One Year Later | What I Learned After One Year of Freelancing

This first blog post is a bit long, but it’s everything I wanted to get out there. I wanted to write everything out while I was as close to my one year freelancing mark as possible, both for you and for me.

While I was in school, I pretty much never skipped class. I enjoyed going–I had my friends there, I got along with my professors, and I was actually learning new things. June of 2020, I started working for a production company in Austin. I was working for them on a freelance/1099 basis, doing anything from on-set PA, to photo assisting, to gaffing, to art direction, to BTS and lifestyle photography. I really loved being on video and photo sets for a wide range of brands, so when my final semester of school started back up, I kept working with them. I would do the occasional gig maybe twice a month, but come October, they started reaching out more. And I was hooked. I went from virtually never missing classes, to skipping 4 or 5 a week. And although I wasn’t making a livable wage, I was making enough for me to realize that my passion could actually pay out.

For me, it was always in the grand plan to move to New York City. The opportunities here are insane and even though I will absolutely move back to Austin one day, I’m here to stay In NYC. The reason I mention this is when I graduated in December of 2020, I didn’t want to get a full time job in Austin knowing I was moving to New York the following summer. So I kept up with freelancing. I worked quite a bit with the production company and along the way any smaller projects that the Creative Director wasn’t going to take on, he passed to me. Q1 of 2021 was pretty slow, but Q2 I started making some really good money. Not just good for an artist, good period. After Q2, I knew I was never going to work a 9-to-5. I’ve learned a lot this past year, so I figured I’d break down the top 10 things I learned as a freelance photographer.

1.  Know Your Worth

The moment I decided photography was no longer a hobby and now my career, I realized I had to start thinking about myself as a professional. For me, this happened around March of 2020. Before then, I was making money shooting, but I wasn’t “all in”. At this point I was still considering going agency side as an art director. But after I started having more consistent shoots, I had to change my mindset.

Knowing your worth starts with accepting that creative is a career, and there’s never been a better time for It. In my experience in New York and in Austin, “starving artists” aren’t that easy to come by. If the passion and hard work shines through, you really can make a living doing what you love. But with that also comes an understanding of your rates. You have to start somewhere when it comes to charging clients. Most people start at free. It’s important that working for free doesn’t take over your business model however. Everyone deserves to–and needs to–make a living. Talking and researching rates in your respective area is important too. Talking about rates and pay is so taboo in our culture, when it’s important for them to be openly discussed. Without discussing rates, there’s no way to know where you land in the market, and for the majority of people starting out, it’s usually below market value.

2. Get Everything In Writing

If I’m being completely honest, I’m pretty terrible with contracts. Every time I book a shoot, I think to myself, “Dang, I probably should’ve written up a contract for this.” There’s been just one too many times where there was a miscommunication of the final payment, or a shoot was continuously postponed/cancelled without a deposit, where a contract would have been a clear and concise way to present the agreed upon details. I could talk about this point forever, but the main reason I say get everything in writing, is because that will give you a point of reference to show your client if there is a disagreement on the back end of things. It’s so easy to chat about the details over the phone, but that information can get lost in translation. Best practice is to, at minimum, write a follow-up email detailing what was discussed in the call. This should account scope of work, deadlines, days, revisions, and most importantly, rates. I’ve also started sending through estimates via the Quickbooks online application, which allows clients to approve the quoted scope and price. I am in no way a lawyer, but when you have everything in writing, treat it as information that would support your side in the court of law, because it could.

3. Imposter Syndrome

There’s no getting around this one. The first time I had somewhat of a decent budget, I remember thinking to myself, “Is it even ethical for me to charge them this? I’m just a college kid?” When it comes down to it, everyone experiences imposter syndrome, no matter where you are in your career. Having coffee chats with damn near hundreds of photographers and creatives by now, just about all of them have mentioned feeling like they don’t belong at the top, or that it doesn’t feel real to them. I forget where, but I once heard that if you feel imposter syndrome, it means you’re right where you’re supposed to be–in a place that pushes you creatively. Without imposter syndrome, there would be no drive to keep moving forward. Complacency would become routine, and before you know it, you’re doing the same thing you told yourself you would avoid as soon as you picked up a camera.

I’ve also found that with imposter syndrome, comes a fear of not wanting to take on bigger projects. The best advice I ever got when I asked “how do you know if a project is too big?” was “It never is.” If you run into a project that requires an assistant, find one. Need HMUA? Find them. And if the project is really big, like 5 or 6 figures big, then find a producer. Never turn down an opportunity that could advance you and your career.

5. Find a Routine

This I keep top-of-mind daily. When you’re a freelancer, the only reason you get up in the morning, the reason you send cold emails, write bids, create treatments–it’s all because of you. You are your own boss and the only way you can make a living is if you are there for yourself. The reason finding a routine is so crucial, is because it adds normalcy to an ever-changing lifestyle. My routine is simple. I have my meal plan, I workout daily (if I can), I have a day set aside for personal work only, I have my coffee, I get up early. You get the point. These are small things that implementing into your life can really help make freelance seem like a normal job. Don’t get me wrong, freelancing is a normal job, but for people like me that are just as Type A as they are Type B, having a routine is so important. 

6. Person, Pay & Portfolio

In any project that you do and contemplate doing, it’s important to take the three P’s into consideration–Person, Pay and Portfolio. lf you as the photographer are not benefitting from the project in a way that you see fit, then it just isn’t worth taking. The three P’s are a way to assess whether or not to take a job. Ask yourself, do I like working with the person? Does it pay enough? Can this benefit my portfolio? Let me give you some examples for how to weigh these. Say you take on a project, but the client is not great to work with–they breathe down your neck while you work, they hire you for your style and art direction and have no intention of actually letting you style and art direct the shoot yourself, or they are just not fun to be around. This is where the other P’s come into play. Does the project pay well? Well enough for you to deal with that client? If yes, then you take it. Or the portfolio option. Could the project raise your book to new heights? A client or image that has the potential to let you shine through? If yes, then the project might be worth taking. It works for all three P’s. The most common (which I did myself), is when pay reigns supreme. I have an ungodly amount of projects ranging from still life products, to senior photos, to weddings, that I have no intention of publishing in my portfolio because neither the client nor project can benefit my book. But when senior photos give you the chance to make $8k In a single month on top of your other photography work? Count me In.

Now this all isn’t to say that photographers who take grad photos or shoot weddings aren’t great too. I paid quite a bit for my senior photos and will shell out money no problem for a great wedding photographer when that day comes. But for me, it just isn’t what I wanted to do. So in those cases, I took those on because of the pay rather than the project or the people. (Also I should note that with my wedding clients, I always made it clear upfront that I am a photographer that can shoot weddings. I am not a wedding photographer. The reason being is it’s one of the most important days of their life and they should hire a photographer that does that for a living. Everyone that hired me did it to save some money and they didn’t prioritize the photos so they were more than happy to have me there. Although now I no longer photograph weddings).

7. Build Your Network

This Is probably the most important section I have. For me, my network is everything. I moved out to New York and didn’t know anyone here. I started reaching out to a few clients I had in Austin, and asked if they knew anyone in NYC. A lot of them did, because as I’m sure you know, creative is a tiny industry. I guarantee you’re just 2-3 connections away from your biggest idols in photography. So with building your network, don’t be afraid to ask people to coffee. It’s a good way to show them you’re a cool person to be around and it’s an insane way to add someone to your network. The biggest thing I’ve dealt with is trying to keep in touch with these people. It may feel weird, but every couple of months, I’ve been sending emails with a brief update on how freelancing is going, and ending it with my availability to assist. This is great two fold in that one it shows you’re still working and advancing your skills, and two, it keeps your name at the top of their queue when looking for it. Networking is everything. But in addition to networking, approach it as a friend first. It can be easy to turn a conversation into “what can you do for me” as opposed to “I really admire you and your work and it’s great to be chatting with you.” I’ve talked to some really cool people, and what I’ve found through it all, is they truly are just people. It can be lonely at the top, so don’t treat them like a pawn to advance your career. Treat them as artists who’ve inspired you in your journey.

8. Take Care of Yourself

One of the craziest things I do is pay $292 per month for a gym membership. But it really isn’t all that crazy. The gym is where I can take care of myself, and I do. Health has always been important to me, but when I moved to NYC I let it slide. I was eating poorly, and hadn’t worked out in months. I joined a chain gym for $20/month when I first moved, but I would have rather done literally anything else than worked out. I found this strange too as I really enjoyed working out before I moved. But in that gym it was insanely crowded, waiting for a bench took years off my life, and it just didn’t feel clean. A couple months after I moved to NYC, I had coffee with a director In DUMBO. After we finished our coffee, I was asking him about his plans for the rest of his day. He was heading to a boxing gym. We chatted more about it and I learned that he paid for both a boxing gym and a normal gym, which can add up fast. I told him I wasn’t sure I could afford it, and his manner shifted into a very direct tone when he told me that I needed to take care of myself. The stress freelancers deal with when finding work, having days that last 8, 10, 12, 15 hours long, carrying this heavy equipment and always being on our feet. And he’s right. I sat on it for a bit and decided I needed to make a change for myself, so I made the leap and joined a new gym. And that gym I go to is enjoyable to workout and get ready in. Honestly I look forward to it. I’m still not where I want to be health wise, but I’ve started to work my way back to it.

9. Develop Your Brand

This is a new one for me. Like actually. I think I started focusing on developing my brand and really focusing on it two weeks ago. I’ve had a logo for a while, and I’ve been posting consistent projects on my IG, but I haven’t focused on my work as a brand. A big part of it comes from the inspiration I’m surrounded by. There’s a couple photographers that have really really inspired me these past couple weeks, and the majority of both of their websites is their personal work. I have very little personal work on my website and that thought is constantly lingering over me. I’ll look back through my work and can recognize that what I have on my site is pretty good. But none of it really inspires me. I put so much time into developing these commercial clients and can create work that they love, but when I put it on my site, there’s nothing about my work that differentiates itself. I take pride In my colors and editing style–I’ve worked hard to get this vibrant, true-to-color look that pops. I’m lacking the striking creativity though. I wish I started working on my personal brand sooner, especially after seeing the boom of NFTs, but the only thing I can do now is prioritize It. I’ve started dedicating a single day of the week where I can work on personal projects only. No cold emails, no outside work (unless it’s a great opportunity of course), just my own brand. I’m hoping that I can develop consistency with it moving forward.

10. Don’t Give Up

Freelancing is hard. There’s no way around It. But everyone I’ve talked to when asked “when did you know you were ready to start freelancing?” they always came back with “I didn’t.” The exciting part of freelancing is everyday is different. You’re your own boss and there is no ceiling in this Industry. Time and patience are so important and I am constantly reminding myself that I’ve only been shooting for about four years. Eating away at savings and not knowing when the next paycheck is can be stressful, but for me, the pros absolutely outweigh the cons.

As I dive Into this next year, there’s a lot that I want to focus on. My biggest goal currently is to work on developing streams of passive income and finding a new hobby. Having any consistent income is everything in this industry, and a lot of creators I follow have these streams of passive Income. As I develop my brand, hopefully passive income will grow with It. Additionally, I put everything into my photo work. By having a hobby–something to take my mind completely off photography–I can work on that and not have so much pressure on myself. It’s been a good run this first year, and going Into the second I’m really excited for what’s ahead.

Ping my email or IG DM If you have any questions on freelancing. Thanks for reading.

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