Building Your Business

Hustling and Happy Accidents: The State of Freelance Photography in 2014

By Elaina Ransford May 21st, 2014

Anyone can take photos on a smartphone, but does that qualify everyone to be a professional photographer? Most people who have been paid to take pictures would probably argue no, but over the last few years, many full-time photography jobs have disappeared. What’s left is a highly competitive freelance battleground.

When the Chicago Sun-Times fired all of their photographers last year, opting to arm their reporters with iPhones instead, we saw exactly how struggling publications would cut costs. In an evolving media industry, people are still learning how to produce quality images, and the landscape has shifted dramatically. But as veteran freelancer Diego Diaz said: “There’s more access to devices that take pictures now, but there’s no greater percentage of the population that’s talented at it.”

Happy accidents: The digital age’s silver lining

One thing the democratization of cameras has done, however, is enable young photographers to break into a once wildly expensive industry (not that it’s cheap now, but it’s better). Alan Gastelum, for example, a freelance photographer working in New York City with clients like J. Crew, Levi’s, and Edible Manhattan, became a successful photographer “by accident,” when he took a photography class in college to fulfill a requirement. Diaz began his freelance career on the corporate side, shooting construction sites for a graphic design job and slowly building a portfolio with the camera he carried everywhere.

These experiences are not wholly unique—four of the five freelancers I spoke with described the beginning of their careers as unexpected, sparked by a single referral or connection. Gastelum’s career, for instance, took off after he was introduced to Kwaku Alston through a social network of lighting assistants. Now, he said, a large percentage of his clients find him through referrals and social connections. “No matter how big of a role social media plays in our professional lives, it will never amount to the trust you receive from a personal recommendation,” he added.

The social media hustle

While referrals will continue to be a vital part of photography’s business model, navigating the sea of social media has become a crucial skill for freelancers. Both Diaz and Gastelum acknowledged the importance of a strong web presence. Gastelum even relayed an incident where a photographer lost an ad campaign to someone who had a substantially larger social media following. “When a large company can hire a photographer with one million Twitter followers and that photographer tweets about them during the shoot, that’s free advertising,” he said. “Very hard for a company to resist that.”

Fashion and art photographers now rely heavily on Instagram for business. Daniel Arnold, for example, decided to sell $150 prints of his Instagram photos to his 50,000 followers. After one day, he received $15,000 worth of requests, earned $5,000 upfront, and was able to make rent.

However, Instagram has also emerged as a double-edged sword for enterprising photographers. Its strict no-nudity policy led to account deletions for artists like Nate Walton, Petra Collins, and Pretty Puke. And even when photographers create new accounts, they can lose thousands of followers in the process. Additionally, Instagram’s widespread popularity has made it possible for third-parties to steal photos without compensating the photographer. This problem is examined on many anti-Instagram photography forums.

Still, while purists lament the stupidity of filters, many photographers are happy to celebrate and track the growth of their audiences. Social media has enabled photographers to create a public and professional persona that goes beyond a portfolio: “You have to look like a photographer—you have to play the part,” said Diaz, “Creating an online persona is crucial.”

How these personas are crafted has already become another creative brand-building endeavor. In one recent trend, photographer couples (like Taylor Lashae and Zachary Chick) post photos of each other in intimate settings—photos that aren’t for sale. Viewers don’t just want the images anymore, they want to connect with the people who take them.

And even though the lucky few with full-time gigs have job security, today’s freelance photographers get to choose what stories they want to tell, and in some cases, how to tell them. “I love getting a call a day before a shoot and not knowing much about what it is,” Gastelum said. “The spontaneity is addictive.”

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