FreelancerPro Interview: Shooting for Success
Got a camera? Great! But can you turn it into a business?
Aaron Lindberg did. After paying his full-time dues and freelancing on the side, this 30-year-old full-time freelance photographer from Kansas City, Missouri, has earned a solid reputation for himself and says the key to that is to keep promoting—and keep shooting!
How did you get started in photography? Did you go to school for it? Have you participated in any continuing education programs? What type of equipment do you use?
My photography career starting in college at the University of Kansas while I was getting my BFA in Art. I needed a job to pick up some extra money so I approached the school’s newspaper. I started shooting for the school newspaper (University Daily Kansan) and after shooting there for a couple years I got a part-time gig with the city newspaper (Lawrence Journal World). After graduation I moved back to Kansas City and my careers took off and haven’t looked back since. 98% of what I know was taught hands on in the field from taking on assignments at the newspapers. I shoot with digital SLR equipment (Nikon side of things) with a bag full of photo toys.
You’ve always had a side/freelance gig. What steps did you take to set up the foundation for your business? How did you prepare financially? How did your time at the ad agency help you succeed as a freelancer?
Once I left the ad agency I ended up stepping into a sink-or-swim situation. I knew I could sustain a photo business as long as I kept building my client list and kept bringing in new business. A year later I am still here and things are great! Financially I didn’t really prepare for it as much as I should have, it sort of gelled together and I had to roll with it. Sometime you have to jump in the deep end just to see if you can make it. My wife was super supportive and helped with the initial process of starting my full-time freelance business. I couldn’t have made it a year without her help and support.
The ad agency was a great step for me because it helped lay down a foundation how to do “biz.” Things like dealing with different personalities, how to handle client requests and how to have a positive business outlook. I definitely carry things over from the advertising agency experience.
Lots of people have cameras and think they can make a side business (hopefully leading to a full-time career) in the photography field. What does it take to succeed? Is photography the kind of field you need to build on the side first before taking “the plunge”?
A lot of people think that it’s easy to pick up a camera and start making a business out of it. It certainly sounds easy but the reality is that it is just as complicated as any other start-up business. To run a photo biz you need clients to support you, funding to stay afloat and while everything is up in the air you need to hone mad photo skills so that you can land new clients. Look at it this way, why would someone pay you a bunch of money if what you are give them looks like something from Sears Portrait?
I definitely think you need to start working on a photo biz as a side project until you have enough clients to support and keep your biz going. My advice would be to start shooting what you are interested in shooting (weddings, portraits, etc…) and build up a solid portfolio. Once you start getting nice images in your book, take it around and show it to prospective clients and try to land more gigs. Once you start doing this for a while, you will start to realize you can let go of what you are working on now and shift into your photo biz. I’m not going to lie, it’s not as easy as it sounds, but it is so worth it when you can switch.
What’s your best technique for getting clients?
There are many facets to landing new clients. I have done email campaigns, direct mail pieces that I am currently working on, cold calls and basically begging and pleading to land the gigs. What seems to work best is Google searches and word of mouth. I am a big fan of shooting business to business but am always looking to land larger commercial clients.
How has your pricing changed since you began? How did you determine what rates to charge?
My cost from a year ago has gone up but not significantly. I have a basic sitting fee for things like headshots and portraits but larger shoots range in cost from factors of travel, scope and usage. Rates are determined by geography and what it costs to keep my door open. The cost of living/working is unbelievably low compared to the left and right coasts so I can keep my costs down for clients. A small budget in New York or L.A. would go hella farther here in Kansas City.
You’ve gotten to do some high fashion and editorial photos. How did you get those clients—did the agency experience help?
A lot of the editorial shoots that I have done for out-of-town clients revolved around me being close to the subject they are writing about. I did a shoot for a huge newspaper that will run in June or July because of my location to the subject. The editor found a link on a website and called me looking for a photographer in the area. It pays to get your work on as many websites as you possibly can.
What’s your biggest challenge as someone running his own business?
The biggest challenge I have come upon in my career is getting my name out in front of people. When you are on your own you have to constantly be looking for new work and getting your photos in front of people in hopes they remember and hire you. No matter what you do you can never stop pushing your name out to prospective clients. On the flip side of things, it’s amazing when people you have never met know your name and have seen your work. I guess someone actually reads my blogs and keeps up-to-date with my newsletters through my website.
You seem to be very active in the Kansas City market. Were you comfortable with self-promotion and how have you evolved in promoting your business?
During the start of my business I was not as comfortable as I am now with marketing and self promotion. It developed out of necessity. Now I am comfortable with self promotion, you have to be if you want to keep growing. Some work will find you but if you really want to be shooting for someone you need to knock on their door and get your work in front of them. Sink or swim…
How do you think the Internet age (and digital cameras) impacted your industry?
I started shooting on film. For editorial work, some of the younger shooters might not have ever had to experience shooting on a deadline: develop film, scan it into the computer, tag it with a cutline, and get it to the editors and designers for layout. Now we can shoot a lot longer if needed since the dark rooms and film machines are a thing of the past.
The switch from film to digital has been the biggest impact of technology in my field. The instant gratification of looking at the photo you took on the back of the camera, the ability to manipulate images in Photoshop are some of the advantages of technology. In the future we are all going to be shooting video and simply pulling still images from the camera. Something else that’s crazy to think about is how I have been hired for a couple shoots. Someone looks for a photographer, found my work and liked it, shot me an email, hired me for the shoot, agreed on terms, I shoot and then transfer the files through FTP. All of this without even talking on the phone, simply through email.
What are some of your favorite resources that have helped you build your business?
Some of the resources that make me, who I am today. First would have to be Photography by Barbara London and John Upton. This was my bible for a very long time, it’s a great book and it was easy to understand because of the way the information was presented to me. I still have it sitting on my shelf, I couldn’t sell it back at the end of a year no matter how broke I was in college.
In terms of the business side, I would have to say FreelanceSwitch.com has helped a lot as well as various other websites that I frequent. I subscribe to and read PDN (Photo District News), it’s the top dog of the photo magazines; I highly recommend it over anything out there. Sportsshooter.com is a great site with lots of info.
But what has taught me the most was jumping into it and not looking back. Sure I have been kicked around, have bruises and been beat up but that is what helps shape me to who I am today. When I was in college I had just cleaned my car. I had this bucket that I put everything into before vacuuming the interior and everything I found in my car that I didn’t want in there I would throw into the bucket. Once I was done I took the bucket into my house and realized that every single thing in the bucket was photo related (film canisters, press passes, magazines, notes from previous shoots) so at that moment that is when I knew I was heading down the right path. I had completely submersed myself into photography. It’s what you have to do.
Any advice for photogs-to-be?
I get the question about the best piece of advice for photogs-to-be and I tell all of them the same thing. “Shoot the sh*t out of everything.” The only way are you going to learn is to carry a camera around with you at all times and shoot everything you see. You need to learn why you are making adjustments in camera and how the light falls on everything. Seeing the light will help lead you to capturing it. I hope that helps you out there.
Kristen Fischer is a copywriter, editor, journalist, and author living at the Jersey Shore. To find out more about her, visit www.kristenfischer.com.