Freelance videography is a booming market, but how do you break into it and start making a real living?
Videography is a great way to make a living as a filmmaker. If you are just starting your journey to videography, you likely have a host of questions, including how much can you charge for videography, how do you decide on your rate being hourly, daily, or package, and how do you get started in videography in the first place? We're here to answer them and help you launch into a career using your camera to make a living.
The first thing to understand is that "videography" is a broad category, and most videographers have a special niche where they make most of their money. This is because clients who hire videographers want to be able to see work you have shot that is similar to what they are hiring for.
A sports videographer might be the best shooter around for shooting a football game, but might not be the right fit for a wedding. You need to have a deep understanding of what is going on and the rhythms of an event to know how to cover it properly, and that takes experience.
Videography is also a job where you are frequently interfacing with the public, and you need to have an understanding of the expectations involved. Thus it makes sense at the start of your videography career to think about what field you want to pursue and how you might master the domain expertise needed to accomplish that. It's often helpful if it's a field you already love; many sports videographers are already sports fans. But even if it's a field you are less familiar with, it should be one you at least feel like you can gel with.
What equipment do you need?
One of the nice things about videography is that, while there are absolutely gear needs, there is some flexibility on what that gear might be.
For instance, most videography clients will have a specific specification that they are looking for but care less about brands or models. Currently, the spec on every client's list is 4K; everybody double-checks to make sure you are shooting 4K. This is a bit silly, since even a phone can shoot 4K, and one of the most common cameras at the top of the cinema market, the Arri Alexa, doesn't shoot 4K (it's 2.8K) but would make far more pleasing images than a phone. But it's a figure that has taken off in the marketing, and it's what people expect. You'll need a 4K camera for videography.
However, beyond that most clients don't really have an opinion, with a few exceptions.
You can go for Sony, RED, Panasonic, or Canon, and most of the time you are going to be A-OK. Cameras like the Sony FX6, Panasonic EVA1, and Canon C300 are likely going to be the easiest to work with at a busy event and make the most sense to invest in, but if you have an FS7, an older Sony 4K model, most clients won't bat an eye. Even integrated lens camcorders like the Panasonic can be appealing since it's 4K and offers a great zoom range. While on a commercial or music video shoot, interchangeable lenses are valued, but in videography that's less important.
You'll also have to invest in a good-quality tripod that is both capable of delivering beautiful pans and tilts, but also fast to set up and move around. Some invest in units like an Easyrig for easier handheld operation. You'll need a good variety of backup batteries, and generally a two-up charger so you can have two batteries charging at any given time while you shoot. You'll need a robust volume of media cards since downloading often happens at the end of an event. Many videographers invest in a dedicated camera to set up for a timelapse of the full event (such as a wide shot of the whole cocktail hour at a wedding while the sun sets), and a drone is frequently considered part of the package.
In what comes as a surprise to many who are used to working in more traditional film shoots where there is a bigger division between departments, you'll need some sound equipment as well.
It's frequently expected that you'll be able to set up the microphones for an interview or record the speakers at an event. A handheld audio recorder like a Zoom H6, a few wireless lavalier microphones, and a small shotgun microphone with a permanent stand should cover you.
In terms of lighting, at a bare minimum, you'll need a camera-mounted LED for low-light event work. If you are booking interviews, a small three-light LED interview kit will also prove itself invaluable.
How much do you charge as a videographer?
There are widely varying rates for videography depending on what market you are in geographically, what type of videography you are doing, and how experienced you are, so we can't just say a single rate that will apply in all situations, but we can talk about the strategies you should use for setting your rate.
There are three big factors to think about when rate setting; what you need to survive, what others charge or the "market rate," and what you are offering your client. Of these, we think what you offer your client is most important, but the other two factors matter so we should address them as well.
The first thing to figure out is what you need to survive. Look at your monthly expenses and divide by 20, since 20 is the most days you should work in any given month, assuming four five-day weeks. Videography is a strange business where you often work on a Friday night, a Saturday day, and a Saturday night, but then not on Tuesday, so it's not directly like a normal business week, but it's good to use that as a gauge of how much you want to be working. As you start, you will likely keep your "day job" as it were, but it's a good place to get a sense of your bare minimum day rate.
Many videography jobs work around the idea of a day rate, since it's hard to estimate precisely how long some events will last, and clients want to estimate ahead of time how much it will cost.
Think about a sporting event; the client likely has a single budget to record the event and wants that budget to stay the same even if the game goes into overtime. Of course, as you grow in experience you'll want to move to hourly billing to get more as the project runs long, but when you start, you should expect many clients to offer day rates.
Some clients will ask for a full package rate including editorial, which is a longer negotiation, and you should ask a lot of questions before agreeing to a rate. Specifically, what output formats do they need (YouTube? Old-school Blu-rays?), and what music will they want? There is a lot of great free-use music around, but if the client is expecting Rolling Stones tunes for a video they want to put on YouTube, you should get on the same page up front.
Next, you want to look at what others are charging, but this can be hard to find out. Nobody puts their actual rate on their website, and if they do, it's usually a high rate that can be negotiated. As you start working more you'll get a sense of what others make, and you can also always ask a client, "What do you typically pay for this service?" In a busy market like LA or the Bay Area in California, a $750 or $850 day rate for a videographer is not uncommon, but of course, in smaller markets, the rate often goes down.
Finding out market rates takes time, but within a few months of work in an area, you can generally get a good sense of what the going rates are.
The most important thing to think about is what value you are offering the client. If you are shooting someone's wedding, which is a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime event, they have a higher investment in making sure it's captured perfectly. They want images to help them remember this moment for the rest of their lives, and they are usually willing to pay for them. If you are shooting an event, how important is this event to the organization hosting it? Are they shooting the event out of habit, or do they have a way to monetize the recording? Those will all affect the rate.
This also works in the reverse, where sometimes the rate is going to be lower because there really isn't much need for the footage. Sometimes companies hire videographers to shoot all sorts of things purely for posterity but don't really need the footage for any specific purpose. It will be harder in those situations to negotiate for a higher rate.
In the end, most of the freelance industry is a negotiation, the more so the higher you go. Also, remember to constantly be slowly inching your rate up. You might not be able to raise your rate with current clients, but every time you get a new client asking about your rate, try asking for a number slightly higher than what you regularly get from current clients. You might lose some jobs to overbidding, at which point you should lower your asking rate, but it's a great way to learn what the market will truly bear.
Corporate videography is one of the most robust areas of the videography market. Corporations will hire a videographer to shoot promotional videos, in-house training videos, outward-facing tutorial content, behind-the-scenes content of their processes, and to capture events. Many of the largest Fortune 500 companies have full in-house videography departments you can get hired into, though traditionally they are looking for people who already have some experience. Going full-time can have perks in terms of stability, but typically come with the tradeoff of a lower income. For many, the predictability is well worth the tradeoff in less stress
Smaller companies that don't have in-house departments frequently still have videography needs, and focusing on corporate can be a great avenue to pursue. It might even be worth cold calling some businesses in your area to see if they have things they need to be captured, but cold calling is a tricky business. The problem is that most businesses are constantly solicited and so habitually turn away cold contact. Timing is also key. If you happen to email or call on the day they happen to have a need, you might well land a gig, but calling the day before is useless. If you do try cold calling, never pester. A single email or call is enough.
A smarter move is to look through the contacts of your friends and family to see if they have any video needs. If you don't already have a reel, you can potentially shoot something for free to simply establish your working skills and start to build up a portfolio. You should also look at job sites, both film industry-specific and also general sites, to see if there might be opportunities.
Governments will also need videography from time to time, but landing government contracts can be more complicated. You usually need a longer track record of established work to demonstrate skill and often need to go through a certification process as a government vendor. On the flip side, this can be worth it for the long-term nature of some government contracts, and you should investigate how local and national contracts are handled in your area. Many are required by law to post online and open up to competitive bidding to qualified vendors, which can be a great way to get your foot in the door.
Live event videography, shooting bands and concerts, speakers, parties, and more is currently a slow market but is expected to pick up dramatically in the near future.
The hours tend to be after work, so it's an easy place to get started building a portfolio and gain clients while maintaining a day job. Many live event shoots are multi-camera, since the event is happening once and they want to be able to cut it, so it's possible to get hired as one of the camera people in a team and start building relationships that way. Always show up early to chat with the other team members and stay after to help pack up and ensure proper delivery. You can begin building relationships with other videographers who can bring you onto gigs or that you can hire on your gigs.
Pursuing live event work can often mean getting in touch with others in the space like event planners, DJs, venues, or even contacting bands directly. Many smaller local bands are hungry for content to feed their social channels, so getting in touch and offering to shoot their concerts professionally for a low fee can result in bookings, though at a smaller budget.
Many events happen in low-light situations, so be sure the camera equipment you acquire is good for working in low light, an issue you don't tend to run into with corporate work.
Sports videography is a very busy world and one where there is legitimate room to grow to the top reaches of the market. You can start with little-league games and within a few years be operating cameras at major-league games or even the Olympics.
Sports are also one of the places where it is easiest to build a reel. If you contact local amateur, little league, high school, and collegiate programs, you can start volunteering, or even getting paid, to shoot events relatively quickly.
Rates in these arenas are low, but they give you a chance to develop your skills for knowing where in the stadium you want to be to get the best shot and having the reflexes to execute on it.
You can also pursue internships with your local professional organizations to get into the roster of people hired to work on larger games.
Sports, like most markets where there is a high ceiling, are relationship-based. If you want to get hired up the ladder you'll need to work quite a bit on smaller projects, getting to know others in the field, and gradually you'll develop the contacts to get hired for larger projects.
Sports shooting also frequently involves more complicated equipment, including wire and spider cameras, Steadicam on Segway, and more. Taking every opportunity you get to become familiar with these techniques, whether it is workshops put on by vendors or smaller gigs where they might be part of the package, is a good habit to get into to move up in the sports universe.
Weddings are a very tempting world for the videographer to pursue. Booking a wedding is often financially lucrative, but comes with some complications that make them a very high-stakes event to capture.
First off, know that the vast majority of wedding clients will expect the videographer to come in a package with an editor. Most wedding clients want to hire a single person or team that will shoot the wedding and craft their wedding video all in at a single price point.
This is often the same person on smaller jobs, but there are wedding teams that feature a shooter who attends the event and an editor who does the post-production. You will even see some events where an editor is working in the lobby, cutting together a sizzle reel of the ceremony that can be projected on screens during the cocktail hour, though that is mostly on higher-end events. If you can develop both skills in the toolset, you'll be able to keep more of your billing as a wedding videographer.
The stakes are also very high when shooting a wedding. Like all event work, the event moves on its schedule, and it's the job of the videographer to keep up with it, not vice versa. If you are used to working on film sets, where everyone waits for the camera team to be ready, weddings are the opposite. The ceremony, the cake cutting, the father-daughter dance, these are all going to happen when they are going to happen, and you need to capture it. If your camera malfunctions, if your battery dies, if you are taking your break to eat a sandwich, no one is going to be waiting on you, and they'll never forgive you for not capturing the magic moment.
You also have the complication that there are frequently two teams, a still photo team and a video team, working larger weddings. This means you will have to constantly be navigating getting your shot while staying out of the way of the still photo team who will frequently want to be at the same place at the same time. Since larger weddings will generally have two photographers and two, sometimes even three videographers, it can be quite the packed house.
Weddings, even more than other events, are all about redundant gear. If you can afford it, many show up with a backup camera body. If not, you still want backup media cards and batteries to ensure that you can keep shooting constantly. You'll want to have those on you at all times for fast swaps to not lose an important moment. You also need a good low-light camera. While the ceremony itself might be in the daytime, the cocktail hour and dancing are usually in a dark space, and you still need to capture that footage well.
You also need to do an audio recording of at least the ceremony, which isn't typically required for other videography jobs. It's very common these days to set up a wireless microphone on the officiant and those getting married to record at least the ceremony. If there is a microphone being used for the toasts, you'll want to tap into the soundboard the DJ is using to be sure you record those as well. Setting all of that up to record to a dedicated handheld audio recorder like a zoom, patched wirelessly to the microphones, is often the most efficient way to do this, while using good quality onboard microphones on the camera as a backup.
What to charge for weddings varies drastically based on your market. You will also need a portfolio of previous weddings you have shot to get your start. Finding another wedding company in your market to work for as an operator can be a great way to build up that portfolio, or, if necessary, shooting a few weddings for free at the start. From there it's not uncommon to charge in the thousands of dollars for shooting a wedding, and it can go up to the tens of thousands for very experienced teams of two to three people shooting on high-end equipment. There are even teams shooting weddings on 16mm and 35m film for its archival qualities.
Wedding work also requires a specific uniform, generally all black, and no jeans. Some comfortable black dress shoes, a pair of loose-fitting black slacks (for when you need to kneel to get a shot), and a black button-up shirt are the assumed uniform. While on some sports jobs you can show up in cargo shorts, a bright pink tank top, and running shoes, weddings expect a different level of dress. If you want to wear a tool belt of some sort to keep your batteries and memory cards on you, you'll need to acquire a low key one, ideally black leather or nylon, that isn't distracting. Wedding clients don't want to feel like their wedding is a film set.
Weddings are a lucrative market, but it can take a long time to build up to the top-end rates. You'll need a slick website, a long history of strong work and recommendations, and relationships with a variety of wedding planners to get your rates into the top end. You should also pursue stories in the wedding press (there are several wedding magazines) profiling something unique about your work, and consider attending wedding conventions in your area. Weddings are also traditionally somewhat seasonal, with peak wedding season being April through August, and work slower through the winter.
If you are ready to pursue work as a videographer, it is a booming market out there. Be sure to remain ever conscious that your job is to do everything possible to safely get the shot. The difference between a videographer doing the bare minimum and a videographer that goes the extra mile might not be obvious to all observers, but the proof is in the footage.
Never get complacent, constantly pay attention to the latest techniques, tools, and trends, and you can find a way to make a living with a camera by your side.