Lifecycle of a Freelance Photography Job
Introduction | I: Presentation | II: Client Contact | III: Self-Promotion | IV: Estimating Fees | V: Estimating Expenses | VI: Coordination | VII: Execution | VIII: Expense Accountability | IX: Billing
What makes a successful photographer? By successful I mean one who not only continually grows creatively throughout their career, but also one who is secure in their role as an artist/entrepreneur. They are artists who effectively deal with the desire to follow their passion, and who can also balance the demands that consume the energies of a business owner. In two previous articles for Photo.net, How to Rediscover Your Passion for Photography—Part One, and Part Two, I explored the issues of rediscovering your unique form of creative expression. In this article I begin a series that will help professional photographers manage their time more efficiently so they can free themselves up to concentrate on executing their talents.
There is perception, and there is reality. The perception, for example, of the lifestyle of a freelance photographer is that it is an exciting occupation filled with meeting celebrities, traveling to exotic locations, and rubbing elbows with the movers and the shakers of the world. In a recent Salary.com article, the profession of photographer was perceived to be one of the five “most glamorous jobs today.” While it is true that a career in photography places the photographer at the forefront of style, culture and current events, the reality is that the profession of photography is not unlike any other business in which, to make a career of it and be successful, one must spend most of their time doing things that are very far removed from taking a picture.
I have had the honor of working in the profession for thirty-seven years, not as a photographer, but as an Artist Representative/Producer and it has always intrigued me how some very talented artists get disenchanted with the business side and struggle to survive, while other consistent and dedicated photographers create a lifelong career of it.
A little over 23 years ago, I had the good fortune to be asked to create a class in the Photography department at the Art Center College of Design (Pasadena, CA), which would help prepare the undergraduates as they transformed from students to emerging professional photographers. Over the years in my Rep/Producer role I created various ways to be more efficient as I juggled jobs. I made logs, and charts, and studied time management programs all with the objective of coming up with a simple way to stay focused on getting the jobs into the studio, getting them executed, and then getting paid in a timely manner. In order to visually convey my ideas to my students I created a paradigm that I could use as an instructional tool to convey the big picture of how to run a successful photography business while concentrating on one job at a time. I called this paradigm, “The Lifecycle of a Freelance Photography Job” because I wanted to get across the idea that each day a photographer goes to work (whether it is in a studio or on location) they have to pay close attention to nine very distinct consecutive phases that are common to all jobs, and each phase represents the next step in the evolution of a job. My theory was that by concentrating on each phase in succession the photographer would be freed up to grow as an artist as well as a business owner because they would know what they had to accomplish at each step, and what was the next step to completion.
It is important to note that when a photographer first starts out in their career they have to accomplish all nine phases on their own. This is a huge task, but a necessary one because the more familiar they are with what is expected of them the better equipped they are to anticipate challenges, and they can be prepared for anything the project and/or client, throws their way. As their business grows and they become more prosperous they eventually have the opportunity to hire personnel who can take over some of those job functions thus freeing them up to be more involved in their art and less with the business. However, it is imperative the photographer fully understands the function of each phase so they can be aware of the qualities they want from the people they hire.
The most fascinating thing about this simple paradigm is that many of my earliest former students still refer to it as a means of running their businesses efficiently and of being aware of where they stand with each job so certain issues don’t fall through the cracks or get overlooked.
The first phase in “The Lifecycle of a Freelance Photography Job,” is Presentation. Before any job can be entered into you must have a portfolio, which demonstrates your skills, your capabilities, but most of all your passion. Your portfolio must be more than a box filled with pretty pictures. It must convey how you uniquely see the world and what you have chosen—out of a universe of options—to affix the rectangle of your viewfinder to and catch a moment in time. In this phase you have to know what you want to say and how many images you want to say it in. You have to know how to edit and pace your work so it tells a compelling narrative of the things you feel are important. And you have to present it professionally so your prospective client will immediately have the trust in you to assign you a job. I have created, “The Six Elements of an Effective Presentation,” which I will discuss in my next article, as an objective critiquing technique to aid photographers in how to create and keep their portfolios fresh and appealing.
I have had the pleasure of working with a magnificent photographer named Craig Barnes. He identified his passion for uniting beautifully lit portraits and compositing them with exotic and fanciful locations to create masterful works of art that captivate the viewer. He has been able to bring together art and technology in such a seamless way that you are enchanted by the subject matter and left feeling as though you have seen a vision. The best part is that he has put together a body of work that expresses his artistry, is consistent even though there are different subjects, and he is sought out for his unique artistic interpretations. He has successfully created a brand for himself, a brand on which his business can grow without restriction.
The next phase is Client Contact. Once you have defined what it is you need to create within the world of photography then you must determine who the people are that need what you have to offer. This is a very tricky phase because you have to buy into the fact that the best way to define your marketplace is to create a niche and offer your services within that targeted group. Most people want to be everything to everybody but you stand a greater chance of being noticed if you sell your services to a segment that needs what you love to shoot. Don’t worry, you will be able to grow once you have established yourself. You may need to have more than one portfolio to market to another group (or groups) so you won’t have to feel pigeon-holed into being a one-trick pony. To help you define your niche market I have developed the “Passion First Marketing Paradigm” in which you can start with a solid base and build a reputation that will sustain your artistry and your business.
Self-Promotion and Marketing
To insure that you keep your most current work in the minds of your most wanted clients you will need to devote time to the third phase, Self-Promotion and Marketing. In this area you will need to create a brand for yourself and keep that brand consistent (built upon the point of view you have established in the Presentation phase). Very importantly, you will have to commit to creating marketing campaigns that will reinforce your unique viewpoint and your development as an artist. This is an area where photographers anguish and unnecessarily spend large amounts of money because their efforts and their budgets are not coordinated. Self-promotion and marketing requires lots of research to ensure you are hitting the right market. It is key to stay in their field of view so they will think of you when considering their next big project. Nowadays there are many more ways to have your work seen, but you have to cut through the clutter and use creative ways to attract the clientele you desire.
Once you have gotten the attention of the people you want then, voila, they will begin to contact you and ask for an Estimate submission. This is one of the most critical phases in the lifecycle of a job because at this point you have to ask the right questions, listen closely to what the client really wants, trust your instincts and honestly assess if you are right for the job (or the client is someone you wish to work with), and determine how much to charge. This phase requires a lot of people skills along with self-confidence that together give you the room to visualize the end product and guarantee that you will do the best job possible. The estimate is a blueprint for how you envision the job progressing, and in the end your objective is to make your client look brilliant for having hired you. And once the estimate is approved, the purchase order has been signed, and an advance is invoiced and paid, you are ready to commence the job.
If your estimate is approved then you move on to the Coordination phase. Your abilities to coordinate and produce the job can make or break the job. An ill-conceived job will lead to a poorly executed job and can destroy a reputation. You have to be able to select the right support personnel, have control of the management of the job, and understand the time and budget restrictions. A well-coordinated job is a joy, and a chaotic job is, well, something no one wants to be a part of. There are ways to keep things orderly and moving in the right direction and they will be discussed in a subsequent article.
After all this you finally get to do the job you have been trained to do; you get to Execute the job. In this phase at last you get to pick up your camera and take a picture. But even here there is more to it than pushing the shutter release. During the job you have to be able to pay attention to the subtle language used on the set by the client to understand if they are getting what they expected. You have to create an atmosphere of creativity, but you also have to maintain control of the environment. The better you explained your vision during the Estimate phase the easier it is for you to complete that vision during the execution phase.
And while you are doing your thing during the execution portion you have to have some sense of Expense Accountability, which means you have to make sure you are not going over budget, or getting into an overtime situation. This requires communication with the client as well as your suppliers. It also requires some paperwork to ensure the budget is not being abused while you are busy creating.
Once the job is completed the all-important Billing phase is begun. A well-orchestrated job has everything ready to go when the billing portion begins so the receipts are all accounted for, the suppliers’ invoices are ready to be tabulated, and the terms are all met so you can be paid in a timely fashion. There are little tricks that can help you expedite the billing and they are simple but effective ways that most artist/entrepreneurs overlook. Many of the calls I get as a Creative Consultant are from upset photographers who could have avoided their anxieties with a well thought-out estimate, and a well drawn-up invoice.
And then there is the final phase, Payment. Hallelujah, you finally get paid! But for some, payment is a nightmare because there is more paperwork involved and more business to be attended to. A few insights will help to alleviate the pain of making sure everyone gets paid and there is a profit on the job. Knowing where your money goes will help you to reinvest, and to help you to grow your business.
In succession, those nine simple elements or steps of “The Lifecycle of a Freelance Photography Job” define the evolution of a photo assignment and assist the photographer in making sure all the important issues are being taken care of along the way.
What is especially interesting about this lifecycle is that, when you look at it a little closer you can dissect it into three sections with the first three phases (Presentation, Client Contact, and Self-Promotion) all relating to Sales. The next three (Estimating, Coordination, and Execution) are Production issues. And the final three (Expense Accountability, Billing, and Payment) are Administration topics. Any small business course you would take invariably begins with the statement that the three legs of the stool of business are Sales, Production and Administration. We are no different in that regard than any other entrepreneurial effort. It is just that our product is the output of our creativity as captured digitally or on film.
Obviously there are other things that go beyond this lifecycle, to be sure, that are necessary to running a successful creative business. There are legal issues such as intellectual property, incorporation, terms and conditions, and ethics, to name a few. There are technical issues such as film, and digital technology, and emerging technologies for the capture and manipulation of images. And there are challenges around the corner for anyone who interprets the human condition through their art, challenges we have not even thought of yet.
As you can see, it doesn’t matter whether you primarily shoot advertising, or are an editorial photographer, or a collateral photographer; whether you shoot commercially or with your own projects in mind, you still have to have some discipline in your approach towards your work.
The paradigm I have presented here is a start towards working more efficiently. In future articles we will look at each phase individually with the objective of breaking down the process so you can be more productive. After all the goal here is to provide you with a tool that will help you be more effective in running your creative business, which will allow you to be more attentive to what you enjoy doing most: create remarkable images.
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- How to Rediscover your Passion for Photography by Tony Luna (Part One, Part Two)
Tony Luna—the President of Tony Luna Creative Services, a Creative Consultancy founded in 1971, and Artist Representative/Executive Producer with Wolfe and Company Films. Mr. Luna has been an Instructor at the Art Center College of Design since 1985 where he teaches “Career Perspectives” in the Photography and Imaging department, and “Crafting a Meaningful Career” and “Living the Dream” in Art Center’s Public Programs. He is the author of, How to Grow as a Photographer: Reinventing Your Career (Allworth Press): an informational and inspirational guide to career evolution. Tony will be presenting a lecture titled, “Taking Your Career to the Next Level” at PDN PhotoPlus Expo in October 2008. He has helped well over a thousand artist-entrepreneurs begin, sustain and enhance their careers, and hundreds of companies to grow and prosper.