The Freelance quest….life as a photographer

Over the next few weeks I will be publishing a couple of features I have written in the past for various photographic magazines..I hope you enjoy reading them!

The freelance quest

Sitting alone, in a studio on a summer’s day without any immediate workload.  It is times like this it really kicks home about the choices that have been made. It’s far too easy to feel quite alone and get caught up in the sometimes quite insular world of a freelance photographer.

We wait, with baited breath, hoping to be picked out of the pool for that wonderful, fun exciting commission.

During my years as a photographic student, one of my tutors gave me a realistic insight into the world of a photographer. He explained that life wouldn’t ever be easy and that it’s important to enjoy the work I was planning to undertake, and, more importantly, remember in photographic terms what makes me happy.

As Photographers we try our best to create images which please people, whether that be picture editors, a happily married couple or Joe public in the street.  We’re drifting from client to client waiting for the next email or call to confirm work or to give us that big break, or to enable us to pay the mortgage that month.

The past four years since going completely self employed has been a tremendous journey. Not only has my photography progressed significantly I would also say it’s been one of the toughest periods of my life. Sure I wouldn’t actually change much right now, but sometimes being a photographer hurts.

Taking that first leap to become self employed was a massive step for me and is for anyone. I had been working as a medical photographer since graduation, but was frustrated with the lack of opportunities and lack of creative edge this profession was giving me. I made the leap, a leap which was scary but massively needed for my own development. Within a few short months I was in the freelance pool, developing my portfolio and bidding for commissions. It was at this point I proceeded to do the fatal freelance photographers mistake by creating a portfolio book that I thought was what would sell, and what people wanted to see. If you go down this route you will naturally pick up a few jobs along the way, but in the end it leads to complex issues and you could end up backing yourself into a corner.

Perhaps it was pressure, perhaps it was naivety, but I started getting work which just didn’t do it for me on a professional basis. I had literally done the classic thing of accepting work to simply the pay the bills, instead of creating an image, a reputation or a style.  It was too easy to pickup regular work for low circulation publications or those which didn’t pay well. I was essentially panicking and just grabbing anything that came my way.


It wasn’t until one of my major clients at the time went bankrupt owing me several thousand pounds, that I actually took a step back and thought about what I was doing and how unhappy I was with the work I was producing.

I was essentially lost in the freelance pit. Once in that pit, it’s terribly difficult to get out of it too!

During a few weeks of severe struggle and sleepless nights I put together a firm business plan, a plan of what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go. Now, I’m not going to say for one moment that the plan has completely worked, I would be lying if I said that, but it has helped me re assess and re focus my photographic career.

It will never be easy either.  Creating a book of new images in a style that you want to do, to show art directors or discuss with potential clients takes balls. It relies on the client actually appreciating your style and sharing in your vision. Now, this isn’t always going to happen, but sometimes it does. And when that client gives you a commission based on that work, it is a real sense of triumph.

Naturally this is only half the story, in reality it’s never quite that simple, but one resounding factor that every freelance photographer should bear in mind, is to have the bravery and balls to stand up and say NO. It doesn’t hurt to turn down that low paid job, or the job which doesn’t really fit with the whole image and creative work you’re shooting. In fact, from my experience, picture editors and art directors actually have a huge respect for photographers who turn down work because it’s not ‘their style’.

Once I had re-evaluated my direction and future intentions I was like a new photographer, working with a buzz, a smile and more importantly a head full of fresh exciting ideas. My images had changed, I was no longer in a desperate hunt for any work, I was being picky and it felt good.

I redefined myself as a social documentary photographer, and it is a style which has helped me to carve out a small niche for my photography and one which I am slowly getting recognised for.

The key, I believe, to longevity in the photographic market is passion, belief, happiness and having a plan. I’ve seen too many photographers miserable and going through the motions. It will never be easy, and certainly with the slow demise of print publishing, dropping incomes and the vastness of such companies such as Getty, life as a photographer is bound to be a tough one, but where would the fun be if it was all easy!

Having sorted a style that is your own and you are happy with, the next must do is to compose and adjust the business plan. This is the part where a lot of photographers fall. It’s tough putting together a business plan, especially when most photographers aren’t particularly good business people. But essential it most certainly is. Not only does it help in the financial predictions and calculations for your growth, but it becomes a motivational aid and a point of reference for future expansion.

You will find the plan will set out the goals and aspirations, and will further help focus on the intentions. Once that goal is set out, it becomes easier to see it. The business structure of the photography is crucial. Get this right and as long as your photography continues to impress, you will be on the right path.

Clients like photographers who are defined about what they want and have a style they can recognise, and once you’ve got that client hang on to them. It is always worth remembering that 75 percent of the work comes from about 25 percent of the clients. Building long term successful relationships is key to surviving in this tough ever changing industry.

About Julian Claxton

My passion for photography is supported by experiences gained on exciting travel adventures and through working for fantastic photographers. In 2006, I made the exciting step of realising my dream of becoming a freelance photographer. Since this pivotal moment, I have held numerous exhibitions, been featured nationally & internationally in print and won numerous awards, including being a finalist in the National Geographic Photographic competition in 2013 with one of my documentary images from the Sudan. From an early age I began to enjoy taking pictures of my daily life, basking in the thrill of sending the film to the printers and eagerly awaiting the pocket sized prints. My first foray into the world developing and printing strangely began at school when I was asked to produce a descriptive photo for the school newspaper. A front page shot later and I was destined to start the long arduous journey of becoming a photographer. In between exciting travel adventures and working for fantastic photographers, I graduated from college and at a crossroads in my journey to becoming a pro photographer, I embarked on a career working as a medical photographer. Learning new skills and dabbling in video production as well as progressing design skills, I yearned for the challenge and freedom of becoming a freelance. I have been fortunate enough to work on some amazing assignments which have included shooting a documentary assignment with an air ambulance, gaining full access to a British Pro cycling team during an international UCI tour, cycling to Rwanda and creating a photographic documentary of my journey. The experiences continue to grow, meeting wonderful people to photograph and telling the story of their journey. The list of events and striking moments that have played out through my viewfinder continue to grow and provide me with ever increasing snapshots of life to capture. One of the highlights of my career thus far has been staying in rural Uganda, teaching photography to the kids from the region, in a project I set up in late 2014, entitled ‘Give a child a camera’. The basis of the project is to supply 35mm cameras and film to the rural schools in this region of East Africa, teaching the children how to shoot photographs. After a week of taking photos of their life, an exhibition is held at the school and the children leave with their very own album, camera and film. One of the images I shot at Eden school in rural Uganda, during morning chapel won the 2015 Travel Media Tourism and Photography award. A great honour and one that I wouldn’t have picked up had it not been for the wonderful children of East Africa. For further information please visit
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