How to Navigate the Business of Being a Professional Photographer
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When I made the leap into being a freelance professional photographer, I felt pretty confident in my photography. Being out in the world with a camera in hand was my happy place but I quickly discovered that there was a lot more to it than that. From taxes to marketing, there have been a million things to learn. It’s been two years and a half years and I’ve been slowly figuring things out.
Define your ideal clients
This is one of those pieces of advice that I saw everywhere when I made the jump to freelance. As a photographer that didn’t want to settle down in one niche, it drove me a little crazy. I wasn’t looking to focus on just food photography or just travel photography or just commercial photography or just editorial, I wanted to do a mix so defining my ideal client felt impossible.
At the beginning, I also had a few clients that made me a bit miserable (a lot miserable in some cases) and through my frustration I realized that an ideal client doesn’t necessarily have to be in one specific industry. I started to think about behaviors instead of demographics and industries.
My ideal clients are kind, are considerate of my time and skill, either know what they want or are willing to let me set the course and are realistic about budgets. These days, I genuinely really enjoy everyone I work with and am thrilled by the projects I have the opportunity to work on.
Part ways with your non-ideal clients
Once you have your ideal client defined, go through everyone you work with and let go of the clients that don’t meet your standards. This is hard, I know. Saying no to money as a freelancer is terrifying at first. When I parted ways with clients, I was incredibly nervous. It felt like the dumbest decision ever.
Initially, I dragged my feet on parting ways with difficult clients. It’s awkward to tell someone that you no longer want to work with them and it can feel surprisingly scary. I thought that it would be wise to wait for my business to build up before being choosy. My workflow kept stagnating and I never felt like I had enough projects to justify saying no to potential projects even if they did call me every evening at 10pm and took 6 months to pay me. Finally, I realized that I had made the leap into working for myself in order to create the sort of life and work that I could feel happy and proud of. By taking on projects that left me depleted and unenthusiastic, I was stuck in an endless cycle of frustration.
Saying no was hard at first but it’s become a lot easier. It’s made me realize that difficult clients always left me feeling spread very thin even if I didn’t have a ton of work. These days, I’m able to give each project enough attention to execute it at a level that I feel very happy with and that has in turn created a cycle of continuous work with clients that I really enjoy working with.
Stop complaining, start asking real questions
Most of the time, I’m so delighted by the projects I get to work on that I feel little impulse to complain. Every now and again, though, I find myself wanting to lament about late invoice payments, long nights of editing or random equipment issues.
If you ever find yourself tempted to have a pity party for one about how you always end up with difficult clients or how you can’t ever get the projects you want, stop and reframe the problem. Break it down into questions that you can actually tackle. How can you attract your ideal clients? How can you present yourself as a professional photographer? What are some marketing strategies that you aren’t currently taping into? Who can you ask for equipment advice?
Complaints just frame us as a victim of circumstance but questions give us the power to actually solve problems and progress. In the moment, complaints often feel good but they’re never productive. It’s been challenging but I’ve learned to focus on questions.
Research, research, research
Whatever you are currently doing, it can be improved. From your photography techniques to your marketing strategies, every single aspect of you workflow as a professional photographer can always be improved. You’ve gotten to your current stage doing what you’ve been doing, if you want to be somewhere else you will need to do something new.
Step one for doing something else for me is always research. From books to blog posts to assisting other photographers, I’m constantly delving into topics from photography equipment to blogging SEO. Sometimes it’s difficult to know the “right" decision or “right” move when you work for yourself and while research isn’t a crystal ball, it is helpful.
Nothing has forced me to grow as fast as working for myself. There is no one to pick up my slack and to fill in my gaps in skill or motivation. I am the only limiting factor in my success. It became apparent to me that I would either have to learn very quickly and get over my professional hang ups or hire help.
Moments of struggle have forced me to assess what was working and what wasn’t. I’m hesitant to recommend the things I’ve done to alleviate some of my difficult times because they specifically work for me but I’m not sure that they’d work for everyone. I wrote about my first year of freelancing and went into detail there but just really quickly, I incorporated and created a salary structure for myself, started working with a photo consultant, occasionally went to therapy when I felt completely overwhelmed and leaned heavily on my freelance friends for advice. Be open and try things.
Sometimes it gets overwhelming and it’s fine to cope for a few days or a few weeks but when things aren’t working, denial just extends the pain. I’ve also become better about asking for help and hiring help when I need it.
Take a break
As an independent professional photographer, there is always something I could be doing and it’s incredibly challenging to take time off. 2 and a half years in I’ve found that when I constantly push, I eventually burn out. In the beginning, I always fought slow times. When things slowed down, I rushed around to drum up new work. These days, I’ve learned that a slow week every now and again isn’t such a terrible thing. It’s good to take an occasional pause and to regroup.