Every aspiring photographer who is just starting out will sooner or later run into a quirky conundrum: How do I get paying work without prior experience? I’ve been there, many of you have been there…it’s a sticky situation. And, unfortunately, many of us, at one time or another, have opted to work for free in order to build that experience.
Ted Forbes is a firm believer in the Never-Free Doctrine, a term I just made up to define the belief system of never working for a client for free. In the photography world, your sellability as an artist is primarily based on the images in your portfolio, and there are many ways to build that portfolio without having to undervalue yourself to the business world.
If you want to make it in the business world of photography, you have to treat photography like a business. If you were just starting out as a custom-order horse breeder (is there such a thing?…if so, I want in), how long do you think you would be able to stay in business if you started out just giving away the horses you bred? You are shooting yourself in the foot right out of the gate (#metaphoroverload) by giving your services – giving yourself – away for free, because your time and work will not be valued moving forward. Why do you logically believe that people would pay $50k for your custom-bred horses when they knew you were handing out like candy six months ago?
A few ways to build experience
There are a variety of ways to build your experience and portfolio without giving yourself away like a high school cheerleader at homecoming.
This is probably my favorite approach. If there is a particular field of photography you would like to break into, make it happen on your own. Want to shoot products? Set up a product photography studio in your living room. Want to shoot editorial photos? Pull together some of your friends and map out a shoot…and maybe give them some great social media pics in return. The list could go on, but my afternoon soaps are about to come on…
Become an Assistant/Second Shooter
I have come across a number of photographers who look to hire second shooters who are also flexible in allowing the assistant to use their own images as part of their personal portfolios. The tradeoff is that you not only build your experience but you get paid doing it, too.
Shoot From the Sidelines
This one is a bit of a gray area for me, but Ted does mention it as an option in his video. He specifically talks about this being a great avenue for building a wedding photography portfolio. However, because of past experiences I have had, whenever I shoot a wedding (on the few occasions that I still do) I have it specifically in the contract that I am to be the only photographer and that no one guests are to interfere, step in, or attempt to grab the spotlight. Of course, I understand that all weddings will have family and friends with cameras, but when a relative who just got a dSLR starts directing my bride and groom, I tend to get a smidgen pissed (and, yes, that HAS happened).
These are just a few ideas to get you started on building your experience without having to make give your services away for free.