Interested in photography? Mobile photographer Dan Rubin shares his freelance advice.
Freelancing can be a hustle but you don’t have to figure it out on your own. You can learn from those who have found freelancing success, and that’s why we reached out to photographer and Skillshare teacher Dan Rubin, one of the most followed, non-celebrity mobile photographers, to get his advice. Learn from his experience and see if it applies to your own freelancing career.
1. As a freelance photographer, what is one thing you wish you knew when you were first starting out that you know now?
I’m lucky that I had two decades of experience as a designer — both freelance and running my own small studio — before I started getting paid for photographic work. That helped me in so many ways, as the creative process (and the business side of things) is so similar.
I was also fortunate to get some very good advice from a friend which helped me avoid getting distracted while learning about the basic settings of my first DSLR (which was my second camera after I properly discovered photography — my first being a Polaroid SX-70). The advice was to essentially ‘bolt on’ the 50mm/1.8 for at least 6 months, and learn to see using that focal length (vs. switching lenses or using a zoom lens). I’ve since shared that advice with anyone willing to listen.
What I really wish is that I’d discovered photography much earlier — that someone would have suggested photography as a medium for me, rather than discovering it when I was 30. In a way, I feel robbed of years worth of practice — though in reality, my years of art and design prior to that point taught me so much about composition that I had a big advantage over someone picking up a camera without that experience.
2. How have you been able to grow your photography business while staying true to yourself and your style?
The answer is in your question: by staying true to the things I want to do, the things I enjoy, I never stray too far (if at all) from what I love. The secret is continuing to experiment: trying new things that aren’t necessarily based on anything you’ve done before, and seeing where they lead. I learned this from my years in design, and I learned it the hard way by spending too many years doing the same things over and over again. If you’re not trying things you’ve never done before, you’re not really learning, and if you’re not learning, you will eventually plateau and burn out.
It also requires faith that people will hire you for the things you love doing — if you only chase the things you *think* people will pay you for, it will never occur to anyone to pay you for things *you* want to do. People hire you for the things they see you already doing — so do the things you want to do more of (even if just as personal projects) and tell the world about them at every opportunity.
3. What do you think you still need to work on to continue to grow as a freelance photographer?
Everything? Ha! But seriously, I feel I have so much to learn and so much room to grow, and I want to be continuously growing and learning — the minute I stop seeing the potential to do something new is when I stop taking photos for other people.
4. How do you determine success as an independent photographer? Is it simply "Welp, the lights are still on!"?
I think success is a sneaky red-herring of a word, much like ‘balance’ and other such terms that imply some sort of fixed point of achievement.
Rather than viewing success as something you reach, I think it’s a constant, moving target, much like juggling or spinning plates — it’s never really done, you just keep redefining it, sometimes daily, and possibly even hourly depending on your context.
For me, I rarely even use the word — but if I had to define it at this moment, success is doing what I want to do, and not feeling like I have to compromise at all for the preferences of other people. If I’m getting paid for the work I enjoy doing, I can’t really ask for much more under that definition.
5. What is the best piece of advice you've ever received?
This sort of question always reminds me of my favorite quote, by Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” No matter what you’re trying to do creatively, in business, or just in life, this is an incredibly powerful concept.
As for advice I’ve personally received, again I go back to my design career: A mentor once told me how important it is to ask how people heard about you, and to do it as soon as possible when communicating with them. It tells you a lot about their expectations, and their level of trust — whether they found your portfolio/Instagram/etc. while searching at random, read about you in a magazine or online, saw your work in another campaign and tracked you down as its creator, or were directly referred from someone you’ve worked with in the past, it let’s you understand the dynamic so you can direct the conversation in the most productive way. Over time, it also teaches you where best to focus your efforts of self promotion: most of the design work I or my studio ever received was via word of mouth or direct referrals, so after awhile we just stopped worrying about having an online portfolio (which was never up to date), and the amount and type of requests we received didn’t change one bit.
In addition to his enormous success as a mobile photographer, Dan Rubin has over 14,000 followers on Skillshare. Teaching is an awesome and accessible way to earn passive income, grow a following, and find clients as a freelancer – start your class today!
Dan Rubin Bio
Born in Miami Beach and now living in London, Dan is a designer, photographer, and teacher.
One of Instagram’s earliest beta testers and a speaker at the world’s first mobile photography conference, 1197, his work was featured in iTunes upon Instagram’s launch and he has become one of the most-followed, non-celebrity mobile photographers, with more than half a million followers on Instagram alone. He is co-founder and editor-at-large of The Photographic Journal, an Artifact Uprising Ambassador, runs a boutique consultancy, webgraph, and travels the world on photographic commissions.