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|| News Item: Posted 2009-03-10

Going Freelance? A Gear Guide For Taking That Next Career Step
By David McIntyre

Photo by David McIntyre

Photo by David McIntyre

David McIntyre's lighting gear.
So you've been laid off and are going freelance?

Numerous articles and postings, along with e-mails from recently laid off newspaper photographers asking about doing freelance work, I wonder what can I tell them. A lot of assignments for corporate work, Forbes, USA TODAY, SI, ESPN, et all involve portrait work and these would need lighting gear, and most photographers don't realize they will need more than their one shoe mount strobe.

It is difficult to know where and how to start this article, even though I have been doing the bulk of my freelancing since 1995, mostly being represented by Black Star Photo Agency in New York, along with a few corporate and editorial clients (such as Cathay Pacific Airways, Baptist Press and CLSA in Hong Kong) I have picked up during my 14+ years of living in Hong Kong and China with travel almost everywhere in Asia and beyond.

I used to be a staff photographer at a newspaper in Phoenix, Arizona called The Phoenix Gazette, an afternoon paper that was owned at the time by the same parent company of The Arizona Republic. A couple years after I left, the two papers were merged into one entity, where there are still many colleagues that I used to work with. That is, until these recent economic times, some of them are now being forced to take a buyout, retire early or being let go.

Before I continue, in the over 25 years as a photographer, I have worked off and on as a stringer or regular contributor through the years with: UPI, Associated Press, EPA, Asiaweek Magazine, the Far Eastern Economic Review, Baseball America, and the minor league baseball teams in Denver and Phoenix before they had Major League teams.

Given the number of years that I have been primarily freelance, I wanted to give an idea of the equipment that one needs to survive in their new realm known as a freelance photographer. Others may have more or less than what I find works best, but I feel this will get you pretty well equipped to be able to fulfill a majority of requests from various types of potential clients you will be trying to work with.

Let's start out with basic camera equipment. I have the following on a normal day-to-day basis, and I am able to complete 98 percent of my assignments with the following (I do have other equipment that I will describe later, but this is about getting you freelance ready and able to shoot):

1- Apple 15' MacBook Pro computer (it is my only computer, as I have no desktop at home. I have Adobe Photoshop and Photo Mechanic installed to help me with my photo editing and workflow along with Microsoft Office for Mac. Also the Apple Care extended warranty so that my repair costs are kept to a minimum.)
2- Canon 1D, Mark III camera bodies (recently upgraded them in early 2008 from 2 Mark II bodies that I had used for roughly 4-5 years)
1- Canon 16-35/2.8 Series II lens
1- Canon 24-70/2.8 lens
1- Canon 70-200/2.8 USM IS lens
1- Canon 14mm lens
1- Canon 15mm lens (this is a fish-eye, that I use occasionally for a different type effect)
1- Canon 1.4x tele-converter
1- Canon 580EX II flash (with an off camera shoe cord)
2- Norman 400B portable battery operated lights, which are equipped with built-in Pocket Wizard remote receivers and have a charger that operates 110/220 electricity. (and I have a Multi-max transmitter/receiver, and 2 -Manfrotto portable light stands and 2 umbrellas packed into a Think-Tank rolling case so that I can check it when I travel. I also have a Domke sling bag packed in with the lights, so that I can carry them around on my shoulder at locations if needed and not use the case.)
1- Think-Tank modular belt system to carry the gear on me as I am shooting an assignment.
1- Think-tank Shape shifter backpack to carry my laptop and other small items (and can also put camera's and lenses when needed.)
1- LaCie 320 GB Rugged portable hard-drive. (to back-up photos and have library of photos I may be requested to send at time from various past assignments)
1-iPhone with unlimited data plan (my version is unlocked so that I can change SIM cards when I travel, but use this so that I can be reachable and able to do emails with clients.)

Given that a lot of my work revolves shooting editorial style work and environmental portraits for the various types of clients I mentioned before, I am able to fulfill pretty much any request I am given. I am able to also be able to travel very easily with the gear, as in Asia I am forced to take taxis and other public transport at times. When I take my lights, I can rest the backpack on top of the rolling case, and wheel both at the same time.

The other items that I have, when I need them, but are considered luxury items for my type of work are: (you won't need these to survive)

1- Canon 1D, Mark IIn camera (an extra body)
1- Canon 300/2.8 lens (very old, that I bought used from a friend cause I only use at most a few times a year)
1- Canon 400/2.8 lens (also old and used that I bought used in 2008 for the Beijing Olympics and for future sports work. I used to borrow from Canon CPS when I ever need one before which was about 1-2 times a year at most)
1- Canon 580EX II flash (this is a back-up to my other one)
1- Unlocked cellphone that is tri-band. (This is an older extra phone I am able to use this in some other countries as a way of getting a local pre-paid SIM card so that if I am someplace more that a day or two, clients in that country I may be shooting can reach me. Also, I avoid excessive roaming charges on local calls being made or received)

I don't shoot sports as often as I used to when I worked for the newspaper and wire services. I had a 300mm and 400mm of my own then, but they were the old Canon FD style, and got rid of them when I made full switch over to EOS style gear following Hong Kong's 1997 handover to China, which was the last time I ever really needed my old style 400/2.8 for something so significant, until shooting things like the Olympics.

One of the main things I have had to be able to do for my work is lighting, even if it means using only one light to illuminate a subject or object. I use my on camera flash at times with an off-camera sync cord, but that does not always make a magazine quality portrait that a client will be happy with. One of the first questions I ask many people that want to become freelance and possibly work for an agency is: CAN YOU LIGHT?

You need to be able to have basic lighting skills. The Norman 400B's are great for me cause they are portable and I can set them up anywhere from an office to a farmer's field, without worrying about electricity to operate them (except to recharge the batteries). I used to have company issued 200B's when I worked at the newspaper in Phoenix, before digital when we shot almost 100% slide film. But even with digital cameras able to do some much in available light, doesn't mean that an editor or client wants to always receive a poorly or non-lit portrait. Window lit portraits and situations can only be done so often, and a window won't follow you around a large factory.

A couple other very useful things I have found to have worked well for me are the following:

• E-fax/voice mail service. I subscribe to's service, where I have a personalized number that receives my faxes and voice messages electronically, and send them to me by email. Regardless of what country or city I am in, I can easily get anything that I can review, print out or listen to without running up huge phone costs. Also when I may be traveling to some places I can forward my cell phone to the service so that I can still stay in touch with people calling about possible work, and return the calls I may of missed.

• Mobile phone with an unlimited data plan and email capability. (I mentioned this earlier) Besides being able to take calls anywhere, I use my Apple iPhone (some may prefer a Blackberry) to check e-mail's throughout the day, and many times can line up assignments or take care of small things that I may not of been able to do until I am back at my computer later in the day. Many times you may not be able to have an Internet connection until you are at home or a hotel, etc. (Also have call forwarding to something like or voice mail service, cause you may not be able to always answer the phone while you are doing an assignment.)

• A major credit card. You never know when you will need to rent a car, book an airline ticket, or take care of any other things that require more than cash. Debt cards are ok, but are not very good for renting cars, cause they tie up a deposit from your account, that many credit cards don't. Also, find a credit card that let's you avoid accepting all of the added insurance items on a typical rental car agreement. (might be good to have both a Master Card and Visa, as some places might only accept one of them or as a backup if something is wrong with one of your cards.)

• Passport. If you don't have one, get one. You may never need it, but should always have one in case that one time call comes to travel out of the US. (Now the law requires you have a passport to even travel between the US to/from Canada or Mexico).

• PO Box. (this is optional, but I find very helpful). I keep a PO box as my main address, cause I don't like letting unknown people know where I live for safety of my equipment, and also if I travel out of town I know any mail will be safe and not give the impression I am not home. Also it is very helpful if you are renting and have to move, as then you don't have to worry about changing you address with everyone or missing checks that may be coming. For packages, you can have delivered either at home or arrange a friends business, cause FedEx or UPS deliver only to street addresses.

• Email. Make sure you have an email address that you will want to keep for a long time. If you think you may change from your local provider, then sign up for a Gmail, Yahoo, or have your own domain that you can easily check. This is like a PO Box, as many clients may not be in touch with you for years, and then they need you and can't find you. You want to change some things about you as little as possible.

• Get name cards. You will always need something to hand out to people, so they can keep you on file. Many times they will remember you and then start looking for your card with your contact details on them. My cards also happen to have my agent details and my name and address in Chinese.

• Learn to be able to do things yourself. By this, I mean you will need to learn to get in touch with subjects, make your own travel arrangements if needed, and also figure out how to get the photos efficiently and quickly delivered to your clients. Don't always expect a client to have the budget for an assistant, or expect a limo and tour guide at the airport to pick you up and show you around. Sometimes I have to do a shoot in the same day in another city, and get back that evening. (I have done same day trips between Hong Kong and Shanghai, Singapore, Seoul, and Beijing among other places and combinations). One time a client hired me for a project, and I had only two weeks to prepare for a 9 country, 4-week trip where I have to make all the arrangements myself, and was only home for 1-night of the whole trip as I happened to be transiting through Hong Kong. Also, being in Asia, I sometimes get a phone call or email in the middle of the night from the US and need to fly off within a few hours to complete an assignment request.

• Billing and Payment. Many companies might take 30-90 days to pay you, so you will have to learn to at times ask for an advance if your going to incur a lot of expenses, or wait patiently for payment. It is not like the newspaper world, where you get a regular paycheck and your expenses back quit quickly.

I am sure there are many things that I have overlooked or forgotten, but I wanted to give you a sense of what has worked well for me in the past. You will have to be your own support network in the freelance world, and will not always have new equipment as when you might of worked for the paper. You will have to pay for your own purchases now and the repairs on your equipment. I generally replace my laptop once every 2-1/2 years with a new one, but always keep the software up to date. I always buy legal software, as if I have any problems I can fix them immediately.

Many people are new to this, especially some of you that have maybe been at the same newspaper for over 20 years. Be patient, it will take time to develop a freelance career and/or do work with an agency. Especially in some cities where more than one of you are entering the market, and competing for the same limited amount of work.

If you have any questions, feel free to drop me an email at:

(David McIntyre is a photographer for Black Star based in China since 1995.)

Related Links:
McIntyre's member page

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