As with all professional skills, photography requires a commitment to learn, keep up to date with technology, and sharpen the craft with the latest trends and styles of the day. The best way to be successful as a freelance photographer is by showcasing your talent through a portfolio and lots of networking. But where do we begin and what is the path to success?

Do what you love and love what you do

Your passion for photography will be at the heart of your success. For most people, it is a dream come true to have their loving hobby as their profession – and most people call it the ‘dream job’. In this guide, we weigh the ups and downs of starting as a freelance photographer at the very beginning of your professional journey.

More importantly, you will let learn the secrets for success in what it takes to be a full-time freelance photographer.

The truth about photography as an industry

Before discussing the details, let us do a reality check first by looking at the current market condition for photographers in general. In most countries (or at least in the developed world), “the market for professional photography is shrinking” according to Dr Michael Pritchard, director of education and public affairs at the Royal Photographic Society (RPS). He further adds that “fees are getting smaller and there's a lot of competition - so making a career out of photography means you need to stand out in some way”.

It is clear that wherever you take up work in a professional capacity, the competition will be high and the return would be marginal – at least at the beginning of your career. But remember, photographers love what they do, so there is no reason not to do what they love! And if you do things right and stay ahead of the crowd, you will earn a lot and have a successful freelance photography business.

We can learn a lot from the experience of other professional freelance photographers. In the video below, Project Photography talks about the difficulties in getting started and the key skills you need to have (or develop) when you initially start. Experience from fellow freelance photographers and the stories about their journeys are invaluable to everyone starting completely new – and especially if you are planning to have this profession as your full-time source of income.

Where to start as a freelance photographer?

You have clicked the shutter hundreds of thousands of times and taken countless stunning pictures as a hobby. But that does not get you a paycheque! To get you in the money, you have to brush up your professional experience as a freelance photographer.

The best and the easiest starting point is to get work experience. As with most professions, a budding freelance photographer will realise that work experience is the best way to understand what working as a professional photographer is actually like. Some people choose to give their skills for free to build a portfolio from scratch. This is a good method if you cannot find any opportunities on social media or local photography communities.

The most common way to provide free photography services as a freelancer is by taking photos of friends, family or anyone with their consent. Make sure your work has value and is useful to your client – even if they are your family members. And also, it is a good idea not to do it completely free – because, remember, you are starting as a new entrepreneur or business venture. Therefore, getting paid at least for your travel or other minor expenses will add value to the work you produce.

It is also worthwhile to look for work experience with photographers on LinkedIn or other social media platforms. Local opportunities are more likely to be available because large companies, especially news media organisations, are flooded with internship applications every week. Therefore, a local photographer may invite you to a shoot, probably at a local site, and ask for your skills for the day. This is a brilliant way to make a start and build on your portfolio.

However, even if you do not do any of the above, you can still make your personal collection as your professional portfolio. Photography is a form of art and it is about how you express it through a lens. Pricing is really important and the video below provides an honest and realistic approach to pricing. Remember, we all have to start somewhere – so never shy away to try it out!

Build a portfolio – quickly

Easier said than done, it is important not to dwell in building a portfolio. Most freelance photographers stepping into the profession spend a lot of time choosing the ‘best’ shots for their profile. And as the artistic flare kicks in, most tend to spend hours scrolling through the perfect photos without actually building the collection.

The most suitable way to have a portfolio is through a website. This can be somewhat costly at the beginning, but if you invest the time and money, you will be reaping the rewards in the long run. In case you are unable to invest the time and money for a new website, the other obvious and free way to publish your work is social media. And the leader in photography on social platforms is Instagram.

But remember not to ignore the relevance and reach of other platforms such as LinkedIn and Facebook. Your target should be to reach as many people as possible.

Get noticed through conventional ways, too!

There are plenty of other ways to showcase your work apart from online portfolios. One such conventional way is to submit your work to competitions. This will enhance your profile and increase publicity while allowing you to network with other photographers. When submitting your work, make sure you send in the work that represents your brand identity – the type of photographs you like to take and get paid for. That way, you have a better chance of confidently showcasing them to a potential client, and you will get to work in the preferred area of specialism.

You can also get your work reviewed by experienced professionals in the industry. This will not only introduce you to the real pros in the industry but also enable you to sharpen your skills and find new avenues that could generate more work.

The journey will not be easy at the start

Even after having a portfolio on a website and social media platforms for some time, you may wonder ‘why am I not getting the income as expected for a freelance photographer?’ It is important to remember that, as with all freelance work, there is no fixed income. You are your boss and there is a huge risk involved. Some months (and years) will be good, but at other times, there will not be much at all. Therefore, you must plan your finances prudently. You will realise that you need a lot more skills other than photo editing and taking impressive photographs.

Kickstart your freelance photography career, now!

At first, most of us have the feeling ‘where do I make a start’? The easiest and the most obvious way is through online freelancing websites. You will need to showcase your work to potential customers and win them over. Reviews and recommendations go a long way, so make sure you deliver 200% for every paying customer on the freelancing platforms.

Photographer jobs and freelancing platforms

One of the most popular websites for photographer jobs is Upwork. It has a fantastic reputation for listing quality photographers locally as well as internationally. Another, very popular and less expensive platform for photographer jobs is Fiverr. Don’t be misled by the name, though! The quality of the freelancers on Fiverr is very high-end. However, the rule of thumb on Fiverr is – ‘you get what you paid for’.

You can also look for photographer jobs in local classified ads. They could include opportunities with local newspapers, family events, and schools and colleges in the local area.

Specialise in a certain field of photography

Now that you’ve learnt what it takes to be a full-time freelance photographer, you will need to plan for the future. It is never too early to plan and choose your niche. Not only you will find your selected area of photography more enjoyable to work in, but also, the reward and satisfaction will make you feel work more and take on new projects. Then work becomes to feel like a hobby! Some specialist areas of photographer jobs include:

  • Architecture
  • Commercial
  • Events
  • Family
  • Fashion
  • Fine art
  • Forensic - see crime scene investigator
  • School
  • Wedding
  • Wildlife
  • Underwater

What next?

As an aspiring full-time freelance photographer, you already possess the skills to take gorgeous photos to make people happy. The real success rests with how you organise and manage your new business. You will develop people skills, money management skills, risk-taking and a whole raft of other invaluable lessons throughout your freelance photographer journey.

So, jump in, let’s get connected with the community!

PS: here’s a taster of a day in the life of a freelance photographer:

More Photography »

Story XP
Story XP