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5 Things you need to know before you become a commercial photographer

Updated: May 16

There's a number of things you need to know, understand, or have in place before you set out and go freelance as a commercial photographer.

1. Being a photographer is at least 60% business and marketing, and 40% photography Of course, you need to have a good portfolio of work to get hired in the first place. However you need to know before you start that if you think you'll be out every single day of the year on big commercial or advertising shoots then you'll be mistaken. Being good at business and marketing will be key to your success. Invest your money and time into reading books about marketing and business, and not only books focused on the business of photography, but business in general.

There's a number of good podcasts out there which are great for learning about this, so do some digging and start reading and listening, and getting ideas of how you can stand out from the crowd. One other thing to consider is finding a mentor. Find someone who is where you want to be in 10 years time either in the photographic industry or otherwise. Take them out for coffee, buy them dinner, ask questions, listen, learn, and apply what they tell you.

2. Before you quit your job, make sure you're financially set up to make the move

One thing a lot of people don't realise is that when you quit your job and go all in with becoming a commercial photographer is that jobs don't just magically appear.

Especially in your first year you may have large gaps between jobs, this can be even months at a time. So being financially ready is a must!

You should have, at the very bottom end, 6 months of money put aside to cover all your expenses like your mortgage, rent, food, electricity, etc so you can survive without any jobs for a bit.

However, if you're really clever you'll have one year's money or more put aside so you have a bit to spend on marketing too.

Another thing to realise is that you'll need a pot of money put aside for things like models. If you hire models for shoots, then it's up to you to pay them.

Of course you'll be charging the client for them, but commercial clients can take anywhere from 30 - 90 days to pay you, and the models agency will likely want paying within 30 days.

So having that pot of money put aside so that you can pay the model's invoice fast will be a very wise move.

3. Have a good website set up before taking the leap to go freelance A good website will be key so showcase your commercial work and allow clients to get in touch with you in the easiest way possible for them.

There's a few things to consider when making your website.

  1. Only show your best work. Even if that's only 10 images. 10 great images are better than 50 average ones.

  2. Only show the kind of work you want to get hired for. There's no point showing business headshots you've photographed if all you want to get hired to shoot is commercial aviation and railway photography jobs.

  3. Reduce the amount of clicks people have to make on your website. Every page on your website should be accessible in 0 - 3 clicks. For instance, the first page of your website should be showing the main work you want to get hired for. A grid format works well so that your potential clients can get a super quick overview of your work and style. Art directors etc spend so little on a photographer's website, so having everything there on the first page will make it easier for them to get a feel for your work and if you're a good fit for them and their project.

  4. Make your contact information very easy to find Reducing friction for people to get in contact with you is key for getting more commercial clients. I know a lot of photographers hate putting their phone number and email address in clear text on their website, however if you don't, you'll be missing out on a load of potential business. In fact, some of my highest paying and biggest commercial photography jobs have come from me simply having my phone number clearly located on my website. Not all clients have the time to fill out your contact form, and sometimes don't even have the time or patience to send you an email and wait for you to eventually reply! Having your phone number clearly on your website will increase the chances of getting hired. So let your clients pick up the phone and call you! This does mean however, that you'll get a load of annoying cold calls coming to you about marketing for your business, but it's a small price to pay. In the end you're making it easier for your clients, so just do it.

4. Know your target customer and how to reach them. Commercial clients can vary massively, but finding out who is likely to hire you for the kind of work you do and how to reach them is detrimental to your success. Now, I'm not going to give you a list of people or job titles to go and contact as I don't know the kind of work you're trying to get. For instance, it's very different people you need to contact if you want to shoot a large global advertising campaign than shooting an image library for an SME in London.

Things to consider though are:

  1. Who are you clients? Small London based businesses, national businesses, large international companies, or do you get the majority of your work through advertising agencies?

  2. Where do your potential clients hang out on social media? Are they mostly on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter or Vero etc? Find out where they spend most of their time. Then you'll know where to target the majority of your marketing.

  3. How are they best contacted? Email, phone, social media, in person, or physical post (yes that's right, old fashioned post still works amazingly for some clients, so don't rule it out)?

  4. Does anyone in your network know the client you'd like to work with? If that's the case, then ask them for an introduction and set up a meeting together.

5. Have a good backup system in place

You pictures are your life's work, so having a good backup system is important to keep them safe. There's lot of videos on youtube about photography backup systems, but the most basic system you need when starting out is:

  1. Two Archive Drives: Have one on-site and one off-site hard drive. These drives will be a mirror image of each other. Keep one drive in your office/home, and the other in a separate location like a friends house in case of theft or fire. On these achieve drives you'll have your RAW files from each job, and the final edited Jpegs.

  2. Two Working Drives: These will be the drives you work on your RAW files from directly. They will also be a mirror image of each other no more than 7 dates apart. One drive will be on-site and the other off-site drive, cycling and updating them every week.

  3. Two Location SSD Drives: These drives will be with you on every shoot you do on location. You can daisy chain these drives if you're tethering you camera to your laptop. This way, as you're shooting, it's writing to the memory card on your camera, and writing to both SSD drives at the same time to keep your photos backed up. After the shoot you can put the camera memory card in your pocket. One SSD drive goes in your camera bag, and the other SSD goes with your assistant, crew member, or in another equipment bag so that they're all separated in case anything goes wrong. Note: Don't delete the files from these dives until the project is complete, sent to the client, and backed up on your archive drives.

  4. A Cloud Storage System: Sites like dropbox will do just fine. You'll save all your edited Jpegs on here so you have a completely separate storage for your final images on the cloud.

That will do as a very basic backup system to get you started. The most important thing is that you have two separate copies of everything, with on-site and off-site storage.

I hope these 5 things have helped you if you've started, or thinking of starting a commercial photography business.

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