Like any business, starting is always the hardest part because you have no experience. Freelance photography is no exception.
Clients want to hire photographers who have a proven track record of success. When it comes to business, no one wants to risk their money on someone with no prior experience.
You might be starting and feel that the world is against you. Excellent! Welcome to the real world.
I have been there, my photography friends have been, and I would be surprised if a freelance photographer told you he hasn’t.
In this guide, you will learn the essential steps to starting a freelance photography business with no experienced needed. First, understand the business realities. Then, organise collaborations like paid shoots. Curate a portfolio, and do omni-channel marketing. Take the time to legitimise your business as soon as possible.
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Get an inside peek into how I got my first three photography clients when I began shooting commercially. No filters, just raw stories.
Bargaining Power between Photographer and Client
Understanding the power dynamics between photographers vs their clients is key to starting a successful freelance business because it gives you the right mindset in finding clients.
To start with, you need to see yourself as a business person. I worked in a bank, which taught me the importance of commercial awareness.
Regardless of experience levels, anyone in the photography business will be subject to the following dynamics.
Business of Photography Overview - Competition
The reality is that the world has too many experienced photographers for clients to pick from, let alone those with no experience.
As a result, the client has a larger bargaining power than the photographer. Clients are usually in a position to pick who to hire.
This is true based on my own experience, as well as that of professionals and freelancers who sustain a full-time living off photography. Most of the time, clients come to a freelance photographer with a job offer.
Business of Photography Overview - Demand
An added reason why this is so, is because businesses don’t necessarily need photos always, but photographers always need clients.
Most industries only need photos when there are new product launches, events, and initiatives like setting up a website that are few and far between.
On the other hand, niches that do publish imagery constantly don’t usually engage starting freelance photographers, such as newspapers and magazines.
In the case of private individuals, most people only need photos for an important life event, like graduations, birthdays, weddings etc.
Therefore, the ball is in the client’s court and they will only hire someone when they need it.
Business of Photography Overview - Perceived Value
Another characteristic of this industry is the fact that aesthetics and styles are highly subjective.
Whether a client hires a freelance photographer is very much like how you decide if you follow an Instagram page.
That first impression dictates if the client perceives your style to be a fit.
If they want to work with you, they have probably already looked through your work and decided so. All the ensuing discussions are mostly negotiations that are standard in business transactions.
Even if you see very clearly how your styles are a great match, ultimately it is the client’s perceived value of your work that matters.
Step #1 - ‘Attract, not Chase’ Mindset
Based on the above analysis and my own experience, the more reasonable thing for novice freelance photographers to do is to entice clients into reaching out to them, rather than actively pitching their services.
Actively asking for work usually fails because:
Clients are already bombarded with countless emails from people like you
The need for photos doesn’t exist all of a sudden just because you pitched
People don’t like being sold if they do not already like your work, and
Most importantly, rejections are emotionally very exhausting for you.
Dan Westergren, former National Geographic Creative Director, summed up the magazine’s hiring process pretty well: “If we want to hire you, we already know who you are!”. (Source: How to Become a Nat Geo Photographer)
This gives you a clear idea of what freelance photographers can and can’t control.
You can control your personal brand, and probably increase the likelihood of prospective clients hiring you in general - that is probability.
But you can never control how one particular client reacts to your brand - that is pure luck.
Especially with no experience, focus on things that you can control, which is your portfolio.
Any Experience is Experience
If you are thinking of starting a freelance business, you probably don’t mean that you have no experience in photography whatsoever.
Since you want to start earning money as a photographer, you should already know how to use the camera and have shot some photos that you are happy with.
What you really mean is that you have no experience of doing paid work.
But why is that an issue?
Based on my experience, the viewer can’t really tell a paid job from a collaboration in my portfolio. The only person who knows the difference is me.
In fact, people assumed that models paid me to do photos for them when they saw my Instagram profile. When that started to happen, most of my shots were still unpaid collaborations.
Therefore, having no experience of paid photography doesn’t make your portfolio look inferior.
You don’t need paid experience to get paid work. It boils down to how professional that experience looks.
This leads us to step #2 below.
Step #2 - Mimic Paid Shoots
The reason why you might think that you can’t get paid work with no experience of doing paid freelance projects is because you can’t make your portfolio look professional without an actual job.
This is not true, though mimicking a paid assignment takes some planning.
Look at the portfolios of the professionals. What do they have in common? Add that into your collaborations, make the necessary investments.
What this means in practice depends on the genre of photography you want to start, but here are some examples of what I did.
Helped a group of friends with their headshots. Obvious advice.
Included makeup artists/ hairstylists in my collaborations. Many freelancers include makeup and styling services in their packages.
Colour-graded using Photoshop. While Lightroom does a fairly good job, most professionals still do editing in Photoshop because it gives you much better control over the colours. Functions like liquify are also very important in adjusting the outlook of a client model.
Went to large-scale public events that literally everyone can enter (or by paying the entrance for an event I am attending anyway) and started shooting. These photos made up my early-stage events portfolio. See London Coffee Festival, London Gay Pride Parade etc in my Events portfolio.
Bought an on-camera flash. Most events take place indoors in dimly lit rooms. 11 out of 10 professionals need a flash to produce vibrant, crisp images. I was starting so I bought the cheapest one I could possibly find and did an event using it. It was bang for my buck to the max; the resulting photos looked professional. I used the Yongnuo Speedlite YN560-II - follow the link to Amazon to check out its latest price.
Followed a shot list. The organiser will use the photos for a wide variety of purposes, each requiring different things. Event freelancer photographers usually demonstrate many types of shots in their portfolio - wide panoramic shots, closeups, food or venue snaps, and poised portraits etc.
Don’t you worry about having no experience; find out what the pros in your field are doing while you are not, and take the necessary steps to fill that gap.
Bonus #1: Mimic the customer service as well, not just the techniques
Freelancing photography is a service, not just a product.
While generally you don’t need to stress about pricing packages and photography contracts yet because no money is involved in collaborations, it is vital that you start thinking about outlining the scope of your service.
It reflects badly on you if you are not even sure of yourself when people enquire about the basics of what you can provide. This is really going to show that you have no experience and people might back off.
These are some things about your service you need to know:
How much time do you spend on preparation for the shoot?
How many satisfactory shots can you produce per hour?
How many raw shots can you edit in an hour?
How detailed can the retouching be?
Do you want to let your collaborators choose images?
Do you want to handle revision requests?
How long after the shoot will you keep the raw files for?
Can they add their own edits onto your edit file?
It takes a few collaboration shoots and probably a few paid shoots to understand your abilities and boundaries. Knowing what you are comfortable doing will guide you in designing your packages and contract terms later on.
Step #3 - Curate a Portfolio
Where to build your portfolio
Website - it is common knowledge that websites are a MUST for freelance photographers because it indicates professionalism. It tells a complete story of you and your work.
Instagram - it is known to be a place where clients get to see more personality in you from your captions, tagged photos and stories.
With no experience, it is tempting to stay only on Instagram. But clients prefer to see your entire body of work in a more organised fashion, which is not possible through an Instagram profile.
When I ask a photographer for his portfolio and he gives me his Instagram, he is in essence screaming ‘I have no experience’.
Even though you have no experience, act like you have.
A website is a MUST.
How many photos go into your portfolio
Think about the minimum number of photos you need to effectively convey your style. You also need to show that you have the basic skills and can consistently do the job.
20 is usually a good number to start with.
I would not recommend more than 30, given that you are starting, because you should include nothing but your absolutely best work.
You can get away with having multiple portfolios for different types of photography, properly separated. I put my work into Portraiture, Commercial, Travels, Events and Food & Coffee.
Prospective clients will scroll through your Instagram page too.
But the way people consume content on Instagram is that they usually only check out the relatively recent posts.
To build up credibility, so that you don’t make it apparent that you have no experience, you need enough posts for a client to make 2-3 full-page scrolls.
But also make sure that your best work stays in the top 2-3 pages of content to make a good impression.
Profiles with only one genre of photography tend to work better because of consistency in outlook. This is why among all the categories of work I have done, I mostly put only my Portraits on Instagram.
Luck will Find you
Starting a freelance photography business with no experience of working with paying clients is largely a random process.
We learnt that active outreach on part of the photographer is not the best tactic. You can put yourself out there but you can’t control if a client will hire you.
When you have no experience, you tend to focus on the negatives: ‘What if that first willing client just never comes along?’
That is not a rational thought because by definition, randomness means unpredictability. So why try to predict the unpredictable?
There is really no need to work out why the first paid jobs happened because you can’t.
The catch is, you don’t have to be lucky every time. You just have to be lucky with one client to get started, given that you are ready for this job when it presents itself.
You might have no experience with a client now, but you can totally expect to get lucky just for once.
Depending on where you are in life, here are some real examples of what luck looks like.
In College - Safe Environment for First-timers
There is a good chance you are entering/ in college when you read this. If not, feel free to skip to the next part.
In College, most people are poor and seldom do they have connections to professional photographers.
Whenever they need photos, they hop onto an online space and ask around, usually in a Facebook Group.
They can only afford to pay crappy prices, but they also do not have high expectations on the photos.
There might be a number of starting photographers competing for jobs on there, but there will be one time where you are the only one available at that particular time and place.
That happened to me, and so I got the first paid photography job ever in my life.
After Graduation - Instagram SEO
For those with no experience yet didn’t get to take advantage of college years, one of the best things to do is to make your Instagram profile searchable.
Think of Instagram as a search engine. What would people type into the search bar when they need a photographer?
They usually start their search by typing phrases like “(location) photographer”. They are not searching for your name nor anything more specific than a general location. So, make your page all about those keywords.
Here are examples of what I did:
Set username (Bold line in Bio) as Hong Kong Photographer, not Belinda Jiao Photography
Use post AND story hashtags that has my location in them, such as #hongkongphotographer
Add post location as Hong Kong, not any specific district in the city
See the screenshots below for reference.
People do not see that you have no experience with paid work from your profile. They just can’t really tell.
One day I got a DM from a fashion blogger traveling to Hong Kong in my requests. And that just happened.
Bonus #2: Ask People How they Found you!
Ask your clients or followers how they found your page, however few of them you may have.
Do more of what worked. I literally DM every new follower and ask them how they found my profile.
Most of them said they found me via hashtags like #canonhk, or by typing ‘Hong Kong Photographer’ into the search bar.
I made it hard for Instagram to not show my profile because that’s exactly what I called myself!
Step #4 - Be Omnipresent
Based on the above examples, you know that your primary job is to put yourself out there.
Make yourself searchable on as many platforms as you can manage, so that you might ‘catch’ that luck sooner.
In fact, marketers are unanimously harping about multi-channel marketing today and that is where the trend is heading.
From a psychological point of view, the more times a person comes across your brand, the more likely he will identify with you.
Being omni-channel can mean any of the following things:
Make your services known to your circle of friends & acquaintances
Put your work on Instagram (as mentioned)
Be active on ‘I Need a Photographer’-type of Facebook groups
Show your behind-the-scenes on TikTok
Blog about your photography on your website
Create video tutorials on Youtube
Whichever platform you choose to go on, be very clear about one thing: making it easier for people to find you does not require you going after and begging them for work.
Put your work out there, but understand that it is up to the client to decide.
Step #5 - Legitimise your Freelance Business
At this point you know the substance of starting a freelance photography business, but formally you are not yet a legal entity.
Being recognised as a legitimate freelance business, or a serious photographer overall, involves the following things:
Depending on your geography, there are various types of licenses you can get.
Usually there are business licenses, unlimited liability corporations and limited liability corporations. Each class involves different fees.
Don’t slack on this - go read up the government website about how these categories work in your locality.
Generally, a basic business license would suffice for anyone just starting.
Business Bank Account:
Due to compliance reasons, accounts can be used for their claimed purposes only.
Therefore, personal accounts cannot be used for business operations.
This is the case where I am based. Do check the policies with your bank.
It feels much more transparent and organised when people can get a clear idea of what service they are getting for what price.
As mentioned, service is much more than a product. They are more complicated in the sense that they involve a lot of intangible things other than the photos themselves.
Apart from examples listed under Bonus #1, the scope of your service can include items like extra orders, overtime shooting, styling or makeup services etc.
People want to have all of this information in one same place.
For reasons similar to why you should have packages, clients want to see their options and rights listed in one single document.
Having a contract means that you have given thought about the many possible accidents.
What kind of unexpected events might happen takes some experience to find out, but there are apparent ones that you would like to contemplate about:
Cancellations/ Re-schedules due to Sickness/ Injury/ Bad weather etc;
Penalties/ fines involved for unauthorised shooting
Contractual terms properly drafted provide a solution to a problem, which is assuring to both you and your client.
While starting out might mean tight finances, as you progress, it is vital that you get your contract reviewed by a licensed lawyer to protect yourself to the fullest.
This is more applicable to working with corporations or brands.
Businesses do their book keeping for both internal recording and taxation purposes.
They need an official record of their expenses, and you need to have a professional-looking invoicing template.
Most businesses only pay upon receiving an invoice from the photographer.
In this article, we talked about:
Business reality of freelance photography
Attract, not chase
Organise collaborations like paid shoots
Curate a portfolio
Understand the element of luck
Do omni-channel marketing
Legitimise your freelance photography business
More sharing coming soon!
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