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My 2nd Year as a Professional Photographer

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When I made the jump into full-time photography, everyone told me that the first year would be the worst. As I wind down on year two, I can confirm that it does get better, which is a relief! 

In the past year, I’ve shared a lot of photography tips and tricks. I’ve been less helpful with business suggestions, mostly because I’ve been literally figuring it out as I go! Whenever I chat with young photographers, I find it hard not to wave my arms around and exclaim something about how the photography isn’t the hard part! It’s the finding clients, negotiating contracts, invoicing and figuring out taxes part that can be really tricky. Every time I start feeling a little overconfident that I’ve got it mostly got it figured out I splat into a IRS thicket or an irate client. In an effort to figure it all out, I’ve been peppering every experienced photographer I meet with questions about the business side of things and reading every book that seems like it’ll be even remotely helpful. Here are the business things I’ve figured out in my 2nd year as a professional photographer.

Find your ideal clients

Last year, I read Book Yourself Solid by Micheal Port for some sales advice and inspiration but walked away thinking that I should pare down my client list to only include the clients I enjoyed working with. It seemed sort of crazy but he explained in a way that really resonated with me. Starting off year 2 by letting go of clients seemed absolutely terrifying but I did it and did not regret it.

When I work with people that are kind, communicative and collaborative, I love what I do and it gives me the drive and momentum to do my best work. Most of the time, I end up working with those people repeatedly and they often refer me for other projects with equally incredible people. These days, I pass on anything that doesn’t seem like a good fit. Sometimes, that’s really difficult but it gives me the time and space to focus on what I actually want to be shooting.

Previously, I would talk myself into doing projects that weren’t necessarily a good fit for me. The fear of missing out and saying “No” kept me saying “Yes” to projects that drained me, frustrated me and left me feeling as if going freelance was a mistake. These days, having a work lull is occasionally scary but I prefer that to feeling creatively tapped out by a ill fitting project.

Negotiating What You're Worth

I don’t really have a set rate or a price sheet. In my 2nd year, my largest project invoice was for $33,000 and my smallest invoice was for $100. My largest project took about a month to put together logistically and required 2 weeks of prep. Some of the final images were turned into giant posters and put on billboards. My smallest project took about an hour during an afternoon and was for internal use with a restaurant I work with regularly. 

Each situation and potential project is totally different.

The one thing, I’ve really embraced in my 2nd year is never working for free for a major corporation. In my 2nd year, I’ve gotten 2 requests for free incluencer work for companies on the Fortune 500. I didn’t become a photographer for the money but I also think working for free devalues my time, effort and photography as an industry. 

Being Professional and Getting Paid

In my 2 years of work as a full time photographer and the previous 5 years of side freelance, I have had only 1 person not pay me. It’s been a surprise to me to discover that some photographers have trouble getting paid and some don’t. This has come up repeatedly when I pepper more experienced photographers with my various questions.   

Here are my 2 cents about getting paid. First, I expect to get paid. That sounds silly but I’m sure it comes across in my communication and actions. I do my best to be timely, communicative and professional and I expect the same in return. Second, late payments happen. I try to make sure that I always have enough runway that a late check will be a small nuisance versus debilitating. This keeps me from compulsively focusing on late payments and helps me stay focused on new projects. At the same time, I don’t let late payments simply become unpaid invoices. I politely but consistently follow up. Lastly, if a client is egregiously late on paying invoices, I stop working with them. I would much rather pitch projects that I’m excited by than to chase a late invoice.

Death and taxes 

If I could not deal with one aspect of working for myself, it would be taxes. It’s just a pain. Each year, I get a little bit better at it and perhaps in 10 years I’ll have it figured out. All of us have strengths and weaknesses and I can tell you that accounting is my achilles heal. I’m definitely working on it and really grateful that I’ve had a lot of help along the way.

Final Thoughts

In my 2nd year of freelancing, I’ve spent a lot of time asking myself what success looks like. In my first year, just getting from month to month felt like a feat but my workflow and finances have stabilized a lot in my 2nd year. One of the hard things of working for myself is that I sometimes end up with a week or two with nothing to do. It’s hard to enjoy these breaks because I’m often stressing about finding my next project. This summer, I had a slow stretch and realized that I had worked enough that it would be fine to take a pause. Yet, instead of slowing down, I kept looking for things to do.

Work, I’ve realized, isn’t just about money. It’s about creating and feeling productive and leaving something behind. This is where I’m starting my 3rd year. I’m looking for things to do but I want those things to be meaningful. We’ll see where that takes me in the following year.

Absurd cover image of me was taken by Ashley of Sed Bona.

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