Subtle Sensor Case: Life as a freelance photographer

For the high-quality PDF version of this piece please click here!

Hi, I’m Dan, I’m 33 years old and I run a freelance photography business called

Subtle Sensor Photography. I’ve been working as a photographer since 1999

and officially set up the business in Newcastle in 2004. I specialise in

conference and corporate event photography but over the last ten years I’ve

also photographed everything from a keyboard recycling facility through lap

dancer portfolios to vinyl car wrapping and international exhibitions.

Here’s some examples of my work to show you that I am actually pretty good

and it’s not all talk:

I first got into photography in my early teens when a family member gave me

an old SLR camera and lens. Initially I was photographing what I thought were

‘quirky juxtapositions’ that were by-products of our culture; things like a

beautiful meadow with an industrial plant in the background, or a wild flower

flourishing on a rubbish dump. I soon learned, however, that this is what most

people start out photographing and I wasn’t being as creative and original as I

thought!

As my knowledge of the craft expanded, I became more interested in

documenting natural and man-made beauty. So anything from a beautiful sky

or seascape to a stunning piece of architecture or civil engineering became my

focus. I love making images of coastal landscapes and I’m fascinated by

bridges.

After 6th form, I enrolled on a photography BTEC at Newcastle College. It was a

2 year course aimed at producing photographers capable of securing work in

the contemporary market. That sounded good to me but, as it turned out, it

was mainly geared towards the fashion industry, an area I wasn’t interested in.

Not to be deterred, I simply rewrote every brief to suit my own needs; so I was

still mastering the techniques required from the project but the focus was on

landscapes and glamour models rather than clothes fashion models. Here’s an

example of how I turned an assignment about making a low-key fashion

editorial into an opportunity to photograph a naked girl at sunset:

I would also spend my weekends riding my motorbike to new cities and

photographing the architecture and anything else I liked the look of. It was a

period of rapid learning but when I look back at those pictures, most of it was

crap! The best set of images came from a little coastal village in Scotland,

called Elgin. In fact, the picture above was taken there (although the model was

shot in the college studio and Photo-shopped in afterwards).

At the end of the first year, there was a recruitment session for Cruise Ship

photography. I saw the poster: “Do you like Sun, Sea, Sand and Photography?

Then come work on a Cruise Ship” and decided to apply.

The cruise ships proved to be a far better education on what it’s like to work as

a photographer. Using a camera all day everyday, for all sorts of different

shoots; from tourist snaps and child portraits to weddings and firework

displays, enabled a much greater familiarity with the tools of my trade – which I

still benefit from to this day.

When I got back to Newcastle, I went to Newcastle University to study

philosophy (another love of mine) where I graduated with a 1st class honours

degree – and £15,000 of credit card debt (I’d developed a spending habit on the

cruise ships).

I was working as a nightclub photographer while studying because this

exploited the same skills I’d learned on the cruise ships (mainly confidence,

flirting and fast-paced photography). Nightclub photography is actually a

difficult skill to master but I thoroughly enjoyed it and currently have what has

been described as the world’s best nightclub photography tutorial on my blog,

but more on that later.

Shooting nightclubs pays less today than it did ten years ago and I could see

the trend of falling rates was not going to get me out of debt, so I moved to

London and became an aircraft engineer. That’s a whole other story but I

mention it here because the photography contacts I made while living in

London proved very useful and I still get a lot of work from people I met while

there.

It was in London that I got into conference and exhibition photography; I was

staying with a family where the husband worked in this field and, after seeing

my portfolio, he started taking me along on jobs. I learned a different set of soft

skills; how to be unassuming and discreet, and how to work with corporate

clients rather than drunk students and nervous models.

Above all, what I learned was that it’s extremely difficult to make money

photographing the things that I like (models and landscapes) because those are

highly desirable niches with only a few key players – it’s like the rock star

fantasy of photography, only with a far lower earning capacity even at the top

end. So I refocussed my outlook on providing a service that was both needed

and valued. That left me with basically two options: corporate services or

weddings.

I didn’t like the idea of weddings because you’re constantly pitching; your

clients don’t come back next year and ask you to shoot another wedding, you

just have to keep finding new clients. Whereas, if you’re any good in the

corporate sector, you can secure regular clients who come back maybe two or

three times a year. Plus I was gaining a robust corporate portfolio so I wouldn’t

have to start from scratch.

Except that I hated London and wanted to move back to Newcastle, so I would

almost have to start from scratch back home!

There is far less conference work in Newcastle and the recession was in full

swing but London is bad for the soul, so I decided to give it a go anyway. I

didn’t have much money to spend on outbound marketing, so I decided the

best plan was to build a great website that would rank well in Google, ensuring

people could find me. Unlike wedding photographers, there are not a whole lot

of specialist corporate photographers in Newcastle, so hopefully topping the

search listings wouldn’t be too hard.

To cut a long story short, I wasted a lot of money paying inexperienced web

designers (of which there is an abundance these days. My advice: stay away!)

to build a site that looked okay but wouldn’t rank. Finally, getting frustrated

with other people’s failures at my expense, I learned how to use WordPress and

built my own website. Say what you like about how it looks; I don’t begin to call

myself a designer, but I seem to have a natural flair for writing copy that

appeals to both humans and search engines.

Today, if you search using the key phrases I intend to rank for –

Freelance/Corporate/Conference Photographer, Newcastle – then you’ll usually

see me occupying at least 1 of the top three organic results. I’ve tried paying

for Google and LinkedIn ads but I find it’s more effective to just write good

content.

That nightclub photography tutorial I mentioned earlier was one of my best

decisions. I don’t work as a nightclub photographer any more but the sheer

popularity of this piece and the amount of comments and links to it has

increased the perceived authority of my website as a whole, making it easier to

top the search listings with the rest of my content.

Being the top ranker on Google is a holy grail that many snake-oil content

marketers are getting rich from but the truth is, it’s not all roses. I’d say 80% of

the contact I get via the website is sales calls, 16% is spam and only 4% are

potential clients, of which only about 2% convert into customers and less than

half that bring repeat business. Not great statistics but all it cost me was the

time taken to learn Word Press and build the site, plus standard web hosting

costs. I’ve experimented with expensive marketing schemes and those have

had virtually no impact on bookings.

As I said, I still get a lot of work from contacts I made in London but those jobs

involve travelling to London or Birmingham and working at a reduced rate, so

my focus has been on building my own client base.

Ranking high in Google helps but you also need a bit of luck and a strong

portfolio as most corporate clients are wary of trying someone new. My first

stroke of luck came when HeartUK were holding a conference in Newcastle. The

cholesterol charity hold an annual conference at different venues around the

UK. They use a small, close knit events company who usually hire a snapper

from the host city, to cut down on travel and accommodation costs.

They emailed me because I’m easy to find on Google, we agreed a fee and they

booked me. A combination of providing high quality work, with a quick

turnaround and a transparent organisational structure, as well as being

personable and courteous to their team and the delegates, left them so

impressed that they asked me to cover the event the following year in Bristol,

and then again in Warwick and so on.

So, it was a strong web presence that lead to the contact, an easy and friendly

communication style that allowed them to trust me with the work, and a polite,

professional approach to the job that secured future bookings. A big conference

like this uses only about 5 or 6 images out of the thousands shot and, while the

quality of my work is important, I really believe it was the soft skills that lead to

the repeat bookings.

My second major repeat client was a similar story, except that they found me

on LinkedIn rather than via a search site. I’ve actually had a few clients reach

me via LinkedIn even though, as far as social networks go, I’m not very active

on there.

Advanced Business solutions is a firm specialising in accountancy software,

they have bases in Gateshead and London and they initially hired me to

photograph a 2 day conference. Once again, they were impressed with my

work, the speed at which I delivered the images and the personable way in

which I conducted myself. These clients hire me direct, they don’t use an

events company (which is unusual in my line of work) and that makes it easy

for them to use me for other jobs, such as corporate head-shots, on an ad hoc

basis.

I tried attending networking events but that didn’t work for me. In hindsight, I

think if I’d viewed them simply as an opportunity to socialise (working for

myself makes the staff Christmas party rather dull), then I may have found

them less frustrating and, maybe over the long haul, gained some clients. As it

stands, most of my enquiries come from social media or search sites, which is

not surprising given that I don’t do a lot of marketing!

One area where networking has worked is with other photographers; the guys

in London are one example but here in Newcastle I’m friendly with a number of

other photographers and we often pass jobs to our ‘competitors’ if we feel they

would do a better job. The good thing about Newcastle is that nobody treats it

like a dog-eat-dog, zero-sum game up here – which is weird because there is

definitely more competition and less work up North!

My favourite client was referred to me by another photographer. He’d been

approached by a vinyl wrapping company, Custom Coats, to photograph an

Austin Martin which had been treated with a matte black wrap. He felt this was

beyond his skills but I’d photographed cars before and he recommended me.

My rates are higher than the colleague who’d recommended me, so I didn’t

expect to get the job, let alone get repeat business from it but, once again, the

client was impressed with my open and honest communication and we got on

well on set. In this instance, the final image is what tipped him into booking me

for other work; he decided he wanted his office to be decorated with high

quality pictures of his workmanship.

Life as a a freelance photographer has it’s challenges. Not the least of those is

staying motivated! When I don’t have a boss giving me deadlines and praising

me for good work, then I tend to struggle. Obviously on the job, the client plays

the role of my boss but it’s hard to keep on top of the stuff in between; doing

the accounts, maintaining the website, trying new marketing strategies – even

chasing up invoices. None of that stuff is ‘fun’ so it takes effort to keep plugging

away at it.

A common problem among photographers is artist’s insecurity: there’s an

element of creativity in all of the work and with that comes a general

dissatisfaction with one’s work. I think this is what spurs artist’s to keep

producing and improving but it often doesn’t feel like a positive experience.

By far the biggest challenge comes from living in a world with regular bill

payments when you’re not making a regular wage. I’m not particularly

motivated by money and I’m inclined to pass a job to a fellow photographer if it

doesn’t interest me (if I’m not interested, I’m not likely to deliver the best

possible service), or if the fee is too small (again, it’s hard to deliver your best

work if you start out feeling undervalued). The upshot of this is that my earning

profile is erratic. Also, over the last three years it seems the recession has

migrated from London to the North and my turnover has been steadily falling.

Unfortunately, this has meant I’ve had to take part time work to meet my

regular bill payments. I opted for night-shifts because they pay better and,

technically, leave me available to accept jobs through the day. In reality, I sleep

most of the day and spend so much of my ‘free’ time struggling to adjust my

sleeping pattern that it’s having a negative effect on my business.

Suffice it to say, the challenge of bringing in a regular income as a freelancer is

not one I’ve yet mastered and I’m still looking at ways to achieve the best

balance; the part-time job is boring and repetitive but it does pay the bills. The

photography business cannot (yet) be relied upon to cover my bills but it does

afford me some great life experiences and some images I can be proud of. For

instance; one of my first jobs was providing a pole dancer with a fresh portfolio

to take to LA and it was a privilege to meet a girl with such great body

confidence; at this year’s World Travel Market exhibition in London, I found

myself photographing an impromptu Romanian carnival show; and two years

ago I had the best time photographing my friend’s wedding and was rewarded

with some great images of them in a golden field at the end of a rainbow. Not

to mention a youth spent shooting nightclubs, festivals and Caribbean beaches.

One of the best experiences I had came off the back of doing a favour for my

Mam. She is a yoga teacher and has branched out into running foreign retreats.

I attended her first retreat in Italy to get some images to promote further yoga

holidays. While there, I also photographed the villa we were staying in and the

surrounding landscape. Later, I emailed some pictures to the villa’s manager

and she was so impressed she bought a usage license and booked me to come

back and do a full architectural portfolio of the accommodation.

Architecture is something I love to photograph but it’s a difficult field to break

into, so it was gratifying to have my work appreciated in this way, especially as

I had not done it with the intention of converting a new client. They even

invited me back again to photograph their new conference facilities.

On balance then, I’d say the challenges and difficulties involved with running

my own business are worth the effort. Even if the business fails, I have a better

set of memories and experiences than I would have if I’d gone into retail or call

centre work (two of Newcastle’s biggest sectors). If you’d like to help me create

some more good memories, you can book me at Subtle Sensor Photography.