Move into the freelance world with innovative ideas and techniques. Here’s a guide to shooting your first client job.

According to a recent survey of 2,000 Americans, the majority of us (71%) are focused on learning life skills and making practical goals for the new year, while 62% said they can’t wait to approach 2021 with a fresh mindset and renewed motivation. Even after a difficult year, many are feeling optimistic, while staying committed to fostering a positive outlook going forward.

These New Year’s resolutions will certainly resonate with many within the creative community, as over the past year, we’ve seen photographers around the world come up with innovative ideas, adapt their businesses, and pivot into freelance careers. For those just getting started with paid photography gigs, we compiled this quick guide to shooting your first client job.


1. Do Your Research

Research Your Client's Brand
Research you client’s brand to generate ideas. Image by Yaroslav Danylchenko.

Most clients will send you a brief, and those can be invaluable, but the more material you can get, the better. It’s worth asking if your client has any brand-style guidelines, reference images, storyboards, etc. Familiarize yourself with the brand’s aesthetic and messaging. Study shoots they’ve done in the past, and think about how you can build on what they’ve already created.

Gather as much information as you can about the brand—their story, their visual branding, their marketing, etc. Take notes and ask questions. This research phase can also help you generate new ideas to pitch to your clients. You might be able to spot an opportunity they hadn’t recognized on their own.


2. Set Clear Prices and Expectations

Set Clear Prices
Be clear about prices and licensing fees. Photo by Jared Lam.

Before going into a shoot, be crystal clear about your prices and what they include—whether you’re offering packages or charging a day rate. What about licensing fees on top of your day rate? Unless it’s a work-for-hire contract, you keep the copyright and can charge for usage. We recommend using a calculator (like the AOP Usage Calculator) for a ballpark estimate and then tailoring it to your shoot and client.

The most important thing is that the client knows exactly what they’ll pay, how many images they’ll get, and how they can use them. That way, you’ll avoid disappointment on either end. Factor in your expenses, as well. For example, many commercial photographers might charge rental fees when using their gear and equipment. Whatever you choose, stay upfront and honest with the client and keep the lines of communication open.


3. Create a Shot List and Mood Board

Shot List and Mood Board
Share a shot list and mood board with your clients. Image by Kiko Jimenez / Westend61.

Speaking of communication, it can help to create a shareable shot list and mood board with your clients. Some will send their own mood boards and shot lists, but if they don’t, you can still send them your ideas to make sure you’re on the same page. The more references you have, the better.  

A mood board will help you to visualize your idea for the styling, lighting, color palette, and overall atmosphere of a shoot. Meanwhile, a shot list can help you get specific about the shots you need, from wide shots to details. These should be tools you create together with your team and clients, so don’t be afraid to ask for their input and ideas.


4. Scout Your Location

Scout Your Location
Scout your location to prepare for the shoot. Image by Johnér.

Do a quick tech scout of your location to determine exactly what you’ll need on the day of the shoot. If possible, study the lighting possibilities (based on time of day), and take some test shots to get an idea of what to expect. You might realize the space is tighter than you expected, in which case you’ll know to bring a wider lens, or you could realize the natural window light isn’t enough and you need to bring your own equipment.


5. Double-Check Your Gear

Double-Check Your Gear
Double-check your gear the day before the shoot. Image by dezy.

Speaking of equipment, do a final check of everything the day before the shoot. Make sure all your gear is in working order (including a computer and software for tethering) and pack spare and backup options just in case (a backup camera, extra batteries, SD cards, speedlights, etc.). Give everything a good cleaning before packing it up, and if you need to rent additional equipment, test it in advance. Make a checklist and check it twice.

Bonus tip: After your shoot, remember to back up your work in several places! It’s better to be safe than sorry.


6. Give Yourself Extra Time

Arrive Prepared
On the day of the shoot, arrive early and make sure you’re organized. Image by Cavan Images.

On the day of the shoot, get there early (if you can) to set up and make sure everything is in order. Photoshoots have a habit of taking longer than expected, so give yourself a healthy buffer in case something goes wrong. Try not to set any time limits. On your first shoot, especially, you don’t want to rush. It can help to build a detailed schedule to go along with your shot list, with more than enough time planned for every shot on the list, as well as extras.


7. Meet Your Deadlines

Set Reasonable Deadlines
Set reasonable deadlines, then follow through. Image by Sergii Sobolevskyi.

This one goes without saying, but only promise what you know you can deliver on time. Work with your client to set concrete, realistic deadlines, and then follow through. It’s always better to set a later deadline and surprise your clients with an early delivery than it is to overpromise and overshoot your deadline.

If the client has any changes after the shoot, deliver them in a timely manner. Being punctual goes a long way, whether you’re sending your final images or responding to an initial email. Clients want to know you’re available, so stay responsive and communicative.


8. Aim for Variety

Bring a Variety of Props
Bring additional wardrobe, props, and background options. Image by Zolotarevs.

Your shot list is your priority, but you also want to give your client as many options as possible, so bring a few extra lenses for variety. Consider grabbing storytelling, documentary-style photos in-between posed shots, and move around to capture different perspectives and angles. Go wide, and then get close for details. If you can, bring a few wardrobe, prop, and background options. Brainstorm ways to go the extra mile and give your clients something they’ll love.


9. Mind the Details

Prepare Your Props
Spot any issues with your props prior to the shoot. Image by susiefoods.

Details can make or break a shoot, so keep an eye out for any wrinkles or stains on clothing, distracting elements in the background, or even nail polish on your model. Give your props a quick cleaning to remove any smudges. Sure, some of these things can be fixed in post, but you don’t want to waste your time editing details you could’ve caught on set. By staying aware and focused, you can spot any issues before they pose a problem.


10. Make the Most of It

Expand Your Portfolio
Expand your portfolio by experimenting with new images. Image by Eloisa Ramos / VISTA by Westend61.

Every client shoot poses the opportunity to grow your portfolio, so take advantage of any chance you get to try new things. If you already have gear rentals for a client shoot, why not create a smaller test shoot on your own time and then submit those personal photos to Shutterstock or Offset?

Depending on the project, you might be able to shoot for your portfolio simultaneously. You can always offer any additional photos to your client first and then license outtakes down the line. That way, you’re making the most of every shot.


11. Keep in Touch

Be Respectful of Your Clients
Be kind and thoughtful in your interactions with your clients. Image by Alexandra C. Ribeiro / Westend61.

Great clients can become long-term collaborators and supporters, so nurture those relationships even after the shoot is over. Send a “thank you” note to show your appreciation, or ask for a review on your website. Word of mouth is a powerful marketing tool, so be kind and thoughtful in all your interactions. Your professionalism will inspire existing clients to become repeat customers, and it’ll also encourage them to recommend you to their friends and colleagues.


Cover image by Johnér.