Freelancers Need to Be More Than a Photographer


Photography: Sara Rosso

Photography enthusiasts starting to earn money from their images eventually find themselves facing a difficult dilemma. They have to decide whether they should give up a day job that gives them a steady income in favor of a freelance career in which they have to scrabble for commissions. It’s a choice between work they might barely tolerate and a lifetime creating images that make them proud and which others love, between a reliable salary and the risk of hand-to-mouth budgeting. But it’s a choice they might not have to make completely. As stock prices have fallen and art budgets have largely frozen at best, it’s become increasingly difficult to make a living as a photographer. At the same time though, digital technology has made life as a freelancer much easier in a range of different fields. Giving up the day job to become a professional freelance photographer no longer has to mean relying on income from photography alone.

Image credit: Sara Rosso

Sara Rosso, for example, describes herself as a  “writer, photographer, technology lover, and business and digital strategist.” She has a bachelors degree in Managing Information Systems, an MBA in Managing Innovation and Technology, and has worked in technology for Hewlett-Packard and Ogilvy. Since 2003 though, she has been living in Italy where she writes about food, technology and healthy living. She also sells her photographs, sometimes through Getty, sometimes through her own website and she accepts wedding jobs too. While some photographers are choosing to build their brand through specialization and a tightly-defined niche, Sara Rosso is able to live in a beautiful location and make a living with a range of freelance jobs that include and relate to photography.

“I definitely feel we’re in a new Renaissance period characterized by the sheer number of tools available which allow us to indulge our interests and create things – music, photography, books – without anyone’s permission or validation,” she says. “I can’t ignore the more practical side of me which is interested in things like site statistics, financial reporting, and money-making experimentation – I love it, actually…. I love it when my two halves cooperate on something together.”

Photography Meets Digital Branding

Rosso’s work has appeared in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Wired Italy, Sky News, Italian Glamour and Vanity Fair. Her expertise in technology has her traveling from girl geek dinners in Milan to the SxSW festival in Texas delivering talks on topics that range from WordPress techniques to the distributed company. Her blogs let her write about travel, food, business-growing and — a key interest — Nutella, a chocolate-hazelnut spread.

But while Rosso’s range of interests is broad, they all support each other. Her ebook about Italian coffee is self-published through Kindle and uses her own photography on the cover. Her food blogging complements her inventory of food images on Getty. Her travel writing gives her an opportunity to take more pictures of attractive scenes in a beautiful country.

Most importantly, though, Rosso’s knowledge of business and technology, and their meeting point at digital branding, gives her the expertise she needs to sell her services to clients online. She describes her website as a “hub” that provides an overview of who she is and what she does, and shows off some of the photography she shoots for clients and for personal use.

That knowledge of technology and business is a huge advantage that ensures that she’s not just able to create great images but find buyers for them too.

“I used to rue not being a specialist when I was growing up, but now I’m happy with  being more of a generalist and I think it’s the best way to adapt to the unknown future,” she says. “[T]he technology and digital strategy parts of me are probably the strongest because while the underlying core of what I enjoy stays the same (the written word, a visual image, a business idea), the methods of exploring, developing, and sharing them are changing all the time. And that’s exciting to me. Understanding and being interested in technology is the best way to adapt your work.”

The Websites Are Wrong

It also means that Rosso has an overview of how other photographers are using technology to promote their work. The most common mistake, she argues, is in the way photographers use their websites. Many are beautiful, she says, and show off the photographer’s work but they often have very little functionality. They’re not indexed by search engines, buyers have trouble finding them, identifying the services on offer or understanding how to contact the photographer. It’s a criticism that buyers themselves have often made.

When it comes to branding, photographers need to know who they are and where they want to go, recommends Rosso. Their site, whether it’s a static website, a blog or, like hers, a network of blogs, should offer content that reflects their personality, their interests and their knowledge. As users leave Rosso’s website for one of her blogs on food or travel or photography, they get an idea of the sort of topics that interest Rosso and in which she has expertise.

 “I would say I built [my] brand by sharing not only who I am, but what I know and what I’m interested in…. I think that is a good foundation for anyone’s personal brand: tell who you are, share what you know and what you’re learning, and curate the best of the rest.”

Although her photography has been good enough to win the attention of Getty as well as a number of big-name buyers, Rosso says that it’s unlikely she’ll ever devote herself to photography full-time. Part of that comes down to fear, she says. Putting all her eggs in one basket makes her nervous (“especially with how fragile the photography basket is.”) But it would also mean cutting out other activities and interests that she enjoys — and it’s also not necessary for her or for other photographers. Asked how she would advise other enthusiasts thinking of creating a one-person business, ideally in a beautiful location, that includes photography, even if it’s not made up entirely of photography, Rosso suggests getting good at video or writing as well as creating stills.

“One of the two, and preferably both.”

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