"Some companies will take the piss!” says PP’s Rising Star, Holly Wren, and if you’re in the same position as she was a few years back – that of wannabe pro photographer – you’d better take note. Why? Because Holly made it work.
We’re discussing, of course, working for free: When should you do it? Why? And how often? It’s a thorny subject for photographers new and old because competition in the market is high and money often low. Are you taking food off the next guy’s table? Or setting yourself on the road to success? Holly’s take is pretty simple and it all comes down to a simple equation; is there a benefit? “To me, free work is never ‘free’ if there’s some benefit,” she explains, “people ask me ‘do you ever work for free?’, and I say I did and occasionally I still do, but if you’re getting something from it, it always has a benefit.”
Holly’s not simply talking about receiving ‘exposure’ here; that intangible stuff which many businesses think you use to pay rent or run your car. Sure, it’s about connections and portfolio building, but those have to have worth. “The benefit could also be doing someone who you want to connect with in the future a favour, or shooting for a charity because you really believe in their work,” she continues. And while it can seem like a vicious circle it’s one that, like many aspiring photographers, Holly escaped. So how do you know when you’re being exploited and when it’s all part of the long game? That, in her experience came down to the same simple thought process: “You’re only compromising yourself when you don’t need it anymore. Some firms ask you to shoot for nothing when they have quite big budgets and that’s not on.”
That’s where the guts had to kick in: “In my business model I wanted to charge towards the higher end. I didn’t want to be a ‘busy fool’. I wanted to charge higher rates, even though clients might be offering a lower rate and I felt I should take it to make a living.” So at the start you can take it, because it’s not possible to get work without a portfolio that’s got some paid input; people want to know you’re a safe pair of hands? “Yes, you might compromise in the short-term, but that can change. I was fairly steadfast, and although my rates have gone up over time, even in the beginning I knew the minimum I was prepared to work for, and when I knew clients had a budget, I stuck to that. Eventually, I was turning down work which was devastating because I really needed the money. But clients who were paying more kept referring me to others also prepared to pay, which helped me move on from being a ‘busy fool’.”
Hang on though, let’s go back a bit and fill in the blanks. What was the chain of success? Holly Wren was born into a photographic family; it was her grandfather’s hobby and then her father’s, who also bought her an Olympus OM-10, around the age of ten. Heading to university to study business management, she continued to shoot, gaining compliments for her stills, but never taking it too seriously. Then came the world of work and a career in property development. Soon though she yearned for something more creative. “I was 28, had been working since university and had that little crisis a lot of people have around that age; hating my job, disheartened, not wanting to go into work… Being quite self-motivated I knew there was something wrong.” Out of that “rubbish time” came the best thing she’d done, but the pain was a strong motivator, “and I’m not sure I would have done it if things hadn’t been as bad.” Back to the drawing board, she searched for the things that she’d always enjoyed and found photography again. “It was a bit rash, really. I had no background in the industry and was throwing away eight years’ experience…” That leap was worth the risk and Holly now shoots portraiture and lifestyle, and the occasional event.
“Having bought a camera and lens, I worked seven days a week, for about a year. Three days in a shop, then four days sat at my computer, putting my website together, doing shoots, because you have to remember I didn’t have a portfolio at that stage!” Filling a portfolio, keeping it topped up with new ideas, and getting under the noses of people was and continues to be her most important job, says Holly, who started with the cupboard bare and did many of those free jobs early on to decorate her book and develop her style. Even now she’s busy, working on personal projects is something she prioritises alongside paid work. “My portfolio allows me to show clients what I see as my style and where I want to be as a photographer,” and the more she creates that style, “the more likely clients are to come to me and to rely on my ideas; right now I split my time about 50-50… I might do a few weeks of back-to-back client shoots, then when it gets quieter I test ideas, test lighting… if you screw up on a portfolio shoot, that’s kind of the point, you can work out what you did wrong and you have the opportunity to correct it. Client shoots are not the time to be trying new stuff out.”
The same motivation applies to Holly’s marketing and the running of her business. With her academic background and work experience, she had a better start than many photographers focused purely on the creative. Straight into her new career she went to the Prince’s Trust enterprise programme and after creating a detailed business plan secured a repayable £4000 loan. “That business plan was one of the most valuable things I did,” she says, “because it made me look at the business part. I was researching, trying to work out what others were doing, what they were charging.
“One client started giving me lots of event work and recommendations, then it snowballed into lifestyle and portrait shoots for them.” Next someone from the Trust itself saw one of Holly’s images on a tweet and found her website: “she had absolutely no idea that I’d come through the Trust, but we established a really good relationship, and ended up doing a lot of work for the Trust, too.”
That might seem serendipitous, but when you hear the sheer amount of marketing Holly has done and continues to do, it’s really not such a surprise. “Being a photographer you spend only about 50% of your time shooting, but you know, I love that and I wouldn’t lose it, and the other 50% is the business side. I enjoy that variety.” With a lot of hard work, it all came together for Holly; “the portfolio work fuelled my blog, and my connections, which increased my visibility for clients. You might cold call 100 people and only get to meet one or two of them, which can seem like a very small return for the effort, but I think you have to bear in mind that if you’re not doing that, then people won’t even know who you are. Some people say, ‘Oh I’m not getting any work in, and no one is offering anything,’ and they’re just sat there. No one is going to just knock on my door; it’s up to me to make sure potential clients know who I am.”
After a childhood immersed in photography, Holly Wren started out in property development, but now she’s developing a successful photography business.
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As featured in Professional Photo magazine, issue 123.
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