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full time freelance - how much capital should i have?

Hi there, I am working since a while on the plan of doing freelance photography full time. But one of the reasons that I did not do it yet is a lack of funding. From your own experience, what would you suggest how much should I save up to have a smooth start?

by Christian Berg at 2010-07-25 11:00:11 UTC | Bookmark | | Report spam→

That is a nearly impossible question to answer, Christian. There are some young photographers who are essentially homeless and live mostly by the generosity of friends (in some instances girl or boy friends, or spouses!). That has been a pattern in photography, in fact, and not just for people starting out. Eugene Smith died with less than $20 in money (he had a pretty valuable archive, though). It just depends on what you can live on, which is determined in part by where you live. And there is no certainty when you will have any money coming in, if at all. Many don’t get anything of significance for months and it can even be years before you earn enough to sustain yourself (and even that will almost certainly be a meager existence).

Most freelancers starting out have part time jobs and work at photography part time, trying to build their client base. Others take a full time job, live like monks and save everything until they can’t stand it any more, then quit and take off. But in the end it is a very hard transition, and in the end most do not make it. If you are truly sure enough of yourself, go forward with vigor.

But remember one thing…you’ve got to be a really good photographer to survive these days in the freelance world. If you are not there yet, then continue to dream but get your skills built first.

by [former member] | 25 Jul 2010 12:07 | Washington, DC, United States | | Report spam→
I think we should start a list of the funniest questions ever asked on LS and vote. Winner gets an answer.

by [former member] | 25 Jul 2010 17:07 | Bangkok, Thailand | | Report spam→
Serious question deserves a serious answer. Cash flow is a very important part of any small business and it’s one that to this day heckles me from the rafters. Having cash on hand to help you fund shoots and continue to work while waiting to receive payment for the work you have done is a major advantage and one that will set you apart from many a want to be photographers who haven’t thought carefully enough about the business side of photography.

I can’t answer from the perspective of a photojournalist as I realized a long time ago that if I was going to survive in photography I had to give up the romantic notion of being a globe trotting photojournalist. As a freelance photographer I can say the bare minimum you will need to sustain your business after it has been established is 4 to 6 times your monthly cost of business. That includes any outlays you will make for photoshoots and any expences that you expect to be reimbursed for in the future. From my experience it takes my non editorial clients approximately 4 months from shooting to transfer payment into my account. Editorial clients are better and worse. Most of the time I am outlaying my own money to produce the shoots, that includes studio and equipment rentals, assistants, transportation costs and all support costs.

If I have a particulary busy period and I outlay all my cash on hand to do all the shoots I have booked I have no option but to stop accepting work. Once I can no longer fund it I’m stuck and have to shut down and wait out payment.

I know a photographer who from the same position had a little “family encouragement” and have been able to float himself with a hundred thousand pounds to keep his business running. Wisely he never used any of the money to buy new equipment or take off to exotic locations on a whim and instead left it in the bank to act as the solution to his cash-flow concerns. His career has taken off because he can afford to continue shooting no matter how busy he becomes.

Neil’s advice is great, the only thing I would dissagree with is that you need to be a really great photographer these days to survive. Persoanally I think your skills as a photographer only account for 10% your chance of success (hense the bitterness on lightstalkers) The better you are at figuring out the busiess, how to get paid for shooting photographs and to survive at it over the long term the better chance you have at making a go of it.

by [former member] | 25 Jul 2010 22:07 (ed. Jul 31 2010) | Tokyo, Japan | | Report spam→
You don’t specify what kind of freelance photography? A wedding photographer, or architectural photographer, for example, will get up and running, (assuming good work and marketing skills), a lot faster than a photojournalist. 100% editorial almost bankrupted me 15 years ago because I was putting expenses on plastic and getting paid months later. Now I have a more sustainable mix. But a short answer to the point of “how much”, I’d say $5000 a month for a minimum of 6 months, in the bank or available. More if you are based in a major city.

by Joel Sackett | 26 Jul 2010 00:07 | Puget Sound, Washington, United States | | Report spam→
I agree that this is actually a really good question! Cashflow is crucial to any news business and assets are crucial to help you weather the inevitable storms that come. In the long term the answer is save cash where you can and get yourself a good base to work from. But the answer to your Q is really dependent on your personal situation. Are you prepared to slum it or do you like your creature comforts or do you already have commitments/responsibilities?

I originally switched to photo from telly in the mid 90’s because I was frustrated by not being able to work on my own stories – this was long before HDV weeny-cams and cutting film on a laptop made documentary filmmaking affordable. My conceit was that for the price of a few rolls of film and a plane ticket I could produce the stories that interested me and make a living. This more or less worked out for me for a few years, a very hand to mouth existence, but like so many other photographers starting out I had little more than a bag of gear, a few changes in clothes and a network of friends with floors that I could kip on. If you are prepared to work like this, then you don’t need a lot of cash in the bank to start your business. The real advantage of this approach is that you are free and you can dedicate yourself to your work and better still base yourself where the stories are happening.

If, however, you are married with kids and have rent or a mortgage to pay etc., you will need much more cash to keep you afloat! (I might add here that if you are planning to be away a lot you will need to marry a saint!)

Photography is like any business, all you are essentially doing is creating and marketing widgets (in this case images or stories) and depending on the stories that you want to cover, your costs need not necessarily be that high. You need to shell out for a basic kit of course, but beyond that, if you prepared to give it ago and you have a support network or you’re prepared to rough it for 6 months and see how you get on, you can probably get by on a $1000/month – or much less if you base yourself somewhere cheap.

But, you will need to spend some cash on marketing your work – and unless you find a really good agency prepared to take you on, marketing your work directly can also cost a lot and drastically cut into the time you spend shooting…



by Andy Johnstone | 26 Jul 2010 07:07 | Toulouse, France | | Report spam→
F#$%!^G heaps….

by lisa hogben | 26 Jul 2010 08:07 | Sydney, Australia | | Report spam→
Thanks a lot everyone for your useful answers. To answer some of the questions that came up:

what kind of photography – photojournalism, documentary, corporate and a bit of wedding
where am I based – Vietnam, cheaper than most places, but things cost money here too ;-)
I have a daytime job right now which enables me to save up some money and at the same time I have around 1 – 2 assignments in the areas listed above per month. no marketing done yet. Also I publish on regular basis in a couple of local magazines.

@ Guilad Kahn – I am happy that I could make you laugh, even though I really can’t see what is funny about this question. Are you living without money? Maybe you can explain your amusement?

by Christian Berg | 26 Jul 2010 09:07 | Ho Chi Minh City, Germany | | Report spam→
I spent a long time assisting and worked with a lot of top end commercial guys as they came through town on large international campaigns. in many ways this distorted my perception of photography and it took me a long time ton set my expectations on more reasonable aspirations.

I think these days that the majority photographers either need to support themselves with a second income or embrace consumer photography in some way. Consumer pays in cash, often before or if not on completion of the job and provides a great way to keep your cash reserves on the healthier side.

I think having two brands is the key, your name for all your editorial and commercial work and a company name for the consumer. Keep your marketing efforts separate and you shouldn’t have too many issues with clients thinking you are not the right type for the job. If your not dreaming of shooting commercial, corporate or high end editorial than go ahead and market the two together.

by [former member] | 26 Jul 2010 12:07 | Tokyo, Japan | | Report spam→
Lots of good answers here already.

And seconding what Nathan said above; if you have different fields of business, i.e. weddings and photojournalism, be careful that you keep them as separate identities, even to the extent of working under pseudonyms. In my experience, alot of people who commission work want someone specialised in that field rather than a generalist/jack-of-all-trades. By all means do weddings, boudoir photography or whatever, but if you want to be a serious photo-journalist keep your portfolios distinct.

As for the money, there are no hard and fast rules. I’d use the rule based on how much you need to survive on for 6 months where you are located for those 6 months. It’s also good to have a regular stream of income from somewhere, so once you have built up a decent library of images look at using some of the more generic ones for sales as prints or via stock libraries. I personally do prints, as I have an aversion to the use of stock; but it’s a matter of taste really.

Good luck.

by Adrian Jones | 28 Jul 2010 21:07 | Strasbourg, France | | Report spam→
It’s a very good question and one that more people should ask.

There are a ton of variables. For example, you say you may do some wedding work which pays fairly well. But you need a portfolio, which can take a long time since you need to book some weddings well in advance or assist, build a book, and eventually work your way up the price structure.

Same goes for corporate work, though you may already have a portfolio of appropriate work which gives you a head start.

As for documentary and PJ, well, the money isn’t great but if you can make some good connections you can make some money relatively quickly, though it will almost certainly not be a consistent or reliable source of income.

Frankly, I’d say have at least a year’s worth of living expenses (rent, utilities, food, etc.) plus some extra cash on hand to fund shoots, travel, etc. Two years would be even better.

If you already have solid portfolios (yes, you need different websites and portfolios for the different types of work), then you have a good head start. Otherwise, it may be smart to work hard and build your body of work before you leave your day job.

Don’t get discouraged (but do be realistic). Good luck!

by Noah Addis | 29 Jul 2010 02:07 | Lima, Peru | | Report spam→
Neal Jackson, your answer is so related to my situation! I colaborate with some magz here in Barcelona with photojournalism work but also do a lot of assisting for commercial photographers. I live with my girlfriend and if it wasn’t for her I would be quitting my dream… I mean you really need some support and people believing on you to keep going the dream of becoming a freelance photojournalist… and probably once you get there you won’t even notice it. My only advice: make a good portfolio and contact as many magazines as you can.

by Julio Arboleda | 30 Jul 2010 11:07 | Barcelona, Spain | | Report spam→
I second Noah for the amount of capital. I checked my finances only yeasterday and how much I spent during the past several months. I still have one year of living expenses, but I realize that I need several thousand Euros extra to do photography plus travel, paying for music tuition, and marketing my multimedia project. I was wondering how I was going to get cash from my stash of photographs which need yet to be digitized.

Originally I was hoping for a bigger amount of capital because I do have a house to sell in the US, but the market seems to be very bad right now. I don`t have a spouse or a boyfriend, but I have a family in Japan who would give me a limited support and my Social Security payments plus yet to be drawing from a private pension fund, neither of which is big, but it looks like my capital beyond my living expenses will come from the pension fund.

Although I am in Vienna, I am in a district somewhat away from the city center, so my living expenses (rent)are not as exorbitant. And I don`t own a car here!! which is one of the major reasons I wanted to get out of the US. There are extra cheap airlines in Europe, and public transportation is good. It is not like living expenses in a developing country, though. Would you believe I paid only 36 Euros for flying from Vienna to Hamburg by a regular airline although the return flight was more expensive? (It was a price reduced from their regular red price because I made a reservation only the night before.) And I am able to get to the airport in about 40 minutes without changing the trains.

by Tomoko Yamamoto | 30 Jul 2010 16:07 (ed. Jul 30 2010) | Vienna, Austria | | Report spam→
Hi everyone, thanks again for your honest answers and suggestions! It is really helpful to see that many are or have been in similar situations. When I started out about 2,5 years ago at a lifestyle magazine for almost no cash and only experience, I was very naive and thought that it is all about being commitment and talent of course, but the longer I was shooting the more i realized that actual funding and understanding of business are the key…

by Christian Berg | 31 Jul 2010 11:07 | Ho Chi Minh City, Germany | | Report spam→

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Christian Berg, Photographer Christian Berg
Hanoi And Northern Vietnam , Vietnam ( HAN )
Joel Sackett, photographer Joel Sackett
Puget Sound, Washington , United States ( AAA )
Andy Johnstone, Photographer Andy Johnstone
Exeter , United Kingdom
lisa hogben, Visualjournalist! lisa hogben
Sydney , Australia
Adrian Jones, Freelance Photographer Adrian Jones
Freelance Photographer
Strasbourg , France
Noah Addis, Documentary Photographer Noah Addis
Documentary Photographer
Philadelphia , United States ( PHL )
Julio Arboleda, Photographer Julio Arboleda
Barcelona , Spain
Tomoko Yamamoto, Multimedia Artist Tomoko Yamamoto
Multimedia Artist
Vienna , Austria


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