There are many ways to express the notion of the first step being the hardest, and it often is. So how does a photographer get paid work in a new area, if they don't have past work to show?
The problem reminds me of the experience paradox for graduates trying to find their first rung on a career ladder. Companies demand experience, but don't offer any to anybody without it. If all companies had this approach, you'd fast run out of candidates altogether. The problem from the perspective of the employer is that they want the most cost effective solution; training people can be expensive and is riddled with risks like the person leaving or not learning as quickly as is required. Employees are an investment, and that's exactly what you are as a photographer, too.
So how can you overcome this issue as a photographer looking to branch out in to other areas? If you're a hobbyist, there isn't really a problem. However, if you're already relying on your income from photography, that's far trickier. Here are the three methods that I believe are the best route to getting paid assignments in areas of photography you haven't worked before.
This is my favorite and my go-to, but it's not for everyone. It takes a blend of salesmanship, confidence, and grit. The formula is simple really: you don't stop trying to get paid assignments in an area until you get one. That's it. You have to send emails, make cold calls, knock on doors, try to find mutual friends or other ways in at relevant companies and brands, call in favors, and bang your head against that closed door until someone opens it.
You'll get ignored and rejected constantly, every day. If that bothers you, you'll need to adjust your thinking or try a different method. The best way to look at it in my experience is this: someone will give you a shot sooner or later, so everybody who rejects you is a step closer to that all important "yes". That's not to say you give up if someone says no, but not convincingly enough. Do whatever it takes to get your foot in that door and prove your worth.
2. Personal Projects
The number of people who are at the top of the industry who endorse this method ought to speak to its effectiveness. If there is an area you want to work — and it could be as broad as "advertising" or as narrow as "headshots for chefs" — then dream up some shoots you'd love to be hired for. Then work out how to put them together yourself. Fake a major paid job (as elaborately as your budget permits) but never lie and say it was a real job. Show brands what you can create given half the chance and that you want to work with them in the same way. If your product is good enough, you'll find clients fairly quickly. There may be a lot of photographers out there, but there are also a lot who are subpar, unreliable, or disaster to work with.
3. Free Work
This is the conflicting third option I'm offering for balance. I have close friends in the industry with whom I am candid and they are with me too. I know for a fact that their free work has lead to some incredible paid opportunities. I know people who have built staggeringly impressive portfolios without making enough to live even the most modest of lives, and it lead to well-paid work in their field. In the interest of veracity and transparency, I have never done this. I've helped friends out with my camera and not charged them for little things, but I've never done any work for a brand, company, or person without being paid, and outside of perhaps a charity, I never will. That said, I'm not one of those who will loudly proclaim that free work will never help your career; I've seen it happen.
What Ways Do You Know Of?
This is by no means an exhaustive list, they're just the ways I have found most effective, or have seen be effective for other people. I would love to hear from fellow photographers who have had success in a new area. It's a problem many newer photographers have to face on a daily basis and our community is pleasingly diverse, with 'togs just starting out, through to industry veterans. So share you tips in the comment section below.