At the age of 10, Jan Northoff amazed everyone by winning a professional-level photography contest using his father’s old camera. Today, he continues to do what he loves as a freelance photographer, and he is here to tell us all about it.
Photography has always been a passion for Jan. After winning a photography contest at the age of 10, he decided to set foot in photography professionally and has continued to master his craft since then. With decades of hands-on experience, today Jan is a successful photographer in Germany. He collaborates with leading advertising agencies and brands from all over the world. In this interview, he talks about his personal journey, from starting off as an assistant, and shares with us his perspectives regarding freelancing.
Tell us about yourself. Who is Jan Northoff?
I am 47 years old and I was born in Münster, Germany. I’ve been living for 24 years in Hamburg and am living together with my wife and my two children in Karolinenviertel.
How did photography come into your life?
My father was into photography as a hobby and when I was 10 years old he gave me his old Rangefinder camera at a hot air balloon festival. He instructed me regarding aperture and shutter speed, saying that with bright sun I should take aperture 11 at 1/250, with light clouds, I should go with aperture 8 at 1/125, and so on. Then he sent me off with two film rolls.
After getting the pictures developed he decided to send my pictures instead of his own to a photo contest. It turns out I won first place at that contest for “adults”. From that moment on, my destiny was decided.
You started as an assistant for several well-established photographers. What were the main takeaways of those experiences?
Besides lots of technical things, such as different ways of working with light, different camera systems, ways of working and dealing with customer requests, and also the fact that I got to see lots of different countries, the most important thing was maybe learning how to take the leading position too. It’s important to believe in yourself and your skills, stay cool, and be nice to your assistant and team, always! 😉
In your opinion, what are the main differences between freelancing and being employed?
I was never employed as a photographer, so it’s hard to answer that question. But I can’t imagine working for the same company (or studio) every single day. I like working freely, with different people and clients on different projects. A new job always brings new aspects you need to think about and that you never did before. It keeps it interesting and makes you stay open-minded.
In my case, it can be mirrored in the range of different projects I get involved: a fashion shooting one day, an image
There are usually other technical business aspects attached to the freelance photography business, like invoicing. What are other aspects that people undervalue and should pay attention to?
The “office-part” is a big part of a photographer’s job as well. The pre-production is sometimes a lot of work: talking to clients about the project, doing the timing, location scouting or pre-visiting, model suggesting, calculating the costs, etc.
After a job has finished, it’s the post-production. From backing up the photos to retouching to invoicing – and you definitely need a good tax consultant! Besides that, you also need to do some acquisition in order to stay in the customer’s mind.
How do you seek and reach out to potential clients?
I do it through Instagram and Facebook, where I post my work and make some campaigns, and I also use other platforms like Cherrydeck and Production Paradise to market myself. Other times, I visit people that I know in the industry as well, like advertising agencies, and show them my printed portfolio. Sometimes the old school way is the best!
What are the key aspects to consider when defining your price?
It’s always good to talk to other photographers which might be at the same point in their careers as you. After a while calculating for different kind of jobs, you’ll find the right balance.
What tips would you give to other freelance photographers in order to market themselves successfully?
Keep on working on your portfolio and show it all the time.
What is your opinion regarding unpaid jobs at the start of a career?
Everybody has to learn and find out for themselves from which point on this will help (or not) your career without being exploited. I did a couple of unpaid jobs (
After working with a client, how do you secure a long-term relationship?
Just try to stay yourself and do the best you can on that job.
Summing up, what would be your top tips for becoming a successful freelance photographer?
Ask someone who is indeed, like Anatol Kotte! 😉 And besides that, learn a lot! Working as an assistant for different photographers and genres for a couple of years was the right thing for me. Then start with test shootings as often as you can, that helps to get better and to be more self-confident, besides also contributing to building up your own portfolio. Additionally, keep on showing your portfolio to art buyers or photo editors, even if sometimes it can be hard to be criticized or get negative feedback. Listen and learn from it, but stay always positive. And most of all remember, you can not please everyone!
If you would ask one question to yourself in this interview, what would it be?
Is photography still your favorite job? And my answer would be ‘Yes because it doesn’t feel like work to me’.