Photo shoots on the beach. Editing photos poolside. Jet setting to new shoot locations at a moment’s notice. Not gonna lie, this can be the real life of a freelance photographer, or at least the life that is perceived. What isn’t so obvious is how these photographers got to where they are today. In an effort to pull back the curtain, this post will share my personal story to becoming a full-time freelance photographer, along with some tips to help you get there too.
No One is Born a Freelancer
Let’s rewind to the year 2009. A fresh college graduate, I was working as a full-time financial analyst at a large corporation, and I was dying to do something more creative with my life. The problem was, I had no real talent to speak of, other than being a whiz at Excel spreadsheets. Luckily, the stars aligned and as I was on a quest to pick up a skill or talent, I was introduced to the vibrant Seattle indie music scene and its wealth of music bloggers. I started networking them and eventually accepted an offer become a regular contributor, writing reviews of live concerts. It was unpaid, but I got free tickets to shows, and it gave me a new community of friends.
There were weeks when I would work 40+ hours at my day job and moonlight 5-7 nights a week as a music blogger. It turned out I was a pretty decent writer, and I had amazing turnover, able to churn out full fledged reviews the night of the concert. After a few months of being a regular writer, some bloggers suggested I start carrying a camera with me to shows to have concert photos to include along with my written reviews. This, at the age of 22, was my first foray into photography. Prior to this point, I’d never had an interest in cameras or photography, and I had absolutely no clue what I was doing. I had the luck (or misfortune?) of attempting to learn in one of the hardest settings possible: DARK concert venues where flash wasn’t allowed.
I started out with a cheap Nikon D40, shooting everything in auto mode and editing with Flickr’s free online photo editing tool. Six months later, I sold my D40 and upgraded to a Nikon D90 (still with a kit lens, mind you!). Less than five months later, I invested my entire savings account into a professional DSLR kit – Nikon D700, 14-24mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8, and 70-200 f/2.8. A year later, I sold all of my Nikon gear and bought Canon equivalents, all for the sake of having the Canon 5D Mark III. Amazingly, I’ve stuck with my Canon gear ever since and haven’t looked back.
Throughout this tumultuous time of upgrading gear and learning Photography 101, I was still working 9-5 and moonlighting as a freelance photographer. Even when I didn’t have any serious prospects of turning photography into a paid career, I was passionate about what I did and people started to notice.
I spent most of 2010-2011 traveling across the country on my own dime to photograph music festivals for fun. Along the way, I kept running into a Staff Photographer at Getty Images, who consistently pointed me out and said he “admired my guts.” A year later, he helped me become a contributing music and entertainment photographer at Getty.
In addition to being a crazy “work for free” music photographer, I became a social media maven, posting and Tweeting like crazy. Eventually this paid off when I spied a Tweet advertising an open job as Staff Photographer for a website called Eater Seattle. I applied and was immediately offered the role, which I still have today.
My music and restaurant networks, both online and offline, in Seattle, along with my self taught branding and marketing tactics are truly what started my freelance business and keep it going today.
Tips for Becoming a Freelance Photographer
Enough about me. How can my story help you, the aspiring freelancer? I have some ideas.
Just start doing
It’s easier than ever today to call yourself a photographer or blogger. You don’t need a fancy degree or certification, and many times you don’t even need press or media passes to take photos. All of the photos below were among my first serious attempts at photography, all shot with a Sony point and shoot camera and no press passes; I was simply in the right places at the right time. The only restrictions are those you place on yourself mentally. Whether your camera is an iPhone, point and shoot, or DSLR, look for something cool to take photos of and start shooting!
My Very First Digital Photos (shot with a point and shoot)
Make conscious and informed gear upgrades.
The temptation to invest in the latest and greatest camera gear can drive a freelance photographer crazy, but the best way to not go bankrupt is to buy new gear when you know it will make a big difference in how you shoot. I can think of two cameras in particular that have revolutionized the way I shoot today: the Olympus Stylus Tough camera that allows me to shoot underwater, and the Canon 6D that offers Wi-Fi connectivity for remote shooting and mobile uploads. There’s also a third camera that I am incredibly excited for: Light and their new camera technology, which promises to have a camera body, zoom, and 3 fast prime lenses right in your pocket. Could be the reason why investing in mirrorless cameras has seemed premature!
After you take photos, put them online!
Don’t let them sit on your memory card or computer. Pick out your best photos, edit or retouch them as needed, and add a caption or description. Then upload them to your preferred social networks, and use best practices for getting them noticed. Back in Flickr’s heyday, this involved adding tags to photos, and then putting them into specific photo groups for more attention. If the photos you took were time-sensitive, or related to a current event, then make haste and publish them faster so they get picked up in online searches. And if you have the means, certainly take advantage of Wi-Fi enabled cameras to speed up the social media posting process.
When starting as a freelance photographer, I used a lot of different techniques to get my photos published in big publications. But one method that slips under the radar was my heavy use of Flickr, which was the platform that got my first photos published in two big publications (New York Magazine and Bon Appétit) because their editors found me on Flickr. While I don’t think media publications are sourcing their images from Flickr anymore today, they are definitely still doing so on other social media platforms. Bottom line: don’t dismiss the power of social media and the wealth of opportunities it can bring.
Best Social Networks for Photos
Influential social networks change over time, but at the moment your best bets are:
Connect with people at events
I mentioned earlier how networking in person and in social media can jumpstart a freelance photography career, but networking was also key for helping break into the industry at all. How did I get into the music blogging scene to begin with? By being a volunteer greeter and photographer at a local music awards ceremony, which allowed me to introduce myself and network with those bloggers who I eventually started working with.
Never stop hustlin’
As a full-time freelance photographer, you should never stop seeking new opportunities. Whether it’s attending an industry night or networking event, or scanning social media and Craigslist, always be ready to offer your services. Speaking of social media, invest the time in nurturing a solid and consistent profile. My best referrals always come from people I already know, many of whom tell me, “I always notice your Facebook photos and that helped me remember you’re a photographer in Seattle!”
Over To You
If you’re an active freelancer, I’d love to hear what your humble beginnings were. If you’re an aspiring freelancer, what challenges are you facing? Feel free to comment below with your story, or shoot me a message!
*Featured photo taken by Brittany Bush Bollay.