Last week I received this question in my inbox:
This is a great question. The journey from hobbyist to sort of professional to full business is tricky to navigate. Artists create because it feels good. Running a business exists on the other end of the spectrum. It’s a weird paradox.
I’m going to answer this by explaining how I did it, what kinds of jobs I started doing, and what helped me go from shooting friends for free to shooting ads for magazines and big fortune 500 companies…. sometimes still for free.
The Beginning: Everything is Free
Let me begin with the most important part of this whole thing. Work trumps all. Your ideas, visions, plans for success aren’t worth anything on their own. When you start shooting, no one owes you a penny. All you should be worried about is shooting. A lot. Use your friends, use your family. Ask your school. And do it for free.
That’s what I did. For the first 2 years, all I did was shoot my friends. Some were conceptual shoots with limited production, but most were me texting them to put on pants and meeting me somewhere to shoot for 20 minutes. Then I reached out to organizations on my college campus. I shot sorority fundraisers and open mic events. I also did a short run with nightclubs. These were paid jobs but it paid shit. At the time I thought this was the most valuable gig for me. I shot celebrities and made some money. Oddly enough, this turned out to be the worst investment for me in terms of the big picture.
The Value in Free Work
As a photographer, you are playing for the end game. The long haul. Your first job is to get your name out there and build a portfolio. Everyone with a phone is a photographer now. What makes YOU different?
Doing free work is valuable for a few reasons.
I would say that 90% of my paid jobs are a result of free work I did either directly from a returning client or by referral. My sorority photos turned into 4 years (and counting) of recruitment videos and business work for alumni. My campus work and open mic photos introduced me to producers and recording artists and creatives who have ties to large music festivals and influential blogs and start up’s in Seattle, LA, and New York. A friend I shot was dating a dancer who happened to dance for Macklemore. I ended up touring with Macklemore in 2010 and 2011 and helped produce and shoot And We Danced. The Macklorettes are a huge part of my story to this day. The start up’s I invest in and our micro successes with PR, marketing and getting our product on networks like ABC can all be linked back to people I’ve met and befriended through FREE work.
The 80/20 Rule
80% of your money/success will come from 20% of your clientele. Focus on customer loyalty and over delivery with these jobs. Email, inform, follow up, and engage, GIVE GIVE GIVE with these clients and within this market and word of mouth will take care of future referrals (as long as your product is good). Try to make these jobs the ones you enjoy the most! Spend the most time doing important work that you love. Of course, sometimes the jobs in your 20% find YOU. Even if they aren’t exactly the most creative or “sexy,” they are loyal customers! Don’t blow it. These people are giving you money, don’t be stupid.
The other 80% is what helps pay the bills. These are the odd jobs, the referrals that came to you without seeing your work, maybe your schedule was open and you had time to squeeze in a quick project. I’ve done carpet commercials, weddings, events but I’ll never post them. But I will do them. I have bills.
If you are going to do free/ reduced cost work, do it for the 20% clients. They have a higher lifetime customer value than the one- off’s. There is a higher probability that your work will pay for itself many times over. Try not to do free work for the 80% clients. Here’s why:
- This work isn’t your bread and butter/ style/ target market. That is more reason to charge money because you probably won’t be able to use it in your portfolio, marketing/ brand content. Don’t sell yourself short. YOUR TIME IS MORE VALUABLE for jobs outside of your market. It’s also okay to say no to these jobs if it’s really outside of your strengths or beliefs.
The assumption that you will make a bunch of money right off the bat is just not a reality. You might find a few jobs here and there solely on the fact that someone knew you were a photographer, but some things to consider:
If they found you via word-of-mouth alone, they may not even know what kind of work you do / your style. This can make the process very difficult. Make sure you know how your performance will be measured before you accept.
Lack of research done on the client’s end might mean a lack of importance in the project. Make sure your work will be valuable to both parties.
Be on your game. Free work is not an excuse to lack professionalism. Send timely emails, communicate, prepare for the shoot from top to bottom, and deliver the products FAST!
When you start, you are a nobody. No one owes you anything and without a portfolio, no one is going to pay you what you think your competition/ local industry standard is charging.
Shoot, shoot, shoot. Find your style. Find your recipe and replicate it. That is what people will pay for over and over again.
If you have a question, DM me on Instagram with the hashtag #AskAmir.