Because I had scouted out the location before I got there, I knew what sort of lighting to expect and how to balance my flash-lit foreground (yes, I used flash) to the ambient lighting of the background. It's probably not the sort of thing you would worry about if you were shooting for fun--and that could come back to haunt you when someone asks why the background has a sickly yellow color.
As soon as it becomes generally known that you’re a decent photographer, there will come a day when someone makes you “The Offer.” They will ask if you wouldn’t mind photographing their charitable event. Or school play. Or son’s bar mitzva. Maybe even their wedding.
When that day comes there may be a quiet voice inside your head that says “Run like hell and don’t look back.” Listen to this voice. It is the voice of sanity. Do not listen to the louder, more insistent voice that says, “This could be fun. I’ve always wanted to show off my photography skills. Why not?”
Here’s why not: First of all, there’s a big difference between taking pictures for your own enjoyment and taking pictures for someone else’s enjoyment. Clients, even if they tell you otherwise, have certain expectations. For example, they will expect you to show up. Some might even expect you to be on time.
It gets worse. Not only will they expect you to have all the equipment you need to get the job done, they will expect you to know how to use it. That last part can be tricky. For example, it’s one thing to know that the external flash unit you just bought fits into the hot shoe on top of your camera. It’s quite another to know how to set and aim said flash unit once it’s attached, or what to do if the resulting photos are overexposed, or underexposed, or look too “flashy.”
An hour or two of intensive Internet research before the shoot won’t help much. One pundit will tell you to shoot Raw. Another one will claim that he only shoots JPEGs. One will swear by a particular piece of software that another says is junk. On and on it goes… In the end, although it’s you who has to decide, it’s not just you who has to live or die by your decisions, it’s your client too. Can you say “stressful?”
Once the shoot is over you will then have dozens, if not hundreds, of photos to sort through. And you will edit the shoot right? You wouldn’t just hand someone a CD that includes every shot you took, including the ones that are mis-focussed, poorly exposed, or just bad, would you?
This is the point at which you discover, if you didn’t know before, that there’s a big difference between massaging one or two select images to perfection and getting a large number of images to look consistently good. Don’t even get me started on the challenges associated with making prints, which, by the way, can dramatically increase your out-of-pocket expenses.
If you screw up the job you risk ruining your reputation and relationship with your “client.” Depending on how traumatized you were by the experience, this could be a good thing. At least you won't get asked to do something like it again. On the other hand, if you do a great job you run the risk that your client will have the impression that great work is available for free and that anyone who pays hundreds or thousands of dollars for photography is wasting their money. Be ready for calls from more people seeking similar favors.
Am I saying that you should never under any circumstances accept professional work if you aren't an experienced professional? Not quite. What I'm saying is that you should be damned sure you know what you're getting into. Set expectations appropriately. Be careful about volunteering for a learning experience at someone else's expense, even if you don't charge them a dime. If you sense you could getting in over your head, politely suggest that they honor someone else with the gig. There's a reason why many a pro looks wistfully back at the days when the only person they had to satisfy was themself and why many amateurs prefer to sell only the results of their labors, not the labor itself.
If you have any horror stories that support my point--or happy endings that contradict it--feel free to leave a comment. We all benefit either way.