Feature Life

Freestyle: Photographer and Videographer Dan Culberson

Dan Culberson (Image: Owen Culberson)

All across New Brunswick, people are using their skills sets to make a living – while at the same time being their own boss.

According to the 2016 census, 8.5 per cent of the provincial workforce (31,785 people) reported that they were primarily self-employed. Whether you call them “freelancers,” “consultants” or simply “self-employed,” there’s no doubt they play a significant and growing role in the province’s economy.

In this series, Freestyle, we take a look at who they are and what they do.

Last time, we touched base with Rothesay-based photographer, Jennifer Irving.

This week we chat with Saint John-based photographer and videographer Dan Culberson:

How did you get started?

I’ve taken a pretty winding path to become a full-time photographer. I always knew I wanted to work on the web, but in 1999 when I went looking for a college program there really wasn’t anything that I could afford that was teaching web, so I took a program at NBCC that was focused on computer programming and had a small web component with it. My first job after that was as a web developer, but I was lucky to land at a company that was also heavily involved in the advertising and marketing side both online and offline. I’d never really considered a career in marketing, but I should have.

So, I was building websites at the same time that digital photography was exploding, and I bought a couple of very early digital cameras just to learn and experiment with how I might use them to create visuals for the web. I got hooked on photography. Growing up my father was an avid hobby and family photographer, and I’d done some photography with my high school and yearbook, so I’d been exposed to that world a little bit. I never really had the patience for learning film photography properly, and digital photography changed all that.

What made you want to go freelance?

I never had a boss that would let me nap after lunch.

More seriously, unlike a lot of freelancers, I don’t feel like there was ever this one moment where I had to make the decision to jump into the self-employment pool with both feet. I’ve been lucky that way. I’ve spent several years in and out of tech startups and marketing agencies, and I’ve always been picking up little photo jobs or taking part in a video project here or there all along. It just happened that when my last agency stint was winding down, it looked like there was enough demand on the horizon for me to work on some photo and video projects for the near term, and I guess I just stopped looking for a “real job”. I may go back to full-time employment at some point, but for now, I’m having a lot of fun and learning a lot just jumping from project to project.

I guess also, through my career I’d been transitioning more and more from web development into digital marketing and social media strategy. I saw this real void where companies were spending tens of thousands of dollars on strategy and on digital marketing software, and they were mostly ignoring the need for quality content. I knew there was a hole in the content creation side of things, and frankly, I find creating content a few people on the web might see a lot more fun than writing long, expensive strategy documents that no one will ever read.

What’s your skill-set focus?

I like to think I’m a competent photographer, videographer, and video editor on the technical side, but I think I provide added value in that I combine that with a pretty good knowledge of marketing and social media gained through years of experience growing up with the web. There are lots of good photographers out there, but not many of them can say they were also part of the team that first brought a large government department into the world of social media, or that helped grow a startup’s early online following to hundreds of thousands of fans.

Who is your client base?

I’ve worked with a pretty wide swath of organizations, but I’m slowly finding my sweet spot with medium to large organizations that need to regularly fuel their social media channels with quality content. I also do all kinds of small jobs on the side, like taking a couple of headshots, or a shot for a magazine, or the odd wedding – but those are becoming less and less as I find my niche.

Oh, I’m also a photographer for the Saint John Sea Dogs, which makes a little money to cover some gear purchases and means I see 30 or 40 nights a year of awesome hockey up close and personal.

How do you go about finding work/clients?

The most I’ve ever done is post on Facebook that I was available to take on projects, and I’ve always gotten more response than I can handle. I’ve been meaning to do some marketing for myself – get some real business cards and update my website at least – for more than a year, but client work just keeps taking priority and I haven’t even gotten that done. I’ve been really, really blessed with a fun and varied career before freelance where I’ve met and gotten to know a whole bunch of people who just happen to also be the kind of people that need to hire photographers and videographers from time to time.

How is working freelance in your profession different from others fields?

I think photographers and image makers, even when they are full-time photographers within a company or at a magazine or whatever, end up operating like freelancers most of the time anyway. The requests for images and projects are always varied, and there’s always a need to shoot something at night, or on the weekend, or at sunrise. So in that way, maybe with the exception of in-house product photographers, photographers and people who make video are always operating outside of normal business hours and rules.

What’s your favourite tool/app/website you use for work?

I like small, light lenses that don’t cost too much. A lot of professional photographers wouldn’t dream of using some of the lenses I use because they aren’t the absolute top of the line. For instance, my go-to portrait lens is Canon’s 85mm f1.8 USM, an older design that goes for about $450. Most professionals are going to go for the f1.4 ($1900) or f1.2 ($2,300) versions of the same lens. Those lenses have their advantages, but they’re much heavier and more awkward to use. And optically the advantages are very minor, so I prefer a lighter lens I can carry all day, and not worry so much about bashing off a rock or dropping in a puddle. I tend to be very hard on the gear I love in the name of getting a shot or having my camera at the ready.

When do you start your day and when do you end it?

Sometimes I work very late into the wee hours of the morning and then sleep in, sometimes I’m up before sunrise to catch the light, and often I nap in the middle of the day for a bit so I can stay up late and work. It’s probably not healthy, but I actually like working this way.

What’s your favourite thing about working for yourself?

The best part about freelancing is not having to indulge other people’s hair-brained ideas just because they outrank you. If a project or task doesn’t make sense to me, I can just say that I don’t think this is for me.

Besides, I have enough hair-brained ideas of my own to fill a dozen lifetimes.

What’s the biggest challenge as working as a freelancer?

The biggest challenge is not being in a constant state of panic between thinking you don’t have enough work lined up and not being able to know how you’ll ever meet all your deadlines.

When do you take vacation?

When I first started freelancing it was pretty easy to just take a day here or there, but now that I’m getting busier I’m realizing I need to actually schedule vacations at least a couple of months out. I’ll let you know how that goes.

One piece of advice for someone looking to break into the freelance economy?

It seems that most people who ask me about becoming a freelancer are very early in their careers – often right out of high school or college. I can’t stress enough how impossible freelancing would be for me if I didn’t already have the career and connections I made while I was also making a salary. I’m not the kind of guy to make a bunch of cold calls and sell myself, and I think trying to start as a freelancer without a healthy network gained through work or volunteering would be exceptionally difficult.