This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.
As a word person (primarily) I’ve always been fascinated by those skilled in the visual arts. Maggie MacPherson is a Vancouver-based freelance photographer whose work I admire greatly. A lifelong hobbyist, she turned professional about five years ago.
The Born Freelancer: So, Maggie, what motivated you to “go pro”?
Maggie MacPherson: I remember the day I nervously took a big breath, and proudly proclaimed “I’ve decided to become a photographer”. My partner looked back at me with confusion and said “… but you already are a photographer.”
I had already been doing headshots and creative photoshoots for years but it was properly charging for my work that made me consider myself a professional photographer.
It’s tempting to keep doing free work so you can just treat your work like art all the time and can therefore never fail. To me, being a professional artist means being good enough at your craft that you can collaborate with clients to get them what they need (regardless of what you might feel inspired to create in that moment).
TBF: Did you need specialized training to become a pro?
MacPherson: As with many professional photographers, I did not study photography in university and I do not believe it is necessary to become a professional photographer.
I studied at Ryerson’s RTA School of Media in Toronto where I focused on Cinematography and Producing…it was where I first learned about lighting. A good photographer needs to understand light. Photographer literally means “light writer,” the craft is all about capturing light, and to me it’s also about creating and manipulating light.
TBF: So what makes “a good photo”? What qualities does it require?
MacPherson: A good photo evokes an emotion in the viewer. In all my work I enjoy playing with light and depth as well.
However, there is a lot of work I do now that is very client focused…the photo just needs to make the person look confident and attractive and they don’t want it to represent anything deeper than that.
Whenever I get the chance though, I would say I aim to reveal truth, tell a story, and capture emotionally engaging imagery that often comes from a feminist perspective.
TBF: All successful freelancers strive to distinguish themselves from their competition. How do you achieve that?
MacPherson: I distinguish myself by being very honest, collaborative, and organized. It’s amazing how much positive feedback I get about these seemingly simple attributes…people are extremely grateful whenever you communicate clearly and work in an organized manner (because we all have to deal with so much disorganized nonsense on a daily basis).
Yes, clients want beautiful photos but if the process to get them is hell then that’s what they’re going to remember most.
TBF: Do you have any comprehensive marketing or business plan?
MacPherson: The truth is that I’ve started many marketing and business plans over the years (especially when things get slow) but then always put them on hold as soon as I get busy again.
This year I got [more] shoots than I could handle and realized that I was so used to just having enough shoots every month that I wasn’t set up for when I actually started to really succeed. So I’ve recently hired a business and marketing strategist to work with me on a strong plan that will really set myself up for success.
TBF: What do you think you will need to do to attain that success?
MacPherson: The reason I became more busy than I could handle was because I didn’t have a proper focus. Between real estate, portraiture, products, fine art, boudoir, and so on – I was saying yes to everything but had no actual goals for all the work I was putting in or time to raise my rates or (god forbid) take any days off.
As freelancers, we’re supposed to take whatever comes our way in case [work] suddenly stops. But when you become successful, that mentality means inevitable burnout.
TBF: So is the the label “freelancer” somewhat problematic for you?
MacPherson: I have actually stopped using the word “freelance” when describing my work because I realized it was holding me back from admitting that I own a business.
In my mind, a freelancer is basically an artist who can get work as long as they are great at their craft. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to live in this fantasy for several years because I had other types of work going on at the same time to supplement the slower months.
In the past year I’ve changed my perspective on my work, I admitted to myself that I am a business owner and that means I need to create and implement proper business and marketing plans and need support in doing so.
TBF: You are well-regarded for several collaborative projects with writers that are especially intriguing. Can you describe those experiences?
MacPherson: My first series with a writer was “Dichotomies: Exploring the Phases of Relationships and Singledom.”
This series [of poems and photographs] came to life because a wonderful writer and good friend of mine, Katie Bishop, wrote a poem inspired by one of my photos.
The partnering of poetry and photography felt so natural that we conceptualized an entire series together and Katie wrote all the poetry. We then storyboarded ideas for the photos and moved through production collaboratively…We exhibited the series at the Beaumont in 2016. The series has also been developed into a book and an online experience that can be found on my website.
My second series with a writer was very different. Heather Pawsey, of Astrolabe Musik Theatre, attended the “Dichotomies” exhibit and was inspired by the pairing of poetry with photography.
She was working on a show titled “Unheard”, an incredible a cappella performance of six new music pieces all surrounding the theme of unheard women throughout history and mythology. Most of the lyrics came from poems written by Poet Laureate of Vancouver, Rachel Rose, and were adapted to song by Canadian composer Jeff Ryan…I studied the original poetry and created a series that represented [each of] the poems and complimented the entire show.
The photos were printed and displayed around Heather as she performed the show. The first time I met the poet was actually at one of the performances when the pieces had been long since completed. I was overjoyed to hear that she was very pleased with them.
TBF: Where do you see yourself professionally in five years?
MacPherson: I see myself still taking photographs of people, but offering much more specialized services. The plan is still in development but essentially less small photo-shoots that result in a few final images and more larger photo-shoots that tell the story of a business owner or entrepreneur. I hope to pair this with journalistic and creative series that delve into important social issues.
TBF: And finally, Maggie, any advice for photographic newbies out there wishing they too could “go pro”?
MacPherson: Charge for your work! Even if it’s just $50 (but please make it much more). Contact photographers you admire and ask to work with and learn from them. If we keep raising the bar then we will all benefit from it.
Many thanks to Maggie MacPherson for taking the time to answer our questions. You can look over her impressive portfolio of work at her constantly evolving website: www.maggiemacpherson.ca
POSTED IN: Features