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How to become a freelance photographer

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Deciding whether or not to become a freelance photographer is an important and complex decision. Perhaps you’re not feeling fulfilled with your current work, but lacking the confidence to quit your full time job and go it alone?

Or maybe you’ve already made the leap, but need a little more advice to really get the ball rolling? Whatever your situation, this guide will help you understand the basics of being your own boss.

Choosing when and where you want to work and being in control of your own destiny are huge advantages to ditching the regular job - but many people will be too excited by these prospects to actually find out how to run a photography business properly.

This bumper article will help you to look at the situation objectively, giving practical tips and advice on how to develop from a freelance newbie into a freelance veteran.

Getting the wheels in motion

Fools rush in. Although going freelance is exciting, there’s no need just yet to slap your current employer in the face with a resignation letter (although here are some spectacular ways people have quit their jobs in style). There are different ways of juggling your photography work with your day job which you may not have considered.

For example, employees in the UK have a legal right to request flexible working hours. Many modern workplaces are happy to support employees in their out-of-work pursuits, as they understand this helps employee engagement and happiness. Unfortunately, they aren’t obligated to accept your request, but there’s no harm in asking.

You could alternatively try speaking to your boss about the possibility of going part-time, or even job-sharing.

Telling the taxman

Of course if these avenues are unsuccessful, it’s possible to start freelancing outside work without disclosing it. Just be aware that even though your employer doesn’t need to know about your second job, the taxman certainly does. HMRC recommends that you inform them as soon as your business starts trading.

Your tax affairs are entirely confidential and HMRC won’t inform your employer if you also register as self-employed, but be aware that if you register as a limited company, your details will come up on searches of Companies House, so your employer could always find out about your sneaky photography business that way. 

Building a client base

You’ll already be aware at this stage that clients don’t grow on trees, and a lot of effort needs to go into finding photography work. Hopefully you’ll have enough to tide you over, but if you’re going to make ends meet, you’ll need to really increase your gigs.

Alfred Eisenstaedt, who took that famous photo of the sailor kissing a woman in a white dress at Times Square, once said: “It is more important to click with people than to click the shutter.”

Networking (the old school, in-real-life kind) is still a great way to meet potential clients. Research some freelancer meetups or groups in your local area you could attend - or start one if there aren’t any.

Whether you’re at an event or just out and about, always ensure you have a business card handy and have an ‘elevator pitch’ prepared, summing up your talents in one sentence. Something like ‘I’m a freelance photographer, so I work with clients to create images that help sell their business” does a much better job of promoting yourself and your service than just stating your job title and hoping for the best.

Get online

A social media presence on the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn is a must for anyone running a business nowadays, and failure to regularly update and engage with followers is throwing money away. Especially ensure you’re on Instagram and any other popular image-based sites your audience is likely to find your work on.

Fashion and beauty photographer Dawn Marie Jones told us: “Photography is becoming more accessible and easier to create, so I think it is important to stay informed and keep a professional edge over the consumer products out there.”

One of the best ways to stand out is to build yourself a great-looking website so there’s a general hub for your contact details and portfolio. There are plenty of sites such as Wix or Squarespace which can help you do this on a budget and with zero experience, but you can always fork out a little extra if you’re looking for a more professional presentation (or perhaps offer a developer a free shoot in return for knocking one up for you). We’ve got an article on building a website for your business.

Money matters

Yes, of course the creative side of the job is why you’re pursuing a career as a freelance photographer, but making money from it is how you’re going to make it work. As the saying goes, you have to spend money to make money. But where are you going to find the startup capital in order to buy all your gear and get your business up and running?

Startup loans

You could be eligible for a loan of up to £25,000 from Start Up Loans, a government-funded scheme which also offers mentoring and business advice. The catch is that interest on the loan is currently set at 6% per annum, but it’s an avenue many have chosen to go down.

Collaboration

Look for any local creatives you could build a business with and work collaboratively alongside. Is anyone you know looking to also launch a creative freelance business - Could you work together? Put out some messages on Gumtree or local job boards - you never know, you might find someone looking for snaps who could end up being your business partner.

Crowdfunding

Asking the public for help is becoming increasingly commonplace. Use a website like Crowdfunder or Indiegogo to offer perks to your friends, family and the general public with varied value depending on how much each backer donates. For example, you could start with a professional headshot for the lower tier and a full family shoot with prints for the more generous folks.

Calculating a day rate

Working out a sensible and competitive rate to charge for a day’s work can be tricky, particularly in a saturated market like photography. Following these tips can ensure you get paid the right amount for your skill set and location.

First Impressions

Firstly, ask yourself how you want to appear to your potential clients. Are you a premium service, or something a bit more straightforward? Of course, you don’t want to overcharge, but pricing yourself too low could mean you’ll need to work long into the night and often through the weekend to achieve your desired income.

Don’t fall into the trap of just dividing the amount you want to earn in a year by the amount of working days, as you’ll definitely end up short-changing yourself. You absolutely cannot forget to take into account any other outgoings that will affect your net pay.

For example, if you forecast an extremely optimistic schedule of 250 work days in your first year, a £100 day rate would give you revenue of £25,000. But after taking deductions for equipment, travel, tax, insurance and all the rest of the inevitable expenses into account, you’ll be in for quite a shock when you realise you’re not making nearly as much as you had hoped.

Number crunching

To avoid making such a mistake, you could simply add 20% on top of your desired salary for tax, a sensible sum for expenses and holiday and divide the total by your working days - giving you a more realistic day rate. Don’t forget to allow for pension payments too if you’re a good forward thinker.

Add 10% on top of this when you give a quote, then if you need to negotiate, taking this off will still leave you with the rate you’re looking for. Unless the job is a valuable gig for your portfolio, don’t do yourself a disservice of accepting any work for less than your day rate.

Alternatively, it might suit you better to charge per project rather than per hour, with a pre-prepared rate (including retouching and prints) for professional headshots, wedding photography, PR/commercial shoots, or whatever your most common bookings tend to be.

How to increase your day rate

As a freelancer, there’s obviously no boss or HR department to make the judgement for you - so you have to be the one to make the call if you want a pay rise. See what your more upmarket competitors have to offer and where you differ - don’t risk losing out on pay because you’re too shy to up your rates.

If it turns out that you’re being paid less than the average photographer in your area, consider why this might be. Think of yourself as a commodity. How available are your skills in the market, and how easy will it be to replace you? Are there certain skills that you don’t offer, which others do? It may be the case that you need to position yourself as an industry expert.

Give your regular clients plenty of advance warning if you’re going to be charging more. Nobody likes an extra expense coming out of nowhere, and this will at least allow them to budget accordingly.

However, if you’re asking for more money, you need to explain why you deserve it. Your justification might be because you want to work less hours, but your clients will only really want to know what’s in it for them.

Explain to them briefly what sets you apart from those charging less. Be bold - confidence in your own business will win you far more clients than trying to please everybody.

Helpful calculators

Get a good overview of your finances with the Crunch Take-home Pay Calculator. This tool tells you your true earnings after you’ve paid expenses and made National Insurance and Income Tax contributions.

Bookkeeping

Bookkeeping is far from the most glamorous part of freelancing, but it becomes far more difficult than it has to be when it’s left until the very last minute.

A big no-no is to hide all your receipts in a box and retrieve them with a few hours left before the tax deadline. No amount of hair-pulling and bad language will help you in this situation. A year’s worth of bookkeeping in one sitting is a hefty task, but split over 52 weeks, the same task becomes much less daunting.

Set aside half an hour every week to send invoices, record expenses, reconcile your bank account, and chase overdue payments. It will take some perseverance, but it’ll soon become second nature, and when you come to file your taxes you’ll be thankful that you thought ahead. This way you’ll always have a good idea of your tax bill, reducing the risk of being stung by the taxman at the end of the year.

Aside from making you a more organised person, a solid bookkeeping regimen will also remove those niggling financial worries that are so commonplace for business owners.

Will you be able to afford your tax bill this year? Up to date books will tell you this and more. Our article on bookkeeping and why it matters is a good place to start.

Avoid common pitfalls

You’re naturally working as a photographer because you enjoy it - but when it comes to receipts, never mix business with pleasure. Leafing through endless transactions to find a specific payment will be much more infuriating if you don’t know which ones are personal and which are business.

Once you’ve claimed an expense, don’t bin the receipt. If the taxman decides to audit you, they can go back as far as six years, and you’ll need to be able to make the case for each and every expense.

It’s a good idea to scan your receipts and back them up online somewhere to avoid them getting lost or worn out. The Google Drive and Dropbox mobile apps do an admirable job of scanning and converting receipts and paperwork to PDFs.

Once your paperwork is safely backed up online, you can de-clutter with confidence, as HMRC accepts scans of receipts if the physical copy isn’t available.

It’ll always be tempting to try and keep your operation down to as few heads as possible, so it’s understandable why so many self-employed people try to take care of everything by themselves. As most discover, though, keeping all the finances in check as your business grows is not just a real pain in the neck, it also gets in the way of your actual work.

It makes sense to consider appointing an accountant the moment your toiling over the paperwork costs start taking up too much time. By putting an expert in charge, you’re freeing yourself up to run your business how you imagined it would be, without all the complicated number-crunching getting in the way.

Tax relief - claim your business expenses

Tax relief can be claimed on anything that is necessary and essential for your duties.

As a photographer this covers equipment like cameras, lights, computers and software, as well as some costs if you’re using your home as an office.

HMRC define allowable expenses as being ‘wholly and exclusively’ incurred in the performance of your duties, so as long as the items are not too frivolous (sorry, no coffee machine) you won’t have to pay National Insurance or income tax on it.

As a photographer, you may often fork out for travel, accommodation, and subsistence, which are all usually claimable as business expenses alongside payments relating to your business for services like accountancy, advertising, or insurance. If you’ve got kids, HMRC has tax-free childcare options for you..

You’re also entitled to a tax relief on things relating to your physical wellbeing, like medical insurance and eyesight tests and possibly even glasses.

Travelling to work

You can claim 45p per mile for the first 10,000 miles of business travel in the tax year.

After that, it goes down to 25p per mile. Motorbikes differ slightly with a blanket rate of 24p per mile. It may come as a surprise to many, but if you set up as a limited company, you can also claim 20p for each mile travelled on a bicycle.

Avoid excessively using taxis, as HMRC don’t tend to accept these as necessary expenses. Tolls, congestion charges, and parking fees (not fines!) are all allowable, but as always, make sure that you keep all your receipts and a mileage log.

How do I go about actually claiming?

Keep accurate records of every transaction as proof of your costs. January 31st is Self Assessment deadline day - so you have until then to get all your paperwork in order and sent off.

When it comes to filling in your Self Assessment tax return, add up all your allowable expenses for the tax year and insert the total amount. You don’t need to send in proof of expenses but always keep proof and records. We’ve got handy spreadsheets for recording expenses, as well as articles explaining all the expenses you can claim as either a limited company or a sole trader.

Keeping expenses down

When you’re starting out, you’ll probably be most concerned with minimising expenses, which means you’ll most likely be working from home. If seeing the same

four walls starts to drive you nuts, you could try working in a park or at a friend’s house rather than in an expensive café or coworking space, although these are also great places to knuckle down.

Photography freelance veteran Gavin Alexander has first-hand experience of keeping an eye on expenses, and gave us some specialist insight:

“It’s pretty common to buy things like lights, flashes and backdrops second hand. You can pick up some perfectly good used lenses as well, but make sure you try them out before parting with your money. Buying used is sensible, but you need to ensure you obtain a proof of purchase if these items are to be treated as expenses.”

Bit of a bonus tip here - if you’re operating as a limited company and you stay on top of your tax affairs and are able to pay your Corporation Tax bill early, HMRC will actually give you some of it back in the form of interest.

Late Payments

Most businesses have been affected by late payments; but none are disadvantaged quite as directly as single-person businesses such as photographers.

It can be incredibly frustrating to be rushed around, but not receive the same urgency when it comes to coughing up the money you’re owed.

Clients can be hard to win and easy to lose - but you must never be timid about getting paid for your work. Having fixed procedures in place will reinforce your professionalism, and might even increase your client’s trust in your service.

Invoice and chase letters

It’s unlikely the client is being tardy just to spite you, so a polite reminder should always be the first course of action. Drop them a quick email and ask for a confirmation of receipt, so you know someone is dealing with it. This would usually ensure the transaction is made in a speedier manner.

If a week goes by and still no payment, a firm reminder is appropriate. Pick up the phone and ask them again to confirm the invoice has been received. Keep notes of any calls or emails from the client regarding payment so you have a record of the broken promise to reference later on. Hopefully you won’t need to, but it’s good practice.

If another week of silence goes by and your requests are falling on deaf ears, it’s time to show you’re really serious. From day 15 to day 30, you should make regular contact with the client by telephone to ascertain the reason for the delay. Tell your client that it is your policy not to produce any further work until this issue has been rectified.

This may seem harsh on all accounts, but if this happens again next time, will you be able to cover your costs? Whilst you may have built up a strong personal relationship with the client, you’re better off spending your time looking for clients who actuallypay their photographers. We’ve got an article all about chasing unpaid invoices as well as some free late payment reminder letter templates to help.

Getting a third party involved

At this point, you might be tempted to jump on Twitter and go to town on your client - but do consider first how this may come across to potential clients, who probably want to avoid anyone who’s prone to drama, regardless of whose fault it is.

If you’ve exhausted all reasonable routes to securing payment, enlisting an agent to assist in recovery of funds will free up company time to concentrate on other clients.

Always seek out recommendations from other freelancers or an accredited body before making any rash decisions which will potentially cost you customers and return business.

If in doubt, treat a potential supplier the same as a potential customer - show due diligence and thoroughly investigate any references and licences held.

A good agency will have the experience and procedures in place to rapidly escalate your claim for payment and will be able to advise you on the best way to approach the recovery. Typically you won’t be expected to pay for the time spent in recovery as many agencies offer a no collection, no commission service.

Overall, the best practice is to simply ensure that good, clear communication and documentation is maintained from the outset of the work you undergo for a client.

This means that if the client does give you the run-around, you know that you’ve done everything correctly from your end – and that you can prove it.

Crunch can help you with our Crunch Collections specialist debt collection service.

Work/Life balance

If you never seem to have any time to yourself, or you start to get complaints from loved ones that they never see you - it may be time to evaluate whether you need to take a step back from photography for a wee bit.

Experiment with different working patterns. Many parents work during the day and late at night so they have time to spend with their children in the afternoon and early evening. If you’re an early-riser, you could use that morning energy to get your emails and paperwork done before having breakfast with the family.

If you simply have too much on your plate, you might want to consider subcontracting some of it out. Not only will you keep your clients happy, but you’ll be helping a fellow freelancer in the process.

A 2017 study by IPSE found that more than 4/5f freelancers say they are very satisfied with the way they work, and freelancers around the world routinely score higher in happiness surveys than their full-time counterparts.

But all the bookkeeping, the networking, irregular hours, the cashflow forecasting - is for nothing if you don’t remember to enjoy the freedoms that come with freelancing.

Deciding whether or not to become a freelance photographer is an important and complex decision. Perhaps you’re not feeling fulfilled with your current work, but lacking the confidence to quit your full time job and go it alone?

Or maybe you’ve already made the leap, but need a little more advice to really get the ball rolling? Whatever your situation, this guide will help you understand the basics of being your own boss.

Choosing when and where you want to work and being in control of your own destiny are huge advantages to ditching the regular job - but many people will be too excited by these prospects to actually find out how to run a photography business properly.

This bumper article will help you to look at the situation objectively, giving practical tips and advice on how to develop from a freelance newbie into a freelance veteran.

Need further advice?

Crunch are always here to help our clients. If you’re a new client, then get in touch with us on 0333 311 0800. For Crunch paid subscription clients, your client managers are on-hand to answer any questions you may have. Contact them today on support@crunch.co.uk or 0333 311 8001.

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Tom West
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Updated on
March 28, 2023

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