And with 15 years experience as a freelancer, there’s certainly a lot for Ian to reflect on. Enjoy…
What is your name, where are you based, and what do you do?
Hi I’m Ian, I’m a professional photographer, lucky enough to call Cambridge home. As I have been doing it a while, I’ve been asked to photograph all sorts, from weddings and barmitzvahs, to conferences, theatre and even toilet cubicles (they were at Legoland though, so were quite fun to do!). The majority of my work is capturing relaxed, natural photos of people – at weddings, parties and corporate events.
How long have you been freelancing and why did you decide to become a freelancer?
It makes me feel old to say I’ve been freelancing for nearly 15 years. I worked in pubs as well in the early days, but have been full time for more than 10 years. After I finished university I decided I wanted make a go of being a photographer, and being freelance seemed the best way of quickly building up my experience and developing my own style. Being fairly young out of university meant that I didn’t have to choose to leave an established career behind, I just went for it!
What support did you have from family and friends? Did anyone advise you against becoming freelance?
My parents let me live at home when I first started my photography business, which was invaluable because it meant I could spend my money on cameras and equipment. At that time I was the only one out of my friends and family who was freelance, which was a bit daunting, but everyone was very supportive (and pleased to have someone they could ask to take nice photos!).
Did you use any professional support resources in starting your freelance business?
When I started I assisted on lots of shoots and went on courses that were aimed specifically at photographers. If I had my time again I would look more widely for advice because there are so many skills that are interchangeable with other sectors, and you can learn a lot. For example in sales, marketing and mindset. There was no Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn or MeetUp, and Facebook was in its very early days, so it was much harder to find like-minded people. I found photographers to be very guarded when I first started and not many were willing to share their knowledge. Now with all the apps, MeetUps and Facebook groups like Freelance Heroes, there is a much friendlier, open attitude and people are more willing to share their knowledge and ideas.
How would you describe your clients or customers?
They vary so much, which is one of the things I love about my job. But what they all have in common is valuing photography, and trusting me to tell their story in the best way I can, whether that’s someone’s wedding or a new portrait for their social media profiles. I’m also lucky that I seem to attract clients who are good fun. One of my highlights of 2018 has been working with Independent Cambridge; meeting and working with so many amazing independent businesses around the city, and the people behind them. It really has shown me how the power of networking and collaboration can create something amazing.
Why do your clients/customers select you over your competitors?
The fact is that anyone can buy a good camera, set up a website and call themselves a photographer. But to be a good photographer is much more than that, and I believe my customers appreciate my skills, experience and professionalism. My favourite adjectives people have used to describe me/my photos are ‘lovely’, ‘friendly’, ‘fantastic’, ‘awesome’, and best of all, ‘absolutely stupendous’.
Is being a freelancer what you expected? e.g. Do you work more hours (or less) than you had first anticipated?
I’ve been doing it so long I can’t really remember what I expected being a freelancer would be like! I don’t think I quite realised the constant learning, evolving and adapting that I would need to do. Over the year on average I work the amount I thought I would, but the nature of my work means that I go from massively busy periods to very quiet, so that can be tricky to manage.
What app or website could you not run your business without, and why
LightBlue is a brilliant piece of business management software specifically for photographers that keeps me organised (developed close to home in Cambridge). It stores contacts, enquiries, manages workflow and finances. It sounds silly that you can neglect something so fundamental as getting paid, but when you’re really busy it is very easy to forget to invoice for work. Or if you have invoiced, you need to check it has actually been paid. Without systems in place it’s easy to lose track.
Thanks to the Freelance Heroes group, my most useful app installed this year, and one wish I had been using for years, is Toggl. It’s a timing app that allows you to track the time spent on projects or different aspects of your business. It takes the guess work out of things like ‘how long does it take me to edit a wedding’. Which in turn means you can work out how much to charge and be confident in your pricing. The most useful feature is stopping the time if it detects you haven’t used your computer for a while (extended coffee/social media break on your phone perhaps?!).
What advice would you give to anyone who wants to start a freelance business, specifically in your field?
If you are leaving a full time job to do it, be sure you have enough work coming in before leaving, or keep some part time work to give you a safety net. Everyone thinks they are a photographer these days, so it is a hugely competitive market and you may not get the income you want. Saying that, if you have the passion and skills, go for it!
Get inspiration from other photographers but be careful of spending too much timing comparing yourself. You will end up making yourself feel like you’ll never be good enough. Enjoy it and do your own thing!
Invest in all the boring stuff because having the right insurance and back-up systems are vital. It may seem expensive when you’re starting out, but just think about how you’d feel if you photograph someone’s wedding and you lost the photos. (In case you’re interested, my cameras take two memory cards at the same time, so I have an instant backup, and then my photos are copied onto two hard drives and a third copy is in the cloud).
Make sure you connect with people doing the same thing as you, don’t see them as competitors but opportunities to share experience and maybe even work. It can be very lonely working by yourself so having people to chat to in a similar situation is really helpful.
And finally, don’t always believe people if they say they’re fully booked up, you’ll worry that you’re not as good as them, but the chances are they’re exaggerating!
What are the most notable things you have learnt since starting your business; either about running a business or about yourself?
The importance of trusting my instinct. It can be hard to say no to work as a freelancer, but I’ve learnt that if a job doesn’t sound right for me it’s best to offer it to someone else, or if someone is pushing me for a lower quote than I feel comfortable with then I’m not afraid to walk away. Saying no can be amazingly satisfying!
What is it about being a freelancer that you most enjoy?
Being able to have an office dog! Seriously… I get a real buzz from getting great feedback from clients and knowing that it all down to me! I also love the access it has given me to see places I wouldn’t normally go, and meeting new, interesting people all the time, including lots of famous faces.
What do you enjoy the least about being a freelancer?
Even after all this time I worry if I don’t think I’ve got enough work booked in for the next few months. But my wife always laughs and reminds me I always say that and it works out ok in the end!
What is your ultimate professional goal as a freelancer?
To have enough work in the summer months to allow me to live in a chalet in Whistler and snowboard every day in the winter.
What one thing do you wish you had known before you became a freelancer?
That it’s easy to look at freelancer rates and think that it’s amazing money. Once you start running your own business, the costs add up very quickly and you realise that the fees you saw people charge and what ends up in your pocket are very different things! For example, weddings often get a bad reputation as being ‘a rip-off for a day’s work’. Now I know that to do things properly, I’ll turn up to a wedding with about £10,000 worth of kit (that needs servicing/repairing/replacing etc), and in total will take up a full working week of my time.
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