When I speak to college classes about the business of photography it's inevitable that someone will bring up what they call "The Catch-22" of portfolios. The premise is that the student (or person making the switch from another field into professional photography) is stymied from looking for photographic work by the idea that his portfolio must be filled with photographs from advertising shoots in order to get advertising shoots. "How" they ask, "do I get the work if I don't have the work in my book to show?" They seem to think that everyone in the field walked into an art director's office carrying a portfolio fully loaded with images from Vogue Magazine shoots and projects hot off the printing presses for IBM and Apple. But that's just not true. The first time every photographer walks into an agency or client office he or she will be showing work that didn't come from a commercial job. So what to do?
The solution is really very simple. Invest time and energy into doing shoots for yourself. You no longer have the fixed costs of film, processing, and Polaroids so there are few financial barriers involved. All you need to do is assemble the props and the people you need and get to work. If you can't make it work on your own then you really aren't ready to go out after commercial work.
Throughout my career I've logged a lot more time doing experimental shoots for myself than shooting actual, paid work for clients. I'll meet someone whose face is interesting and I'll invite them over for a shoot. I'll give them a display print in exchange for their time. If I use the photo for a commercial purpose I'll get a signed model release and pay them a fee each time I get to use the photograph in a commercial stock application.
This is how I met Renee (above) and also how I met and photographed many of the other people on my website and in my portfolios. Many times I'll think of a style or a lighting technique that I want to use and I'll self-assign a series of images in that style. Then I'll use the images as the core of a new portfolio to get people to assign me the same kind of work......for money.
The problem with only doing work when there is a client and a payment involved is that you have, at that point, entered into a collaboration. You compromise your vision to incorporate the client's vision. The piece you end up with might be totally different that the vision you might have if you had been shooting just for yourself. And, generally, the images from commissioned shoots entail less risk taking and less experimentation.
Doing it for yourself means giving yourself permission to push the envelope. It gives you permission to try something and fail and then to try it again in a different way. And sometimes it means just practicing your style exclusively, which may bring you more work than you realize.
I'm working on a book now and I'm committed to including all new images. Nothing I've used in a previous book will get recycled. This means I'm doing a lot of self-assigning. I love it when I can include client work but I know I'll need a lot of variations and some images that reflect niches I don't really market into. I'll self assign. Then at least I know I'll get stuff that I'm happy with. And that's the whole reason to be delve into this craft in the first place.
Plus, you meet interesting people when you walk up to strangers and propose that they help you realize a vision. The ones who accept are more open to art and risk. And usually they're the most fun to be around.
Don't get suckered into doing free work. If you want something that will look really great in your book you know that you can go out and shoot it for yourself. It's really about the art not about the "access".