Meet Ryan Tuttle. Freelance photographer, rock climber, guitarist, drummer, and proud owner of the Tuttle Shuttle – a tiny house she designed herself.
Tuttle lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and has worked with many different outdoor brands and publications including REI Co-Op, Eddie Bauer, The North Face, Stio, and Pacific Horticulture Magazine. She also does shoots for music, architecture, and interior design.
As a photographer, she manages her freelance life a little differently than writers because a large portion of her work happens in person rather than holed up in front of a computer (though there is plenty of that too). Ready to learn how this badass photographer makes the freelance life work for her? Here’s what she has to say.
Year Started Freelancing Full-Time: 2015
Age When Started Freelancing: 24
Preferred Pronouns: She/her
What is your About You elevator pitch?
I am an outdoor lifestyle and adventure photographer working with commercial and editorial clients mostly focused on the outdoor space.
How did you figure out what to emphasize and highlight in that?
First and foremost, it’s true to me.
Photography has always been a way for me to get closer to the things I enjoy. It started with music in high school, and then when I got more invested in outdoor adventure activities, my camera just naturally came along with me. It’s a way for me to experience the things that I love more fully.
What did you do before freelancing?
I worked at NBC Universal in Los Angeles and I was a photo editor. So that was right after college and I was there for two years. I transitioned from that to freelancing.
What made you decide to start freelancing?
I was living in LA and I got the opportunity to be a unit stills photographer on a few TV shows while I was working at NBC. It made me realize ‘oh maybe there is a path’ because I’ve always wanted to do photography full-time but I didn’t know what to start with or how to start.
So it was a little gateway. It was like, ‘oh I could actually do this.’ Around the same time, my current job as a photo editor was ending, so I decided that I was just gonna go for it and leave LA to pursue photography full time. I didn’t hate LA by any means, I actually really enjoyed it. But I just wanted to come back to Northern California. So yeah, the opportunity to make a change was presented and I just went for it. Looking back, I did not know what I was doing. At all.
It was a pretty crazy decision, like when I look back on it, I did not know what I was doing. But obviously, I’m glad that I did.
You’re never ready for change, it just happens to you.
What was your education before you started freelancing?
I went to UC Santa Cruz and I was a film and digital media major.
What preparation did you do before going full-time freelance?
Laughs. Nothing. I moved home after leaving LA. That really made the transition a lot easier and I’m so grateful for that. I definitely understand the privilege in that of temporarily moving back so that helped a lot to be honest. It allowed me to find my footing at a time where I was confused about where I was heading with my career and the uncertainty of it all.
What was the most challenging thing for you when you first started?
Finding clients. And not knowing who to reach out to or not knowing if they’d reach out to me or how I should reach out to them. That kind of thing. That was the main problem.
What helped you the most when starting out?
Probably talking to other freelancers. I like doing research and just seeing what other people are doing. I think what probably helped me the most was figuring out, ‘Okay, I want to do the outdoor thing, but I don’t know’ so finding other people that are doing it and seeing how they went about it. That was the most helpful.
How did you get clients when you first started?
I emailed a lot of people. That was all I did, was email everyday.
I would think to myself, who do I want to work for? What brand? What are some companies that I really resonate with? How do I fit within their story? And then just emailing them and trying to put myself out there as much as possible. And most people don’t email you back. But some do.
How did you get into the outdoors niche?
I moved back to the Bay Area and I started to get into climbing again, and I met some people at the gym. We were all in the same spot in our lives, figuring out what we wanted to do, but also coming into the climbing world, going on trips all the time. It naturally happened that I was taking my camera.
This was all happening at the same time I was trying to figure out what to do with my photography career. So it kind of all converged into realizing that I wanted to incorporate the things I like doing in the outdoor space with what I want for my career goals.
Do you ever go into other topics?
Yeah, I shoot music and interior design as well. I started out shooting concerts in high school and it’s still a major part of my work today. It was the same kind of thing – I enjoy music and I play music, so it was a natural thing for me.
With my interior design work, I’ve always been very interested in spatial design and architecture. So much so that I designed my own tiny house! I feel like when I get interested in new activities, the camera just always comes with me.
I feel like a lot of people feel like they have to have one specific thing and I do think that it’s good to have a niche, but it’s also okay to be good at other things. And it doesn’t mean you’re just a jack of all trades and master of none kind of a situation. You can be really good at a few things.
In some ways I think it does help you stand out. I’ve had jobs where people really take an interest in other aspects of my work that aren’t related to their brand. My work may seem varied, but the juxtaposition works for me, and I feel that it helps me see new perspectives. It all goes hand in hand.
When did you make your website portfolio?
I had that before I became a full-time freelancer, I think I started it towards the end of high school. When I went full time, I had my website ready to go and it was filled with personal work.
How did you make it?
Squarespace. I like how simple their interface is and it’s easy to make changes.
How do you work in vacation or sick days as a freelancer?
I don’t. laughs.
It’s a good question. I mean I’ve been pretty busy the past couple years and most of my bigger vacations are planned way in advance. I kind of just plan them.
Like last year, I planned a Hawaii vacation over December. Usually December is pretty slow, so I know that I’m not going to usually have major things going on. It’s important to carve out that personal time, but I can’t say that I do it on a structured basis. Something to work on for sure.
How do you handle money stuff?
I do it all myself. I just keep really good track of everything with a big spreadsheet of my expenses, income, etc.
For the past three years or so I’ve had an accountant who I send all of my records come tax time and they put it together just because it’s so complicated. So that helps a lot, but they’re not a CPA helping me with year round budgeting and that kind of thing.
How do you manage retirement funding?
I started a Roth IRA four years ago, which I’m very proud of. I haven’t put money into it this year, you know, but I think it was important to start. The earlier you can the better just [with] compounding.
How do you decide your rates?
It really comes down to time and licensing. How much time but not only hours, like mental energy I have to put towards something [too]. When I was first starting out, I totally underestimated that section of it.
I give absolutely everything to each client and job, and it’s important to charge for that time and energy. And I don’t think I fully grasped that when I was first starting out.
So my first question for the client is always what is the goal with this project? What will these photos be used for? What is the licensing agreement? Is there travel involved? Does the client want me to produce this myself or will we have a crew? And then I’m able to piece together how much time is involved and what is needed to make it a successful shoot.
How does the licensing work with photography?
The licensing determines how and where the photos will be used and for how long. Is it for social media? Do they want to print these photos? How long am I giving them the rights to use the photos? Is it for web advertising?
All this stuff has different tiers of pricing. I think that’s where a lot of the division is for when you hear different numbers from different people. Different licensing agreements, like a full buyout vs social media, is a very different usage and it should be priced accordingly. So you work with the client to figure out what the purpose of the shoot is in the first place and then go from there.
How do you decide when to bump up your rate?
I start feeling like I’m being taken advantage of.
Maybe a job comes up and I do it and then whatever amount I’m paid for it, I may feel like I was totally taken advantage of or that I worked way harder than whatever the rate is.
A lot of that just comes with doing more shoots and figuring out how I work and the amount of time and energy I put into things. I have a solid structure for how I price my work now, but when I was starting out, this was difficult for me.
What do you charge for a standard shoot?
It varies. If I’m doing an outdoor lifestyle shoot and it’s local, my baseline is around $2,000 to $2,500. And it varies from there based on the production, licensing, etc. No two jobs are the same, and when I’m approached for a project, I really spend a lot of time drafting out a bid and I try to make it as transparent and streamlined for the client as possible.
How do you negotiate with clients?
Oftentimes the client will reach out to you and say “this is our budget” and there isn’t much wiggle room. Then it’s up to me to decide if that’s going to work for me or that’s not going to work.
OR they reach out and they ask what’s your budget or what’s your fee? That’s when I can ask the questions and go from there.
How much did you make your first financial year freelancing full-time?
I think $22,000 or something like that.
How did you start making more?
I think a lot of word of mouth while working with smaller outdoor companies and making every single shoot count towards my portfolio. I also shot a lot of personal work that in my head I pretended was client work.
Even if it was a shoot I had put together like, ‘I’m going to shoot Patagonia style catalog work’, I would come up with my own art direction and put that work into my portfolio.
The first major shoot for me was my first REI shoot and they told me specifically when they were looking at my work, they thought a lot of the stuff that was personal work was client work.
You’re not scheming anybody, it’s still your work, but it’s a really nice way to show the direction you want to go when you haven’t necessary had a ton of assignments. You have to shoot what you want to be paid for.
How do you invoice?
I have my own template that I made on pages. I don’t use an automated one. Maybe down the line, but I have it nicely templated for different things so I can easily put numbers in so it’s not a big time waste or anything.
Have you ever had to dump a client?
I guess this year actually.
I was doing some stuff for an interior design client and I had done quite a few shoots for them knowing that the budget wasn’t great and that I should be paid more for it. But it was during the pandemic and I really wanted the work. And then there were more and more shoots coming up without room in the budget and they were getting a little too lax about covid-related things. So I did say I can’t do this anymore. But that’s the only time.
How do you find the right clients?
Luckily there’s so much info made public about brands and I use that to help guide my research on different companies I want to work with. It’s very transparent. Probably more so than ever. Like you can find things out about where a brand stands on social justice issues, what’s their environmental stance, that’s all super important to me.
How do you decide you’re at capacity or not going to take any new work?
Most times clients will reach out and first just ask if I’m available. If I am, then we’ll start going through details about the shoot and maybe I’m passed on, or the shoot isn’t the right fit, or I’ll hold the dates and the client will decide to move forward. If I’m available and everything else about the shoot checks out, I pretty much always say yes.
Sometimes clients are flexible in their dates which is always super nice. I think being in the outdoor space clients are a little bit more receptive to that. They know people will have major weeks blocked off for some travel thing where you’re not in town. So I think it’s a little bit more of an understanding that the dates might not align perfectly initially but hopefully, if they want to work with you, they’ll figure it out.
What signals a red flag to you about a client you’re considering?
When they ask for stuff for free. That’s the major red flag and that’s what happens most often and it happens a lot still.
Do you think that has anything to do with being a woman versus being a man?
It’s interesting because my name is Ryan and it has happened a lot where you’re emailing and then they’re like, okay, let’s have a phone call. And I can tell just from experience that they were expecting a guy.
Does their attitude ever change?
Kind of. I feel like the tone of people’s voice changed.
I do have Elizabeth as my middle name on my email signature and I think when people reach out to me, they’ve been to my website and I do have a photo and I say I’m a female so I think now a lot of people know.
But yeah, I mean you call and you’re like ‘Hi’ and they’re like ‘Hi…Ryan?’. Yep. I’m Ryan. It’s like ‘Ryan?’ and they’re like ‘oh, hmm, okay. Okay.’ That kind of thing.
Most often it’s through email that you’re sending rates and all that so I don’t think I’ve noticed a shift in like, oh, we’re going to change how we’re going to pay this person, but I do notice it just in how people treat you. I don’t know what’s going through their head.
With all things, I feel like people treat women differently in all fields, and I don’t know, it’s hard for me to say.
How do you do contracts as a photographer?
I have a terms and conditions agreement written out for different scenarios. I always make sure I have a contract for every job. I’ve looked at other contracts and I copied certain language because it’s all legal jargon – you have to say things in a certain way.
What do you think you’re best at as a freelancer?
I think being really persistent and super consistent.
Because I was the photo editor, I was in the position of people reaching out to me, so I know what it feels like. I know when to reach out to people and when to follow up and I think it’s helped me.
What do you like the most about freelancing?
That it’s based around what I love doing. So a lot of times the shoots I’m doing, we’re going on a hike or kayaking or biking. I enjoy doing that stuff too. It’s a lot of work but my entire year, thinking back to shoots that I’ve done or looking forward to other shoots, it’s all stuff I enjoy doing. The travel is super fun and just being able to set my own schedule.
I had an office job for two years and I did really enjoy it. I enjoyed being a part of a team. But I didn’t like knowing what the year ahead was going to look like before it happened, as far as work goes. I really like not knowing. It’s kind of freaky scary not knowing.
Tomorrow someone could approach me with some really cool shoot, and then all of a sudden you’re going somewhere awesome and doing this cool thing that you had no idea that you were going to do the day before. I really love that.
Have you ever felt or experienced any challenges as a woman in the outdoor industry?
Yeah, more so with music to be honest. Not as much with the outdoor industry because I feel like those brands for whatever reason are more in tune with that. But definitely with music. Music is very male centered and when you’re shooting in the photo pit at a concert, you can have the exact same credentials, and they won’t let you have the same access as a guy that’s in there with the exact same thing. Like it happens an astronomical amount it’s ridiculous.
And I don’t know what it is about music but it’s not good and there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. But a lot of people are coming out more with their stories about it, so it is more transparent than it used to be. But yeah music is a tough space for women for sure.
What tools do you use for your business?
(Photo equipment aside – though you can check out her camera gear choices here!)
My calendar is the main one but I just use the normal app – I don’t have a specific scheduling thing. I write down ideas all the time but I just use my notes app.
I have things foldered out or I have a folder on my computer on lifestyle inspiration that kind of thing or like lighting inspiration. Also, I have a lighting guide and things that I have learned or I want to do on future shoots. So I just take a lot of notes. I write everything down because I realized pretty quickly that I forget things easily or if I don’t write it down, I’ll forget. So I have a lot of different things, but it’s just all on folders on my computer.
What do you think is the most important skill to have for freelancing in the outdoors industry?
Not taking things personally, because you’ll be told ‘no’ a lot.
I shoot things that I love so my personal life and my career is all one thing so you naturally take things personally. If you show someone something and they don’t like it, that’s personal to you because you put so much heart and soul into it. So just learning that it’s not an attack on you as a person and learning how to use that criticism to get better.
How do you manage to stay inspired or continually think of new ideas?
I don’t often look at photos for inspiration. It kind of does the opposite for me when I look at other peoples’ work for some reason.
Certain photographers, I do look at a lot, it is inspirational to me, but I find more inspiration from films and lighting especially.
And books too. Reading in general or playing guitar. I don’t always have to be looking at something for inspiration. I like to get into a headspace.
Have you ever gotten burnt out?
Yeah all the time.
What do you do to help with that?
That’s when I stop looking at other people’s work. I stop looking at photography.
When I have been really burnt out I feel like it’s because I’ve been bombarded with other people’s work and maybe sometimes you’re like, oh that’s cool that’s really inspirational. But at some point, it’s just too much and then you start feeling really bad about your own work because you’re like, I’m not doing this and I’m not doing that. So you’re seeing too much stuff and you feel like you have to do all of it. And that’s when I feel the worst about my work.
But I can get out of that through not doing photography. I think it’s different for a lot of people. I’ve heard a lot of people when they’re burnt out, they say go shoot a personal project or something. That doesn’t work for me.
So it’s just figuring out, when do you feel the most creative? That’s when I can get out of burnout. And I feel the most creative when I’m looking at or experiencing other creative outlets that are not photography.
If you could give one piece of advice to a newer woman freelancer getting into the outdoor industry, what would it be?
Not to be intimidated by everybody else that seems to be doing the same thing that you are because everybody’s different and nobody’s doing what you’re doing.
Everybody’s different. You have all these different avenues and maybe you’re super inspired by one photographer and you feel like your work looks exactly the same as theirs, but it doesn’t. You are your own person and you see things a certain way.
So to know you’re worth and not be intimidated by all the noise surrounding you.
Want to see Ryan Tuttle’s beautiful photography? Check out her website for the outdoor space or for architecture and interior design. You can also catch up with her on Instagram or her tiny house website, The Tuttle Shuttle.
If you found Ryan’s advice useful, consider buying her a coffee! You can find her on Venmo at @ryan-tuttle-1.