Think You Can Quit Your Job and Be a Work-at-Home Photographer?

Photography: mab2413

It’s the dream of many amateur photographers. A chance to walk into the boss’s office, announce that you’re leaving and head home to a studio in the garage, an SUV full of camera equipment and a diary full of high-paying bookings.

No more commuting. No more begging for a pay rise. Just all the freedom you could want in a job you’ve always considered a hobby.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Of course, there are a few things you have to consider…

What Will You Shoot?
The first is what you’ll be shooting.

It’s unlikely that the day after you fire your boss, you’ll get a call from the commissioning editor of National Geographic asking if you’d like to fly to the Serengeti to photograph some migrating wildebeest. Photojournalism too requires experience and contacts. And fine art photography is perhaps the hardest specialty of all to break into.

For most work-from-home photographers then, the largest source of jobs is likely to event and portrait photography. You might be dreaming of being paid large sums to shoot beautiful sunsets, but it’s more likely you’ll be spending your days bribing children to sit still and your evenings corralling relatives into a straight line so that you can shoot the formals.

That doesn’t mean you won’t also be doing the personal projects that keep your pulse racing. But your bread-and-butter is likely to be brides and babies.

Spreading the Word
And you’ll have to find them.

Perhaps the biggest challenge new photographers face is building up their client list. Websites take time to launch and skill to attract users. Advertising costs money and requires an understanding of your market. And you can’t make use of references until you’ve collected a critical mass of satisfied clients.

Kayla Renckly, a stay-at-home mom and part-time photographer told us:

I have found it difficult to market myself and find work… Word of mouth seems to be the most effective [method]. The problem is getting the first customer and making them happy so they tell everyone they know.

For Kayla, and for many new photographers, first jobs are often favors for friends and family — a good way to build experience and create a portfolio, but clearly something to do before you have that chat with your employer.

Only with time, some investment, a large stack of business cards and plenty of encouragement to spread the word do client lists start building up and work start flowing in by itself. (Although there are plenty of things that you can do to enlarge that trickle).

So How Much Will This Cost?
One of the most important aspects of bringing in clients will be the price you charge. Kayla described setting her fee as her “biggest headache.”

I don’t want to be the lowest price and seen as a commodity like Walmart or something, yet I don’t want to price myself out of the market. Once I have that nailed down I believe everything else will fall into place.

She’s not wrong. New photographers often feel uncomfortable charging the same price as an established photographer who is less likely to make mistakes and knows how to squeeze more out of an event. But low prices make photographers look low quality, undervalue skills and fail to take the full cost of a shoot into account.

(The best solution might be to price at around the same level as competitors but offer discounts to friends brought by other friends. You’d appear to be offering market rates but you’d also be encouraging those first referrals while building up experience without doing it at the expense of the client.)

How Long Will It Take?
And finally, time will be a factor too. New photographers often underestimate the amount of time they’ll spend at the computer after the shoot. (Kayla reports that she now expects “to spend about as many hours processing and retouching photos as I spent taking them.”)

That’s time that needs to be factored into the price, and also into a schedule that would include marketing, website building, bookkeeping, learning new skills… and often, looking after the kids too.

None of this means that you can’t tell the boss that you’ve decided to swap your desk for a camera. But it does mean that you shouldn’t expect success to happen right away and you should be ready to work hard, struggle at the beginning and tackle a bunch of new challenges from marketing to scheduling.

Thinking of becoming a work-at-home pro? Shuttermom is a good place to find support and the Professional Photographers of America can be useful too. And tell us what you’ve found hardest about striking out on your own.

[tags] photography business, freelance photography, work from home photographer [/tags]

10 comments for this post.

  1. Kevin Said:

    About 6 months ago I threw caution to the wind.. quit my job and became a photographer. It's the scariest thing I have ever done in my life, but I wake up every morning happy as hell! Is going out on your own hard? Hell ya! it's the hardest thing I've ever done! Luckily I have been making enough money to pay the rent each month, and I have a VERY supportive wife! I just recently was hired to shoot a catalog for a clothing company. The gig came to me from a friend, but if my portfolio didn't stand out, I would have not gotten the job. Thats the one thing every photographer must have, a portfolio that can stand up to the likes of the pros in the same field that you are in. My style stands out and isn't for everyone, but I would not use it to try to get a job taking pictures of flowers! Thats just not my thing.

    As for the hours.. This post is true.. plan to spend HOURS in front of your computer. HOURS! My day starts at 9am and ends at 3am when I peel myself away from the computer to go to bed so I can start this all over again. Lightroom is my best friend, we spend hours together.. I have listened to everything in my iTunes twice and get excited when a now podcast comes out so I have something new to listen to while I work (My rule NO TV WHILE YOU WORK) sounds like I have no life... I kinda don't but it beats working somewhere you can't stand.
    The best advice I can give anyone though.. SHOOT! SHOOT EVERY DAY!! Don't limit yourself to only shooting if you're getting paid or not. I set aside an hour everyday where I sit down and just shoot something in my house or take a walk around the block with my camera. (my dog is my best model)
    Wow that was a rant huh? Hope it helped...


  2. Dan Bannister Said:

    It's been a couple of years since I chucked the briefcase and lunch box for a camera so, with time under my belt, I can say it has been a good move for me and I've never been short of work or income.

    Kevin's post above is correct in saying a portfolio is key but, to add to that, the biggest challenge I found was the business side of things. When I went into this, I assumed that part would be a breeze, hey , I've got an MBA and was a corporate executive for 15 years. I assumed the business side would come easy. I forgot that as an executive, someone else looked after things like insurance, marketing, banking, fees, payroll, logistics etc. etc. I just signed the cheques and approved stuff. Now, I do it all myself and it's a major time suck. I've spent the last three days getting my financials for the year ready for my accountant, organizing a shoot in Mexico and six hours today dealing with customs officials to get the necessary paperwork to get my cameras into another country without paying duty.

    If you're going to make the jump, lay the groundwork for your business with a lawyer and accountant BEFORE you jump ship and get this stuff dialed down to a science in advance. Get your website up and running and start shooting stuff on days off, holidays, weekends and nights. I found a big commercial client while I was still working and used vacation days to shoot for them. When I left my job, having them in my back pocket generated the income and portfolio of commercial work I needed to find more business.

  3. Ed Z Said:

    this is some great advice for someone like me slowly transitioning away from a 9-5 and into a fulltime photographer. I really think the hardest thing is creating the initial client base. It's kind of a catch22 - it's hard to get clients without a good commercial book, and it's hard to get a good commercial book without clients!

  4. Cody Redmon Said:

    Great post and comments. I've just made the transition, and as you can see from my website, I'm trying to go the route of fine art photographer with a focus on landscape...not the easiest thing. I think my work stands on its own, but making the connection with potential clients is difficult. I need to learn more about galleries and building relationships with them. Granted, I'm happy to shoot a wedding every once in a while, but I'm praying that I can flip the standard and make more of an impact with my art pieces. Oh the battle that ensues...

    Thanks again for the great post, Dean.

  5. Ben Said:

    I am actually in graphic design field, started it when I got fired from my job for being a good worker. I began focusing on design and photography, and since then been doing that.

    It's not easy to establish your self, wheter it is graphic design or photography, it's all about business. When you go on your own, you go into your own business. Rather than reading books on how to establish your business, how to network, and how to be productive, I actually started with where I knew I could, and that is with my church. I did some church stuff photography and design, people picked up on it, and the word of mouth is what keeps me in business. I dont spend time advertising myself.


  6. Manuel Said:

    I think I'm going to do the SAME, but I want to jump from Utah, USA, to somewhere in China or way down in Chile, I'm chilean, and I remember when I grabbed my guitar and backpack and traveled all Chile, work? yes, fun? yes, but now with all the digital bible, I CAN'T WAIT!!!!!

  7. Steve Said:

    Went down the pro route a couple of years ago, started with a collegues wedding from work. They loved the results and passed around all my cards to their friends from the wedding but unfortunatly no result, since then I havent made a penny from it, spend money on advertising and a web site that everyone liked but no result, and not enough contacts to start the flow. I have now come to the conclusion that no matter how good a photographer you are, the salesman/marketer with a lot of contacts will get far more work and money even if a mediocre photographer.

  8. Kevin Said:

    I actually just stumbled upon this site via - love that podcast!

    I've been taking photos ever since I was a child and never realized until the past few years that 'hey, I can actually make good money from this!' And the fact that I absolutely LOVE photography. I'm slowly building up my business in photography and have given myself another year or two to make the plunge into becoming a full fledged - in business for myself - photographer.
    All of the comments above, including the article have been extremely inspiring for me. There are a few quotes that I have on my desk at home that keep me inspired on a daily basis...

    "do what you love, and love what you do" - unknown

    "art is a form of life, it gives breath to the imagination" - Kevin Charlie

    "don't tell me how good you are, show me how good you are" - unknown

    I've slowly been getting busier with events like weddings and I've done some commercial product shoots and I have another potentially huge event to shoot in early 2008. Ultimately I would love to shoot food for a magazine or be called upon by cookbook authors to shoot the food for them. But as mentioned above, the 'bread and butter' is seemingly coming from brides and other social events. In my spare time I shoot my own styled food and I end up being the prop designer as well just to get more pieces in my portfolio.

    I consistently learn on a daily basis, and I think it is important to understand, even if you are already pro, that you never stop learning. There is always something new to try and your own personal style will develop and eventually become sought after.

    I think I'll be up for the rest of the night reading all of the articles on this site! Such an amazing resource and starting point for many 'new' photographers wanting to make it big!

    Good luck to all!

  9. Laura Johans Said:

    Great post. I've been doing "professional photography" going on 2 years now. It all started by taking portraits of friends kids a soccer games. It's great fun and I make more than my previous accounting job. The hours are good too but, shooting 8am sports events means getting up at 5:30 to get there and setup. I do spend a lot of time at the computer preping photos and getting print orders to my lab. I've recently started selling online with my PhotoReflect site. I've received a lot of positive feedback that I hope turn into more sales. My hope is that selling online will cut down on my time on the phone.

  10. Rosh Said:

    The best way to make a living is to bring something new to the table. You can't be average. A well exposed, in focus and nicely composed image is not good enough.

    You can make six figures. It took me ten years to get to that point, but is was worth (and work) every second.


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