A rewarding assignment last fall that I neglected to post to this blog, in part to respect the terms of agreements that are a part of freelancing. (Now it just seems odd to post a series of dated photos). I followed Democratic candidate Charlie Hardy as he attempted to unseat the Republican incumbent in Wyoming in the U.S. Senate race. It was a quixotic attempt, but provided a level of access and intimacy on the very old bus while he campaigned around the state.
Oh goodness, I’ve become a photographer stereotype. This daily news photographer jumped to become a freelancer then his blogging slowed down and became inconsistent, just like so many others. I’m thinking about my behavior after I saw Melissa Lyttle‘s post on 6 months as a freelancer. “Wait…”, I realized, I wrote a similarly-titled post after 6 months, but never posted it. I didn’t post it three months ago because I didn’t finish it. I didn’t finish it because I was becoming a stereotype of a photographer who got too busy.
Why does this happen often to photographers? Once you go freelance after being an employee, you realize just how much mind-numbing paperwork and details you have to manage. Then you’re shooting as much as you can and trying to over-deliver. More time. Post-production. Even more. Then you find yourself looking ahead to future assignments instead of looking back. You become your own assignment editor. Then your kids get home and you want to teach math to your daughter and baseball to your son.
In the end, you’ll come back to blogging but only if you enjoy writing. So below are my belated 15 observations on
6 9 months of freelancing, now improved by a few more months of experience. Hope they’re useful!
1. Say no to fear.
After being told by countless people that I would be “crazy” to leave a staff job, I’m happy to say I’m enjoying this. I’ve written about how much I miss daily work. But now, I don’t have to ask anyone’s permission to accept creative opportunities and paid work. I’ve even traveled more now than when I was at the paper. I’m also enjoyed a more flexible schedule, face-time with kids, and more presence of mind when I am home. I also have the independence to speak up about issues of journalism where others might be silenced because of their employer. There’s uncertainty, to be sure, but it’s still all good.
2. “Until the check clears, it’s all blah, blah, blah”
A business consultant friend of mine offered that pearl of wisdom. Cash flow is extremely important and a hang-up can put you out of business, so don’t spend money unless the check has cleared. 30 days can stretch to 120 days, sometimes by innocent mistakes on the part of someone who has more business to offer you (so you can’t get too upset). For some businesses (albeit not many), waiting 120 days for a check is not abnormal if you’re a sub-contractor. Not sure what’s happening with your expenses and income? NPPA’s cost of doing business calculator is invaluable.
3. Photographers are, surprise, sources of paid work.
I love this truth. I have given jobs to photographers and received jobs from other photographers. If you believe the fear narrative, no one has enough work and it’s a dog-eat-dog world. Totally false. Competing schedules and jobs that require two photographers, etc.. all add to the need of having photographers at your ready who you can trust to help you out. Yes there is competition but that exits both inside and outside companies.
4. Refer back.
If you want to keep getting referrals from photographer friends, then refer their clients back to your colleague if their client ever follows-up with you or wants to change a date. Nothing burns a bridge with a photographer more than taking away their clients. That’s like the third rail of Chicago’s “L”. Secure that understanding with your colleague.
5. Settle on experienced and trusted crew members.
Make-up professionals, producers, location scouts and assistants are needed on different types of shoots, so interview and hire people who are dedicated to their specific craft. Don’t think you can just hire a friend photographer to help you out. A good photographer doesn’t necessarily make a valuable assistant. One photographer I worked with as an assistant couldn’t turn off his charm and ended up schmoozing my client while I was trying to get a word in edgewise. Another photojournalist I worked with wasn’t versed in lighting so I had to micromanage their placement of lighting when I wanted to focus on other issues. Assemble a team who know their roles, for assignments that might be bigger than what you can handle by your lonesome.
6. Don’t bank on promises of work.
Projects pop in and out of existence like stories on an editor’s budget. Creative decision-makers can change their minds, or are told to change their minds by clients. Appointments get delayed and held up. Budgets fluctuate, layoffs and mergers happen , etc.. etc.. There’s so much you don’t know and can’t predict. If you don’t hear anything back, don’t take it personally.
7. Rent gear after having the basics.
Buying more gear creates the false illusion of power. There’s something physiologically appealing about new equipment because it’s something tangible and physical. But the acquisition of property takes away from your marketing budget – which actually brings in more business. It can also push up your insurance bill. Yes, new equipment can help expand your creativity, (and sometimes it’s needed) but it shouldn’t come to the expense of the business that supports it – especially towards the beginning of a business. It’s never been easier to rent.
8. Make your website easy to navigate.
I have been very frustrated after having wanted to refer work to photographers only to find their sites impossible to navigate, or unreflective of the work for which I know them. I can’t point a client towards a site without it reflecting back on my judgment, so I have to think like my client. I can’t expect them to trust my opinion. Decisions can sway against you in 5 seconds or less, so make sure your site is easy to navigate, both on a desktop computer and on mobile, which is over 40% of internet traffic.
9. Learn the diplomatic art of negotiation.
Don’t be so eager to fight the cause of copyright with a client, especially upfront, such that the only thing you accomplish is to turn them off by making them believe you are a walking lawsuit. There are ways of standing firm without being obnoxious about it. ASMP has a list of great tips for negotiation. There are often understandable reasons why you will be asked to give up some rights, and the more you understand why through asking respectful questions, the more easily you can reach an agreement that satisfies everyone. Don’t be surprised, for example, if all of a sudden you’re put in the position of having to explain to a legal team the basics of copyright. Many people, especially legal teams, just don’t know better than to ask for everything. But if you can’t negotiate diplomatically and be satisfied with the result, be willing to walk away.
10. Incorporate as an LLC but elect to be taxed as an S Corp.
Consider this option if and when you chose to incorporate. Many photographers don’t realize that you can combine the two, to get the best of both worlds (this needs to be done when you first create your LLC). Lawyers don’t know as much about this – but accountants do. Essentially, it’s a means by which to reap the ease of operation of an LLC and the tax benefits of an S corp, which can save you many thousands of dollars every year.
11. Embed photo licenses in the metadata of your images.
In addition to the normal delivery of documents, embedding your license agreement within the image makes tracking terms of an agreement a lot easier for some clients. It can help also help years later protect against misuse of images when your point of contact moves on and documents get misdirected. This happened to a photographer friend. After a set of his photos were used in violation of the license under new management, he was able to invoice for over $30K because the proof of the agreement was spelled out in the metadata.
12. Backup your backups.
It’s all on you as a freelancer. You can’t throw back any problems to the assignment desk, or the reporter, or anyone. I have to predict the worse case scenario in the same way I did as a photojournalist shooting big events, but now I have to deliver 100% of the time. What happens if an assistant you hired doesn’t show up? What happens if my gear gets stolen enroute or doesn’t get delivered? You need a backup for equipment, data, personnel, and yourself.
13. Get your cameras on the plane.
I don’t care how you do it, just don’t let the airline check the bag with your cameras. Find out ahead of time what it will take to get your bag in an overhead bin. Pay if you have to. The bins fill up quickly and you don’t want to get stuck in one of the last groups of people to board. On a flight, I saw them forcing passengers to check bags even when I got aboard and saw there were many overhead bins that were empty. Just don’t let your bag get taken away from you. Have you seen the video making the rounds? Yea, that.
14. Surround yourself with positivity.
As I said in #1, there’s too much crazy out there and the people who are not handling it well (for a variety of factors that might not apply to you) will make the most noise on social media, perhaps hoping someone will send them a life preserver. Complaining about your lack of business on social media will only contribute to the impression that there is something wrong with your business, the quality of the product you deliver, or even you. It can send your livelihood into a downward spiral of negativity.
15. It’s all about relationships.
People work with who they trust and who they like to work with. Melissa’s post is a great example of that. It’s not about the brand you used to work for, it’s about the social network you have. Yes, there are a lot of photographers out there, but when a decision-maker has an assignment in hand, the pressure is on to deliver a high-quality product. In those moments, they can’t depend on the abstraction of many good photographers out there, or on the tired maxim “anyone can take a picture”. They have to depend on a person, a single person who you can trust to deliver. It pays to be known.