“Exposure doesn’t pay the bills.” As photographers, we’ve all heard this saying, and we’ve all probably even said this at least once. It’s frustrating to be expected to work for free at all as a creative professional. You and your work need to be taken seriously.
That being said, let’s consider the idea that some unpaid opportunities do provide value beyond monetary compensation. When developing a career in photography, using these stepping stones now can lead to financial gains later.
Shooting editorials provides value in more ways than one. Conceptualizing and producing editorial content independently flexes your creative muscles and creates a learning experience in production. Editorials are typically shot with a wider creative team, and developing these teams can introduce you to new connections in styling, assisting, and production fields. You never know who you’ll meet on set that could land you your next gig.
Additionally, editorials provide the opportunity to give your hard work a platform, be it with a digital or print publication. Plenty of websites, blogs, and magazines with large audiences are looking to showcase up-and-coming talent, and editorials are a perfect way to get into that spotlight. This builds your credibility as a photographer, arms you with tear sheets, and creates professional ties.
Internships, paid and unpaid, can provide a wealth of knowledge and practical experience. Taking a few months to shadow under someone in a higher position can lead to a lot of learning. Whether it’s at a brand, a studio, an agency, or a magazine, interning allows you to continue to grow your career while absorbing a different perspective. Later, when producing your own work, you’ll know a lot more about what particular clients are looking for.
Internships also bring you connections in the industry that may end up useful to you down the line: this could be a gig, a job reference, or an introduction you might not have otherwise had. When an entry-level position opens up, their interns are typically the first people they’re turning to for a new hire.
What do you have in common with models, makeup artists, and hair stylists? You’re all looking to develop and improve your portfolio. Testing is a great, stress-free way to collaborate and build out your book, so you can showcase a book with agency-standard models and professional styling. Having a polished portfolio will help to land future paying clients who can see that you’re experienced working with high-quality talent. Reaching out to test also puts your name onto agency radars, so when you’ve built a trusting relationship, they may come to you for steadier paid work down the line.
Exposure doesn’t pay the bills, but in some cases, it can. Collaborating with social media influencers puts your work on a platform that is, for the influencer, their full-time business. They are looking to secure their own brand deals, and brands are looking at them as well. Coming across your work on an influencer’s profile is an easy way to catch the attention of editors, producers, and brands that are scouting for talent.
In addition, it’s likely that you’ll see some return in the form of followers. Although follower counts are “just a number,” to scouts using social media, it’s a sign that your work is well received by a large audience. Who is a scout more likely to look into, a photographer with 500 followers or 5,000 followers?
Blogging and Resource Sharing
Share the wealth— of knowledge, that is. Blogging is a great way for photographers to develop an even stronger web presence. When you share your tips, tricks, and skills with others, you build up credibility. If you can talk about something you’re passionate about, do it! It signals to people that you know what you’re talking about.
For example: If a potential wedding client comes to your site and sees that you have lots of writing about wedding photography, they’re going to think: “Wow, they really know what they’re talking about.” Sharing builds trust in your brand and your knowledge, something that is invaluable.
Can Working for Free Really Pay Off?
Paid jobs are great, but a paycheck isn’t the only gain you can get working in the photo industry. Shooting an acquaintance’s wedding “as a favor” is nowhere near the same as targeted, developmental opportunities that can further your career. Before you turn down work that doesn’t pay the bills, consider the deeper worth for your career.