Tips from Successful Freelance Photographers to Help You Grow Your Business

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the median pay for a photographer is about $28,490 a year. However, this is one of those fields where some people earn as low as $8.42 an hour and the top 10% earn over $32.21.

If you’re interested in building your freelance photographer career to a level that makes it a sustainable profession for you, you might be wondering:

“How can I make it to the top 10%?”

“What are the secrets of those top earners?”

“I don’t have the same connections people who photograph celebrities have.”

Keep in mind that those top earners all started somewhere. It is very rare for a photographer to start off earning in the top 10%. Instead, they start out small and build their way to the top.

A lot depends on the type of photography you choose. The same BLS report shows that the top earners tend to work in arts, design, entertainment, sports or media occupations. Some types of photographers make their money seasonally. For example, wedding photography peaks in spring and summer.

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Vickie Saewert (pic above), an award-winning professional photographer who lives in southern Indiana has built a successful photography business with both Naturally Vics Photography and Vics Action Shots.

Vickie enjoys taking portraits on her 15-acres of outdoor studio. Her property includes a wide variety of terrains, including waterfalls, rock walls, creeks, a wildflower field, a beach looking area and more.

Although she adores taking portraits, finding pleasure in helping people get a family photo or a senior photo that they adore, the work is seasonal. She shares, “I love portrait photography, but in Indiana it really has a 4 to 5 month life for outdoor photography.”

In order to build a steady income, Vickie has added a sport photography side to her business. “We vacation in Colorado a lot during the winter, and I read years ago that where ever you are you should look for ways to sell what you do there. For instance, I photographed a snowmobile clinic this last winter in Wyoming and a magazine called me last week asking for photos of it. You never know where hard work can take you.”

When it comes to keeping busy in the off-months, Vickie also goes to ball games, networks, shoots anything and everything around. “I study and perfect my trade, go to national conventions, and get inspired.”

In other words, Vickie never just takes a huge chunk of down time. She uses it to grow her business and perfect her craft.

You may be wondering…

“How else can I build my business?”
“What can I do to repeat this success?”

Olympus Trailblazers is a group of 12 successful freelance photographers using Olympus products in their work. Joining a group that works together to promote one another is one way to grow your business. It leads back to the idea of networking and helping one another. Olympus also helps promote them.

Two of the Trailblazers shared some of the secrets to their success with me. Tracie Jean Maglosky, owner of Tracie Jean Photo Studios is a Cincinnati-based wedding photographer. About 10 years ago, she left the corporate world and started her studio because she didn’t want to miss her children growing up.

“I worked for a Fortune 500 Company as one of their top sales representatives. The most important lesson I learned in corporate sales was that it didn’t matter what I was selling, people were buying from me. It made sense that if I could make the company I was working for a virtual fortune by selling their service, then it stood to reason that if I had my own excellent service that I was passionate about, I could do just as well selling for myself in my own business,” said Tracie Jean.

I asked Tracie Jean:

Do you think it’s important to specialize in one area – such as portraits – or is it smarter to have a wider range of projects you can work on?”

Her response:

“I think specializing is smart but, there are genres of photography that work well together. For example, I’m a wedding and portrait photographer. During the winter months when weddings are leaner, holiday photography peaks and takes up the slack.”

I also had the chance to talk to a third photographer, also with the Olympus Trailblazers, and pick her brain a bit for advice on how freelance photographers can grow their businesses.

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Laura Hicks (pic above), a portrait photographer who specializes in wedding and high school senior portraits, runs Laura Hicks Photography out of Cincinnati, Ohio. Laura’s passion for what she does shines through in her attitude and in the beauty of her portraits.

Laura has built a successful freelance photography business by understanding a simple concept about why people choose to work with one photographer over another. “You are your brand! One of the most important things to understand is that people are hiring you for one (or more) of a few reasons: they like your price, they like your product, and/or they like you.”

In fact, most of her business comes from referrals. “I value relationships and foster those relationships by making sure my clients feel appreciated, acknowledged, and respected. I want my clients to love their images, value the experience, and tell their friends how great it is to work with me.”

Studying the business models of these three very successful photographers shows that it is possible to make a living doing something you love. There are some key things to be learned from the success of these women.

1. Use Down Time in a Smart Way

All three of these photographers use the slow periods in their business to learn something new about their craft, attend networking events or build another portion of their business.

  • Figure out what you can photograph inside when the weather outside is bad. Sports events, portraits at local schools, or product shots for company catalogs.
  • Attend trade conferences and learn more about your craft.
  • Plan ahead now for the busy season. Create new backdrops, plan outdoor areas, or get together materials to help you reach out to clients in the spring.

2. Be Prepared for the Lean Times

“The money trickles in, but I use the money I saved from the fall rush to keep me afloat during the winter. It’s just the nature of the business. After nearly 14 years in business, it’s not a surprise,” said Laura Hicks.

  • “To survive the lean times I would advise to stay out of debt and have a low overhead. Sock money away during the exciting ordering months.” – Vickie Saewert
  • “Don’t panic! Everyone has leaner times. It doesn’t mean your prices are too high or that no one likes you. Don’t sacrifice your business model or pricing to get quick, cheap bookings. The only thing worse than no business is bad business!” – Tracie Jean Maglosky
  • Tracie Jean also suggests calling on your current client base. They want to see you succeed, so ask them to refer you to people who need photos.

3. Seek New Clients

If you want to continue to grow your business, you need to seek out new clients. There is a natural flow to a freelance photography business, especially if you do portraits. For example, if you specialize in graduations, your customers likely come to you once for senior portraits, but the next year you will have a new batch of clients.

While you will get some work from younger siblings in the family, it is also key that you also reach out to cousins, friends, and even acquaintances of those you take photos of.

  • Vickie Saewert says that “first you should study the science of photography and don’t just be ‘another’ mom with a camera. Knowing what you are doing will separate you from the crowd.” After “get out in public, volunteer, put out good work and ask for those clients to spread the whord.”
  • Tracie Jean Maglosky shared, “Get out there and get professionals on your side. Do you have hair and make-up artists promoting your work? Are you doing their head shots? Are you teamed up with a cake artist for your cake smashes? Do you have a DJ that just loves you? Are you giving your venues amazing images to use for their own promotional purposes? The best question to ask yourself is, ‘What do I have in my hand?’ The answer is, a camera. Use it!”

Finding True Success

All three of these photographers find that the key to their success is taking pride in their work, honing their craft and putting the focus on their clients. When times get hard, these ladies don’t give up.

Instead, they look at what they can do to improve their work. If you are just starting out on the journey to becoming a freelance photographer, or if you already own a business and just want to grow your client base, keep in mind that you have to work hard and be persistent. With time, your work ethic will pay off.

Image courtesy of adamr at




ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Lisa Stein owns, is a college business professor and a mom to Gabriela and Elle. Lisa is dedicated to playing a part in helping women and moms run a business they love, help support themselves and their family and create a flexible lifestyle. You can find her online on Facebook and Twitter or at home burning something in the kitchen.