The photo industry is changing quickly. In the past few years, some of the world’s leading newspapers and magazines have laid off staff photographers and instead turned to freelancers for headline-worthy assignments. In the United States, the Bureau of Labor Statistics points to further decline in salaried positions over the next several years, meaning that, as the publishing and advertising worlds continue to shift, more and more photographers could opt to work freelance.
In this day and age, business savvy is just as important to any photographer as artistic talent. The freelance market is competitive and unpredictable, so a great business plan and impeccable organizational skills are must-haves. We asked thirteen professionals to share their best tips for long-term success. Below, they tell us how they handle daily administrative tasks and big-picture goals, offering invaluable advice on everything from budgets and taxes to software and file storage.
1. “Don’t cut corners; it will show in your work, and it’s just bad business.”
More than half the work you do as a professional photographer is manage the business elements of your photography. Establish your workflow and stick to it, without fail. Do this for every part of the job: from shooting to card loading to editing and post-processing to communicating with clients. Being predictable and dependable means being organized, and this will allow you to produce your best quality work. Don’t cut corners; it will show in your work, and it’s just bad business.
I received this advice early in my career, and I took it to heart: Shoot, shoot, shoot. Keep your camera with you. Educate yourself. Accept criticism and apply it. Accept opportunities to work with colleagues who know more than you. Your peers are an invaluable resource, and thanks to the generosity of my colleagues, my work has improved exponentially over the years. Never stop learning.
2. “If you’re just starting out and building your connections, keep it simple with an excel document listing out all the important who, whats, wheres, and whys.”
I always recommend a digital asset management software. It literally keeps track of your emails, contacts at companies, cold calls, and the notes you take with them. Names of contacts are linked to the companies, and if they move, you can move their info with them. Also, you can link the software to your email inbox. I specifically use Daylite Software.
If you’re just starting out and building your connections, keep it simple with an excel document listing out all the important who, whats, wheres, and whys. The idea is to document tasks as you go and make notes in your calendar to follow up. If it’s written out in front of you, you will be more likely to get the task done.
You have to be patient. This industry changes on a daily basis, and I feel you can get distracted from what matters most to you. Know your speciality, and be proud of your work when you market it to your audience. Over the years, your skill level and business practices will grow, and the clients you are reaching will see that in you and the work.
3. “Financially, my photography business is run on a 100% cash basis. No loans/IOUs/debts/etc.”
Brian W. Downs
Financially, my photography business is run on a 100% cash basis. No loans/IOUs/debts/etc. This strict approach requires enough savings in hand to cover any new gear (expenditures) before it is purchased. This safeguards someone who is starting out from having $80k in debt when they may only have $50k in income. Gear can wait. It can be sold. Debt isn’t going away so easily.
4. “Practically speaking, I’d say always back everything up immediately after you shoot it (and again after you process, retouch it) in at least two places, if not three places.”
Practically speaking, I’d say always back everything up immediately after you shoot it (and again after you process, retouch it) in at least two places, if not three places. I’m old school, and I use hard drives and manual copying of files because I have heard too many horror stories of colleagues relying on automated systems. These are your assets. Care for them well!
Also, on an emotional and energetic level, keep your network of relationships focused, yet remain open and agile. I came up through the art world and began exhibiting my work in galleries before I began shooting commercial assignments and stock. I remain an artist who is dedicated to my personal vision, as well as being aware of my clients’ needs and the needs of the broader marketplace. This enables me to leverage my talents in many arenas. If the idea and image are conceptually strong, they can exist in multiple contexts.
Be who you are, and bring all of who you are to the work. As an artist, you never arrive; you just keep moving forward, so shoot through the slow times. Consider a job based on creative possibilities over budget alone. I ask myself first, “Do I have the resources available to do great work?” If so, then it’s a “yes.”
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5. “Keeping track of bills, invoicing, and payments is key to running a successful business.”
Make sure all your finances are in order. Keeping track of bills, invoicing, and payments is key to running a successful business. Also, make sure that you are taking care of tax payments regularly so you don’t get hit with a huge bill at the end of the year. Having some kind of software that can help you track these things is great to have, and that way you don’t have to worry so much about it.
Knowing more about the business side of things will help you in the long run as a freelancer. I wish someone would have told me early in my career (or before) that learning how to run a business is going to keep you doing this longer than just working on your craft. You can be the best artist, but if you can’t run a business, you are not going to make it for very long.
6. “Getting your spreadsheets, checklists, and calendars down pat is so important.”
As photographers, we’re artists, but we’re also small business owners. Getting your spreadsheets, checklists, and calendars down pat is so important. It took me years to get a good system going for myself, but now I can’t imagine how I ever survived without it.
Keeping track of money flow in and out is important, as well as making sure you’re clear on how much you need to be putting aside from every payment you receive so that you’re not in a nightmare come tax season.
I’m pretty good now at just transferring a set percentage of every payment I receive into a different account with a different bank as soon as I receive it. It lives there until tax time, but it’s also great to have as an emergency fund if I ever need to access those savings otherwise in a pickle. The different bank is key-out of sight, out of mind.
7. “Getting a CPA was a huge change.”
Getting a CPA was a huge change. I was doing all my taxes myself before, and once we talked to a CPA and got him to handle everything, it was way easier! Especially with all the changes in the tax code that are happening. I also started using QuickBooks to manage all my expenses and invoicing, and it’s nice because it’s all in one place now.
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8. “…apply for a voluntary registration for being VAT registered so you can claim back 20% of all equipment purchases…”
The advice I wish I had been given at the beginning of my journey as a freelance photographer is to apply for a voluntary registration for being VAT registered. That way you can claim back 20% of all equipment purchases and form an LTD company so you can balance good years against lean years with maximum financial advantage in terms of tax liability.
9. “I brainstorm new ways to approach marketing and things I can do to work better and challenge myself in new ways.”
Schedule time to plan for your business. At the start of each year, I set aside a couple of hours to go out for a solo “board meeting.” I sit in a coffee shop and look over the previous year and then set goals for the one to come. I brainstorm new ways to approach marketing and things I can do to work better and challenge myself in new ways.
These goals are a combination of financial, artistic, and growth-oriented, and they help to form a vision for the direction I want to go and what is needed to get there. It’s good to have a clear plan and vision. On a monthly basis, I look back at that and evaluate my progress so that I can make decisions that align with my larger goals.
10. “Research keywords, get some templates organized, and do it on import of the files.”
The naming and storing of images sounds basic, but it wasn’t something I did from the start. Remember stock images you will still be looking for in a number of years. Research keywords, get some templates organized, and do it on import of the files. You can add specifics later.
11. “Technology is always changing, and it’s important to stay current.”
Stay educated with the latest business and photography resources. Technology is always changing, and it’s important to stay current. The investment in your own education will keep your brand current and your work profitable. Utilizing programs such as Evernote, G Suite, ShootQ, or Honeybook will keep your jobs, leads, emails, documents, and templates organized, so you can spending more time shooting and promoting your work.
12. “Like launching any small business, it’s really important to be financially prepared.”
Joseph De Leo
Like launching any small business, it’s really important to be financially prepared. Freelance photographers need to have adequate savings to be able to cover all of their production costs when shoots come in and to be able cover their personal expenses when awaiting payments or when work is slow. I learned early on how important it is to put money aside to keep things running smoothly.
It’s a good idea to divide up incoming payments into two or three accounts. That way, you will have money allocated to cover your personal expenses (rent, food, and taxes), business expenses (equipment, marketing, and production costs), and build up a safety net. The feast-or-famine nature of any freelance business requires putting good financial practices in place from the start in order to build a sustainable career.
13. “Make lists, follow lists, update lists, and check things off of lists.”
Make lists, follow lists, update lists, and check things off of lists. Figure out ways to expand upon lists, and when you finish a list, start a new one.