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Freya Dowson is an international documentary photographer based in Dubai.

About Freya

How to become a photographer

Before I get into answering your questions, I have some exciting news!! So many of your questions have been about how I take my photos and grew into becoming a professional photographer, so I decided to create a little something for you!

It’s everything that I did when I was starting out to develop my own personal photography style. It’s about how you find out what you really love to shoot, how you find your own voice and creative eye as a photographer, and how you push yourself to develop new skills and learn how to take those amazing shots! So sign up below to receive my emails and the free downloadable guide!

Ok, here we go with your questions…

What camera and lenses do you use? If you could only take one lens travelling with you, for portraits and landscapes, what would it be?

Currently I use the Canon 5D Mk iii with a 24-70 2.8 mkii, a 50mm 1.4, a 40mm, and a 70-200. I started out shooting almost entirely with the 50mm and it taught me a lot about photography. I couldn’t afford another lens for so long and I think working with limited gear just makes you a better photographer! These days though I rely mostly on the 24-70 – it’s good for portraits and landscapes. I’m eyeing up an 85mm though, it’s on my wish list along with so many other things!

How do you approach photographing strangers? How do you make a connection with people?

Everyone has a different approach to this, I think you just need to find what you’re comfortable with. Personally I’m not ok with photographing people without their permission, at least not their face anyway. So I always ask and try to make a bit of a connection with someone so that they can feel comfortable in front of the camera. Usually taking a few photos, showing them, and then taking a few more helps them to settle into it. 

How do you get a candid photo of someone while still getting their permission to take a photo of them?

Ask their permission, take a few photos, walk away and do something else for a bit, and then take a photo of them again when they’re not looking. That or you can ask them to just keep doing what they’re doing, and not look at the camera. If someone has agreed to a photo it’s ok to try and give them a bit of direction for what you want. It’s all trial and error and finding out what works for you.

How do you approach photographing a street scene? How do you get peopleโ€™s consent? 

I think as a photographer it’s a good idea to look up the data protection laws in your country, because then that will tell you what you are and aren’t allowed to photograph and share without consent. For example, if you’re shooting a street scene and no person is face on and identifiable, technically you don’t need consent under UK data protection (you might get called out as a creeper though). But also, it’s down to what you’re comfortable with. Personally if I’m taking a portrait I always ask permission, it would make me so embarrassed to be caught shooting someone and to upset them in any way if they weren’t ok with it. It makes me cringe just thinking of it. Of course the rules are different when it comes to kids as well… there’s a lot to taking portraits in truth and I could talk about this for hours!

How do you edit your photos? What software and filters do you use?

I edit all my photos in Lightroom using my own filters that I created myself. And I change those all the time, I rarely stick to one filter or one way of editing for very long – and it changes from job to job depending on the branding of the organisation/company I’m working for. I definitely find lightroom to be the easiest and fastest way to batch edit, and quickly sift through and select photos/edit them individually. And also the photographers package on Adobe CC is pretty cheap!

How do you make sure that the people who you photograph know and understand what their photos are going to be used for? What happens if someone sees a picture of themselves and they arenโ€™t happy about it?

Whenever I’m traveling for work, I’m shooting in communities that have a long and well established relationship with the organisations that have hired me. Before I even get there the community have been briefed on who I am, why I’m there and what their stories will be used for. But even then, every person photographed or filmed will need to give their recorded consent and have it explained to them all again. And even after that permission is always asked for photography and filming in the moment – and if we’re shooting children then consent needs to come from the parents. There’s a lot that goes on behind a photo or a film! But if the person photographed one day wakes up and decides they’ve changed their mind, they always have a way to get in touch with the program team who will then let the organisation know.

How do you make money from your photography?

To answer this question literally, I’m hired by an organisation or a company to shoot for a certain number of days for a specific rate… But of course there’s more to that, it’s a lot of hustle and grind to find the right people, reach out, make connections, make friends, find the organisations that are the right fit or need what I can offer. It’s a lot of work to get to the paid work, if you see what I mean. 

What tech do you take with you when you travel? 

I always carry my macbook, camera, lenses, SD cards, card reader, hard drives, chargers, batteries, battery pack… I think that’s it? Also an ipad mini for having a tv show on in the background in the evenings when I’m feeling lonely – usually something silly like Parks and Rec. I used to travel with so much more but now that I’ve relaxed into it I’ve cut my gear down to the bare essentials. It’s so heavy! Oh and also my iphone comes with me too – gotta get those stories!

How do you do post production on the road?

If i’m doing it correctly, then I’ll sit in the car after a day of shooting on the way back to where I’m staying and make my selections actually on my camera using the rating system. Then when I get back to the hotel I transfer all my photos onto a hard drive, then I back that up. Then I import into lightroom and look at the photos I’ve rated and skim through the rest in case there are a few I’ve missed. Then I do a test edit of a few favourite ones, and probably some I’m going to edit for instagram too – and then depending on the job I’ll create a client preset in lightroom to use as a theme across the rest of the shoot. Then I’ll stay up way too late playing around and editing, especially if I’m super psyched about the shoot I just did. I may send a few star shots through to the client to give them a preview. If I’m not doing it correctly I’ll set my photos to upload and backup and then pass out face first on whatever bed is closest… This job can be tiring ๐Ÿ™‚ But mostly my post production happens when I get home and can dedicate a few full days to it.

What music do you listen do when youโ€™re editing?

Ok the funny thing is I can’t listen to music when I’m editing, it’s so frustrating!! Music makes me daydream, and if I’m listening to something chances are I’ll be sat staring glassy-eyed at a screen for 20 minutes before I realise I’ve accomplished nothing. But I do love listening to podcasts when I edit, it’s my sort of self-education time where I learn tips and tricks about working as a freelancer or as a photographer specifically. Podcasts often help to get me through those crappy work days, or the times where I feel I should just give it all up because everything I touch turns to garbage – ha ha! Urgh. We all have those days. Should I do a post on my favourite things to listen to when I’m editing?

How do you deal with being away from home and Adam all the time?

Believe it or not sometimes I cry before I have to get on a plane and tell Adam I’m not going anywhere and he can’t make me. Usually its when I’m in between long shoots and I’m so exhausted and I’ve taken on more than I can manage. Or the trip I have to go on is going to be really hard, physically and emotionally. I kind of feel like that’s something I shouldn’t admit to, but it’s the truth. Adam has been responsible for dropping me off and scooping me up from the airport when I’m half dead more times than I can count, and I’m so, so grateful. We’re ok with being apart from each other for long stretches but sometimes it can be harder than others, depending on how we’re feeling. We have a rule though that anything longer than three weeks is too much, and we try not to go longer than that without seeing each other. Sometimes that means him flying out to see me on location somewhere for a bit, which can be fun. 

How do you cope with the long hours of work?

I cry. Ha ha. No not really. I mean, sometimes, but rarely. I just try to keep fit, I carry my yoga mat with me everywhere, I carve out enough time for sleep when I need to, and over the years I’ve learned the best way to deal with exhaustion is to lean into it and accept that it’s happening. I know I can make up the sleep when I need to. But also, some jobs if I’m only on four hours of sleep a night I don’t even notice because I’m loving it so much!! Sometimes I can’t sleep because I’m so excited to get back out with my camera! Not every job is like that though, of course. I’ve developed a few rituals that keep me energised and relatively anxiety free when the exhaustion is creeping in, but it’s taken a long time to train myself to cope with it.

Do you ever need an assistant? Can I come with you?

I get so many emails like this and I answer every one because I so know how you feel!! I was there once too. I’ve only recently, within the past two years, starting putting together teams to take out with me on a job. It used to be just me doing the photography, videography and interviews and it was hectic! Now if it’s a big production and all three aspects of content gathering are needed, I put together a team, but I will generally only work with people who have a killer portfolio or who I trust can do the job. You don’t need to have experience working for people so much as proof that you can do the job in the way that is necessary… Like, not every videographer will shoot the way that I like, or not every storyteller will interview in a way that I think is appropriate – I like to work with people who have the same way of creating that I do, but that’s where the magic happens ๐Ÿ™‚ 

How did you find your own photography style and what do you think about when you edit your photos?

Oh my goodness that’s such a good question!!! ๐Ÿ˜‰ sign up to my emails above or below and I’ll tell you how, step by step. In terms of thinking – I think I probably just switch off. The way I shoot and edit isn’t always something I think about, now that I have the skills I need, I just follow my intuition. 

When you go on photography trips, who do you travel with?

Sometimes it’s just me! Sometimes it’s a team, like I said above. But when I do field work for charities or for anyone really, I’m always accompanied by an in-country representative from the organisation. It’s always people who work directly with the program operations, who know the local communities and speak the language – they have the relationships that allow me to be welcomed into the communities and I can’t do my work without them. They’re always behind the scenes and put in so much hard work so that I can do my job – they’re basically superheroes and they have gotten me out of more sticky situations than I can count, even saving my life once ๐Ÿ™‚

What are your biggest obstacles as a travel photographer? In terms of finding time, energy, inspiration, editing and motivation?

Finding the time and the right work, and the right work/life balance. I think it’s easy to burn out in a career like this – especially if you shoot for charities, those trips can be really tough! Mentally, physically, emotionally sometimes too. Chasing after what I love to do but not sacrificing everything else in my life at the same time, keeping perspective – that can be challenging. Reminding myself that travel and photography aren’t the only parts of my life that need to be focused on. And sometimes I don’t have the time or the energy to do what needs to be done, and I lose the inspiration or put off an edit because I’m scared I did a bad job – but when I’m photographing (especially for an amazing cause) I’m loving my life more than at any other time, and that’s where I find the motivation to keep going. And also I think it’s so important to admit to yourself that you’re only human, and you can’t be 100% dedicated 100% of the time, sometimes you need a break so that you can remember what you’re working for. I try not to beat myself up for lacking motivation sometimes, or energy – I’m human and my emotions change all the time. I’ve learned that having patience with myself is the most important thing. 

How did you get where you are now? How did you become a traveling photographer?

I started out working in the not for profit sector! My first job was as a legacy administration assistant, two days a week, for an animal welfare charity. Prior to that I had been unemployed in London for 13 months thanks to choosing an MA in journalism only to graduate into a full blown recession. Prior to that I worked in a butcher shop for a year… It’s a long story. But once I found that I could take a pretty good picture I focused really hard on: getting better, shooting every day, pushing my way through to every opportunity, meeting other photographers, shooting with other photographers, networking, making friends in the industry, not getting down on myself when I was set back by something, starting to think of myself as a professional, selling my skills as a professional, and checking in with myself every day if this is really want I want from my life – because it’s tough! Should I talk more about this in the future in a step by step, what I did, kind of way?

How realistic is it to pursue photography as a career?

That’s a tough question to answer because it depends on what kind of a career you want. There are some careers that don’t require so much personal motivation to get things done, especially careers where you don’t work for yourself. It’s easier to be accountable to other people than it is to yourself – at least I find that anyway… So far I’ve been the toughest boss to work for, and I’ve worked for some pretty big bullies! It is a challenge but photography is an art form and people do art because they love it. I think if you love it and that is what keeps you motivated even when you feel like you’re rubbish and you’re convinced the whole world is thinking the same thing, then it could work out. But it is exactly as difficult as advertised, whether you have jobs fall in your lap or you have to work really hard to land each one, it’s a hell of a lot evenings and weekends, missing fun stuff, working late nights, etc… You get out what you put in. It is a challenging career to break into, but all the best jobs worth having are.

How did you practice and improve your skills as a photographer?

Definitely check out me free download for the best answer to this question. But I just love photography a lot, so I photograph a lot… I like trying to see if I can shoot something in particular and then I teach myself or ask someone else to teach me how to do it. And then it’s on to the next and the next and you never stop learning. You just shoot for the love of it and learn along the way. When it comes to photography I found a lot of photographers I tried to learn from made me feel like certain questions were really stupid and let me just say, there are no stupid questions when it comes to learning! If someone makes you feel ashamed for not knowing more when you’re just starting out, that’s on them and their own insecurities. There may be value to what they are saying so definitely think on it, but keep trying to learn and keep pushing to grow your skills, don’t let anyone put you down or make you feel silly for asking. 

How do you get your first client?

There’s no one way to get that first client. You just have to take every opportunity and also create space in your life to let opportunity come to you. I try to do something every day that will help me get new clients, and I like to think of it as planting seeds – some may sprout and others may not, but you just keep planting and eventually one will. It’s all about making connections, looking for the right fit, finding opportunities to shoot… the important thing is to start as you mean to go on, look for the right people and shoot what you love – I find things naturally progress from there. It’s complicated and this sounds a bit vague, should I go into this in more detail? It may be a bit of a long post!

How long does it take to set yourself up as a photographer including the kit, website, skills, etcโ€ฆ

This is kind of a hard question to answer because everyone’s journey and circumstance is different. Maybe you have a family that can help you out with lending money, maybe you inherit a camera or get one as a present, or maybe you have to fund everything yourself over time, I think it just really depends. I was shooting on a Canon 60D and a 50mm (the cheap kind) for years before a got a full frame camera. I taught myself how to build a website on squarespace with the help of friends who were doing it at the same time as me… You just kind of develop new skills as you go, when you need to. I think it took me about four years to go from no experience to someone who makes money off their work. But I would ask for help where you need it, so if you’re not sure about where to go next then ask someone whose job it is to help you – that’s my best advice. Whenever I’ve been stuck I’ve worked with Jen Carrigton and she’s helped get me out of a dead end on more than one occasion. 

How do you gain creative self-confidence and stop questioning your abilities as a photographer? Have you ever doubted yourself and how did you get over that self-doubt?

Oh man, I don’t know, but if you figure this one out can you let me know? I guess for me there just came a point in my life when I decided I wanted to have a job I love and some amazing experiences, and that outweighed my fear of that mean voice in my head who was telling me I couldn’t. That voice never went away, but these days I hear it less when I’m too busy getting stuff done to listen. I think the best advice I can give on this is that there’s no such thing as getting over that and living a life full of confidence and without doubt – you just have to do it anyway. Sometimes I feel so awesome about what I do and like I’m on top of the world, sometimes I feel like a bad person who takes rubbish photos – but the more I push myself to learn more and gain more experiences, the less I feel that way. And keeping busy just doing things anyway, that definitely helps. It’s just practice and hard work and not letting anyone get in your way, not even yourself. 

How did you get into working in the not for profit sector and how do start working with charity clients?

In a way I grew up in the charity sector as a newly working adult, I started out in corporate PR internship and hated it – and my next job was for a charity. So I started working for charities from the inside out. All of my professional contacts are in the charity sector, I know all aspects of charity communications and PR, and I also know all aspects of charity fundraising/marketing and its multiple audiences. I think this knowledge has been invaluable to me because I can talk “charity” with clients in a way that probably a lot of other photographers and producers can’t. But when it comes down to it it’s just about the leg work, anyone can learn this kind of stuff without having to work in the sector. And the way of getting your first client is the same – just growing your experience and asking for a job.

How do you edit photos for Instagram and how do you keep a consistent, uniform-looking feed? And what are your favourite apps to edit your IG photos with?

My instagram is such a mix of work stuff and life at home stuff, and the way I edit is different for each kind of photo. If I’m posting a photo from my Canon then I’ll do the whole Lightroom edit with my own filters etc… and if I shot a photo with my phone I’ll edit using the VSCO app (I like the E and A filters the most), with the ColorStory app, and then try to work it into my feed. I’m not that great at Instagram, it’s definitely a challenge for me to post in a way that is cohesive, but everything I’ve learned about creating a feed that looks good and grows followers I got from Sara Tasker, she taught me absolutely everything I know about the app and so she’s probably better to go to for advice than I am. And she has LOADS of info on her site about it so definitely have a look.

How did you know what kind of photography you wanted it get into, and how did you land yourself in such an exciting career?

I tried it all out for myself to see! This is also kind of answered in my free download so definitely check that out. But I just tried a bit of everything until I found something that I just kind of lost myself in. I remember when I first started I really wanted a step by step guide of how to get myself a career like the photographers I admired, but the truth is everyone feels their way towards a career they love almost completely blind. No one has a path that can be followed and no one can tell you the right path to take. You just have to feel your way along, find what feels good and right to you, and go with your gut. It’s just hard work, a little bit of belligerence and not giving up. I think it helps to be stubborn, not too proud to do the crappy jobs for a bit, and to accept that it’s a constant work in progress. I definitely didn’t land here, I climbed here, and anyone can do the same thing if they just settle into a life of uncertainty and figureing things out as they go along – but isn’t most of life like that anyway? 

Who do you use to insure your gear?

Photoguard are pretty good I’ve heard, it’s who I use but I’ve yet to make a claim so I can’t say for sure.

What kind of clients make up your client base?

A real mix. Obviously I only show you guys my highlight reel but I’ve taken on jobs like corporate head shots or shooting mattresses to just make some money – not every job takes me around the world and I don’t think I could handle it if it did to be honest. I like working with people a lot, and with stylists – so I’ve shot for some clothing brands. I’ve done some travel and tourism stuff, etc… Lots of lifestyle brand things. I’m not the best at styling and curating, but I love collaborating with other creatives who have those skills so I love taking on shoots that let me work with other people. I’m definitely not at that point in my career where I can turn down paid work because it doesn’t sound fun ๐Ÿ™‚

What is your photography story? How did you get to where you are now? What was your first break?

I think I’ve covered my photography story already above but I think my first big break, which kind of wasn’t big/didn’t break me into anything really, was when I went to Kenya as a producer for a few not for profit fundraising films. I had no clue what I was doing, zero experience, and I was terrified – but I wanted to try and I convinced my manager at the time that I could do it. The opportunity didn’t land in my lap, but I did see space for me to create the opportunity for myself and I worked towards it for a while before it materialised. When I landed in Kenya I was terrified, I didn’t know why I had taken this project on and I certainly didn’t know much about what I was doing – but I had a vision for how I thought it should go and I just followed that. Funnily enough that first morning in Nairobi I went to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust to visit the orphaned elephants and I thought “wouldn’t it be amazing if I could work for more charities like this one day – but that’ll probably never happen, how crazy would that be? That would be a dream job, I could never reach that far…” Now I’m typing this at Heathrow terminal 3 about to board a flight to go shoot for them. What is this life?! It just goes to show you can doubt yourself but still get things done anyway.

Do you clients pay for all your travel or do you ever have to pay for anything yourself?

If ever I travel overseas for work all of my expenses are covered from tickets to taxis and hotels. I’d love to be in a position one day to be able to go on some shoots on my own money, but at the moment I could never afford all the travel required on my own. I mean maybe I could, but I have a few other things to spend my money on at the moment.

How do you balance full time work and a freelance career?

It’s just a lot of work. A long time ago I think working became a habit for me and for a good few years I just did it constantly. At home, at work, on the bus, out with friends… i’d be brainstorming, answering emails, pushing my work out on social media, trying to get noticed by future clients. The past year or so I’ve been trying to scale back as I’ve seen some of the rewards of that hard work coming in, I’ve tried to put less pressure on myself to be “on it” constantly. Work smarter, not harder, you know? I still work long, anti social hours but I’ve been taking a day off when I need it, switching off when I need it, putting my camera away when I need it, etc… Learning how to step away from work has made me much more successful than I ever was when I was hammering away at it until I dropped – but maybe that’s because I’ve put in a lot of time already.

Do you have any tips for traveling solo, especially as a woman?

Following your instincts is important, and not putting yourself in silly situations as well. So like, not wandering out alone at night if you shouldn’t, covering up if the culture requires it, etc… Sometimes it drives me a bit mental when you see travelers wandering around a more conservative or traditional culture and not respecting its values – I think this can be especially dangerous if you’re a woman. Trying to blend in and be respectful is important, and if you’re there to photograph its maybe the most important thing. It’s just a matter of keeping your whits about you, keeping your passport on you (and a photocopy of it in your room), not carrying too much cash and just enjoying yourself. Bad things can happen to us anywhere these days, but the world is full of good people who are always happy to help if you just ask.

What drives your passion in photography and travel, and what motivates you to keep going?

I think I’ve covered bits of this above but in terms of what motivates me to keep going – that’s a tricky one because I don’t really know. It’s just something that I do because I really love to do it, I like the travel and I like chasing after those shots that make my heart race when I know I’ve got a good one. I love the people I meet and the perspective it gives me of the world. I think each trip opens me up to new ideas and new ways of looking at things – it’s made me a less judgmental person and given me a greater capacity for empathy than I ever would have felt without it. My job is the only thing I’ve ever felt real, genuine and consistant pride for. I just do it because I love to, it’s not more complicated than that.

What’s your advice for someone who wants to do what you do?

Well firstly sign up to my emails ๐Ÿ™‚ And secondly, just work really hard. Shoot as often as you can, get better every day, set goals for yourself and keep working towards them, and don’t worry when it feels like a long, tough road – it can be! I know it seems like people “land” in amazing jobs or “break” into careers, but they rarely do. You work hard until you get your first paid job and then at that point you set a new standard for yourself and keep working hard until you achieve that. It’s always going to be tough, and depending on how hard you are on yourself, it’s always going to be frustrating. But you get out what you put in, so keep going and do it because you love it. If you stop loving it that is absolutely fine, keep looking for something else you love. There’s nothing that you can’t do if you just work bloody hard at it, ignore the voice that tells you you’re not good enough, and if you have a genuine love and desire to make it happen.



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