Female Freelancer: Sarah Der

This week on the blog we are featuring a dear friend of mine as our female freelancer. Sarah Der is a Richmond, Virginia-based lifestyle photographer who I met two years ago after she moved to town from Boston. I first came to know Sarah for her wedding photography, as I was working with The Knot at the time. After hanging out and getting to know Sarah, I discovered that she photographs more than weddings. Her work encompasses portraits, families, food, interiors, landscapes and pets. Through her photos, Sarah has a way of capturing the magic of people and places. You can find her work nationally on websites like Martha Stewart Weddings and here in RVA in the cool new magazine B Side. Below Sarah shares the ins and outs of being a freelance photographer with us, along with some of her challenges and inspirations.  

Publications worked with: B Side, Maine Magazine, Southern Living, The Voice-Tribune along with many online publications like Elizabeth Anne Designs, Grey Likes Weddings, Martha Stewart Weddings, Ruffled, Southern Weddings and Style Me Pretty

1. What did you do before you launched your freelance career?

I launched Sarah Der Photography right out of college and I haven’t looked back. I often wonder what it would be like to work a 9-to-5 job — would I like it?! Would my coworkers be super fun? Would there be Friday happy hours? Could I really become a morning person!?

2. How did you get started in the freelance world?

I have always loved the arts. Growing up, I remember absolutely cherishing this dinky watercolor set I got for Christmas. The little plastic brushes and all the different paints were so precious to me. Painting, sewing, taking photos, drawing, anything creative kept my attention. When I graduated from the University of Richmond in 2010 with a degree in English and Studio Art, I spent a good amount of time trying to figure out how to make a living working in the arts. I remember sitting my (now) husband down on his beat up grad school futon and saying, “You know, I’ll just get one camera, one lens, and we’ll see what happens …” Well it turns out that I love the challenge of it all! I love photography and I love working for myself.

3. What was your “big break”?

Honestly, I don’t know that I’ve had a big break. I’ve lived in three different cities in the past 8 years, and I’ve brought SDP along for the ride. Establishing a business in a new place means making new connections and building an entirely new client base. I have worked very hard the past 8 years to stay relevant and to serve clients, to make a place for myself in each new city. Perhaps moving to Richmond has been my big break? I can finally relax a bit and let my business grow organically. It seems easier to make meaningful connections and to settle in here knowing we’ll be in RVA for the long haul.

4. As a self-employed photographer, what is an ongoing challenge for you?

I think any self-employed individual can relate, but feeling isolated is the biggest struggle for me. I’m an introvert, but I still yearn to be part of a team. I want a teammate, someone with whom to brainstorm ideas, who supports the work that I do and who shares in the successes and the disappointments. I really enjoy working with other photographers and learning from them, but being busy with my own clients and projects doesn’t open up many opportunities to do that.

5. What is a project you recently worked on that makes you proud?

I had the absolute best time working on the newest issue of B Side Magazine. I had recently relocated to Richmond when Ja’Nai Tellis Frederick — B Side’s badass founder — approached me and asked me to come on board. I was so, so excited and honored. B Side is such an incredible project. The magazine tells the story of female entrepreneurs and bosses here in Richmond, and the most recent issue features women in the food and beverage industry. I got to meet and photograph local chefs, bakers, and business owners. I am so proud of how the last issue turned out and even more excited about the upcoming issue! It gives me the perfect outlet to push myself creatively, and it also makes me feel like part of a team.

6. What are some of your favorite tools as a photographer? 

Hands down my favorite tool is film! You remember film? What your parents shot when you were a kid? I shoot a lot of little canisters of 35mm and even more rolls of medium format film. If you have talked to me at all about the work that I do, then you’ve heard me go on and on about why I love film. I love its grain, I love its classic tones, how you shoot it slowly and intentionally, how you can’t look down and see every shot you’ve taken, and how you only have 16 (or 36!) shots per roll. I love that I don’t have thousands of photos to sift through and how shooting film let’s me shoot more, sit at my computer less. I love that it’s a bit of a forgotten art; that makes it even more special to me.  

7. How do you keep yourself inspired?

I try not to look at the work of other photographers to find inspiration simply because it’s easy to start comparing your work to theirs, which fosters unhappiness and insecurity. It sounds cheesy, but I stay inspired by the people with whom I work — their stories, their spaces, and their passions. I really try to approach each person with an open mind. Then in the photos I take and that I share, I hope that others can see what I see, too — the joy, the creativity, the hard word, the passion.

8. What do you do in your spare time to unwind from work?

Last year I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, and in turn I really changed the way that I eat. Now I spend a lot of my time these days cooking! I’ve tried to shift my thinking from “oh what a pain to have to cook again” to “I’m so lucky to be working with these amazing, local, organic ingredients that are really good for my body…!” I have also taken an interest in the local food movement. I opted in to Broadfork Farm’s amazing CSA program, and I have enjoyed the challenge of cooking with whatever crops are harvested each week.

I also love walking by the river with our sweet pup; being outside with her is such a meditative, quiet time for me. Other than that, I am minutely ashamed to admit that I sometimes stay up really late playing a highly addictive video game called Fortnite. Thirty-year-olds are allowed to play video games, right!?

9. What advice do you have for women who want to become a freelance photographer?

Go forth confidently! It is such an amazing time to be both a woman and hustler. You can find so much information online and around you to help get you started. Take comfort in the fact that each of us had to start from scratch to figure things out, too. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and don’t get down on yourself when you make mistakes or when you don’t know the answer. Learning is such an important part of the process.

Surround yourself with those who will lift you up, and remember to do the same for others. Someone else’s success will never take away from your own, so take every opportunity you can to support and celebrate the success and hard work of others. Be patient. It takes time to grow a sustainable business, and sometimes you don’t see the results of hard work for some time. So stick with it, girl!

Connect with Sarah through her websites sarahder.com and sarahderphotography.com, and via social media on Facebook and on Instagram


Female Freelancer: Kristin Luna

I’m kicking off a new series on the blog called “Female Freelancers,” where I feature women in the media. In this inaugural post, Kristin Luna, a Nashville, Tennessee-based journalist and media pro, shares her journey in journalism and marketing. I met Kristin six years ago when we were both traveling in Savannah and I immediately felt a connection with her. I have always admired Kristin for her work ethic, gumption and authenticity. Follow along as Kristin shares her “big break,” the challenges she faces and how she keeps herself inspired.

Publications worked with: AFAR, Conde Nast Traveler, Food + Wine, Forbes, Glamour, National Geographic, Newsweek, PEOPLE, Real Simple,  Redbook, Robb Report, Self, Southern Living, Travel + Leisure, USA Today

1. What did you do before you launched your freelance career?

I started working in newspapers at the age of 15, then went onto the University of Tennessee for a journalism degree, got my first big magazine break with Harper’s at the age of 20, moved to New York City at 22 for a job with Newsweek and have worked in the media ever since. This year marks my 20th as a journalist!

2. How did you get started in the freelance world?

I went back to school for a one-year journalism program in Europe and used my Newsweek connections to leverage a monthly column covering new hotel and restaurant openings for the magazine’s international editions. During that year abroad, I also landed my first guidebook gig in Spain for MTV and Wiley Publishing, who published all the Frommer’s titles at the time.

At the completion of that project, I moved back to Manhattan where I worked in-house gigs at publications like Entertainment Weekly, US Weekly and Conde Nast — with several other freelance reporting jobs in between. During my last year in house at a Conde Nast fashion title, I started actively pursuing freelance gigs through my network of connections I’d accumulated over the past couple years of going to every event I was invited to in New York; pretty soon, I had regular enough work with the Travel Channel and Forbes Traveler (now defunct) that I was able to go full-time freelance and move to California to be with my then-boyfriend, now-husband.

A few months after arriving, I met a publicist who introduced me to the Frommer’s author of the California guidebooks, and as he had just launched a new company of his own, he subcontracted a lot of his Frommer’s work out to me. In four years, I contributed to more than a dozen titles — and established myself as the go-to California writer in the process, which brought me even more work and an eventual long-term gig with Visit California, the state’s marketing arm.

3. What was your “big break”?

During my final months living in New York, a contact through my college alumni network reached out and asked to send me on my first commissioned travel assignment to the Caribbean for Real Simple. Though I had had many smaller print clips and hundreds of online hits for major pubs, this was my first multi-page feature in a national glossy and I was just 24.

4. As a self-employed journalist, what is an ongoing challenge for you?

I’m lucky in that I’ve never had trouble getting work — there’s always been a steady stream of gigs that seem to land in my lap, thanks to decades worth of endless networking — however getting paid is another issue. It recently took me 11 months to collect payment from a major magazine, and sadly that seems to be the norm with so many publications going through staff changes and freelancer paperwork getting lost in the shuffle.

While I make a good annual income as a freelancer, I often feel cash poor simply due to how long it takes to get paid and the amount of time and mental bandwidth wasted on chasing paychecks that are months (sometimes, years) overdue. Sadly, Net-30 is not the reality of the magazine world, and publications don’t get penalized for overdue payments.

5. What is a project you recently worked on that makes you proud?

My husband Scott and I launched Odinn Media, Inc. in 2012 as a specialized content marketing agency, and through it we have worked with dozens of CVBs and DMOs, as well as have long-term contracts with such brands as the Grand Ole Opry. Owning your own agency allows for a lot more creativity that I don’t necessarily get from freelancing for other clients; we do photography, video, drone, social media, writing and strategy, and truly get to leverage our skill set and passions, of which we have many. Our key to success in the media has been to keep evolving and always stay one step ahead of the trend.

6. How do you keep yourself abreast of trends and news in the ever-evolving media industry?

I’m a slave to social media, and I’ve found that, ironically while it’s one of the older social media platforms, Twitter is now more relevant than ever and my go-to news resource for not only what is happening in the industry, but also the world. 

7. What are some of your favorite tools as a journalist? 

Back when I was still actively pitching, I found MediaBistro’s “How to Pitch” guides invaluable for learning where and how to pitch specific editors and publications. From an organizational standpoint, I use Dropbox for everything, from file management to sharing assets with clients. The scanner functionality on the Dropbox app helps me keep an electronic version of my receipts handy at all time for later reimbursement and tax write-offs.

8. How do you keep yourself inspired to brainstorm and pitch new story ideas?

I’ll let you in on a little secret: I don’t pitch publications anymore. I’ve come to a point in my career where I have more work than I can handle as it is — both from anchor clients but also editors with whom I’ve worked for more than a decade — so unless there’s a burning issue I just have to write about (like the recent controversy surrounding my husband and me commissioning a community mural), I never, ever pitch.

I find that with staffs slim and lead times ludicrous, the best way to get work is build relationships with editors over time who assign me stories they’ve generated in house versus my bringing ideas to them. A lot of our work nowadays is custom content for tourism boards, so most of those partnerships organically happen through our travels and meeting the right people at conferences and other industry events.

9. What do you do in your spare time to unwind from work?

There’s rarely a time I’m not working these days, to be honest. But my husband and I own an old 1800s Victorian, as well as a couple investment properties around Tennessee, so when we aren’t writing, editing or shooting, we’re likely tinkering away at one of our houses. Additionally, I’m big into fitness, and AcroYoga is my preferred style of working out for a full mental escape that’s also a whole lot of fun.

10. What advice do you have for women who want to become a freelance journalist?

Persistence is the only way to launch a sustainable career in journalism in 2018. You have to be prepared for a lot of “no” along the way — then figure out how to spin that rejection to your advantage. All it takes is one “yes,” after all, to completely alter the course of your career.

Follow Kristin’s adventures on her website Camels & Chocolate, and via social media on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook