5 Things Creative Freelancers Should Know Before Entering a Competitive Market

Aug 25, 2017 | Stephen Jackson

Freelancing can be daunting. But hey, you already knew that. However, if you’re a creative professional looking to make it on your own, then you understand the challenges that “livin’ the dream” as a self-employed powerhouse all too well. Unlike say, a freelance web developer who enjoys relatively high (and widely agreed upon) standard rates and an endless supply of work, those versed in the arts of writing, graphic design, videography, and photography face a different set of obstacles that can be distilled into a simple question:

How do I turn a consistent profit in a wildly competitive and, at times, undervalued market?

In order to shed some light on this issue, I spoke with Zoe Lonergan, a professional photographer who’s lived in San Francisco since 2008, and has spent much of her time since then successfully freelancing in what some consider to be the most creative city in the U.S.

So, what has Lonergan been doing right? Let’s take a look at some useful tips that can apply not just to professional shutterbugs but those working in other creative fields, too.

Make It Personal

Lonergan stresses the need to keep personal projects alive amidst professional ones and to target clients whose needs match your desired portfolio. “Work on personal projects and portfolio shoots, keep inspired, and keep challenging yourself to create work without the limitations of creating for a client,” she says. “Don’t shoot only for clients, shoot for yourself as well… experiment and fail, create a body of work you want to be hired to create. During a shoot, challenge yourself to keep going. Shoot what the client needs, and when that’s done, shoot some for yourself. Document your own life with the same passion and fervor as you would for a client.”

She also suggests that if you’re a photographer, build your portfolio by shooting people you know in your free time. The more comfortable you are with your subjects, the more risks you’ll be willing to take creatively.

Build A Collaborative Network

Rather than seeing other freelancers as direct competition, Lonergan believes it’s important to connect with other creatives working in similar industries. She says to offer help when you can, pass along clients if you think they’d be a better fit for one of your colleagues, and feel free to lean on these people yourself. In fact, much of the wisdom she shared with me came from her contemporaries over the years. “Be willing to pass on your knowledge and share your experience with others,” says Lonergan. “Don’t work in a bubble. Collaborate, and have others cull your work or curate your website. It’s hard to be objective about your own work, and being a freelancer can be isolating.”

Let The World Be Your Muse

“Try not to be too influenced by other people’s work; rather, look for inspiration elsewhere,” she says. As a photographer, she often gets new ideas by paying attention to the world around her. “I get lots of inspiration when I travel, when I’m out in nature, when I meet someone new, or when I’m with inspiring friends. In fact, I draw lots of inspiration observing the connections between different people. When I’m at my computer, I keep a folder on my desktop or on Pinterest, and when I’m out and about, I collect interesting objects in real life. Basically, you should always be collecting inspiring things.”

Know Your Value

Lonergan warns against taking on jobs that don’t pay enough, as they often result in difficult clients with high expectations who will either be unhappy in the end or refer you to other clients with similarly low budgets. “Don’t undercharge to win a job. Know your value, know the market,” says Lonergan. “Be comfortable with rejection and be willing to turn down jobs that may not be a good fit. People don’t always feel comfortable sharing pricing information so it can be hard to know what to charge, but this is when having a good network or a consultant can help.” If you’re a photographer she also advises learning more about licensing, usage rights, and how to build these factors into your rates.

Be Patient

“Be prepared to work hard. It seems to take a few years of a lot of hard work before you might start to see the results,” says Lonergan. “Try to find a way to have some time for yourself, your family and your friends.” She warns that developing bad habits when it comes to the work/life balance can lead to early burnout among freelancers. However, Lonergan points out that in order to be successful, you need to prepare to make sacrifices in your life outside of work, and that not everyone will always understand the amount of time it truly takes to run a successful business on your own.

Lonergan also has a pretty snazzy website that might serve as inspiration for an aspiring freelancer. You can check it out at