pricing calculation. To do this you will need to add up the total cost of:

  • Materials — The film, prints and paper, the digital space, or tools you use to share photos with your clients.
  • Your time and labor — How many hours you work on the project, and how much your time costs.
  • Any overhead costs — This may include the costs of maintaining your equipment and software.

Once you have calculated the total cost of what it will take to provide your services, you may choose to apply a percentage to achieve your desired profit. All of these combined should provide you with the final sale price of your services.

For example:

  • Material costs = $30.
  • Time and labor costs= $50.
  • Overhead costs = $20.
  • Total cost = $100.
  • Total cost ($100) multiplied by the desired profit (20%).
  • Final sale = $120.

Client Contracts and Invoices

One essential aspect of business administration as a freelance photographer is to create client contracts and invoices. Regardless of your connection to the client, you should make sure to provide your client with a contract after you have established the services you will provide, as well as the final cost of sale, so that both parties have agreed to your terms.

When you have completed the job, you should provide your client with an invoice that includes:

  • Details of the cost of services.
  • Your business’s name and information.
  • Client information.
  • Invoice number.
  • Invoice date and due date of payment.
  • How clients may submit payments.
  • Applicable taxes.
  • Tax number.
  • Any applicable notes or explanations.

Business Model

When establishing your business you will need to choose a business structure and ownership model that will impact your profit, taxes, operation, legal needs, and responsibilities. The two main choices for a solo freelance photographer looking to work independently are a sole proprietorship or an LLC.

A sole proprietorship is an unincorporated business run by one individual with no legal distinction between the business and the individual. Advantages of a sole proprietorship include easy and inexpensive formation, complete control of your business and all decisions, and simple tax preparation as your business is not taxed separately from yourself. Disadvantages of a sole proprietorship include personal legal liability for the debts and obligations of the business, and potential difficulty raising money or getting loans from the bank.

A limited liability company, or LLC, is owned by an individual or a partnership of “members.” An LLC is legally separate from the individual or members. Advantages of an LLC include limited personal liability and relatively easy business and tax record keeping. Disadvantages of an LLC may include more upfront expenses in the creation of the business entity than a sole proprietorship, you may need an additional local business license to operate, and you may need to pay self-employment taxes.

Taxes, Insurance, and Retirement

Taking the leap to join the gig economy as a freelance photographer has many benefits including freedom, flexibility, and total control of your business. However, when you give up the normal nine to five, you are sacrificing the perks and benefits many companies offer their employees, such as tax collection and organization, insurance, and retirement services or options.

As a freelance photographer, you will need to learn how to appropriately prepare and file your taxes as a small business or as an independent contractor. This will include understanding and using the correct forms for your business structure, saving all required and appropriate documents, and keeping track of your records to accurately file your taxes.

Alongside filing taxes for your home business, you will also need to consider how to get health insurance as a small business, or health insurance options for independent contractors. You may also need to look into preparing for retirement by considering the best ways to save for retirement, such as using a 401(k) or IRA (traditional or Roth), and creating a budget and savings account. You may also consider looking into sources of retirement income when designing your individual retirement strategy.

Financial Resources and Grants for Photographers

If you have the necessary financial and business finesse to create a side hustle and a deep desire to make a living from your photography, but lack the financial resources, you may choose to seek out grants that can help you get to where you want to be.

Many photography grants are offered for fine arts or documentary projects. While these grants may not support the entrepreneurial side of your business, they can help you complete an artistic vision, gain experience, build a portfolio, or make a name for yourself. Resources and grants for photographers include:

  • The Aftermath Project grant: The Aftermath Project is a nonprofit organization that awards an annual $25,000 grant to a finalist photographer to support the creation of photographic story-telling of important “post-conflict” issues.
  • The organization CENTER offers photography grants that may continue year to year, or are subject to change on an annual basis. The variety of grants offered typically supports fine arts and documentary projects, photojournalism, minority or female-focused grants, or grants for photography and multimedia.
  • The Imagely Fund typically offers grants to photographers once per year, opening for applications in the spring. The grant type and amount may vary year to year. In 2019, the fund offered two $5,000 grants, one for a focus on a humanitarian project, and one for an environmental photography project.
  • The Photographic Museum of Humanity Grants Program offers annual grants and prizes to photographers as well as awards that help photographers gain visibility and appreciation for their work.
  • The International Photography Grant offers an annual award of $1,000 to a photographer with an inspirational photographic idea. Hosted by International Photography Magazine, the purpose of the grant is to inspire applicants to improve their skills and develop their vision as photographers.
  • The Lucie Scholarship Program, hosted by the Lucie Foundation, offers a few different grants, each with a unique purpose and grant amount. They include a $3,000 fine art scholarship, a $1,500 scholarship for an emerging artist, a $1,000 scholarship for the creation or completion of a project, and a $1,000 scholarship for the creation or continuation of a documentary or photojournalism project.
  • The National Geographic Grants Program typically hosts an annual photography grant to help amateur and/or professional photographers work on a project that is in focus with the purpose of the annual grant.
  • The Alexia Professional Grant is offered on an annual basis, hosted by Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication. The purpose of the grant is to enable professional photographers and visual journalists to produce substantial bodies of work that align with the goals of creating world peace and cultural understanding. The winner of the grant will receive $20,000 to produce their work.
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