Get Experience By Volunteering as a Photographer! (Part 1)

Ed Norton at SIFF Screening

A great way to get some photography experience, as well as getting out of the house, is to volunteer as a photographer to cover events, functions and conventions. It is simply amazing how many of these groups rely on whomever has a camera or on people in attendance covering the events. No matter the size of your town, there are always things going on that could use someone to capture the event.

What do you need? Some of the bigger events like film festivals and conventions require a minimum of a digital SLR with at least 10 mega pixels and a flash. Smaller places like art shows, parades, town meetings, etc. won’t necessarily need more than a 3-5 mega pixels and a point and shoot will work just fine. Make sure you check with them ahead of time to make sure you have what they need. This is often covered on the website.

How does one become a volunteer photographer? Easy. Ask. Seriously. It is that simple. I have volunteered for several organizations and all I did was send an email to get started. I have been turned down, but only because the demand was high and I missed the deadline or the event was so small and they already had someone who was covering it. When I started with the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF), I had to come in for a brief meeting where I showed them I had a camera and some of my work. At that point, I had never even done any work aside from just taking photos from the sidelines for myself. I was put on the list. None of the other events even asked for that much.

What are the perks? Usually, you get free entry into the event and a special pass that allows you access. Access can range from cutting lines and allowed to be up front to being the only one allowed to use flash to getting to be back stage to take pictures of any celebrities or even the best spot in line with all the other professional photographers covering the event for magazines.

Director Chaz Oldham with a Morris dancer

Who owns the images? Since this is a volunteer event and you are not being paid for it, you retain the rights. ALWAYS check about this, but I have yet to run into an event that didn’t allow me to keep the rights. Instead, all they usually ask is that they get copies of all the photos that they get to use for free on their websites, mailings and anything else in order to promote the event. These images are usually burned onto CD/DVD or they ask that you upload them to their servers. Some photographers have a hard time doing this for free, but it is a great way to get experience and build a portfolio.

Plus, you get free advertising as they list your photo credit. Now some places, like the SIFF, have sponsors. If a sponsor likes a photo you took, they can contact you and offer to buy the photograph from you. Your photos were taken for the event, not for the sponsors. This is a nice way to make some money if you get that great shot of Brad Pitt enjoying a bag of Doritos or something. I haven’t had this yet, but others I have shot with did make some cash. Another way is sometimes people in attendance to the event might really like the photo you took (usually of them) and will want to buy it off you. You can set the price and the details and don’t have to go through anyone else.

Some of the photos I took from the SIFF got picked up by news blogs who didn’t have any photographers there to cover it. I took pictures of the Morris dancers who performed at the opening of a film as well as the director who was there promoting it. A couple of those photos then got blasted all over the world by websites devoted to Morris dancers. My name spread with those photos. This was great and only the second or third film I took pictures for ever. Then the following year, I picked up the freebie flier promoting the festival and found that four of the eleven photos were in there and this was distributed all over the city. Not to mention one of the photos making it into the paid booklet that people kept as a keepsake for the festival. One of the photos was the very first photo I ever took for the festival. It was super exciting as I had just started shooting with my digital SLR weeks before.

In the next installment, I will cover the reasons to do this beyond the freebies, perks and potential fame and fortune described here.