Dan Heller, author of Profitable Photography in the Digital Age and How to Make Money with Digital Photography, explains how to start a freelance photography business. He covers choosing the right equipment, courses and photography school, working with stock photo agencies, selling your photos, and more. [26 min.]

icon for podpress  Starting a Freelance Photography Business: Play Now | Play in Popup

Can you talk a little bit about your experience in the freelance photography business.

My freelance photography business started out as many people do these days in the Internet era with just going from a hobby where I would take pictures on vacation for fun. I would put pictures online and people would look at them, and I would engage in discussions and so forth, and eventually somebody wanted to buy a picture, and after that somebody wanted to license one, and as I started looking into how much does one charge for licensing a picture, I just started learning about the photo business, and one of the things that I learned at the time was that most of the photographers who were talking authoritatively about these things really were from the film era, pre-Internet marketing, and they really didn’t get the Internet. They didn’t believe in it. They thought it was just a place for you to show pictures if you’re a consumer, but professionals should not put their pictures up there because they would be stolen, and a number of other misunderstandings about Internet-era marketing. So I started writing a lot in response to what they were saying, and that in turn created a lot of traffic for my site, which created a higher rankings on my site, and that created an opportunity where people would find my pictures more frequently than they would find other people’s pictures when they were looking for them. So, I sort of stepped into the photo licensing freelance work very accidentally. It was nice to have, but when business started really coming in it was pretty clear that, hey, maybe if I actually tried I could do even better. And sure enough, that’s what I’ve done.

How does the freelance photography business model work?

Well, freelance means that you don’t have an employer, that you either find assignments or you go ahead and take pictures on your own and after you have the picture you sell them into what is called the stock photo market. So, freelance just as a broad description just means that you represent yourself and you have a variety of clients, not really owned by anybody.

Talk about how you might develop a business plan for your photography business.

Developing a business plan in the photo business is not really quite like developing a business plan for many other kinds of businesses. I think that the main thing that’s different about the photo business is that is not like a business where you buy a bunch of inventory, you have a storefront, and then you start selling product. And so a photography business is very different primarily because the cost of doing it is so low. Pretty much anybody who has a camera can do this business, and in fact that is the case. There are many people who really only have just a point-and-shoot, they just take a ton of pictures, and they submit them to stock photo agencies, who sell them. Now, some don’t make any money, others make a little bit more, and those who are really the most diligent do best. This is not something that you can make a business plan from. It’s really more a matter of how much time do you put into it, how good you are, and how well you understand the market and the industry. I think of business plans as something that requires an analysis of your costs, your pricing, how much time and money you put into marketing. You can certainly do that in some kinds of photo business, perhaps maybe a wedding photography business, where you may need to have some sort of office where people come in. Weddings, portraitures, such photographers do similar things. That’s probably the closest thing you’ll get to a more retail kind of paradigm if you’re looking at a business plan point-of-view. But other than that I really wouldn’t say put together a business plan.

It seems like basically anyone can snap a reasonably good picture, but how do you know if you have the skills to do it professionally?

Therein lies another interesting aspect of the Internet. The abundance of photos out there is so high that the people who are looking for photos really have to trudge through a lot of stuff. Now when I say trudge, that means it’s not just bad quality stuff, but even good quality stuff. The thing that sells, as it turns out, is not so much how good something is, but if it’s good enough for the person who’s looking to say, okay, I’ve put enough time into looking, this picture’s good enough, I will use it. And that’s an interesting characterization of purchasing on the Internet itself. I mean, there’s a lot of people who spend a lot of time looking for something, and just they hit a fatigue point, they just say enough, I just can’t keep looking. And they end up buying whatever it is that ranks highest on their radar right there. Photography is a good example of that because the quality of the photos that people choose are not really made by professional photo editors. People who work for high profile magazines. They certainly exist, but most of the pictures that are purchased are not necessarily done by such people. They’re done by just everyday people. It’s the secretary working in the law office who needs something for a brochure that she’s making for her law firm, or same thing for a dentist’s office, things like that. A lot of clerical workers are the ones who are told to just put together a newsletter, put together an ad, put together something that’s small for the phone book, for anything. A lot of these markets are local media or local advertising by small companies and so forth. And there’s even personal uses that license images. So your quality of photography doesn’t really have to be all that high. It has to be better than just bad snapshots of family pictures, but it doesn’t have to be all that high. Pretty much anybody who has very rudimentary skills with the camera, has marginally good compositional skills, and has good editing skills in the sense that they choose pictures wisely to put online that people can browse through. If it doesn’t really turn you off right away people will sit there and take a look. The real challenge in selling, though, is just being found. Having those pictures, however good or bad they are, be found. And that has nothing to do with photography, it has everything to do with understanding how the Internet works.

What kind of photography training do you need? Talk a little bit about photography school.

Well, very few photographers who do the kinds of things that I do ever went to photography school. Photography school tends to be art-oriented. They tend to talk about the history of photography, and classics and so forth. There’s a lot of abstract fine art learning, which has really nothing to do with the photo industry from a sales point of view. The fine art photographers who sell usually do so within the art community, not necessarily within the retail community, although there is some crossover, it’s very very minimal. The kinds of photos that people sell in the style that I do usually don’t have any kind of education or background. Your skill set doesn’t really need to be particularly strong, it just needs to be good enough, and one doesn’t need to go to school for stuff like that. You can buy a marginally good book on basic composition, composition is 90% of a good picture right there. If you are good at your composition of your photos, you pretty much have everything that you need. Everything else beyond that makes your pictures better, and it’s always good to be better, there’s no reason not to be better, but you don’t need to be in order to sell your work.

What kind of camera equipment do you need, and how much does it cost?

The camera equipment necessary to sell photos is to be usually about 8 megapixels or higher. And the reason for that is because that’s how much resolution you need in order to fill a nicely sized, legal size paper, which is typically your magazine, your brochure, things like that. Any camera that has that resolution is perfectly fine. Now of course, there’s plenty of point-and-shoot cameras that do 8 megapixels, and there are some people who actually do sell those, but generally I think people who are interested sufficiently in actually trying to pursue making some money in this kind of thing are probably best advised to have an SLR. That is a digital camera that you can change the lenses. So, a pretty mid-range SLR with 2 or 3 good lenses probably runs about $1,000 to $1,200, maybe $1,300. The prosumer end, that is professional level cameras, but targeted toward the high-end consumer, usually probably around $2,500. Now just to sort of give you a sense of perspective, the camera that I use is the highest end Canon EOS-1Ds, that runs about $8,000, and each of my lenses from $1,200 to $2,000.

Which lenses do you take with you when you go on an assignment?

Typically, I will take a what I call the workhorse lens, which is a 24mm-105mm. And that covers pretty much the broad range of everything. If I could only have one lens, that’s the one I use. Mid-range lenses go anywhere from 24mm to maybe 200mm. There’s some lenses that do 28 to 200 that are pretty good. Then there’s a wide-angle lens, which you use for interiors to capture the entire room, even small rooms. And that goes from like a 16mm to maybe a 35mm. And then there’s the telephoto lenses which people think of as shooting really far away, and of course you can use that for wildlife. The telephoto lenses range from usually about 75mm to 400mm. Now, of course you can get longer lenses for these as well, you’re starting to get into some real money for that. But those are usually what I take with me on a trip. And they all fit into basically a fanny pack. I usually have one lens on the camera, and two in the fanny pack. And that’s usually how it goes.

Dan, what kind of clients typically hire freelance photographers?

The people who hire staff photographers are everybody who doesn’t hire freelance photographers. So staff photographers will be newspapers, or magazines that do just constant ongoing coverage of a particular subject or something like that. People who hire freelance photographers will be everybody else. People who have a particular product that needs to be photographed, either for an ad or a label or something like that. People hire freelance when they need something very specific shot. Usually it’s themselves or something about themselves or it’s a company or an individual. Something that needs to be very specific. If you don’t need anything that specific, you just need something general, like a San Francisco scene, any kind of skyline, scenery, things that you can just choose from, you don’t have to hire anybody, then you just buy stock photography. You don’t hire a photographer for that.

How do freelance photographers charge for their services? Is it by the job or by the hour?

All of the above. It really just depends on the photographer, the client, the need, I don’t think there’s a consistent answer to that.

How do you go about pricing your photos?

Pricing is the Holy Grail of it all. It would be nice if there were a price list that everybody had. There is no convention unlike certain price-points that people expect from movies or from other kinds of things. Prices are really all over the board. Pricing really has a lot to do with where you are in your career, and the reason why I say that is because there is a balance between finding the right price that makes you some money and the price that gets you visible and the price that gets you taken seriously and then there’s the price where you price yourself out of the game, where people just opt out of the picture. What people typically start with are pricing charts that other photographers use, and that’s a bad idea, although certainly an understandable approach, because somebody else is doing it and you think you’re doing the same thing so do it. But there’s two factors to that. One is you don’t even know if they’re successful with the prices that they’re using, so there’s that. And then the second thing is the pricing that they come up with is usually backed up by some sort of discussion. Some sort of reputation, something that has something to do with that person, that allows them to use those prices if you’re so new to photography, and you don’t know where to start, usually the best thing to do is to let someone offer you something. Somebody says how much for that photo, and you could say well, what do you want for it? You know, what’s the use? At some point you have to learn about the business to understand where value is perceived, and once you understand where the value is perceived, then you can have a better sense of where you fall in that value spectrum, and be able to quote prices better. So there is a little bit of a chicken and egg problem in that, but it is probably the hardest part of the business.

Talk about getting a model release. Why is that important?

Model releases are one of those things that are probably the least understood by most people, that’s photographers and publishers alike. Generally, the idea behind a model release is that photographers, when they take a picture of someone, how that picture is used by someone else. That is, somebody’s going to use it in an ad, or are they going to put it in a newspaper story. It’s either going to come under the form of editorial use, or commercial use. Editorial uses generally don’t require a model release, commercial uses do. So with that kind of umbrella paradigm, typically what you do when you photograph someone is you think about what you think your market opportunity is with the photograph. If you think there’s commercial opportunity for it, and of course unless you’re really a seasoned photographer with a long history of sales, it’s hard to answer that question, but if you think you might, then you might want to get the model release. And that is to say that the person signs a little piece of paper that says yes, you can use my photo for particular uses. Now, of course, the details of all of this get really involved, and it’s worth doing some research on the subject. But I suppose one of the things that I should probably add, especially for people who are not really all that sophisticated or getting started in it, most people don’t license images to clients that really need model releases, and reason for that is when the client needs a model release, they usually go to sources that are very well-known to have pictures that have been released. Because the liability is on the publisher’s side, not the photographer’s. So because the publisher can get into trouble, they don’t necessarily want to trust any old photo they get from an unknown source. They could claim to have a model reason, they publish the image, and turns out it doesn’t, and then they get sued for a lot of money. Virgin Mobile made this mistake recently, and it was all over the photography trade press for a long time. So it’s just one of those things that a new photographer should know about, should learn about, should be educated about, but it’s not likely you’re going to get a whole lot of sales from clients that need your photos to be model released.

What are some of the ways you’ve found to be effective for marketing a photography business? How do you get your name out there?

In my particular case, I do all of my business online. 100% of my sales are from the Internet. So, for me I do that by what is called SEO or search engine optimization. That’s basically the marketing strategy for selling photos or pretty much anything, frankly, online. I would do this regardless of what I sold. Search engine optimization is the Holy Grail for everybody who does business online. To be effective at it, it really takes diligence, knowing where to go and what to do, and that has nothing to do with your photography skills or anything like that .

If you have a particularly good photo, how can you approach a magazine about publishing it?

My recommendation to people with questions like that is you have to know your industry. You aren’t going to get a whole lot of mileage out of cold-calling a magazine that you don’t know their business, they don’t know your business. You have to basically sell yourself as being a very smart person in this particular industry who knows it well. So, for example, I got a similar e-mail from somebody who said, “I got this really great picture of my son in these Gap jeans, and I know that Gap would love this picture, how could I get them to see it?” And I said, well, how much do you know about children’s fashion? Do you follow the industry? Can you talk creatively about it, authoritatively about it? Can you call the Gap and say, hey, the trends coming in for this coming fall are going to be these particular colors and styles and here is an example photo that does this sort of thing, or are you just going to call up like a dumb consumer and you’re going to say, hey, look at this picture I have of my kid. How you sound has everything to do with whether or not anybody is going to listen to you. It has nothing to do with your photo. They don’t even want to see your photo until they know who you are, what you know, and whether you are potentially an interesting, viable source for them. And that’s true whether you’re talking to a company, a magazine, or anybody else. It used to be early in my career that I would do some cold calling to try to get myself into the door in a few places, and knowing what I just explained to you meant that the only places I really could do that with were travel companies because I traveled so much. So my first call to a particular company said I’ve been traveling and I go to all of the destinations that you go to, and I have a whole variety of pictures, but here’s what I want to explain about the value of what I can do for you. I know how clients work on these trips, I know how the leaders work, I know how the infrastructure works, I know what kind sells and doesn’t sell. Here’s what’s going on in the travel industry, here are the new hot places that everybody’s going to. I’m sounding like I’m an insider in an industry, and I’m interesting to talk to you. Once you can sound that way, people will go, well great, let’s see what kind of photos you have. Photos really have nothing to do with the pitch.

Talk a little bit about working with stock photography agencies, and also licensing your photos.

Stock photo agencies are going through a big transition these days. It’s hard to really make an analogy because we haven’t really seen it in a whole lot of other areas, but in the film days stock agencies were the only way to sell your photos. And so everybody wanted to get into them, they needed to get into them, and they were also the only source for photos from the people who bought photos, because before the Internet you either got cold-calls and solicitations directly from photographers, or you just went to a stock photo agency. Once the Internet opened up the floodgates and tons of photos came in from all over the place, the value that the stock photo agency provided started diminishing. And the cost that they charge for photos were disproportionately higher that what the street prices would bear for getting online images. So the importance of stock agencies fell, the prices that they charge fell, the distribution of the commissions that they gave to the photographers fell. Tthe only way for a starving tree to survive is they just let all the lower leaves go and they keep all the nutrients for the performers at the top. Well, that’s kind of how it is with the stock industry today. I wouldn’t recommend anybody who is not already with a stock agency and doing well to try to bother getting into them. You’re going to spend a huge amount of your time and effort and resources investing into something that is not likely to turn anything around, but even if it did, you have to weigh that time and resources and expenses against doing it yourself. Representing yourself, having your own website, and I would venture to say that anybody who could possibly be successful with a stock agency over the course of two, three, four years would probably make much, much more money if they just represented their own photos online.

Talk about the biggest mistakes people make when getting started.

The biggest mistakes people make in getting started really have more to do with how they got into it in the first place. Probably the mistakes usually are sourced from bad assumptions about the market, rather than the mistakes themselves. The assumption is that you can just start being a photographer. You don’t. You start being a hobbyist, take a lot of pictures, get to know it, the craft itself, the technology. Then you need to know something about a business. For me, it was travel, for some, it’s cars, for others, it’s fashion. Whatever you like to take pictures of, you have to know the business behind it. So I think that the greatest mistakes that people make about entering the photo business stem from the wrong impressions about what the photo business is about. They think it’s about photography, and it’s not. It’s about knowing the business. If you know the business, you can sell your photography. If you don’t know the business, it’s very hard to get anybody to see your work. The other thing that is gravely misunderstood, I think, is that you jump from nothing into being a photographer. I frequently get a lot of e-mail from people saying that that’s their plan, and then they give me all the details and how they plan to execute the plan. And they say, what do you think? I say, I think you should keep your day job until your photo business actually starts making enough money that you can do a transition. No one should jump into the photography business without having some other source of income available to them. Because it’s going to be a long time before it actually makes money. And this is not really anything different than any other business, most people who go to college, for example, they go for four years, and they spend a lot of money to do it, and they don’t get any income during that four years, but what they’re learning is information that will eventually make them valuable to somebody. It’s exactly the paradigm with photography. You have to think of it as college. If you’re just starting and you’re just thinking about it now, expect to take four years of learning the craft, learning some trade behind it, and spend some money, spend some time and resources, and when you come out of that, you will probably be at a point where your earning college grad money.

Dan Heller is the author of both Profitable Photography in the Digital Age and How to Make Money with Digital Photography.