This handbook explains how to become a full-time freelance photographer, in fact, it will give you everything you need to know. Whether you want to quit your job and pursue your passion for photography or even build out a full-fledged large-scale agency, this handbook is for you. It doesn’t waste time with self-evident fluff. If you’re skeptical of advice, know that we are too. This handbook is unique in that we have years of experience: our brand Junglepresets, was started by a group of like-minded photographers, who quit their jobs, and now we work as full-time freelancers. Furthermore, we have helped many of our friends jump the ship, so we know what we are talking about. No matter how far along you are on your journey, this handbook will be filled with actionable advice that you can implement. This first page of the handbook introduces the groundwork you need to have set up in order to build a highly successful career as a freelance photographer.
Choose your niche
Every great freelance photographer needs to have their own niche. There are so many to choose from, such as weddings, food, real estate, still life, portraits, fashion, newborn, travel, street, nightlife, animals, the list goes on.
When choosing your niche, there are two things to keep in mind:
Firstly, make sure you choose something that you truly enjoy. If you hate weddings, going into wedding photography might not be the best fit for you, but if you love architecture and real estate, offering your photography services to real estate agents, developers and architects is something you should definitely consider.
Secondly, your niche needs to have what many people in the startup industry call product/market fit. The same way a tech startup is trying to build a product that solves a problem many people have, you should focus on a niche that is underserved in your local community. So, if you live in Miami or New York, where the real estate market is very large, you might think becoming a real estate photographer will have a great product/market fit or in our case niche/market fit, but think twice! Markets like New York or Miami might have a booming real estate market, but they likewise probably have a huge pool of real estate photographers. What we are trying to convey is that you need to find a market that has a lot of demand for a photography niche, but very few photographers working in that niche. Finding this market will make your life a lot easier, you will be able to charge much higher fees, and deal with little to no competition.
If you want to read more about product/market fit, we highly recommend reading this Medium article on the topic.
Now, you might be worried… Choosing one niche can feel scary. Some photographers, think, once they choose a niche, they will never be able to go back, and so they never focus and offer wedding, real estate, portrait, street, food, and product photography all at the same time. Do not make this mistake. You can always change your niche, going back to our tech startup example: Amazon.com started off as an online book store, imagine they started off trying to sell everything. It would have been an impossible task — from a marketing, logistics, and hiring perspective. Instead, they started off with books, then slowly moved on to selling more and more things, and now Amazon has been dubbed the everything store. You should apply this same principle to your photography business: start off with one specific niche, then as you grow, and have built a reputation, you can expand to more areas.
Setting up your portfolio
Having a portfolio set up, in order to show potential clients your work is a must-have. If you have no projects to show, work for free until you have enough projects to show to your clients. We recommend having at least five or six projects in your portfolio before you start looking for clients.
Some photographers will feel that working for free is a ‘waste of their time’, and they feel the need to charge clients right away. This is a big mistake. Getting clients with no work to showcase, is almost impossible, so working for free to build up your portfolio, is most definitely worth your time. It can speed up the process of becoming a full-time freelance photographer by months, sometimes even years.
If you already have a few projects to show potential clients, great! Now let’s talk about how to actually present your portfolio.
We are living in a digital age, no one is walking around, showing a hard copy portfolio to potential clients. If you want to make it, you need to have a website. To make things harder, you need to have a website that is beautifully designed. A portfolio is the first impression a potential client will have on your work, but first impressions can also be your last. If your website is terrible, the actual quality of your work will never be fully appreciated.
But don’t worry, you do not have to hire professional website developers or graphic designers. Luckily, we have options that are cheap and will get you a great website, with little money and effort.
We highly recommend using Squarespace or Wix to create your website. We are not affiliated with any of these companies, we simply have had a great experience with both of these website creators.
Making it as easy as possible to book an appointment is crucial to your website’s success. This is very easy to set up with website creators but is something many people forget to add.
Great, so now you have got your website set up. But, one thing that is very important is your domain, no one wants to see a domain like mycoolportfolio.squarespace.com. We recommend investing in a custom domain, as well as a professional email that uses your custom domain. @gmail.com simply won't cut it anymore.
Domain names and professional emails can be easily bought via Wix or Squarespace, but also over traditional domain companies, such as GoDaddy, Namecheap, and many more.
While a website is great for presenting your work directly to potential clients. Posting your portfolio on a platform is something worth considering, as it can heavily increase your client ‘pipeline’.
There are two types of platforms:
The first is direct marketplaces, such as UpWork or Fiverr, we do not recommend setting up a profile to these types of platforms if you are looking for ‘high ticket’ clients, >$800 per project. However, for people just starting out, these platforms can be of great use and can help you expand your portfolio.
The second type of platforms are sites such as Pexels, 500px, and Behance. This will bring your photos to a lot of people, but for sites like these, anyone will be able to freely use your photos for whatever they’d like. Again, we highly recommend these platforms for people just starting out, it will give your work plenty of publicity, and help you build your brand. However, once you have a good pipeline of clients, we recommend sticking to your own website, and the marketing techniques mentioned in the second part of the handbook.
While these are the two main types of platforms, there are some other cool ones you might consider. A great example is Airbnb. Airbnb has a marketplace where users posting their homes can get access to professional photographers. If you are interested in real estate photography, the Airbnb platform can bring in some clients. There are all sorts of cool platforms like these, so don’t be afraid to try out new things.
While all these platforms are great, the best ones out there are still social media. Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, even TikTok or YouTube, can be great for photographers looking to showcase their work. Not only will your social media act as a second website/portfolio, but if you have a large following, you will have plenty of clients contacting you for work, further increasing that deal pipeline.
Posting your work regularly (day to day basis), will reward you massively. While there are hundreds of growth tactics out there, simply posting content that people either enjoy looking at, e.g your work, or content that will bring people some type of value, e.g tutorials or behind the scenes, is the most important thing when it comes to social media. Once you have that set in place, you will be able to experiment with other growth hacks and tricks to grow your following.
Set up your rate
Finding a good rate, and being consistent with your rate is crucial to your future photography career. You don’t want to be known as the discount photographer, who is always reducing his rates, but also not as the guy who overcharges.
While many photographers opt for per/hour rates, we think project-based rates are mutually better. Hourly-based rates incentivize you to work slowly, and they limit you to how many projects you can complete, as there are only so many hours in a day. Working with project-based fees, incentivizes you to be more productive, and doesn’t really limit the number of projects you can do. Furthermore, clients are generally happier with per-project rates, as they will know exactly what they are paying from the start.
This is the calculation we recommend you use to come up with a project-based rate.
List all the fixed costs you have: your camera, equipment, software, presets, as well as basic travel expenses. Now take that number, let’s say it adds up to $19,758, and divide it by the number of projects you are able to do in a year — this all depends on the size of your projects, and how long they take. Let’s say you are able to complete 70 projects in a year, now divide your expenses by the number of projects, in our case: $19,758/70 = $282. Now, multiply your fixed costs by a factor of 5x, this leaves you with a per-project rate of $1,410, and your end-of-year profit at just under $80,000.
This is just an example, so before you judge this calculation, change the variables: how many projects are you able/willing to complete in a year, as well as the multiple. We used 5x, but depending on your reputation, increase or decrease this multiple.
Using presets and technology to your advantage
What differentiates a moderately successful and highly successful freelance photographer, is time management. The more projects you are able to complete, the more revenue you will pull in, which will, in turn, lead to more recognition, a better reputation, and ultimately more revenue and a more fulfilling career.
So, use modern technology to your advantage. Invest in the best software, plugins, and equipment. This will save you a lot of time.
A quick word on photo filters, also known as presets. Presets can give you a great starting point for editing, and save you a tremendous amount of time. This way you can spend more time out shooting, instead of sitting at the computer editing photos for hours.
If you are looking for presets, make sure to check out our preset brand: Junglepresets. We have been obsessively designing these presets for years in order to give fellow photographers a great starting point for their edits, and save them hours and hours of editing time. If you don’ trust us, just check out our 500+ 5-Star reviews —Junglepresets.
That’s it for the first part of this handbook. Now, let’s move on to the fun stuff! Next up, we will learn how to actually get clients, we will take a look at how you can maximize your personal network, how to run ads, and how to leverage PR and SEO to create a steady pipeline of clients.
When you are just starting out as a freelance photographer, make sure to take advantage of your personal network. While this might sound obvious, plenty of photographers get very excited and start taking out big ads in the local newspaper. This could be great down the road, but when you are just starting out, start by contacting anyone that might need photography services. If you are a real estate photographer, ask your friends if they are selling their house and need a photographer, if they say no, ask them if they know someone who is, or know any real estate agents that might be interested. This strategy can actually lead to a lot of clients, and even if you aren’t getting any clients right away, you are building your brand as a freelance photographer. Going back to our real estate example, if your friend meets a real estate agent who is in need of a photographer, you will be at the top of their list. Don’t be discouraged, and don’t be shy, get the word out that you are a freelance photographer ready for work.
So, you have called up all your friends, tweeted, and Instagrammed that you are a freelance photographer, with a link to your portfolio website. Maybe you already have a few interested clients, maybe you are already fully booked for the next three months! But, the big mistake many photographers make here, is to get comfortable. A lot of people cancel on their photographers, they get second thoughts, the project was canceled, you are too expensive, they found someone else, etc… You always want a pipeline of deals, so that you can pick out the ones that are the most interesting, and say no to the ones that aren’t. But, don’t get caught up in your imagination, while that's a great vision, the chances of that happening are slim, with the number of photographers out there. You have to stay ahead of the game, work harder and smarter than everyone else.
One way of creating a pipeline of deals is to use ads. The channels that work best for photographers are Pinterest, Facebook, Instagram, Google Ads.
Before we dive into ads, we want to establish one thing. None of these platforms are ‘the best’, actual performance will vary from platform to platform depending on what niche you're in. Wedding photographers will probably find more success with Pinterest ads, whereas product photographers will probably find more success with Google or Facebook Ads. We recommend you give each platform a try and see which one works best. Cut out the ones that are not giving you a steady ‘client flow’, and double the budget on the ones that are bringing you plenty of clients, until the ads are bringing in so many clients that you can not accept any more, at this point, keep the ads running, but do not scale them unless you are considering heavily outsourcing work, or even hiring — we will talk about this in the last section of the handbook.
Pinterest ads are great as they are a lot cheaper compared to other platforms, the average cost per click is usually a lot smaller on Pinterest when comparing to Google or Facebook Ads. However, a lower cost per click might not be beneficial in the long term, as you want to be targeting ‘high intent’ users, who are ready to pull out their credit card, pay a deposit and book an appointment with you.
As the Pinterest format is focused on imagery and not text, Pinterest ads will usually work great for people in the Wedding, Landscape, Newborn, Portrait, and Travel niche. For more corporate niches, we do not recommend using Pinterest ads.
Facebook owns Instagram, so when people are referring to Facebook ads, this usually includes Instagram as well, both are managed from the same Facebook Ads Manager, hence the terms are used interchangeably. But for the sake of simplicity, we will split the two up for this handbook.
Facebook Ads, are great for photographers who require more text in their ads, perhaps some context, important pre-requisites, and other specifics, as Facebook ads also place some importance on text, not just imagery
We recommend trying out Facebook ads, no matter what niche you are in, almost everyone is using Facebook, so whether you are a corporate photographer or wedding photographer, your potential clients are on Facebook.
Instagram is a similar phenomenon to Facebook, it has billions of users, so no matter your niche, Instagram can work for you. One thing to keep in mind is that Instagram users are generally younger. Nevertheless, the targeting capabilities given to you when advertising with Facebook/Instagram are amazing, almost to a degree that is scary. You can target your perfect client with ease using Facebook's targeting algorithm.
Although Instagram ads incorporate text, the main focus is the image/video. So make the image or video enticing. Throughout the entire ad creation process, aim to make it as easy as possible for a potential client to book an appointment or get in touch with you. Take a look at your ads and website, and try to remove as much friction as possible.
Google ads are extremely popular, for good reason. People clicking on your ad, are most likely actively looking for a photographer, as they searched for certain keywords in the Google search engine. Whereas Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest ads are not targeted at people actively searching for a photographer, rather at people who display interest in the topic your targeting, in our case photographers. This is what makes Google ads so expensive, but therefore also very effective.
Again, try to remove the friction from the process of getting in touch with you or booking an appointment. Having a product/market fit, or in our case, niche/market fit will make ads a lot cheaper, as you will hopefully have little competition. Little competition, makes it cheap to rank at the top of search results. Unless you are willing to spend an exorbitant amount of money, you can kiss your dreams goodbye of ranking first in the search result for ‘Wedding Photographer in New York’, but ranking first for ‘Newborn photographer in Ketchum, Idaho’, will be a whole lot cheaper. This is why it is so important to have a niche/market fit.
Other ad platforms
There are plenty of other ad platforms, you can test out.
For example, Taboola Ads, these are the little ads at the bottom of news pages. Furthermore, you could try Unsplash, YouTube, TikTok, or Bing ads, the possibilities are endless. Ask yourself: where are my potential clients hanging out? If your potential clients are very old and don’t operate mobile phones, social media marketing will most definitely not be for you, taking out an ad in the local newspaper might be a better fit.
No matter what type of clients you are targeting, PR will not hurt. In the best-case scenario, it leads to a lot of direct people reaching out and asking for projects, in the worst case it will get your name out there and help you rank higher on the Google search engine.
While there are a lot of PR experts, we would hold off on hiring someone. Simply reaching out to local journalists or journalists who are writing about your niche of photography, will do the trick. Most of the journalists will never respond, most won’t even read your email, but just a few will agree to write an article on you, and those few articles can make a massive difference in your business.
Despite popular belief, PR is not dead, so don’t underestimate it, and reach out to some journalists.
Search Engine Optimisation or SEO for short is once again very simple. The more authoritative, trustworthy, and helpful Google’s algorithm sees your website, the higher you will rank. The higher you rank, the more people view your site, the more clients you get. Here is a great article on some best practices.
For the last portion of this handbook we will talk about how to build a brand, using a referral program to get clients on ‘autopilot’, other sources of income, and finally, hiring to build out an agency.
Get clients on autopilot
What we have been trying to help you create with this handbook is a system that will deliver a pipeline of clients on ‘autopilot’. So that after building out your marketing system, you can concentrate on your photography projects, and nothing else. While we have already set up the lead generation portion of this system, most of the leads come through paid advertising, and the ultimate goal of this system is to have clients coming in on autopilot, without you having to spend any money, or work on it.
That might seem impossible, but it’s not, it's just really difficult but possible.
During the beginning phases in order to get the system running, you will have to run paid ads, but after you have built up a reputation, a lot of clients will come naturally, without any paid ads. However, this requires you to set up a few things, namely build a brand and a referral program.
Building a brand
The world's most successful companies all have a very strong brand: Coca-Cola, Apple, Google, Amazon, Walmart, etc…
Building a strong brand is crucial to the long-term success of your business.
That is why we have created a 3-step process to help you build a brand:
- Set up your branding — Name, Logo, Website, Style
When setting up your branding, here are some things to keep in mind:
Who are your target clients?
How do you want to be perceived?
We recommend either hiring a graphic designer to build your logo or do it yourself using Canva, Photoshop, or Illustrator.
When choosing a name, don’t worry about it, just use the first thing that comes to mind, there is nothing more unproductive than obsessing over the ‘perfect’ name.
2. Be Consistent
Constantly changing your branding is extremely bad for your business, choose something, and stick to it.
3. Deliver exceptional service
This is easier said than done, but there are no tricks to building a great reputation, simply deliver exceptional service, and your reputation will be built up for you.
Setting up a referral program can be a life changer! Referral programs can end up saving you tens of thousands of dollars on marketing, and bring in hundreds of clients. Here is our recommendation for setting up a simple, but effective referral program:
Once you have finished a project, and the client is happy with the results. Reach out by sending an email, or even a handwritten note, thanking them and saying that if they know someone who is in need of a photographer, to give them your contact details.
This works surprisingly well and takes little to no effort. Offering discounts or money rewards, feel cheap and desperate, a kind note will work wonders.
Other sources of income
Great, so now you have built out your entire marketing system, with some discipline and patience you will eventually have this system working around the clock for you, bringing in new clients.
Nevertheless, there will always be periods where your projects reduce, as the COVID pandemic has taught us all, even the world's greatest photographers will go through ‘dry’ periods.
That’s why we highly recommend you spread out your incomes a little bit. The easiest way to do that as a photographer is to sell your photos on stock photography platforms — EyeEm, Shutterstock, Fotolia, Creative market, the list is endless. It requires very little effort and can lead to some extra income every month, potentially even a lot of income.
As you may have noticed, we tried to build this handbook for all-size freelancers, from a solo freelancer, with 2 clients, to huge agencies with thousands of clients.
While hiring and building an agency is a topic we won’t dive into, as it requires an entire book to explain, here are a few things to consider and keep in mind.
- Are you happy with the way things are?
- Do you enjoy being a team leader?
- Can you delegate creative things or do you prefer to do everything yourself?
- Do you want to grow as a business?
- Are you willing to take on some risk?
Unless you simply are not able to keep up with the number of projects coming at you, don’t hire. Some people make the mistake of hiring too early, long before they have validated their niche/market fit, and have built up a reputation.
Trust us, you would rather have four amazing employees, than forty ‘okay’ employees. Do not compromise for low-quality applicants, only hire the best.
You have made it all the way through this handbook, first off, give yourself a pat on the back. You are clearly serious about becoming a freelance photographer, and by going through this handbook you are one giant step closer. We really hope that you got a lot of value out of this handbook. If you have any questions or want some free advice, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will get back to you.
If you are looking for presets to help you make your photo editing process easier, make sure to check out Junglepresets.com