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Insights & Thoughts

Photography’s Catch 22 – How To Get Work With No Experience

By Kishore Sawh on June 7th 2015


Once the decision is made to actually work within the photography industry rather than simply enjoy it as a craft or hobby, the whole dynamic of how it’s viewed and approached changes. It’s fair to say too, that it’s then, as a neophyte, when you have far more questions than answers.

The good thing is that being at the start means you can take a step and worry less about making a fatal mistake, because there’s just not that much on the line – we could say this is beginner’s luck. And while most people will tell you that to make mistakes is fine, as we learn from them, take it from me – you don’t need to make every mistake in the book, and at the start you can avoid laying a poor foundation that requires more to overcome.

Photographer Ted Forbes thinks such a foundation would be laid if you were to work for free. In a separate vlog, he addresses why he thinks working for free is such a bad idea and you can read about it and our thoughts on it here, but it neatly ties into his latest video on how to get work when you’ve got no experience.


It’s the ultimate catch-22 for anyone seeking work in any field, and anyone who has ever filled out a job application as a student will tell you. Everyone wants you with experience but it seems none are willing to give it to you. Thankfully, breaking into photography is a bit easier to do than say, breaking into private equity, because you don’t need solid-on-paper qualifications to do it, and you can hustle your way to experience.

Forbes discusses how he thinks you should approach this, and surprise surprise, he doesn’t think working for free should be involved. He does think doing TFP or ‘value-for-value’ is, which is odd because that can be construed as working for free since there is no exchange of monetary currency. Possibly more importantly than that however, is the mentality he feels you need to have. It’s one of totally confidence, and I’m inclined to agree. Confidence is attractive. Say anything with enough conviction and people will be inclined to believe you. Actually, there is an element of faking it till you make it involved in what Forbes has to say.

[REWIND: Should I Get A Degree In Photography? | Ted Forbes]

If I may offer some advice on getting work without experience, it would be to identify who you want to hire you, seek out someone who either currently works there or a past employee, see if you can buy them lunch or coffee for even 8 minutes, and feel out your potential client. You could also just research them on your own and produce some work you think is in the vein of what they may like, before approaching them. My two cents, but it’s worked for me.

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A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Samuel Sandoval

    I know working for free is not a “good idea” but when you mentioned value for value…. what should I get in return for photographing them?

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    • Spencer Bryce

      Samuel, I have been taught that Value for Value means “you work for free, as long as it is a positive experience that exposes you to potential clients, and the field.” 

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  2. Justin Eid

    Glad I came across this. Currently in the IT industry and trying to get into photography as a career.

    I still have my IT job and working some weekends doing wedding for along side a professional photographer.

    In the mean time I’m looking for casual work so I can get out of IT and at least have something to pay the bills so I can work during the week doing pre-wedding shoots.

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    • Paul Empson

      Justin… I worked in IT until 2008.. full-time for 20+ years & then contracting… I decided to jump right in to photography… I really enjoy my work & life balance now… however if I was doing it now with hindsight… I’d have kept contracting in IT… earning good money and done my, hugely enjoyable & rewarding, wedding photography part-time…

      In the UK there are 1m +1 photographers now… anyone can pick up a camera but not everyone can build a data centre full of connected kit… essential for big business… I know which has more commercial resilience..

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    • Justin Eid

      Thanks Paul, good to get some feedback from someone in the industry. I’m from Sydney, Australia and I would have to say there are just as many photographers here too. It’s a bit confusing for me at the moment because IT is very competitive here also but in saying that I’ll definitely keep it in mind, Thank you :)

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  3. Paul Empson

    TFP – trade is a good way to start… my first wedding for a friend, we went out and took some portraits before their big day.. so they could see the standard I’d produce and what they could expect… it also gave them time to bail and pay for someone…. as it turned out I’ve had lots of paying clients from their referrals in the years since..

    Faking it can lead to disaster, you convince someone you are hotshot #1 and then proceed to fail epically… just wait for the social media backlash and worse.. a letter from their lawyer / solicitor demanding financial compensation… good luck convincing to your insurer as to why you think your policy is valid… I’m a big believer in honesty is the best policy…

    In many spheres of photography you don’t need to quit your day job… you can build up and then once you have a portfolio behind you then go full-time… or not…. you can definitely build up your skills in your own time.. hire some models, could be TFP, part-paid, fully-paid… to shoot styles and techniques you want to master..

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  4. Thomas Horton

    Anyone in business, especially in the creative businesses like photography, need to be able to instantly and clearly answer one question: “Why would I hire you, instead of the hundreds of other photographers out there?”

    If you can’t offer your customers the benefits of experience (cuz you ain’t got none), you have to offer the customer something else. Often the answer is cost related.

    This is why starting out in business for yourself, with no experience is tough. I would imagine the best route is to latch on to an experienced photography business and start building experience there. Of course that opens up a different but equally difficult question the budding photographer has to answer: “why should I hire you instead of the thousands of other photographer-wannabes out there?” Often the answer is cost related.

    It is not easy getting a job, any job, with out experience and expect to be paid a living wage. This is especially true in the luxury creative industries like photography. It is a saturated industry.

    Get a separate job that pays the rent and food, then you can intern/give away for free your photography until you get a portfolio that can demonstrate your ability and experience that you can use to start getting paying customers…. Then keep that separate job and do photography as a part time job. LoL

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    • Carolyn Dingus

      Great advice. That’s exactly how I started my career as a computer programmer and ended up as the CEO of a public (software) company!

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  5. Thomas Horton

    Fake it until you make it. :)

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  6. norman tesch

    i think people make out in that most people really dont know what they are looking at. i live in an area where there are photographers that have been putting out the same quality and creativity since they started. they never evolved. so now people think they can do the same with their cell phones. now i dont care if another photographer makes a ton of money but if someon wines their pics are blurry or body parts are cut off i tell them get your money back. you payed for a service. i also ask you know what that persons quality is like why do you keep hiring them..and the fact that most people are looking for a bargin they will get hired.

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    • Rafael Steffen

      I am learning over time that making money in photography requires profound business skills.

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    • Rafael Steffen

      Trade for pictures is the way to go for everyone who is starting. That is how I started and it worked well.

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    • norman tesch

      come to upper mi and ill show you a lady that is bookd for a full year. her photos are blurry, in her studio parts of heads, and other body parts are cutt off. she literally had 4 seniors go to school and show their pics. all the same place and same poses. i always say she should throw away her camera. hire a photographer because she is a wiz at marketing…only in a small town you can get away with being a so so photographer. you have to evolve even if its for yourself

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  7. Moise Oiknine

    Very well put. I find that building your confidence (hard work) is the main factor to allowing yourself to turn down the free work. Looking forward to hearing more tips.

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  8. Carolyn Dingus

    I was hoping for more specifics on how to get paid work. I already do trade work, but how do I promote my services to those who are willing to pay?

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    • Fahad Jafarullah

      I am not sure if there is one answer for this but I can answer based on my experience. Most of my paid gigs came from friends and friends of friends who came across my work on Facebook or Instagram. It was mostly word of mouth. Also depends on what kind of work you do. If are doing weddings for example, then there are trade-shows or events for vendors that you can attend as a vendor and promote your company by giving out flyers, business cards and etc.

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    • Rafael Steffen

      That’s a way to get started. It is worth taking the steps in order for someone to achieve what they want.

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  9. Tom Bogan

    Great information from Ted for those who are just getting started.

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