How I learned to love (working with freelancers)

Develop relationships with freelance photographers and illustrators to tell stories in unique ways.

Hiring a freelance illustrator or photographer is similar to starting a relationship: It’s thrilling, stressful and sometimes you’ll fight over money.

I remember my first interaction with a freelancer. She and I connected via social media (as millennials do) through a friend of a friend. I’d like her posts every once in a while just because I was thinking about her. I’d check her online portfolio to see who she’d been with lately. I’d sit in front of my computer – an empty InDesign layout before me – and daydream about an email notification from her with a large attachment. I’d unzip it, and there it would be: my very own illustration, commissioned just for my publication.

Hiring freelancers for photos or illustrations provides and opportunity to bring in outside talent to help your publication tell a story in a unique way. And just like starting a relationship, courtship, communication and honesty are all important to the success of hiring a freelance illustrator or photographer.

Photo by Miha Jan Strehovec on Unsplash
Photo by Miha Jan Strehovec on Unsplash

What to look for in a partner: You’ve just been given the OK from your editor to commission an illustration or photoshoot for your publication. You have your budget (fight for every penny!) and a you have good idea of what the illustration or photoshoot should capture. But where do you start looking? For beginners, vague Google searches are perfectly fine. It might take a while, but the right freelancer for you is out there.

If you’re new to the illustration process, is a great resource. You can keyword search by style/technique, as well as specialty/subject matter. You can also browse through its annual publication that showcases illustrators’ work.

Magazines are another great resource for inspiration. Check out illustrations in magazines you subscribe to or when you’re at a local bookstore. Then create a list of illustrators whose work you like, along with notes on their style, and save it for later use.

For photographer searches, diligence is key. When setting up a photoshoot in a new city, I do a Google search in that area first. I find two to five photographers (editorial/commercial/wedding) whose work I like and also check their Instagram pages because it shows more of their personal work and style. For what it’s worth, my co-workers and I have found that wedding/engagement photographers do a great job of bringing out the personality of a subject.

Courtship: Now that you’ve found a potential partner, it’s time to work some magic. Pick up the phone or send an email. I prefer email at first because it lets them absorb and respond at their own pace.

In your introduction, briefly tell the freelancer about you and your publication, be sincere about why you’d like to work together (mention what you like about their style) and ask them to respond when possible for details of the work and budget. It’s always a plus to be complimentary about their work, and not put all details into your first message, especially your budget.

Once you’ve put out that initial message, you might feel butterflies. Are they out of my league (budget)? Is the timing right for them? Did I sound too needy? This is normal! And sometimes the timing will be off, or your budget will be too low. But this blog is about happy endings, so let’s go get one.

Communication: When an illustrator or photographer replies, “Yes, I’d be interested in working together. Tell me more,” make sure the particulars are figured out on your end before responding.

If it’s an illustration, detail:
• the story idea and tone

  • what you’d like (provide rough sketch if possible)
  • when you need rough sketches and final illustrations

If it’s a photographer, detail:

  • the story idea and tone
  • who and where the subject is (you might give the photographer the subject’s information to coordinate photoshoot)
  • what your shot list is
  • when you need final edits

As for the budget, you should expect to pay in the following ranges:
• Spot illustration: $250-$500
• Full-page illustration: $700-$1,500 (depending on the detail of the work and if it’s the cover illustration or photo)

  • Department photoshoot: $400-$600
  • Feature/Cover story photoshoot: $600-$1,000 (depending on the detail of the work and location of photoshoot)

These numbers are pretty standard, but exceptions are sometimes made by publications or freelancers. When detailing your budget to a freelancer, there might be some back-and-forth discussion, depending on what your actual budget is and what the project entails. It’s OK to not offer your full budget at first, but don’t lowball. It can burn bridges, and it’s not worth the little money saved. Once a budget and timeframe for work received is OK’d, get your freelance contract signed and change your Facebook status to “In a (Working) Relationship with a freelancer”!

Honesty: The key to a good relationship is honesty, but there is a right and wrong way to present that honesty. While one illustrator is on the same wavelength as you in every step of the project, another could totally miss the mark on the rough sketches. One photographer might send you a batch of edits with every shot you asked for and more, while another might send over poorly toned images.

To get the best out of a freelancer who’s returned work that doesn’t meet you and your editor’s expectations, be honest but positive. Don’t focus on shortcomings, rather on what can be reworked for an even better product. Refer to something great an illustrator did in a previous work that could be applied to yours. Or if it’s a technical issue – since we’re all with industry publications – explain the technical issue and send along a useful image with the explanation. As is the case with good relationships, honesty with kindness will bring out the best in both of you.

Hiring a freelancer is a great experience. You work with super-talented people and present your readers with something unique to your publication. You might stumble along the way, but every new opportunity will help you become better at courtship, communication and honesty.

And as for me and my first? Our (working) relationship is four years strong.

Justin Armburger is an art director for Cannabis Dispensary magazine and Lawn & Landscape magazine at GIE Media in Cleveland.

Justin Armburger

Justin Armburger is a Cleveland-based art director with more than a dozen years experience designing newspapers, magazines and websites. He also spent six years as an adjunct professor teaching magazine design at Kent State University, until taking a hiatus last year to pursue another passion—floral design and installation.

Armburger currently serves on the ASBPE National Board of Directors.

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