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Freelance Photography

Updated on April 28, 2011

Practically every publication that prints photographs accepts a certain proportion of them from freelance workers. This means in theory that the scope of the freelance photographer is unlimited. In practice this is not altogether true, because the freelance photographer who tries to compete with the fulltime agency and press photographers is unlikely to get very far. The regular photographers employed by the agencies and newspaper offices have facilities for transport, communication and publication that no freelance could afford. Furthermore they have a regular salary to tide them over their occasional failures whereas every time the freelance draws a blank, his expenses are a dead loss.


Scope for the Freelancer

So in actual fact the freelance must narrow down his field of activities to the subjects which for one reason or another do not attract the agencies and the press. Very broadly this means avoiding anything of a topical or live news character and going after subjects of general and lasting interest. It means relying on inspiration and imagination more than the sporting calendar. the passenger lists of luxury liners and airlines and the police news.

This, at any rate, is where he makes a start; later on, if his work becomes known, he may be commissioned by editors who want his particular style of work on a topical or feature story. When that happens he may find himself working alongside the staff photographers but not in competition with them.

Even when he takes his camera along to photograph events of topical interest, the freelance approaches them from a different angle. While the regular cameramen are getting their pictures of the show itself, making sure of at least one good shot of every important person, and one of the principal event of the occasion, the freelance is looking around for the incidental stories-the faces of the onlookers, the lost child, or the puppy that slips through the police cordon at the crucial instant.

This does not mean that the freelance should ignore the regular subjects, only that he should keep his eyes open for everything else, too. But most of the time the freelance concentrates on feature material where he has a chance of selling a number of pictures rather than one lucky shot. He keeps his ears and his eyes open for the ideas that it would not be worth the while of the pressmen to follow up, and when he travels he does so with the object of making a series of salable pictures. These he may send to appropriate weekly or monthly magazines, to travel agencies, or transport companies e.g., airline, shipping, road, and railway.

Many freelance workers specialize in one particular kind of picture, e.g: animals, high speed flash, or landscapes-but the narrower their field of specialization, the less chance there is of their being able to make a living at it.

By specializing and becoming known, there are many opportunities for the spare time freelance to make a profitable sideline of his hobby. But this is a different matter from turning it into a career.

Other Freelance Outlets

The scope of the freelance photographer is not limited to working for publication. There are other directions in which he can make money with his camera. He may make a profitable sideline of at-home portraiture, particularly of young children, a branch which few professionals trouble about.

The professional naturally prefers people to come to his studio where he has everything standardized and under control. He is also spared the waste of time in packing and transporting his equipment. The freelancer, on the other hand, has no studio anyway and does not have to add the extra time and trouble of working away from home to his costs. Some freelance workers with a flair for this type of photography have eventually opened up their own businesses.

There is also an outlet for technically sound freelance photographers in the commercial field. Small businesses and manufacturers of all kinds need photographs of their products for advertising, publicity, and sales literature. Very often the number of pictures they use in a year is too small to be worth the attention of a regular commercial photographer. By getting in touch with such small factories, shop-keepers and the like, the freelance can build up a useful connexion, but his main occupation must allow him to visit his various clients during their working hours.

There are also seasonal openings for freelances with their own cameras to work as beach and street photographers. But such jobs are strictly part-time work and not genuine freelancing. The photographer in such cases has to rely on the organization of the company that employs him; he could not afford to run the whole business himself.

Freelancing as a Career

Freelance photography is not a difficult field to break into and anyone with a camera, a few rolls of film and a good story idea, may succeed at the first attempt. But to sell enough pictures month after month to earn a living, is a much more difficult matter.

The competition in the freelance field is keen because photography nowadays is a mass art. In the old days, people used to buy box cameras and content themselves with taking family snaps. Now they buy expensive cameras often later models than most professionals possess- and start trying to earn spare-time money by submitting pictures to magazines and newspapers. When they get a few pictures published they often throw over their regular business to become full-time freelances. Most of them drop by the wayside because they mistake the ability to take a picture with the imagination to create or recognize one. They seldom develop a "picture sense", without which no freelancer can go very far.

Some people are born with a picture sense, but most beginners have to acquire a picture sense the hard way-by working at it. Anyone who wishes to become a successful freelance must study thousands of pictures other people have taken and analyze their weak and strong points. They have to take thousands of pictures themselves and learn to adopt the same critical, objective attitude to their own efforts. Most of all, they have to take their own cherished pictures around to editors and listen to their unflattering comments. Then finally they have to go back and try again until they begin to master the formula for turning out shots with above-average human interest.

Few people have the necessary tenacity. Most photographers who attempt freelance work discover that it gives them at best an erratic and unpredictable income and a lot of frustration. Economic pressure forces most of them to find a niche in a steadier, if less romantic branch of the profession. They open portrait studios, take baby pictures, go in for advertising or commercial work, or join the staff of some magazine or newspaper. A few strong individualists who prefer working on their own stick at it long enough to make a success of it.

For the average photographer freelancing is not a practical way of making a living. Even so, some of the best known and most successful photographers in the world do all their work on a strictly freelance basis and have done so from the beginning.

Submitting Photos

The prints should be dry mounted on card if possible so that they do not become dog-eared by being handled. Presentation is very important in any graphic art field and if a photographer does not respect his own work other people are not likely to take care of it either.

No freelance should ever show contact prints. Contacts should never leave the darkroom. Every picture benefits from enlarging and trimming, while good retouching and finishing can improve the appearance of specimens enormously. Anyone who finds difficulty with this end of the job would be wise to get a specialist to finish his prints properly.

Every freelance should make up a rubber stamp with his name, address and phone number, and use it on the back of each print. It establishes identity, ensures the return of work and tells the editor whom to contact in the event of an assignment.

The freelance who wants to find his way into the high fee paying field must first carefully study the markets. Far too many send unsuitable material to an editor who then feels that his time is being wasted. A paper's or magazine's editorial policy should be examined until the freelance is thoroughly conversant with that journal's style. Photographs submitted should be sufficiently varied in format to allow the make-up department of the journal to arrange an interesting lay-out.

It is most important to send in prints at the time when the editor is looking for that particular subject. If the photographer is simply working through his print library and submitting likely specimens to suitable publications, the subjects must be appropriate to the issues then in preparation. With monthly magazines in particular, it should be remembered that the copy is made up several months in advance of publication. So there is no point in trying to sell Christmas pictures in December.

It must be made clear, when selling a picture, what rights are being offered, e.g: "First exclusive world rights", "First exclusive British rights", or "First Australian rights" or just "Publication rights". In the majority of cases the editor is only interested in normal publication rights. However, when exclusive rights are offered, the fee should be high enough to compensate for the sales that are being missed by ruling out other markets Editors seldom insist on buying world rights or transfer of copyright, but when they do they must be prepared to pay for it. Anyone unfamiliar with the marketing procedure should get in touch with a reputable photo agency who will handle the work on a commission basis if it has merit.

Basic Rules

Many budding freelances are discouraged because of their ignorance of the elementary requirements of the work. They may be able to take pictures, but that is all. Unfortunately there are other conditions to be complied with before the pictures can come to the notice of the right editor, be accepted, published and paid for.

It always pays to see editors in person whenever possible, rather than to submit work through the post or through an agent. There is nothing to be learned from a rejection slip but an editor's personal comments can be very illuminating-and helpful.

No one should pester editors for assignments at the outset. The way to attract their attention is to show them some good original picture stories; once their confidence is established, assignments will come automatically. But no editor wants to entrust an important job to an unknown, unproved cameraman. This explains why specimens are so important.

When a photographer has a good story idea, but cannot see the editor to discuss it personally, his best course is to put it down on paper and submit it in writing, rather than take it up with subordinates. A good editor can recognize a story at once and he may offer an assignment. If the idea is worth using the editor will be glad to pay for it and, even if the author's picture-taking ability is not up to standard. the editor may buy the idea and have one of his staff carry it out. The fact that the idea has been submitted in writing is protection against anyone using it.

It is a waste of time for a beginner to try to break into the top markets first unless he has some really outstanding pictures. He will be much more likely to get encouragement from editors of smaller publications which cannot afford to employ their own staff of photographers.

Such editors are always looking for new talent. And the big markets will still be there when he is ready for them.

The freelance should never be shy about asking for credit-lines. A photographer has the same reason for wanting to be identified with his work as a writer. But unless the editor is asked at the time he may forget it and apologize later. The time to raise the question (and that of fees!) is before publication.


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      paulgc 6 years ago

      Excellent article, i am a freelance photographer and can relate to much of what you have written. I wish my work would sell but i fall short on promoting myself as i am not very good at the business side of things.

      Thanks for sharing.