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Photo by Justin Bettman

surviving as a freelancer

I’ve been working surviving as a freelance artist since 2010.

I attended Kutztown University and was enrolled in their Electronic Media program. Going into my final semester at Kutztown, with 12.5 credits remaining to graduate, I had (what I thought was) my ‘golden ticket’ to becoming a true freelancer.

I can remember the night like it was yesterday. I was in upstate New York filming a live concert for a singer-rapper duet on my winter break. I got a phone call from one of the artist’s managers who was also a film director/producer in Texas. He offered me an opportunity to direct/film a behind-the-scenes documentary that was going into production that April, which happened to overlap with finals at school. After returning from New York, I approached my professors about the opportunity and they insisted that I should take a leave of absence from the university to pursue my dreams.

At 21, getting my professors approval to just leave school and being offered $15,000 to shoot a documentary without a degree, gave me this overwhelming sense of entitlement. Not good, considering my work at the time didn’t show that kind of value.

That was the death of my life as a college student.

After filling out the paperwork to take my leave of absence, it became a waiting game. The waiting game then became a game of cold calls and being ghosted by the producer that was offering me this once in a lifetime opportunity.

This was single handedly the best lesson I learned as a freelance artist. Sometimes, the only person you can trust is yourself.

The film never ended up going into production.

I spent the following year refusing to go back to school, but instead trying to make a way for myself, and ‘survive as a freelancer’ without a typical day job. I did a lot of free work that year, slept in my car and on a lot of my friend’s couches. It was not glamorous.

SWADE – Highway 27 // Music Video (contains strong language)

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Behind the scenes of SWADE “Highway 27” video

When you’re first getting started, sometimes you need to do free work just to get your name out there and let people know that you exist. There is a time and place for everything. It would be foolish to expect $15,000 without a single completed project to your name. Do you see where I’m going with this? I played the fool. I played the fool and learned a lot from it. So instead, I made it a point to get as much work under my belt as possible to a point where I could put a demo reel together and give people a reason to pay me to do work for them.

During that time, with the evolution of DSLR cameras, I was able to shoot both videos and photos. So I thought it would be wise to really attack both fields with full force. I would offer to shoot wedding videos, wedding photos, music videos, band promotional photos, concerts, senior portraits, commercials, and just about anything and everything that could be done with a camera. I didn’t consider myself a specialist in one particular field or another, in actuality; I was quite mediocre at all of them.

Exactly one year after I left school, I was approached by an agency that wanted to hire me for a freelance job in Indonesia. That opportunity is what truly got me started as a “freelancer.” The company I was hired to do work for was Mars Chocolate (M&M’s – Snickers – Twix – Skittles), and this gig in particular was a 9-day job; with 6 days of flying, 3 days on the ground filming.

Regardless how qualified or unqualified you think you may be, if people are approaching you to do work for them, you’re qualified.

After a successful trip to Indonesia, I continued to do freelance work for Mars for another year and a half, and I learned so many invaluable lessons during my time with them.

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Stills from upcoming BROTHER CEPHUS “New York” music video

A common belief in freelancing is that there are rainy seasons and dry seasons. I don’t believe in the latter, in fact, as a freelance artist, the second there is a “dry season” – I think you’ve given up on yourself. There is and always will be opportunities out there for you, and they can be paid or unpaid. Unpaid doesn’t mean you’re not getting anything out of it. Those unpaid jobs will likely give you opportunities to show your value, open other doors, and give you the chance to network. As Gary Vaynerchuk says, “Give value. Give value. Give value. And then ask for business.”

The work with Mars slowed down, but I refused to let that slow me down. If there is one piece of advice that I could give to any aspiring freelancer/freelancer, it would be to have some stability in your life. By stability, I mean financial stability.

It is extremely uncommon for someone that’s just breaking into the freelance market to be able to make a living and survive as a freelancer, myself included. What I’ve seen work best is to have and maintain a stable 9 to 5 job in a field that you love and that you’re passionate about, and pick up freelance jobs outside of that. The goal, if things go well, is that you will be able to transition into being a full-time freelancer. One thing you have to understand is that it won’t happen overnight.

Sacrilege right? Working a full-time desk job in order to do freelance work? Well, that’s exactly what I did, and it’s one of the best career decisions I’ve made.

LIMBS – Behind The Scenes // Photo & Video

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Behind the scenes on set of upcoming LIMBS music video

I moved from Pennsylvania to Michigan and started working full time at the University of Michigan as a videographer, photographer, and editor. That job afforded me the stability I needed to pay for my everyday expenses, like rent, electric, phone bills, and groceries. Consequently, I was able to be selective with the clients I was choosing to work with and it also gave me the headspace to be a little more creative with the projects I was working on.

I was no longer stressed about getting a gig, finding new clients, or even surviving. Without the life or death pressure, it allowed my freelance business to grow more organically. Client’s were finding me and approaching me, instead of me searching for jobs in desperation. You can stop chasing the money, but instead focus on following your heart and the things you WANT to create.

After years of freelancing, I’m still working a 9 to 5, but now in Tampa, Florida. I moved here blindly, not knowing much about the area or the people here. I did everything I could to dive into the community and into the culture here in hopes that I could create a name for myself, and my work.

It may sound silly, but one thing I chose to do was to challenge myself to post at least 1 photo a day to my Instagram account for 365 days starting December 23, 2015. This was one way I was hoping to get connected with the community and start networking. By taking and posting photos each day, I was able to curate a lot of photos from the St. Pete/Tampa area and turn around and sell them at a local market in Tampa. By selling prints and canvases at the market, it allowed me to network and create relationships with a lot of makers and doers in the area.

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Stills from upcoming commercial “UNDER” for an eyewear company

As a freelancer, networking is everything.­­­ So many doors opened from that single action of putting my work out there. Challenge yourself, take some risks, and let people know you exist.

You can see more of Dan’s stills and motion work on his website and YouTube channel, and follow him on Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter.

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1 Comment

  1. A great read and it’s always good to hear how other photographers are getting where they want to be. I know there’s no easy path for sure and Gary Vaynerchuck is the man on a mission who I follow.
    For me, learning the business has and remains a bit of a steep learning curve. But if you’re hungry for the life you want, even a poor day job is doable when you can taste the sweetness of your dreams.

    Go for it Dan, thanks for sharing your story.

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