Avoiding Freelancer Freefall

Just yesterday, a colleague sent me a Facebook message saying that she had been laid off from her newspaper. She wanted some advice on finding freelance work; I know she is not alone. Over the years, I have seen many newspaper staffers suddenly find themselves without the support structure that a corporation can provide -– no camera gear, no assignment editor, no benefits, no work, no salary. It can be a rude awakening.

Be Adaptable

After the initial shock, some welcome the opportunity to finally break free of the paper and do their own thing. Others enter a state of blind panic, wondering where the work is going to come from.

Those who do well tend to be adaptable, observing the market and responding to new trends and changing demands. They are also realistic. Even though their passion may be for creating wonderful photographs of newsworthy events, this group understands they will need to supplement their preferred projects by doing photography work that may not be so special to them — but that pays the bills.

This is not a new model. Salgado, when working for Magnum, would spend considerable time shooting annual reports for corporations, and then go off for several months to photograph his own mega-projects. I have come across cases where hardened conflict photojournalists turn to wedding photography to supplement their personal project costs.

The other group of new freelancers, those in a blind panic, tends to keep staring at the phone, wondering when it is going to ring. Here’s the thing. It probably isn’t. Although I have had many opportunities land on my lap, I never depend on that. Those who are going to survive our evolving industry situation (which I do not think is temporary) need to create their own opportunities.

Know What You Want

Getting started as a freelancer should begin with a self-assessment. What are you trying to achieve? What are you trying to do with the photographs you take?

For many of you, these may be new questions — or ones that haven’t been asked in a long time. Staff photographers are often told by their photo editor what to cover, how to cover it — maybe even provided with a shot list.

Now that you are on your own, how do you know what to shoot? How can you generate demand for your photographs? Are you just shooting to get paid? Is photography just a day job for you? Or are you more altruistic?

Depending on your answers, you might decide to work for non-profit organizations, or to teach photography, or to write about it. Or you may decide to go into corporate photography.

Be Resourceful

Corporate photography is a great option for those who can get into it. It requires the ability to build and maintain client relationships — which is not always easy during difficult economic times.

Lately, with the economy as it is, I’ve had corporate clients call to cancel their assignments for holiday events, which are usually great sources of revenue. But a resourceful freelancer never lets an assignment go without a fight.

Last week, a client called me to cancel a multi-day event. I asked why. She said her company just didn’t have the money to pay for a photographer.

“Is the event still going ahead?” I asked.

“Yes, but trimmed down,” she said.

“Have you had photographers in previous years?” I asked.

“Yes, every year for the past six years,” she replied.

“Then how would it come across if, all of a sudden, your attendees realize that they are not seeing the normal slideshow of photographs taken during the event — an annual highlight. Wouldn’t it be a little demoralizing?”


“So how about this. How about instead of working all three days, I work one and a half days, the busiest of the event, together with the main evening entertainment, provide you with one big slideshow, and nobody really knows the difference? You save money, I save time for a different assignment, and staff morale is not jeopardized?”

And with that, a lost sale was salvaged.

I would love it if all I had to think about all day was composition, lighting, shutter speeds, lens selection, etc. But that’s not life as a freelance photographer. The sooner new freelancers can embrace this reality, the sooner they will be able to move on to re-secure their careers.

2 Responses to “Avoiding Freelancer Freefall”

  1. Thank you very much. I am inspired by your approach.

  2. Thanks for the article! This is something I've been wrestling with recently being a new freelancer. I didn't get laid off from a newspaper, I got laid off from an IT company. This is my first foray into professional photography and this is an issue I've been wrestling with quite a bit. My primary focus is photojournalism, particularly international photojournalism with a specialization in the Middle East. I've considered trying to build a successful wedding photography business as I've received plenty of inquiries to shoot weddings and it would be a nice way to supplement my income and support my independent projects. But here's what I'm afraid of: Building a successful wedding photography business (or any type of commercial photography) also requires significant effort and resources. And, to be honest, I'm more inclined to throw all my resources into doing what I _really_ want to do rather than what simply makes money. I guess if I'm going to go "all-in" why not go "all-in" for what you really want, rather than what's easier? I'm not suggesting that I'm right. Not at all. I still wrestle with this everyday. But if I fail and have to go back to IT, I'd rather fail pursuing my dream rather than pouring money and resources into something that I don't really want to do anyway.

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