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8 Big Tips to Become a Freelance Photographer in Iceland

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Cat Gundry-Beck
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A light dusting of snow covered the ground as I stepped off the plane and arrived in my new home: Iceland. A sobering thought hit me as the wind blew through my clothes - I did not know one person on this island. Not only that, but I also didn’t have a job or a house lined up.

I was completely, truly winging it. 

I often get asked, ‘Why Iceland?’, and to be honest I have no solid answer to this question. As a photographer, I was of course drawn to the Land of Ice and Fire because of the wild, epic landscapes. I was living in northern Norway for 2 years before moving here, so I love Nordic vibes and snow.

Behind the scenes of a photo shoot in Iceland
Behind the scenes of one my shoots

Those are some of the more concrete reasons, but realistically it was just a gut feeling that got me to book that flight.

I had tried emailing places and applying to jobs before I came, but got no responses and had the feeling that physically being here would work better, so I decided just to come for a couple of months and see what happens.

I landed on the 7th of April 2018 and had tickets for a concert in Dublin for the 7th of June so I viewed that as the cutoff point - either that trip to Ireland would be a little holiday, or that would be me leaving Iceland and closing this chapter. 

As an Irish citizen, I thankfully didn’t need to apply for a visa so that part was very easy (Iceland is part of the EEA).

I got a part-time job in a hostel which gave me a kennitala (ID / tax number) and I could work as a freelancer off that number as well. This number also made it easy to get a bank account, a phone contract, etc.

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The first two months here were very difficult; I found it hard to make friends, I was struggling to be creative, I wasn’t finding photography work.

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It felt like all the doors were shut and that this wasn’t my place. It was coming up to June and I wasn’t sure whether to buy a return or a single flight to Dublin. But something inside me was telling me to give Iceland more time so once again, I decided to listen to my gut. 

I only spent a few days in Dublin and the week I came back to Reykjavík, everything changed.

It was like Iceland was rewarding me for returning: it saw that I was serious, I was welcomed to the club. That week I got an absolute dream job - I got to work 100 hours per month for a local day-tour company creating photos and videos for their website and social media.

Scene from photography shoot in Iceland in front of waterfall
Taking advantage of all the stunning natural backdrops

I also met some Icelandic girls at a watercolouring evening who are still some of my closest friends today. A co-working place opened that week which meant I suddenly had this network of incredible photographers and other creatives. I was also handed a few amazing freelance photography jobs. Seriously, all this happened in just one week! 

Fast forward almost 2 years and I am still extremely happy to call this tiny rock home.

The people here are incredibly creative and I love noticing little similarities between Irish and Icelandic culture. Ireland is where some of the Icelandic DNA comes from, so I sometimes joke about how I was just following my ancestors here.

5 months ago, I took the plunge and became fully-freelance with photography and videography. My first assignment was to go to Egypt to shoot videos for an international tour company!

Freelancing hasn’t been without its challenges and frequent ‘I can’t do this!!!’ moments, but I’m so glad I took this step.

I’m working on projects I’m passionate about, meeting amazing people and creating photos and videos I’m so excited about.

I focus mainly on commercial shoots as I love helping both local and international businesses grow by creating eye-catching imagery of their products and services.

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Here are my tips to working as a photographer in Iceland:

1. Join Facebook Groups

I have found joining Facebook groups extremely helpful with building my network, finding clients, and learning a lot about how things work in a country. Making friends with other expats meant I had someone to ask when I was wondering how to do things like see a doctor, and now I’m able to help newcomers! 

2. Join a Women Entrepreneur Association

Soon after I arrived I joined a women entrepreneurs association. The membership fee isn’t cheap but I thought that if I get just one job from this group it’ll be worth it. It has actually been where a good portion of my clients have come from. The events are always inspiring and it’s great to talk with other business-women about the challenges we face. So my thinking is that when it feels right, don’t be scared to spend the money on things like this. It’s an investment into your future career!

behind the scenes of a photography shoot in Iceland
Another otherworldly backdrop

3. Learn some basic Icelandic

I find that approaching potential clients (both in person and through email / phone calls) in Icelandic gives a much better impression than English. Even though I’m nowhere near fluent and make many mistakes, the fact that I’m trying is much appreciated by locals. A lot of the time we’ll switch to English to have a more in-depth conversation but starting in Icelandic shows that I’m respecting their culture. It also says that I’m invested in this country as a home, I’m not just passing through, so they know that they can build a long-term business relationship with me. One of the best things that’s helped me learn the language was joining an Icelandic choir. I told them I’m trying to learn, so nobody speaks to me in English while we’re at practise!

4. Befriend other photographers & videographers

A great way to build a community is to get to know other people doing a similar thing to me. I started reaching out to other photographers and videographers on Instagram to go for coffee, which has been both fun and really useful. Having people to talk to about pricing is really important to me, because if you undercharge clients you’re not only shooting yourself in the foot, but you’re also bringing down the level of the whole local industry. I’ve also gotten some work from other photographers when they need a second shooter or if they’re not free to do a job, they’ll pass it on to me. 

5. Take advantage of co-working spaces

Being a freelancer with no colleagues can be a bit lonely so it’s important for me to do things like co-working in cafes - as I write this I’m sitting next to two awesome musician friends! I also rent an office with some other creatives which means I have a desk with a big monitor for editing, and have people to chat to during lunch. 

6. Focus on the "Why" (outside of your paycheck)

When approaching clients, I think about what I can do for them, rather than what they can do for me. It makes me much clearer on my ‘why’ and makes my work feel much bigger than just my own little bubble. I don’t create photos and videos just to make money for myself. I love to help businesses grow and thrive by creating photos and videos that they can use on their websites and social media as promotion. This mindset helps me when I’m networking, as it takes me out of a ‘lack’ mindset (eg. I need this, please hire me) and puts me into more of a ‘growth’ mindset by thinking of how I can help others with my skills. 

a shot from a photoshoot in Iceland with a green mountain background.

7. Reach out in person

With Iceland, I found that people took me much more seriously when I arrived here. It’s an increasingly popular place to move to, with immigrants making up 14.1% of the population compared to just 8% in 2012. Businesses get tonnes of job applications every week from people considering moving here. To stand out, it works to say that you’re already here and would love to drop in for a quick coffee sometime this week. 

8. Don't ignore taxes

One of the first things I did was hire a local accountant. I find taxes daunting at the best of times, but dealing with it by myself in a different country was not a risk I wanted to take. 

Moving to Iceland and working as a freelancer without a stable income has made my comfort zone look like a dot very far away on the horizon, but I’ve learned so much and have met such incredible people. If you’re thinking about taking the plunge, give it a go! I’ve moved to new cities 6 times and although some of them weren’t my place, I have learned something from every place I’ve lived in. You never know what will happen unless you try! 

xx,
Cat

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