How I became a freelance Photographer

How I became a freelance Photographer

“How did you become a photographer?” she asked.

I was standing in a crowded room with 2 cameras hanging around my neck – my Canon DSLR and my Canon Mirrorless. I’d spent the past 4 days skirting around large groups of people, taking photos of speakers and events at the New York Travel Festival.

The woman who was curious about my profession had noticed me floating around the festival. As I thought about the answer I would give, it occurred to me that becoming a freelance photographer happened almost accidentally for me.

I explained to her that I’ve actually spent most of the past year building up my reputation as a freelance social media manager, but that type of work has been harder to come by. There are loads of people who want to become social media managers (who wouldn’t want to spend all day on Instagram?) and as a result, companies can get an unpaid intern to do the job.

Photography is a whole different story. There aren’t nearly as many people who try to become photographers, which is strange seeing as nearly everyone has access to a smartphone with a fairly decent camera. You’d think that we’d all get good at photography, but this is totally not the case.

Being a photographer takes a lot more than owning a camera and pointing it at pretty things. It takes thought and planning to get the perfect shot. It takes a knowledge of how to manipulate light. It takes someone who can use a DSLR on manual mode, because sometimes auto just isn’t good enough.

I’ve considered myself good at photography for a few years now, but I never really expected that I would become a freelance photographer. That was always a career that I thought would be way too difficult to get in to.

But instead, while I was struggling to get work as a social media manager, photography jobs pretty much fell into my lap. Here’s the story of how I became a freelance photographer!

Albany Tulip Festival

Tulip photo at the Albany Tulip Festival 2016

My first photography gig was one that I was invited to interview for on Upwork, which kind of turned into a disaster.

The company (who I won’t name) hired me to document the Albany Tulip Festival last May. I sent off a few emails asking exactly what kind of photos they were after but received no response, so I used my best judgement and took a few hundred photos, hoping that the company would be happy with them.

After they received the photos, they told me that they couldn’t use any that had people’s faces in them. Well, that ruled out about half of the photos I took, but luckily I still had plenty more to offer.

Then, they asked me to identify each of the flowers I’d photographed for the captions. Now, I tried. I really did. But do you know how difficult it is to identify tulips from vague descriptions on the internet? I ended up having to tell them that I just couldn’t do it. I was no florist.

If only I had known what they wanted before I took the train up to Albany, it would have made things a million times easier. I don’t blame myself for this disaster as I did try multiple times to contact them, but it certainly didn’t make me feel good about myself as a freelance photographer.

Grabr Collection, Necklace

Product photo for the Grabr curated collection

My next photography gig came up only a few months later when I spotted a post in a Facebook Group for Travel Writers in NYC. A travel and lifestyle blogger was compiling a curated collection of products on behalf of Grabr and was after a photographer to take some good product photos.

I offered my services, and we spent half a day photographing 12 items which included jewellery, fashion accessories, stationery, and beauty products. She was so impressed with the photos I took that she asked me to do continue capturing photos of her to post online. I’ve been acting as her Instagram photographer her ever since.

She had some friends ask who was doing her photography, and this led to her recommending me to another NYC travel blogger who needed some similar photos.

NYTravFest 2017

African dance performance photo at NYTravFest 2017

My most recent photography gig was covering the New York Travel Festival. I got this job by applying for a social media manager role for the festival (I can’t remember exactly where I saw the ad, I think it might have been in that Facebook Group that I mentioned earlier). I got the job and ended up managing the @nytravfest Instagram account for the months leading up to the festival.

The festival organiser had looked at my Instagram account when considering me for the role and noted that I had a good eye for photography. He asked me if I was interested in photographing the festival as well.

Being the official photographer for the 4 day festival was a huge learning curve. I had photographed festivals before but never something on this scale. It was great to experiment with which angles looked best to get photos of the speakers as well as which camera gear I needed to use in certain situations. I feel much more confident about my skills as a festival or event photographer now!

NYTravFest 2017

Taiko drum performance photo at NYTravFest 2017

my Tips for becoming a photographer:

  • Create an online portfolio of your photos. It can be an Instagram account or a simple website that shows off your best work to people who might hire you. I have an online portfolio that I update every few months as well as my Instagram account which I update daily.
  • Update your resume + LinkedIn profile, even if you don’t have any professional experience as a photographer. When I first started, I listed the times that I had done photography in any sort of professional manner (such as taking photos of PVDfest in Providence), even when I wasn’t paid for it.
  • Stock up on the right gear. This might be expensive, but you just can’t be taken seriously as a photographer if you don’t have a decent camera and a few lenses at the very least. If you need some ideas on what to get, here’s my guide to photography gear.
  • Follow some great photographers on social media. I follow loads of Instagram accounts that post amazing shots, and this allows me to constantly study what great photos look like.
  • Practice, practice, practice. Just like any other skill, photography technique will get better with practice. Take your camera out every weekend and try something new with your photography – eventually you’ll get good at it. You could also do a photography course (there are some great ones on Creative Live) if you want someone to teach you a few key skills.
  • Be prepared to start small. Your first few jobs probably won’t pay much, and that’s ok – it’s good to get some practice and experience under your belt, and then raise your prices later.

Are you an aspiring freelance photographer? What kind of photography would you like to do? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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11 Responses to “How I became a freelance Photographer”

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      It’s so interesting that you had a similar experience with Upwork, Juliette. I actually haven’t really used the platform since then because of that one bad experience!

      And I agree, it’s always interesting to read other people’s career stories. I thought somebody might be interested in hearing mine 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Same for me, Lydia! I’m hoping that I’ll be able to make it my career sometime in the future 🙂 I’m really glad you found my story inspiring!

  1. Katie

    Funnily enough I kinda fell into being a Social Media Manager without really meaning to – it’s about 80% of my role as a Virtual Assistant now! I would actually really like to get more into editing and inbox management but I do enjoy Pinterest management. Well done with the Photography work! I did one photography gig as an Assistant Photographer for a Conference around minority youth in New Mexico and I really loved the experience.

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Oh, that’s so interesting, Katie! It’s strange how different people’s experiences are – I know of plenty of people who have work as freelance social media managers but somehow I just can’t seem to get into it myself. I’m glad you’ve had the opportunity to do some freelance photography work, too! How did you get that gig at the conference?

  2. Joel Figueroa

    Great post, Ashlea! I just recently started my own travel/photography blog. This has really been a fluid process, but I am leaning towards focusing (no pun intended) on taking my photography from hobby to freelancer and, like you mentioned in a comment above, maybe professional. I enjoyed reading your journey and will use it as inspiration to continue forward. Thanks! -Joel

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Thanks Joel! It’s great that you’ve started a photography blog – best of luck turning your hobby into a job! 🙂

  3. Tanja

    Great article! What kind of business did you open in the beginning? I just followed you on instagram 🙂


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