Interested in working your way up from the bottom in photography? Good for you, this is the best way to create your own inroad into a very competitive industry.

I did some talks for Hasselblad a while back and after one of them, I was approached by a brand new photographer with the question 'How do I go straight to the high end of the market?' With no portfolio or experience, this photographer wanted to know how to fast track to the top. Well my answer was that I have no idea but I wouldn't recommend it. Clients who pay top dollar would expect that you have earned your stripes and cut your teeth on other weddings. No matter how amazing your photography might be there are a hell of a lot of logistics and politics that you will deal with on a wedding day and part of any elevated fee is a reassurance that you can cope with it all.

So I'm guessing that you are not that photographer and that you are reading this because you already know that getting experience is the most practical route to go down. So how can you go about getting some?

I receive on average two or three emails a day asking me to give somebody work experience.. here is one from this morning's inbox and it is fairly typical...

"Hello, my name is xxxxxxxx I am a photography student and have been studying for the past year and a half, I am now coming to the end of my Second year. Before I finish college I would love to find a photographer who is in need of an assistant or for any other job going with them. I have worked with a photographer for my work experience last summer helping with invoices and other computer work, but also on shoots assisting in any way i could. I am now looking for a part time job in the same area.

Thank you very much for taking the time to read this, if there is any chance of me doing any work or just experience with you at any point these are my contact details".

To me there are quite a few things wrong with this... First up and probably the most irritating thing about nearly all of these requests is that they haven't addressed me by name. This makes me think it is a lazy cut and paste sent to a few photographers that they most likely plucked off the first page of google. There is absolutely no indication that they know anything about my work so again, it looks lazy. You are asking me for a job, yet the qualities that you are showcasing here are that you do not carry out any research, you are not very diligent or committed and you are happy to be careless. The grammar is particularly poor on this one and it basically is all Me, Me , Me. Now I've not written this to put anyone off, I want to help. I've been where you are and I started out by getting work experience. I have some tips to help you come up with a better approach..

  • Be selective about who you target. It should be someone who's work you genuinely admire as then you will be able to display your knowledge of their images and why you think you might be a good fit.
  • Time it well. Don't contact anyone first thing on a Monday morning or last thing on a Friday afternoon. Nobody really wants to deal with anything above and beyond what needs to happen at either of these times and you will be far down anyone's priority list. If the person you approaching is successful then they will be busy.
  • Put yourself in the other person's shoes. Think what's in it for them? They won't be sitting there thinking I wish there was someone here asking me loads of questions and learning how I do everything so that they can set up in competition against me.What do you really have to offer? What skill sets do you bring that will actually improve that photographer's life? You need to sell yourself as someone that will benefit them. I'm sorry to tell you that most photographers don't need help with the shooting side of things as much as the admin side. It's more likely that you will be filing and making tea rather than getting your hands on all their expensive gear.
  • Show your personality. Don't be afraid to show your character traits. You can assume that if someone is a level where you want to approach them, then so will several others, so aim to stand out. When people write I have a GSOH in dating profiles it doesn't mean anything but the person who shows wit in how they word their biography will be more appealing.
  • Think creatively. This is a creative industry, so it amazes me how people approach so much of it in uncreative ways. Everyone else is sending a lazy cut and paste email? Then send your communication some other way. Show how creative you are by posting them something lovely, show how brave you are by actually picking up the phone and talking to the person you are asking to train you.
  • Be realistic. Aim not to land a full time job but aim to get your foot in the door. You are highly unlikely to contact someone sitting there with a full time job to give you. Aim instead to get a day or a week's work experience and then make yourself utterly indispensable.

I don't think it's hard to do this well, which is why I'm constantly disappointed by how badly people do it. I've now stopped answering the ones that don't address me by name. If they can't be bothered then neither can I. Way back when I was at this point in my career, I made a list of my favourite music photographers working in London. I telephoned them one by one until I found someone who could offer me work experience. I was utterly terrified every time I picked up the phone but I kept thinking they don't know me, if they say no, it's not because they don't like me, it's because the timing is not right for them.  When that one photographer said yes, I made the very best use of that one day's work experience to make other connections in the industry but most importantly to show how useful and keen I was. That one day lead to others and I was always very appreciative of the opportunities that came my way. I was courteous, punctual and very quick to learn. It wasn't long before I was getting paid a small amount per day and then I advanced to proper assistant rates and was getting some fantastic jobs. I think by managing to leave my own ego at the door and being aware of the main photographer's needs or the clients above any of my own, I was a great asset. I'm eternally grateful to the photographers that said yes when I was looking for experience as I know now more than ever just how valuable that it is. You cannot learn in a classroom how the real world of shooting is and the particular pressures that it brings. You must be out on real jobs to pick up the skills you need. I made a hell of a lot of cups of tea in my time but all the while, I was watching, making notes and when there was time, I would ask questions. 

Never forget that you need them much more than they need you so come at it asking for work experience with that humility, not the sense of entitlement that many seem to come with. I wish you lots of luck and hope to see some of you at The Photography Show this weekend. They have some great content for beginners and I will be speaking at The Beginners Masterclasses. We also have a stand so come and say Hi, we'd love to see some friendly faces.