This week we are excited to talk with Liz Kuball, a photographer based in Los Angeles with roots along the shores of Lake Michigan. Her work has been exhibited across the United States and editioned through 20x200. Liz's clients include the Ace Hotel, Condé Nast Traveler, The New York Times, Refinery29, and The Wall Street Journal. AND we are so lucky to have her as a member of our Creative Lady Directory!
Thank you Liz for sharing your captivating photos and empowering insights.
Tell me about your path to becoming a freelance photographer.
I majored in English, worked in house for a publishing company as a copyeditor for a couple years, and then went freelance. Editing was never a job I wanted. As a freelancer, I stuck with editing a lot longer than I would have if I'd stayed in house, because I enjoyed a lot of the perks of freelancing (mainly, the freedom to live where I want and set my own hours). For a while, I thought I wanted to be a writer, and I went to grad school for writing in my late 20s, but I wasn't feeling it and I was floundering a bit. I took an independent study course toward the end of my time in grad school, and at the beginning of the semester, the professor told me he wanted to put together a reading list for me, to try to give the semester some focus. He asked what I was interested in. I said, "I've always been interested in photography," and that changed everything. He had me reading Susan Sontag and Janet Malcolm and thinking and writing about photography, and by the end of the semester, I knew I wanted to be a photographer, not a writer.
After I got out of grad school, while continuing to work as an editor, I started teaching myself how to use a camera and also studied the history of photography. I took a couple classes at a local community college, but really just started taking lots and lots of pictures and looking at the work of other photographers. I started a blog in 2007 and fell into the fine art photoblog community. I started showing my work in group shows and editioned a couple prints through 20x200. But something still wasn't right. I didn't like the split between my day job and the thing I loved to do. For years, I had worried that if I made photography my job, I would hate it because I had hated my day job for so many years. But finally, in 2014, I decided I would start going after photo assignments.
In the beginning, how did you attract your first good clients?
I started by making a list of all the publications I wanted to shoot for. Most of the publications were places I had in mind already, but I also looked at the client lists of photographers whose work I admired and felt some connection to or thought shared a similar aesthetic. I did test shoots (basically, self-assigned stories along the lines of what I hoped to be assigned someday), and I shared those images with the photo editors I wanted to work with. I put together a print portfolio, and I went to San Francisco with it, and then to New York. Slowly, I started getting assignments. I started sending out postcards once a month, with handwritten notes on the back. I went to New York again, this time with a much better book, and took more meetings.
Can you tell us a bit about what your photography process looks like?
For my personal work, it's largely about heading out the door with my camera, usually on foot, but sometimes behind the wheel of my car, and just looking for photos. If I'm doing it right, I'm not in my head too much. Thinking is my greatest roadblock. Being in my head too much, second-guessing myself and what I'm doing, can be debilitating if I let it.
What has been your greatest struggle as a freelance photographer so far?
Having confidence in myself, not allowing self-doubt to creep in, focusing on my own work, not getting distracted by what other photographers are doing.
What is your favorite thing about freelance?
How do you continue to attract your ideal clients?
It's really more of the same: making good work and getting it out there. If I feel like I'm not getting the clients or assignments I want, I never forget that it's because my work just isn't there yet, and that means I need to work harder and shoot more. Never losing sight of that means I'm solely responsible for my failures. I think some people have trouble with that, but I find it comforting, because it means it's within my control. If I make great work, the clients will follow.
Do you have advice regarding choosing the clients with which you work?
For editorial photography, I think it's really about knowing your work, and knowing the magazines and newspapers that would be a good fit for you. I don't think it hurts to go after clients who might not at first glance seem like a good fit for your work, but then you should be able to talk to those editors about why you're approaching them.
Do you have any tips for dealing with the nitty-gritty business details?
Because I've been a freelancer since I was in my mid-20s, I feel like these details are second nature to me. I don't have an accountant. I do all my own taxes (using TurboTax). I keep a spreadsheet of all my assignments, how much I invoiced for, and when I invoiced. I keep another spreadsheet of all my expenses and scan all my receipts. I save a percentage of every check I get for estimated taxes. (The first year I freelanced, I didn't know I was supposed to pay estimated taxes, and I've never made that mistake again!) The past few years, I've used YNAB for my budgeting, and that's made a huge difference just in terms of not stressing about money and making sure that I always have enough to cover the kinds of expenses that crop up unexpectedly.
Since you are your own boss, do you have any advice for maintaining a work-life balance?
I often hear from friends that they wouldn't be able to work from home. They think they'd never get any work done. For me, that's never been an issue. In terms of making sure I don't work too much, when I was editing, that wasn't hard because I didn't love the job, so I just did as much as I needed to do to pay my bills. As a photographer, I actually don't even want a work-life balance. I want photography to be my life, so I never feel like I'm working too much. I love it! I just want more!
What do you do to stay creatively inspired?
Usually, it has nothing to do with looking at photographs. I'll see a movie or read a book or take a trip, and that gives me new ideas.
The 3 greatest attributes you need to be a freelance creative are:
Confidence, discipline, and an open mind.