I spent the first 25 years of my career earning my living as a chemist, with photography as an obsessional hobby and sporadic source of pocket money. But then in my late 40’s I decided to see if I could pay all my bills through photography. 10 years later I’m very happy that I took the plunge, and here are some observations from those first years as a freelance photographer.
Times have changed
The life of a professional photographer has of course changed dramatically since digitalisation arrived in the noughties, allowing potential clients to take many of their own photos. It also allowed more enthusiasts to take the step into professional work, and a higher proportion of those were artistic types who were previously limited by their disinterest in technology, which was much more of a handicap in the days of film. Also, for every professional photographer there are hundreds of amateurs who are just as capable of producing a fine image, and all your potential clients have a daughter, nephew or friend in this class who is willing to work just for fun, recognition or lunch. And equipment is no longer much of a limitation, with entry-level cameras having sufficient quality for most professional jobs. When you pay 10 times more for pro gear, mostly what you are getting is better ergonomics and durability, along with extreme frame rates and low-light performance that are seldom needed.
It’s still the good times
The good news is that more photographs are wanted nowadays, and for a professional photographer, just as important as the label ‘photographer’ is the label ‘professional’. Knowing that you will turn up on time, work efficiently, deliver 100% under any conditions, make no excuses, and send a bill approved by the taxman, are all features worth a lot to a busy company. Not to mention being available during office hours, and having that pro camera for the few pictures that need low-light quality, and which still works after a client knocks over your tripod.
And then there is supplementary lighting, a skill that becomes essential when you have to deliver to a deadline, and which enthusiasts often don't develop since they can afford to wait for conditions to be right. The picture of the bird watcher below would have been very easy to take if we'd had the time to camp out in the woods for a few days until the mist and sunrise cooperated, but in fact we had an hour in the suburbs one late-summer afternoon. So what you see here is actually created in my garden with an orange-gelled flashgun, a fog machine, and another flash backlighting the mist. Cheating, yes, but the alternative would have been a studio headshot, which would have been just as artificial, but wouldn't tell viewers as much about the subject. For all except the aerial and lake photos in this article, I added some sort of artificial lighting.
So there’s still plenty of work for the jobbing photographer. It’s not all glamorous, in fact not much of it is glamorous. I spend more time making well-worn factories look good for a homepage than I do shooting the rich and famous on their yachts for glossy magazines. But still, even the most mundane photo job is way more fun than sitting in an office. I still sit in my office quite a lot though, not just selecting and processing images, but coordinating jobs, which takes a surprising amount of time.
It’s just a job
Many photographers like to think of themselves as artists, and so they should, but the reality is that very few people can earn a living by creating art with their camera. The vast majority of clients are looking for craftsmen, not artists. Our profession has more in common with carpentry than art - most clients want something functional and nice looking, but also quick and affordable. Of course you should use all your creativity to produce as unique an image as possible, but when you have one day to produce 50 images on a busy shop floor, using real employees rather than models, there’s a limit to how advanced your work can be. And when it is more advanced, an art director may well be calling the shots, literally.
We all aspire to being the guy whom Maserati call when they want to spend two days taking one image of a car with professional models and a crew of assistants, but few of us will get there. The rest of us still get fun jobs where the client lets us run free with our imagination, but have to fill in with a lot of routine work. For every Vogue cover, there are thousands of conference presentations/corporate headshots/product shots that need to be made. With time I have managed to build up enough fun clients that I can afford to say no to really dull work, but I still enjoy the conference jobs.
The good and the bad
Let’s start with the good :
You’re being paid to indulge in your hobby ! So like I said before, even the dull jobs are more fun than most alternatives. I remember once photographing a secretary with a pile of spreadsheets. I was happily fiddling around to get a CSI-look by using a blue-gelled flash so it appeared she was lit by the screen, and backlighting the rest of the room. At which point she said “Isn’t it boring just taking people’s pictures all day ?” I had to disagree.
It’s flexible - want to take a weekday off ? Schedule your shooting around it, and do the office work over the weekend. Like I did last winter to go ice skating. When I posted pictures from the trip on social media my friends mocked me for not having enough work, and too much spare time. When a magazine editor saw the pics and asked to buy them, I mocked my friends for having only earned one day’s salary that day, when I had inadvertently earned three. And that illustrates another advantage - your holidays and other hobbies can pay for themselves if you can find a customer for your documentation of them.
It’s interesting - you’re meeting new people all the time, and getting access to places that’d you’d never normally see. Every day is something new. One day I can be out on a coastguard lifeboat, the next in an operating theatre, another up in an airplane, then at a wedding, or shooting cabinet ministers at a conference. All interspersed with those corporate headshots and school children.
The not-so-good :
It’s hard work - you’re doing everything yourself, and constantly making judgement calls. Even if you contract out parts of the business like accounting or retouching, you still have to understand what you’re delegating and communicate with your contractors, plus you have to find extra photography work to pay for those services.
It’s unpredictable - like all freelancers, your business will have boom and bust periods, worryingly empty weeks followed by a series of adjacent 14 hour days. Try to enjoy the quiet periods, and/or use them for marketing. Writing a blog entry for example....
Filling your free time
Although I know a couple of pros who never touch a camera unless they are being paid, most of us still have a passion for photography outside the job. If you look at the images on my homepage and social media, you'll see that very few are from commercial work, most of which is too routine to result in masterpieces. So personal projects are not only fun, but opportunities to show off what you can really do. And they often lead on to paid work. I started photographing horses because I pass a lot of them on my daily walk, but as well as earning a little from sales to the owners, seeing the quality of my work has led to much bigger unrelated jobs from colleagues and spouses of the horse owners. Likewise shooting my wife and her friends running marathons has ultimately led to many months of income from people who saw the results of those personal projects.
I have also exhibited prints around 30 times, with a dozen solo exhibitions. These take a lot of time and money to make happen, but are a lot of fun, and a good way to meet current and future clients in a relaxed environment surrounded by your best work. For me, sales at exhibitions are not a sustainable form of income, but meeting just one long-term client would make it all worthwhile.
I've never paid for advertising, nor actively called up potential clients, getting all my work from casual contacts and subsequent recommendations. I'm not recommending that method, but it worked for me, since I'm a terrible salesman. If you have better social skills than I do, then active solicitation will presumably speed up business growth.
Is a freelance photography career for you ?
Are you self-motivated and disciplined ? If not, forget it. Likewise if you prefer a predictable, structured, 9-5 life.
Can you afford a slow start to the business ? If you're young and single with nothing to lose, go for it. Likewise if you're an empty nester with savings and low cost of living, go for it. Family to feed and mortgage to pay ? Then you need to think more carefully.
Do you enjoy freedom, creativity, variety, challenges and a bit of chaos ? Then you'll love it, regardless of the financial outcome.
Tips for success
Be realistic - understand how the business world works, and how good you really are. Optimism can take you a long way, but running a business needs feet on the ground too.
Be flexible and easy to work with - you're in a service industry.
Overdeliver - the goodwill is worth far more than a slightly bigger invoice.
Keep up the personal work - you will have free time as a freelancer. Use it wisely. Anything that puts your work in front of potential clients is worthwhile.
So that's what my first decade in business looked like. An adventure. And I'm looking forward to the next decade.
Many people viewing the picture of Tant Skateboard pimping her ride might think "I could have taken that".
And they would be right - if the conditions had been just right the moment they passed, they could have snapped the same image as I did.
But conditions weren't right, and as a jobbing photographer you can't wait for conditions to be favourable, you have to make them favourable. Every time.
So in fact it took several hours to take that picture, which was part of a project to promote the children's books about a youthful old lady, Tant Skateboard.
Let's start by getting access to the place. Junk yards are busy workplaces with a lot of big equipment moving around in confined areas, so just wandering in to make some art isn't going to be popular. Now the guys at SkrotCentralen are really cool and great supporters of culture, so it's easier than most, but still I had paved the way by supplying them with free photos that I had taken at events they had organised, and got to know the boss.
This wasn't a long-term infiltration plan, I just spread seeds like that because it's easy, costs me nothing but a very small amount of time, and makes people happy. And a very small number of them flourish to be harvested later. Otherwise getting access to industrial sites for personal projects can costs hours on the phone, trying to find the one person who is willing and able to let you in.
Once there, we had to find the right pile of junk, which I wanted to be 'interesting', sunlit since it would be too big for me to be able to light artificially, with enough space in front for me to get separation from the model, and with shade around the model so I could control the light there. Full sun on the model would have made her squint, and would have cast heavy shadows, but more importantly it would have made the sparks hard to see. So I chose to light the model with flash, which meant lugging in additional lighting. I could have used small strobes on battery power but would have been struggling to match the bright sunlight. Since the angle-grinder needed mains power we had to find an outlet anyway and join together a bunch of extension cords to reach our 'studio', so that meant I could use big mains-powered flashguns. The trick with mixed lighting is to complement the natural light, not fight it, which meant climbing up on the junk to get the key light in the right place to look like natural sunlight. Then I wanted some backlight and fill to avoid deep shadows, which took more time to get just right, avoiding too much light on the sparks.
Finally we could actually think about the images, compose the skateboard and tools, and pose the model. Then it was really easy - just press the button.
You could have taken it.
This summer there is an exhibition of local church artifacts at Uppsala Cathedral (himlenarhar.se), and my colleague Georg Lulich and I were lucky enough to be awarded the contract to take most of the photographs for the catalogue.
This was a dream job that involved visiting 35 churches in the diocese and photographing the beautiful works of art housed there.
But it was also very hard work, and as usual with ambitious projects, the deadline was tight - 4 weeks to drive 4000 km, take 5000 images for selection, and then process and deliver 200 to be included in the 250 page A4 catalogue.
The work was pretty varied, and drew on every corner of our combined experience and equipment bags. One day we would be taking close-ups of Russian ceramic eggs using tilt lenses and focus stacking to stretch the depth of field, and the next day we could be using a mast to photograph a crucifix suspended 6m up.
The technical issues could all be overcome, but one of the challenges of being a freelance is that for the sake of the client and yourself, the work has to be done very efficiently, and there is seldom time for experimentation when on a commission.
Sometimes you want to try a new idea, but if it doesn't work first time, you need to fall back on familiar procedures. And on the 4th day on the road, at 8am, in a strange church in the middle of nowhere, it's good to have standard procedures that you can execute in your sleep.
A personal favourite of mine was one of the first items, a gilded chalice from the 1200s, which was technically easy to make look good, and ended up being used extensively to advertise the exhibition. It also gave us an unjustified confidence that the rest of the project would be equally straightforward.
Least favourite at the time was a silver and gilt paten from the 1300s that was very hard to light in a way that picked out the relief without also picking up highlights on all the buckles and damage of the ages. This one took many hours to get a good shot of a rather simple piece.
Another day we were booked in for two churches, and picked up the giant medieval key to the first where we would reproduce some 'passion paintings', which also sounded quick and easy. Except there were 17 of them, hanging 3m up above the pews, attached to the wall with intricately-twisted wire.
Taking down and rehanging each painting involved delicate positioning of a ladder and a degree of acrobatics.
Luckily, in my younger days I was an enthusiastic rock climber, so am used to working with tools whilst balancing on one leg, with catastrophic consequences of falling or dropping something.
The paintings turned out to be rather cracked, so the surfaces were made of many small concave paint flakes, which made lighting them without getting highlights very difficult, even with cross-polarisation. We ended up with the lights so far to the side that we got shadows from the frames and had to composite several images from each painting in order to lose those.
After several hours of frantic work we had to literally run to the car with our equipment in order to be on time to the next church.
Sadly there was no time for behind-the-scenes shots that day. They would have been fun.
So those were the extremes, but in between were a lot of more predictable and routine shots, and in addition to all the buildings and artifacts, we also met a vast array of people, who were without exception very helpful and kind to us. We also got to see a lot of the beautiful autumn scenery between Märsta and Hudiksvall.
It was a very intensive month, being on the road and frantically processing the images, many of which needed to be masked and cut out to a black background, a tedious and time-consuming process which we usually avoided by careful lighting, but many times that is just not practical. But it was also a very rewarding project, and one I will remember fondly.
Here are some selected images from the project : Himlen är här slideshow
A few years ago I came across a horse that was standing in a pool of light in front of a dark bush that was in shadow, and the high contrast led to an image of her eye that looked like it was taken in a studio. I really liked the result (as did Edviks Art Museum, and the Mimara Art Museum in Zagreb, who both included it in their autumn collections), but the chances of getting similar natural light again was small, so I decided to build an overdimensioned studio where I could control the light in the same way that I do for portraits of people.
Surmulen stables kindly let me use their barn, and I rigged it somewhat like a human studio, but with looser, less precise lighting since I expected that positioning the horses would be difficult.
About a dozen horses came in, and none seemed to be troubled by the flashes,they were much more bothered by simply being in a strange building, and positioning them was predictably 'interesting'. But the results were everything I had hoped for, and the images are now hanging on the walls of Hotel Uppsala.
Click on the image of Astrid and Tösen for more shots from the studio.
And here is a timelapse from behind the scenes :
This is the story of the shoot of an advert for a new-business network that I'm in.
A group of us in the network decided we could afford a full-page ad in the local paper if we all shared it, and so three of us set about making it happen.
Zara happens to have been a professional graphic designer in her past, and Emilie is a natural model as well as stylist. We all loved Zara's first sketch, with our products arranged around a model, so it was just a matter of collecting the items, and shooting.
I thought about renting a full-sized studio, but we ended up using a room outside Zara's Fish Spa, for flexibility and convenience. The only problem this caused was that my 2.7m background wasn't really wide enough, so we had to improvise some extra width and photoshop the seams.
After shooting the safe, planned pose, I suggested that Emilie shake loose, just for fun, and inevitably that resulted in a much better shot than the planned one. The best shots always seem to be during warm-up and testing, or winding down.
Three hours was really a bit rushed, but we got exactly what we wanted, and Zara made a great ad from the shot of Emilie doing impossible things with her leg.
Here's a timelapse video of the day (you should have sound on...) :
And here is the final ad.
Back from a trip to Oman that I won with a photo from last year's holiday in Sri Lanka.
The most photogenic area of Oman has to be the sand deserts that were a few hours north of our hotel in Salalah, but unfortunately we only had one night there, and with sunsets only lasting a few minutes down in the tropics, it was intensive work to make use of the golden hour, which would have been more like the golden half hour without all the sand that acts like a giant warming reflector. The silhouette picture you see here wasn't planned - the guy just happened to be on the next dune between me and the sun, and I simply asked him to pose in profile. But I liked the pic, and so gave him my card later so that I could send him a copy, at which point I discovered that he was the editor of the magazine through which I had won the holiday. A mix up with seating on the plane also meant that I ended up sitting next to him on the flight home, and now it looks like I might be able to get some work through him in the future. Now what are the chances of all that happening ? And on my first day as a full-time freelancer too. I think someone up there is giving a giant thumbs-up to my career change.
You'll find more pics and a quick report of the trip here : Oman photos and trip report
Professional underwater housings are extremely expensive and dedicated to a particular camera model, so I've been playing with cheaper alternatives at the local pool.
First I tried a soft case for my DSLR, but found it very clumsy, and since scatter in the water wasted the quality from a big camera I moved over to a hard case for my compact Canon S90, which gives plenty of quality at ISO 80, and when set to manual operation has a shutter lag of around 0.5s, which is annoying but useable.
I then tested different waterproofing techniques for external flashguns, and after a couple of expensive mistakes settled on Tupperware-style containers with a plastic bag inside to contain small leaks.
I expected to then be able to use a normal optical slave to trigger the external flash from the S90, but due to physics that I don't yet understand, these don't work through water, so the final solution was to use optical fibres designed for home audio systems. Neodymium magnets were then attached to the ends of the cables which could couple with steel nuts through the plastic walls of the containers, and camera and flash were then mounted on a standard monopod.
Lead weights in the flash container were used to make the whole unit neutrally bouyant.
Then it was just to drag along some adventurous models to the pool and start shooting. Shutter lag and card-writing speed were a bit of a problem given the limited time the models could pose, but the image quality was fine for these sorts of pictures, and we were all pretty happy with the results, which you can see here :
Last week I picked up my pictures from Edsvik Konsthall where they were partying with new friends in the autumn collection, and now I'm preparing my next personal exhibition, to be held at Ateljé Anna-Karin Sjöblom.
The theme of the studio and exhibition is industrial vintage, so there will be pictures of old mills, rusty tractors, a steam ship's engine room, and the 425-year-old wood plane that you see in the image here. That wasn't in a museum, but in the workshop of my host for the last exhibition in Dalarna, and has been hanging on the wall there since the workshop was built, alongside other wonderful gear that has accumulated over the centuries.
And as you can see, it's one of the many areas of Sweden that is still sepia toned.
Click on the picture to see the rest of the exhibition.
Studios don't suit me very well - they are expensive to rent and need a lot of imagination to build an interesting scene out of four white walls.
So I much prefer location shooting, but still want to have good lighting.
Nikon have long had an excellent remote control system for their pocket flashes - Even back in 2004 the humble D70 could provide wireless automatic exposure for remote flashes using optical signals sent before the shutter opened. That's the system I used to take the portrait of Mia above, which required a surprising number of SB800 flashguns to achieve the natural-looking lighting. Canon have finally caught up, with their latest cameras and flashes sporting similar functions.
But pocket flashes have limited strength (~100J) and long recycling times when used at full power, so when Quantuum came out with a battery-powered studio flash at a fraction of the cost of established brands, I jumped at a 600J unit, and and was so happy with its professional and robust build (it's already survived a 2 metre fall on to asphalt) and its performance (consistent exposure and colour, fast recycling) that I also bought a 300J unit.
With this sort of energy you can overpower direct sunlight even with a large softbox. You lose automatic exposure and your shutter speed is limited to 1/250 s, but in an arranged shot that is not a huge problem, and if you use the Phottix Strato radio trigger you can still get automatic exposure on all your pocket flashes while the studio flash is triggered in manual mode.
My current portable studio fits nicely on to a Golf trolley (Prestige Europe GC510) so I can walk with it out into the countryside, tow it behind my bike, or take it on public transport.
Just a few days ago I heard about external battery packs from Pixel that can recharge an SB800 in under 2 seconds after discharging at full power, and costs a quarter of Nikon's own version (thanks Johan!). I ordered immediately and got mine the next day, and it's brilliant - neatly designed and robust, with a belt case and a tripod screw so you can mount under the camera if you wish. With the flash set to around 1/4 power you can take motordrive sequences with no noticeable falloff of power. So then of course I needed a motordrive for my D700....
I bought a cheap noname brand that has all the features of the Nikon MB-D10 for a quarter of the price. It may be plastic, but I don't think I will break 4 of them before I would break one Nikon. Here's a pic from a sequence that I took with the motordrive and two juiced up SB800s :
I think Ormen would do just as much damage to an MB-D10 if he screwed up here.
The next step in flash control would be to replace the optical wireless system with TTL radio control, to avoid problems in bright light and round corners.
PocketWizard make the TT5, but that is expensive and the principle of intercepting electronic signals between camera and flash just seems wrong and unnecessarily complex.
Pixel have the king, which is cheap copy of the TT5 and seems to have issues.
Phottix, however, make the Odin, which has a transmitter that behaves like an SU800 and seems to me like it is much more intuitive to use. Plus it's cheaper. But still not cheap, since you still need a receiver for each flash. But it's on my wish list.
My wish came true ! I now have a set of Odins that do everything I'd hoped, and more. The transmitter looks and behaves just like an SU800, with the addition of zoom control for the remote flashes, so it's very intuitive, but the amazing thing is that they also allow me to sync with dumb studio flashes at a shutter speed of up to 1/8000 s, which I'm sure violates some physical laws, but I'm not going to press charges. Did I mention that I rather like these devices ?
And the toys just keep coming... Now I have a Godox Witstro 360 flashgun, which is a large pocket flash, or a very small battery powered studio flash, depending on how you look at it. It gives 360 J of energy, so 4 times the power of an SB800, and has a USB remote control for flash power. I love this too !
It recycles fast enough that at 1/16 power (equivalent to 1/4 power on an SB800), it can keep up with my Nikon D810 shooting continuously at full speed.
Now I have two Godox AD360s that I remote control through the FT16 triggers. The second one is a mark-II, which has TTL control, which is great for shooting sport.
And now I have two Godox AD200s. They have 1 stop less power than the AD360s, but much smaller, making it feasible to have a complete studio on my back.
If I need to overpower the sun, I can use both into an umbrella. I really love them.
During March I will be having some pictures on display at Gottsunda Biblioteket along with Eva Triumf and Saska Björck, who constitute Hovmästarna, a group dedicated to celebrating horses through painting, photography and poetry.
The focus of the exhibition is the horses in Hågadalen, a valley near where I live, and through which I walk most days. There are several stables in the valley, and most days at least one of the horses is looking photogenic, so I have several thousand images from the last year alone. Of those I'm trying to pick out my favorite 30. It's not easy, because they are all so cute.
The opening is Saturday, March 5th, and the exhibition continues under March 23rd. More details here : Hovmästarna