Probably the most frequent conversation I have with photographers is about how to make a consistent living in photography.
In those conversations, the subject of working for free to gain exposure or experience is definitely a hot topic. Few people are able to go from just starting out to landing an assignment for Coca-Cola or Sports Illustrated, so it’s a reasonable dialog to have. There’s an entry point for for every aspiring professional photographer and sometimes that entry point pays very little—or nothing.
In most cases, working for an entry-level client is really what’s best. If you’re just starting out, you’d probably be in over your head with an assignment from an elite client. And if you blow it that first time, there probably won’t be a second time. Entry-level clients can be found in any town and they are the perfect place to hone your skills. That way, when you land a project for a big-name client, you’ll be ready to kill it.
In the early parts of my career, I did a fair amount of cheap freelance photography for a newspaper here in LA and that experience gave me two very important things: The first was opportunity. Shooting a wide variety of assigned subjects was great, but the part that was even better was having a legitimate outlet where I could pitch my own ideas and then experiment with lighting each one. When you’re working for someone with no budget, you’re in a very good position to ask for things you want—like the types of projects that can grow your portfolio. Once the newspaper realized that what I was asking for wouldn’t cost them money, it was pretty hard for them to say no. So, I asked to shoot the kinds of subjects that really interested me. Invariably, they said yes to my ideas because they had little reason to say no.
Once I got the green light, I used each project as a low-risk opportunity to hone and refine my lighting techniques. Since the newspaper wasn’t expecting me to light anything anyway, whatever lighting I attempted was going beyond what was asked for. So, if it wasn’t perfect, no one really cared but me. But every time I had the chance to light something, I went further and further and took bigger and bigger risks. Some of the early attempts were really rough, but before long I got to the point where I could actually pre-visualize what the light would do before I pulled out the first modifier. I was getting some great experience and the newspaper was getting higher quality pictures. The classic win-win.
“Each year many photographers compete against each other to land professional work for little or no pay.”
But what about accepting low pay for professional-level work? Isn’t working for little or no fee bad for the business of photography? No, it isn’t. Photographers have been doing this for decades. Each year many photographers compete against each other to land professional work for little or no pay. It’s called an internship. Whether through an official internship, or one you create yourself, the idea is to quickly gain experience and move on to a sustainable career.
There will always people who want you to work for the experience, the exposure, or because it will lead to other things. And that is often the case. That’s also when it’s time to move on to those better opportunities and not remain in an unsustainable situation where you’re essentially an intern for life.
Doing that would be bad for the profession—and for you.
Joey Terrill is a Los Angeles-based photographer with clients that include American Express, Coca-Cola, Disney, Golf Digest, Major League Baseball, Red Bull, and Sports Illustrated. He teaches workshops and speaks at seminars including the Summit Series Workshops, WPPI, Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar, UPAA Symposium, World in Focus, and Nikon School.