My latest endeavor, as the title of this post would suggest, is becoming or developing myself as a freelance photographer. A little background before I get into the guts.
I first became interested in photography in high school and took both a basic photography (film) course as well as a black and white darkroom. These two learning opportunities had a certain element of purity to them in that I was pursuing the art out of an interest in the medium. I had not yet thought or considered trying to earn money. I continued taking photos through high school and remember getting my first digital camera, a Sony cybershot, 3.2 megapixles with a 32 megabyte memory card, woohoo!
Fast forward to college. I had graduated to a digital SLR, a Nikon D200. This camera was amazing when it was released. I immediately found an online stock photography website where I could upload images and start earning some income. Shooting these general, stock images wasn’t very exciting but it did generate (a little) income. It was fun to get creative, searching for subjects that weren’t widely represented in the database. I had hoped by focusing on these subjects I might get better exposure and earn better income. Now, with over 25 million photos in their database, my insignificant portfolio hardly even qualifies as a % of what they offer. Either way, I still manage to get a check 1-2 times a year in the mail. How much could I earn if I got my portfolio up to 2000+ images?
As I continued honing my abilities I had some great opportunities to work as a second photographer at weddings. This led to me getting a gig as the sole photographer on a wedding, shooting, editing, and delivering a finished product by my own prowess. This was a great experience and bolstered my confidence in attempting other gigs. I eventually got an opportunity through a friend to do some product photography for a website he was creating. This was my biggest professional job to date and I traveled to shoot on-location for a business on the coast of Maine. Arranging and shooting food was a really fun project, especially eating what was left after the shoot!
This point in my professional photography experience was a pivotal moment. I was no longer taking photos out of pleasure or love of creating beautiful images. Instead I was looking for opportunities to earn money. I had lost the love of the art form. It was a sad day. I eventually sold off my gear and decided to take a break, telling myself, ‘photography should be about more then just money.’
Jump to the present. I am now in Los Angeles trying to get my life in order, searching for career paths that suit my personality, passions, and values. While getting all of those facets to align is a challenge, I don’t think it’s impossible. I’m finding myself coming back to photography. I never really thought that a career in photography would simply fall into my lap – you have to put in a serious amount of effort and time to be able to make a living with this art form. It is especially difficult to expect to make a living as a freelance photographer.
Some of the major barriers to entering the industry as I see it are, a saturated market, ‘everyone’ being a photographer (thanks to digital), networking/connection development, and typical career paths to the position of photographer. Lets explore a few of these.
The saturated market – It is clear to me that a LOT of people in Los Angeles are talented photographers. In fact, I think a lot of talented artists live here or have moved here in general. This is partly due to the high demand for artists and creative types in the film/television industry. It’s a double edged sword – high demand and lots of people offering the skill in demand. It is clear that to have a shot in this saturated market, individuals need to stand out, we need to develop our ‘brand’. What is my brand? I’m working on this one.
Next, everyone is a photographer. Literally, everyone has a camera with them all day, it’s called a smart phone. I’m not saying that everyone who HAS a camera IS a photographer. Digital has definitely made entering the industry much easy for some folks who previously wouldn’t have wanted to invest the money in developing REAL film to see the results of their ability. I remember having to spend money not only on film but on materials to develop and print photos. All of a sudden it’s nothing to fire off 1000 shutter clicks at an event, sort through them and come away with 20-30 decent final photos. This is a beautiful thing, especially if you know a thing or two about composition, giving you no excuses to stop shooting. This is ultimately is a good thing for any photographer with even a basic understanding of the art.
Typical career paths to be a professional photographer are like most film industry paths out here. You start at the bottom. While it can be demoralizing to get coffee for people, clean up after others, and be reduced to a role of physical labour, perhaps it’s a good way to learn. I would venture a guess that most talented and successful photographers have been there done that. Starting at the bottom could give us an appreciation for the amount of work and time that goes into rising to the position of photographer.
And finally, networking/communication within the photography community. This, as I see it, is the most important, especially when it comes to working as a freelancer. Literally every job lead or actual job I have had so far is through friends and word-of-mouth. It’s amazing how far chatting up the right people will go. You literally have to be ‘working’ 24/7, offering/talking about your services to find these opportunities. My experience so far is that one job will lead to the next. This has lead me to the realization that being a freelancer is about correlating your work and life into one continuous social experience. Going to a friend’s birthday? Nope, your meeting potential clients. Having drinks with a few friends? Nope, you’re looking for job openings. I obviously don’t mean this in a literally sense – your friends might get sick of your presence if you are constantly soliciting them for work. However, you do need to be persistent and constantly looking/seeking opportunity. It’s a numbers game like dating. Of course, not everyone is going to want a date but, the more people you communicate with the more potential partners you will find.