How Can I Self-Learn into a Freelance Career?
November 8, 2012 9:11 PM   Subscribe

In a roundabout and hair-pulling sort of way, I find myself a historic preservation grad school drop out (yes, thank you, I dropped out) and with family logistics, pretty much need to stay home with our child full-time. What sort of skills can I develop on my own time that may lead to a well-paying freelance/at-home career? I have a degree in art history, and a very varied work past that included lots of food service and administrative assistant positions. I've applied to many of the higher paying jobs around town to justify spending hundreds on childcare, but to no avail. Personally, I would rather stay home with my child.

I lack a little bit of direction here, so please excuse my floundering.

First off, I like to write, and feel that I am decent at it. I have no idea how to find clients outside of content mills. Copywriting sounds kind of... fun, but I don't necessarily know what kind of background a person would need to find gigs with that role.

I was a photographer, and actually am really good at it. It was the first thing I really wanted to do, and put my soul into it until I went to art school for a few years and had the passion beaten out of me (I believe I was struggling with the film to digital transition, and art school was horribly expensive with a curriculum and instructors that could not match the community college I studied at since age 15.) It was honestly the only thing I've ever fiercely and confidently gone after in my life, and have been struggling ever since to find a viable career choice. The market, however, seems absolutely flooded and I would need to update my gear (I shoot... um film with a 75 year old camera. Still looks better than any digital photograph I come across.)

I'm learning HTML and CSS to help my web developer brother out with work. I don't know if I should prioritize self-teaching coding at the moment, but this of all options seem the most feasible. I will be creating my own webpage for my photographs, and to experiment with newly acquired skills.

Ideally, whatever path I choose, I would like to have lots of opportunities and room for growth. I know this is a pretty heavy wish list, and may never be satisfied. My undergrad loans are maxed out, so if I were to do more schooling, it would need to be at the graduate level or at a super, super inexpensive community college. Does mefi have any other ideas for me? Thanks for your patience, always.
posted by ohmansocute to Work & Money (9 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
You should start blogging. You can use your writing and photography to make a name for yourself on the Internet.
posted by DoubleLune at 9:19 PM on November 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

I shoot... um film with a 75 year old camera. Still looks better than any digital photograph I come across.

Depending on the demographics near you, this could be an excellent selling point.

Whatever you do, I don't think you're in a position to have to limit yourself to just one thing. If you do a lot of different things that interest you (html, photography, blogging, medical transcription, whatever) the most interesting and profit-making thing you want to pursue will present itself to you over time.
posted by bleep at 10:02 PM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm hesitant to post this because I don't have any direct experience, but depending on where you live, photography may be a viable freelance career. I know people who work, and support themselves, with only an AS-level education--enough to learn the ropes and work up a portfolio--and a few thousand dollars' worth of equipment. This a fairly low barrier to entry, as far as a career goes, and it sounds like you're already halfway over.

Your attitude about film vs. digital, though, and what it suggests about how you feel about photography as an artistic discipline, may not be helpful. I say this, with kindness, as someone who knows how to prepare and process his own platinum/palladium prints, and knows how to do things like unsharp mask in the darkroom, with film. The people I know who make their livings as photographers take pictures which wind up in, for instance, the Crate & Barrel catalog, and don't really care about the subtle advantages of film vs. digital: digital photography's greatest advantage is the radically streamlined workflow.

You probably have a fairly detailed understanding of how film speed (or its digital equivalent), aperture, depth of field and length of exposure interact. You probably also understand what makes a photograph technically excellent, and you may understand how to set up and use off-camera lighting. None of these things have changed that much with the transition to digital. I don't have any insight into the job market where you live, but if you cut your teeth on film, and have the chops as far as actually taking the pictures, you have a solid foundation already. Consider arranging some informational interviews, pricing out a DSLR and lenses, and looking into freelance positions as a commercial photographer.
posted by pullayup at 10:03 PM on November 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

I have a friend who was a stay at home mom for years, and when her son entered high school she decided her job as fulltime mom was on the way out. She spent a couple of years seriously improving her various computer skills, and also her art skills, and now she does graphic design. She worked really hard to overcome her shyness and let small companies that she did business with, like her gym and her drycleaner, etc, know that she was available. Then she started going to Heartlink networking events, and her business really took off. She's so busy now I hardly see her anymore. But she loves what she does, and the bonus of bringing in a livable income has given her tremendous confidence.
posted by vignettist at 10:08 PM on November 8, 2012

Regarding your jewelry interests:

You could become a bench jeweler specializing in wax carving and learn to make jewelry waxes like these folk:
And then make waxes to order for people running jewelry shops.

I don't know if this is a good idea. A couple years ago, a silversmithing teacher told me quite firmly that "Lots of jewelers need wax carvers" but I don't actually know what job prospects are like. If this is interesting to you, do some reading on the subject and then ask the Orchid mailing list if "Is become a wax model maker a sensible long-term job?"

Good luck!
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:18 PM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

With your photography and historic preservation interests, perhaps look into becoming a photographer for the National Park Service's Heritage Documentation Programs: HABS, HAER, and HALS. Often, when a structure needs to be demolished or altered, if the project has federal funds attached and the structure is historic, a HABS/HAER/HALS documentation package will be required as mitigation for loss of the historic property; the documentation package includes extensive photography of the building or structure. The programs have strict photography guidelines: all large-format negatives, black-and-white, photos are darkroom developed, since the photos are intended for long-term archival purposes.

There is a dwindling group of photographers that have the specialized skill, know-how and equipment to do this type of photography. Hopefully there is a HABS/HAER photographer nearby that you could apprentice with. HABS/HAER phtographers are generally hired by Cultural Resource Management firms, so if you decided to later pick up your historic preservation grad school again, you'd already have a set of employment contacts for when you finished grad school.
posted by Ardea alba at 5:13 AM on November 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'd say you are better served creating your own niche and exploiting that. Trying to find work for someone else is going to bring you in dimes when you probably would prefer dollars. Create a blog or website on some aspect of local or regional historic preservation that interests you. Pick something which is under-represented on the web but start small. The one thing about history on the web is that there are a ton of resources that are not on the internet; stuck in archives, libraries, private collections, and in attics. Finding those and presenting them can draw in interested readers.

If you play it right you will slowly gain momentum and contacts. Capitalize on those and grow an audience who will turn to you for expertise. You should be able to start writing books with the stuff you find and building your own identity that isn't dependent on an organization or business. Too many people think in terms of employment dependency instead of making their own way.
posted by JJ86 at 5:59 AM on November 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

One thing you could probably learn at home is housing appraisals. Here's a How-To wiki.

It's not glamourous or artistic, but you can make a decent wage for the time you put into it.

With the housing market picking up, interest rates at a historic low, houses are needing appraisal a lot these days. Even foreclosures need appraising.

I paid an appraiser $300 and she may have been at our house for an hour and she may have worked on her appraisal for another hour.

It's flexible, so you can put your child in daycare/babysitter for the morning, and still have afternoons to hang with the kiddo.

You get to meet other adults, and every day will be different.

You can do your photography or other arty stuff on the side as a hobby, but what you need is a flexible, good income day job.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:41 AM on November 9, 2012

Just a toe-in-the-water kind of thing for a photographer/writer with a preservation background: work with real estate agents, home stagers, and individividual sellers to photograph houses about to go on the market. I was shocked when we were about to sell our house at the truly awful, illogical, poorly lit, out of focus photos people took of houses for sale. Usually the home detail descriptions were pretty dreadful as well. A house is a landscape and a story! I told our own selling agent I was doing my own photos and ad copy. Even though we had a modest house, I copied the techniques high-end realtors use to sell high end properties. We sold the house in a terrible market within two weeks with multiple bidders because the photos and ad copy generated a ton of traffic.

(I was on the other side of this when a rarely available condo in a development we wanted to buy into was on the market for much longer than it should've been. I thought something was wrong with it, but it was just bad photos on the real estate site. We were pleasantly surprised when we actually saw the place and made an offer on the spot. Lucky for us that the agent who took the photos had no eye for the place and wrote terrible copy to boot.)

Also go to small specialized home decor shops, auction houses, antiques dealers, sellers of fine furniture, talented people selling goods on Etsy, Ebay, and offer your photography and writing services to sell/promote their pieces and shops on the Internet. Yes, you'll need to get a sitter for chunks of time, but you'll start to pull in some money to pay for that while starting to create a portfolio for your services. You'll make a lot of contacts and set in motion word of mouth that will lead to more gigs and more upscale clients as you get yourself out there. Agree that you'll have to go digital.
posted by Elsie at 12:56 PM on November 9, 2012

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