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Going Freelance

An interview with Lisa Cross

Lisa Cross is a commercial photographer who has been working professionally for over 5 years. She is on the Trampoline committee, an initiative that supports emerging photographers culminating in the annual Projections screening. Lisa has recently made the decision to go freelance. In this interview, I ask Lisa what is involved in working as a commercial photographer in the advertising industry, what has lead to her decision to go it alone, and what lies ahead.

Erietta Sapounakis (ES): How would you describe yourself as a photographer?
Lisa Cross (LC): I’m a commercial photographer in the advertising industry. I specialise in food and still life. I’m studio based; I like the level of control and technical side involved in studio photography.

ES: Can you tell me a little bit about where you work now?
For the last few years I’ve been doing catalogue work for a photography company, shooting products and food in a lifestyle setting almost 5 days a week. That’s been a big learning curve, shooting so much and working to such tight schedules.
Recently, I’ve also done still life work for Ella Bache, some shoots for pharmaceutical products, Viagra and another large drug name I can’t pronounce. That was fun, conceptual still life stuff.
ES: Conceptual Viagra, that sounds worrying.
LC: Yeah (laughs). Also one of my biggest jobs that you’ll see everywhere was the Oporto menu. I shot everything you see on the from the menu boards to the billboards.

ES: Why did you make the decision to go freelance?
LC: I got a little stuck in the churn and burn cycle. It was great experience but I feel like I’ve done my time and am ready to move to bigger and better jobs where I have a bit more control of the creativity and the time and budget allows everyone involved to produce better work.

ES: What are some of the other reasons for going freelance?
LC: I wanted to move away from the 9-5 type work, which is not very common in my industry. It’s a lifestyle change as well. I’ll have the time to push my career in certain directions and push for those higher end jobs and I’ll have time to be a bit more creative as well as build a better presence in the industry.

ES: How do you build a presence in the industry?
LC: It’s about getting your name and work out there. Competitions are a great one, as well as holding your own exhibitions. I really think that getting your personal work out there is a great tool for commercial photographers because everyone’s always interested in your creativity as well. Its one of the first things people ask me when I tell them that I am a photographer: “so what do you really like to shoot?” There are also a few good directory / community style websites for the creative industry that you can put your portfolio on such as the ACMP, the Loop and Australian INfront. And as usual, face to face networking at industry events and meeting with potential clients is a must.

ES: What is the career trajectory of a photographer?
LC: Most photographers start out as assistants and that’s how you gain knowledge of how the industry works. I studied photography for three years but once I got into the industry it was completely different. I learnt the general principles and technical skills of commercial photography at university, then I learnt much more on the job. It’s different for everyone … Most people that I know gradually get into shooting and finding their own clients while working as an assistant. I was very lucky that I had a job where I was employed as a full time assistant but encouraged to produce a portfolio in order to gain shooting jobs. There was an overlap for me. Eventually it got to a point where I couldn’t be seen as an assistant and a photographer, so I became a full time photographer in the same studio where I was an assistant. There are a few studios around that employ photographers, but the majority of photographers go from assisting to a photographer and basically get their own clients or are represented by an agency.

ES: So going freelance is an inevitable path for photographers?
LC: Yes, the majority of photographers have their own business.

ES: What did you learn on the job that your university course didn’t prepare you for?
LC: Just how the industry works. It’s an interesting industry and pretty tough as well. There are a lot of relationships you have to build. You have to learn who the clients are, how you treat them, who everyone is in an advertising agency, who you are dealing with, how you should be dealing with them, the hierarchy. Each advertising agency is different there will be creative directors, art directors, art buyers, account service etc as well as the clients. You’ve got to know who you are dealing with. That’s something you learn through assisting … you have to look after those people. And you learn from the photographer about the ethics and politics of the whole situation.

ES: Now you have made the decision to go freelance, what practical things have you done to set yourself up as a business?
LC: I’ve got an ABN. I’ve built my own website. I bought myself a laptop and set up an office at home. Mostly I’ve been thinking a lot. I’ve been writing business plans which has helped me figure out why I’m doing it, how I will do it and where I want to be … to plan how its going to work rather than just jump into it head first and hope for the best.

ES: Was writing a business plan something that was recommended to you to do?
LC: I studied a bit of business in school. I think it’s a good way to assess and keep track of what you are doing, your success and direction.
My business revolves around getting photographic work but there are a lot of things behind the scenes I need to do to make that happen. My main priority at the moment is revamping my portfolio. I will be sitting down and nutting out some really good concepts for images that are targeted towards getting the work that I want to do. Also the marketing, thinking about developing my own identity away from the studio, business cards, invoice design, using social media, etc

ES: You have been working for a studio for a few years now, how will you get work as a freelancer?
LC: I will be getting my advertising work in conjunction with the studio. They have 2 business development managers and their job is to bring the work in. They take our folios to advertising agencies and build relationships with the right people in different agencies, a process that I will also be involved in. The studio also has other resources such as production, retouching, studios & equipment, which means I can fulfill any brief.

ES: So you do the shoot, they act as agents for you getting the shoot and they also get the work in post-production?
LC: They provide the whole service, which is an awesome resource to have as a freelance photographer.
I need to be very involved in the process of gaining new work by building relationships with the right people in the right agencies. I also have to be aware of anything I can do to bring that job in and make sure my folio is of a high standard.

ES: Is it best to have a speciality as a photographer or a breadth in capabilities?
LC: I think different photographers view it in different ways. Personally I think its best to specialise in a few areas. I feel most comfortable in the studio and I enjoy shooting food and still life. I have shot over the whole range of areas in the past and I feel this is where my strengths are. I think it also helps people who want to commission photographers. If you are more specialised in the work you do, it makes their search easier.

ES: What sort of projects do you want to do?
LC: With my commercial work I’m pushing towards the higher end advertising market. I am also looking forward to putting some ideas for personal projects into action.
ES: Thanks for you time Lisa. Good luck.
LC: Thank you

View Lisa’s work at www.lisa-cross.com
Erietta Sapounakis is a user experience designer and blogger with photography envy. She writes mostly about designing for the web at www.eriontheinterweb.com.