So you\u2019ve gotten pretty good at photography. Now what? If you\u2019re like a lot of people, the idea of turning this creative outlet into a career might sound like an enticing next step. Many of us struggle with how to get started though. It is especially challenging for genres like landscape and travel photography where there isn\u2019t always a straightforward business model to replicate. How do you get that first client? How do you get your foot in the door and start to break into this competitive industry? It\u2019s a bit of a catch-22, right? If companies only want to hire experienced photographers (which makes sense from their point of view), how do you get that first little bit of professional experience to show them? Should we just do some work for free and then try to leverage that into paid work in the future? That logic always seemed pretty reasonable to me\u2014not much different than an unpaid internship in college\u2014but there are a lot of other, more experienced, photographers out there who are constantly saying: \u201cDon\u2019t work for free! It undervalues the industry, you should be paid for your time, and once a company sees you as the free person they\u2019re never going to pay you for future projects down the line.\u201d And I heard that sentiment enough times that I honestly felt a bit stuck. I knew my work was good enough to start doing some paid jobs, but I didn\u2019t really know how to pitch commercial project ideas without having done some client work in the past. But while I was down exploring around Northern Arizona on an extended photography road trip this spring, I decided that at the very least I would send emails to some of the tourism boards in the area to see if they needed any photography work done. It was short notice, so I didn\u2019t really even expect to get any responses back, but I didn\u2019t have much to lose other than an afternoon spent on the computer instead of out shooting. I sent short pitches to Visit Arizona, Visit Page, and Visit Sedona. The first two never got back to me, but Visit Sedona actually did. And they said something like (paraphrasing): Thanks for your message. We\u2019ve already allocated our budget for the year, but let us know if you get any cool photos while you\u2019re down here and we\u2019d love to feature them on our Instagram page. Okay, well not really what I was looking for, but hey, at least they responded. Maybe we could go from there. So I thought about it for a few minutes and realized: okay, they don\u2019t have any money for photo work right now, but that\u2019s really not what I\u2019m looking for in the short term. I have a day job; I can pay the bills. What I really want, is 1) the experience of working on assignment for a travel client, and 2) the ability to be able to say that I\u2019ve done that before. To be able to say \u201cI\u2019ve worked with clients like Visit Sedona\u201d in future pitches. But perhaps we could come up with an arrangement where we accomplish all of that and they still get some photos that they can use. It just won\u2019t be a paid gig. Basically an unpaid internship, even if just for a few days. So I replied back and said essentially that. Probably terrible from a negotiation standpoint, but I kind of just laid all my cards on the table and said all of that. That I\u2019m pretty new to this on the commercial side of things. That I\u2019m much more interested in the experience and building up a client list and a resume than in getting paid for a given shoot at the moment. So\u2026 How about I come shoot more or less on assignment for a couple days for free? And then I\u2019ll show you the photos and if there are any you like, I\u2019ll license two of them to you for free in return for the experience and for being able to list you down the road as a past client. And they said: Yeah that works for us. If you get any images we like and want to use, we\u2019d be happy to let you list us as a past client in return. I made a whole video at the time documenting that experience where I was shooting on assignment, even if it wasn\u2019t paid. You can watch it to see the whole process if you\u2019d like, but essentially I was able to make a handful of photos that I thought were good. Some definitely better than others, but it was the kind of work that I would have been proud to be paid to do on assignment. When I posted that video back in April, that\u2019s kind of where the story ended, but then things start to get interesting. I\u2019d sent the photos over and they loved them and chose two for licensing. All is well at that point and in my mind, I now have \u2014 more or less \u2014 a legitimate past client that I can include on future pitches. It\u2019s kind of a gray area and I\u2019ll have to be careful how I word it, since I wasn\u2019t paid, but I did work for them, more or less on assignment, and they were happy with the results. And most importantly, they said I could list them as a past client. But then a few months later, I get another email, this time from someone else at the tourism board: \u201cHey, I\u2019m looking for photos to license. Would you mind showing me the rest of the images you got while you were down here in the spring?\u201d Okay. Let\u2019s see where this could go. So I replied: \u201cOf course! Here\u2019s the album online that I showed to the previous person. Let me know if you see anything in there that would work for you, and we can go from there.\u201d I immediately start frantically Googling to figure out what the heck I should charge if they come back asking about prices, because I have no idea and no one ever really seems to talk specifics on pricing photography online. Don\u2019t worry, I\u2019ll tell you the exact dollar amounts in a minute. It turns out there is really not a single good way to price images. A lot of sources recommend the Getty Images Pricing Calculator, but that doesn\u2019t seem to exist anymore as they move more and more towards royalty-free licensing. But I do find a few data points here and there that make me feel like I can at least be in somewhat of a ballpark for starting negotiations if they want to license any. And around then, I get an email back: \u201cOkay, I\u2019ve selected 8 that we\u2019re interested in licensing. How much would that cost?\u201d Eight! That\u2019s amazing! Plus it means that they must actually like my photos, which is great too. Okay, I\u2019ll just throw out a number and see if they bite: \u201cPerfect. For the kind of usage you\u2019re looking at, that will be $300 per image, for a total of $2400. If that works for you, let me know and I\u2019ll send over an invoice.\u201d Keep in mind, I don\u2019t really know how to send over an invoice at this point, but for $2,400, we\u2019ll sure be able to figure that out. So I\u2019ve basically sweated through my shirt at this point, nervous that they\u2019re going to reply back, basically laughing in my face, and say something like, \u201cOh okay. We always pay $5 per image for this kind of thing, but thanks anyway.\u201d Remember, I don\u2019t really know what the market rate is for something like this or whether an organization like Visit Sedona has that kind of budget for a handful of photos when they could probably get something else for a lot cheaper on microstock websites. And who am I to ask for thousands of dollars for a few jpegs? Maybe I shouldn\u2019t have even tried to make money from photography in the first place\u2026 I went down the spiral like that, getting a little bit negative and a little bit insecure with each passing moment, and then I got a response: \u201cPerfect! I\u2019ll have finance send you a check.\u201d Wait. This is actually happening? $2400? For a few photos I took over a weekend? Licensed Exclusively to Sedona Chamber of Commerce & Tourism Bureau on 6\/2\/2021 for indefinite use across any channels and purposes. I know there are a lot of photographers who make a whole lot more than that on a given shoot, but from my perspective, that\u2019s real money. That\u2019s pretty amazing. I obviously figured out how to send an invoice and now I can legitimately list Visit Sedona as a past client \u2014 a past paid client \u2014 and on top of that, I learned an absolute ton from the experience, which was probably even more valuable than the check I got in the mail. So I still don\u2019t know if you should work for free in the photography industry or not. This is just one anecdote and maybe I just got lucky there, but I wanted to share that story to add to the conversation. To at least share that sometimes it might not be such a bad idea. Maybe it\u2019s worth trying at the very least. About the author: Brian Lackey is a part-time outdoor and travel photographer based in Seattle, Washington. To contact Brian or view more of his work, visit his website at brianwlackey.com.