7 Steps to Your First Paying Photo Job

Photography: Billy Quach

Landing your first photography job will take time — as well as lots of preparation, practice and networking.

Selling your first photo is relatively easy. Image sales, especially stock licenses, depend more on the quality of the photograph than the name of the photographer. Get the subject right and shoot at the right quality, place it on a microstock site or a well-connected Flickr page, and you should find that you’re making a sale even though the closest you’ve ever come to professional photography is walking through a gallery and wishing those were your images on the wall.

For photographers looking not to sell an image but to win a paid job, life is a little harder. Commissions are more expensive than licenses that can cost as little as a dollar, and they require trust. A customer buying an image knows exactly what they’re getting; a client hiring a photographer can only hope that he or she delivers the images they want. It doesn’t always happen.

So what can a keen photographer do to build the trust necessary to win their first commission? Here are the seven steps you’ll need to take to win your first paying gig:

Step 1. Know the Jobs You Want to Win

Photographers are paid to shoot all kinds of jobs, from wars in Somalia and Ferraris for adverts and from local soccer matches and second weddings. Before you can even begin preparing to pitch for your first paid job, you’ll need to know what kind of photography you’d like to be shooting.

Bear in mind that clients will take talent and ability for granted. They’ll assume that every photographer they consider will know how to handle a camera and use light. What will land the sale will be reliability. They’ll want to know exactly how the images they’re buying unseen are likely to look.

So while you should choose a field for which feel a passion — whether that’s pet photography, children’s photography, or shooting buildings — you should also choose a field to which you can bring a unique style, your own interpretation and a distinctive way of photographing. It’s that approach which will win you the jobs. There are thousands of wedding photographers, for example, but Del Sol Photography has become a growing business specifically because of its unique Trash the Dress photography.

Step 2. Practice, Practice then Practice Some More

You never stop learning to be a photographer but no one will pay you to learn. By the time you’re pitching for your first paid job, your photography should already be at a professional level. You shouldn’t be surprised by anything you find on the shoot, and you should be able to handle everything the job throws at you. You should certainly know how to create the images and understand what you have to do to capture them.

That knowledge only comes with practice. Shoot as much as you can. You might not be able to get to Somalia to shoot a war but you can go to the inner city and shoot documentary images. Weddings might be hard to come by but you can bring your camera to some friends’ second nuptials and offer your images as a gift that saves them hiring a photographer. Pet and children’s photographers always have plenty of opportunity to hone their skills and work on their style.

Step 3. Build a Website

Commissioned photographers often win work as much through word of mouth as through online marketing but you’re still going to need a website. Pick up a recommendation from a friend who knows your work and their friend will want to see your pictures for themselves — and they’ll expect to be able to find them online. The lack of a professional-looking website might well set some alarm bells ringing and suggest that you’re less than reliable.

The website doesn’t need to contain more than a small portfolio, a bio page and a contact page. Plenty of portfolio sites, such as Foliolink, make creating those pages very simple. Just be certain to upload only a selection of your very best images and to set aside a section for your personal work, a display of your style and artistic preferences.

Step 4. Network Online

The biggest reason to network online isn’t that it might bring clients into your site. It might, but that’s not something you want to rely on. Most of the people you’ll be chatting with on Flickr, Facebook and Twitter will be other photographers rather than potential clients. But those photographers will give you a unique perspective on your photography. They’ll see flaws that you missed and offer advice that can help you to improve your photography and your website. They’ll help to prepare you to win your first job.

And it’s easy — much easier than the next step which is to network offline.

Step 5. Network Offline

Photography jobs are usually commissioned offline, and the work is certainly completed offline. So that’s where your most effective networking will take place. Once you’ve honed your skills, built a portfolio and have somewhere to display it, you should be letting people know that you’re available for work.

Tell your friends. Bring your camera into the office. Volunteer at an animal shelter if you’re hoping to break into pet photography or hand out cards in the playground if you’re looking to be a children’s photographer. But make sure that the people you know think of you as the “photography person” so that when they hear of someone looking for a photographer, you’re the person they recommend.

Step 6.  Work for Free (or Nearly Free)

One of the most common ways for professional photographers to win their first job is by combining the learning and the networking by volunteering. They work as assistants at wedding photography studios, tag along with newspaper reporters to help at sports matches or they take their cameras with them when they do charity work abroad. The work isn’t always free. Even assistants are usually paid small stipends (which can become significant income if they bring valuable skills such as Photoshop knowledge) but they’re not being paid for their image; they’re being paid to help the person who has been hired to make the images.

In the meantime though, they’re showing off their professionalism, learning the job and building valuable contacts.

Step 7. Do the Job

The combination of practice, portfolio-building and networking should bring in your first job. It might be a reference from a photographer you once assisted. It could be a recommendation from a friend who’s seen your children’s images. It could even be an online request from someone who’s seen your website and wants to know when you’re available. Now you have to complete the work… and use it to keep more commissions rolling in.

4 comments for this post.

  1. Laurie Said:

    I got into selling my photos by covering events (dance competitions in my case) and then selling photos to the people at the events. It works really well, and generates a lot of networking, that leads onto all sorts of other job options.

    I recently wrote a post (http://blog.frozenevent.com/2012/04/04/start-selling-photos) giving a step by step approach to start selling event photos

  2. Todd Klassy Said:

    I can't believe you are recommending aspiring photographers work for free. You are only a professional photographer if you earn an income. There are a myriad of other ways to improve your skill, get a foot in the door, and get your first paying gig...none of which necessitate working for free. Bad advice.

  3. Ciaran O'Neill Said:

    Shooting for free is a good way to gain experience and confidence but remember... if you are prepared to work for them for free so will other people, so don't expect to ever get paid work directly from free work. You will, however, get lots more free work!!

  4. Rebecca Said:

    I have to say I disagree that working for free is a bad idea. It gets you experience and gets your name out there. I'm starting up
    My business now but at the beginning I just worked for free because I was new and inexperienced. Mostly I did senior portraits for friends. But doing those for free has helped me build my portfolio, and now that I do have prices, people see my work and are more than happy to pay what I charge. Even people I know and are friends with.

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