The sad thing about working as a freelancer is that thanks to the word “Free”, people often think that the work you do is low cost. In their mind, they are doing YOU the favor by keeping you busy, and helping you grow your portfolio so you can start making some real money.
This mindset completely under values your work, and forces you to spend all of your time underpaid. If you could only break out of the low-cost slump you find yourself in, then maybe you start living a more prosperous life. The problem is that I always felt as though that price was way too high. After all, I didn’t want to pay those prices, so nobody else wanted to either. Boy was I wrong.
How to Succeed as a Freelancer
Where I live, most people I know expect to make between $13 and $16 an hour, but this is actually very low for my area. Those with education and/or desired skills can expect to make a bit more, roughly $18 to $22 per hour. If I had a day job, this is where I would fall into. But again, the cost of living is high (mainly taxes), so realistically a comfortable living is closer to $32 to $40 an hour, for a 40 hour work week.
But I had always wanted more, and knew that tradesmen like electricians, plumbers, appliance and computer repair men could start naming their own hourly price, often $100-$200 per hour. This is where I wanted to be.
Sure, maybe my immediate neighborhood would complain about that price (they didn’t), but maybe the richer neighborhood’s wouldn’t complain (they actually pay more). I also thought that maybe if I could secure a business contract, maybe I could charge what I wanted (Truth is, they really didn’t seem to care what I charged, as long I provided results).
Today, I charge between $100 and $150 per hour. And honestly, many of my client would pay more if I charged more. Mainly because they have been customers and clients of mine for so many years, they are willing to pay more just to continue getting the same results they have come to expect.
The thing is, by being a freelancer I have no idea where the dollar is coming from, and that makes it very hard to budget and pay bills. Just because I charge $100+ per hour, doesn’t mean I get to work 40 hours at the rates that I want to. Sometimes I may go weeks or months without making what I hope to. In fact, I often go through patches of feast or famine (for income). But knowing this really helps me save money during the good times, so I have something to fall back on during the hard times.
These successful freelancing mindsets will not only change people’s attitude towards you and help you get the respect you deserve, but will also provide you with solid work to keep you covered for the rest of your days.
It’s best if you set a daily schedule for yourself that everyone around you can expect, and respect. When I was 18, my Mom always thought I was just sitting in my room playing games on the computer (I was). At 40, my wife thought the same thing (I wasn’t).
It’s bad enough that everyone thinks you just sit around in the house without even bothering to shower, but do you have to encourage that mindset by never leaving your bed all day? Being a freelancer doesn’t mean you can slack off; on the contrary, it means you have to work even harder because of the nature of your industry. There are hundreds of other hopefuls just like you—or worse, more talented that you are. The only difference between the successful freelancers and the failed ones is how much effort they put into their work.
So be proactive. Get out there. Look for work and ace it. After all, there’s really no such thing as a free lunch, so how can you expect work to come to you if you don’t get off the couch and start taking action?
Worst case scenario, have some "busy" looking windows available on a Virtual Desktop. If someone comes in, switch over, so it looks like your busy. If you want to look really busy, don’t even acknowledge their presence in the room. Stay focused on the screen. Click the mouse on something if you can. They will be less likely to bother you. But seriously, go find some real work.
Keep an Open Mind
Remember how incredibly stubborn you were as a child? How your curiosity always got the better of you? How you poked at that anthill even though your parents told you not to, and you had to spend the whole summer covered in nasty ant bites? It’s that kind of curious wonder that should be kept alive inside of you.
No, this doesn’t mean you should go ahead and make rash decisions without thinking about the consequences. It simply means that you should keep your passions burning. You should be open to new ideas, new opportunities, new explorations.
Never restrict yourself within the confines of what’s familiar, or you will never grow as a freelance artist. Let that thirst for knowledge drive you to experiment with new techniques as you grow with the dynamic industry. You don’t want to be known as the guy who applies a Lens Flare to everything and then calls it a day, do you?
Someone once called me a Luddite. I didn’t know what that was (it’s a british term). At it’s core, it means someone stuck in their old ways of doing things, and they refuse to try out new ideas. After they insulted me with that, I learned everything I could about Photoshop and Retouching. I read dozens of books, and watched hundreds of videos. Once I collected all that valuable information, I created my many Photoshop Classes and Courses. No one can claim that I am close minded anymore.
Tweaking is Learning
Never stop improving yourself and never stop learning. Even as you revisit your own work, you might be surprised at how much you can learn from it. While it’s safe to stick to one signature style all the time, it will never help you improve as an artist. Does something feel off? Does your image leave something to be desired? That’s your gut telling you to go past your boundaries and experiment a little bit more. Listen to it.
When I have to pull up old jobs from 5 years ago, I cringe when I look at the layer structures of the Photoshop files. At the time, they made perfect sense. But that was before I used Smart Objects. I know that if I need to edit the file, it will not be as clean (ie: Non-Destructive) as my newer work.
Evolution is natural. Don’t over think it. Do the best that you can, and keep striving for greatness. I recently spent weeks going though this website, rebuilding every page and rewriting every line of code. Did I do it wrong the first time? Not from my perspective at the time, but now I felt that tearing it all apart and starting over was worth it to me. Now this website is much closer to my original vision. Sure, I wish I did it right the first time, but live and learn. That’s my point.
Keep Your Eyes on the Prize
The trick of this one, is to actually know what the prize is. What is your goal? Where do you want this piece of work to go? Do you have a mission-vision in mind? Or are you just letting every single distraction lure you away from your task at hand? Freelancing is especially tough because you can get easily distracted. If you’re working on your laptop while at a coffee shop, there will always be something to see as your thoughts drift away as soon as you look up. If you’re working at home, then the distractions are worse—not to mention it’s difficult to resist the inviting call of Facebook or YouTube (links omitted for your safety, stay on-task).
This is where your focus comes in. Are you disciplined enough to hone in on your responsibilities? When you’re retouching a photo, do you go overboard with your effects and just get distracted by the tools all over the place, or can you stick to one problem area at a time and focus on solving them one by one? With every new photo, think about what you need to do first. The image is pale—fix it. The background is distracting—fix it. The model’s eyes need to pack a bit more punch—fix it. By focusing on the issues you need to solve, you’ll be able to submit a higher quality work to your client.
My best advice is establish a baseline time-per-image. For me, sight unseen, a portrait or lifestyle shot is going to take me 20 minutes to retouch, and 10 minutes of file maintenance (retrieval, archival, etc). Multiple people in the shot will take 10 minutes each. If the work is more personal, and less editorial, then double the retouching time.
Is this accurate? Sure, if I target it. I have a kitchen timer at my desk and I start it when I start working. I don’t need to look at it, to know the clock is ticking. So I evaluate the image and decide what needs to be done first, and what can wait until last. This is when the 80-20 principal kicks in. 80% of the results, in 20% of the time. After a while, I look at the clock, and I keep attentive until time runs out. When the clock says I’m done, then I’m done; and I never go over budget.
Subtle is Best
As a Professional Retoucher, "When you do your best work, no one will know that you have done anything at all". Meaning, you don’t need to alter every detail to give a good image. Sometimes, the less you do the better.
What’s the difference between amateur retouching work and a professional one? The amateur would go crazy with his effects, while the professional would stick to the simplest adjustments that yield the most mind-blowing results. When you go overboard with the effects, you take the focus of the audience away from the actual subject of the image.
So keep it simple. Use the most subtle adjustments that are barely there. This will enhance the overall quality and beauty of the image without giving you and your audience a headache.
Think about the movie Star Wars. I started watching them again with my 8 year old son. Episodes 1-3 he watched and liked (hated Jar Jar though; big shock). When he watched Episode 4 from 1977, he had no problem adjusting his mind’s eye to all the practical effects. Not a single complaint out of him until they went into Mos Eisley. That’s when the remastered special effects kicked in (adding in all the crap no one thought was even missing), and they looked terrible and obvious. Even my child noticed.
The moral of the story, is don’t over work your masterpiece. Do what you are there to do, and just move on. If you remove every pore, the subject stops looking real.
Part 2 Coming Soon…