Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Offering Photography Internships : Dos & Don'ts

There are people in your immediate area who are hungry to learn the craft of photography, design, freelancing, or being a creative entrepreneur without making the financial investment in a school program.  They're willing to commit 6 months of their time, once or twice a week for several hours, to learn the craft, art, and business of photography.  I've been amazed by how many applications I receive for internships, and that they far exceed the number of applications I receive for PAID positions!  It baffles my mind, really, but it also demonstrates that there are many people who are very hungry to learn from you and want to do it in a low-risk exchange for their time.

If you've never done an internship yourself or hired an intern, I suggest brushing up on what the US Department of Labor considers an internship and how it's different from a paid position:

Essentially, an internship is always of greater benefit to the intern than it is to the company.  In my experience, and in the ways that I've designed my internships, this is definitely true.  I don't gain any additional time from taking on an intern, I simply trade the time I give them for the time they give me in return and it ends up being a net zero on my time.  In many ways, I'm mentoring my potential competition.  I get a few extra hands, but those hands may also come with a lot of time explaining things and quite a bit of hand-holding.    Ultimately it is a mentoring relationship, and you have to honor that relationship by really treating it as a learning experience.

What I have gained from having interns in my business is a better understanding of who I am as a photographer and a business owner.  If you're a reflective business owner always striving for improvement, you can't help but learn a lot about yourself in the process.  You'll learn what tasks you can give to someone else, and what tasks are critical for you to retain control over.  You'll learn what you can train someone to do and what is so innate and difficult to train that you have to pre-select someone for (like their visual aesthetic).  You'll learn how much you can or can't rely on others and when it's best for you to handle a situation versus anyone else.  It's a great way to figure out exactly what you need to hire skilled people for and what you can share with someone who's still learning.  If that's something you're interested in, read on about what to do and not to do regarding interns:


  • Have an application process and deadline for applications.
  • Post your internship opening on your blog, Facebook page, and in your newsletter.  Start with the people who already know you and follow your work, as they are your best referral source for finding talented people near you.
  • Set a regular time and date for the internship to take place, either decided and advertised in advance, or negotiated with your intern after they've been selected.  I've found that a 3-6month commitment is a good period of time for an internship and that 4-8 hours per week is ideal.
  • Consider how much travel cost will be involved for your intern and make the arrangements easier on them when possible.
  • Be flexible with interns, but also have defined cancellation notice periods for both you and the intern in case changes need to be made last minute.
  • Create an agreement that defines the days, times, cancellation policy, non-disclosure agreement, and basic expectations of the internship so that there is something in writing that outlines the expectations.
  • Offer to cooperate with schools and universities that need documentation for the internship.  It's often just a series of surveys about the student and a few paragraphs about their work with you.
  • Have regular check-in points during the internship to make sure the student is learning what they came to learn, and that you are providing that for them in the experiences and tasks you share.
  • Offer internship perks like borrowing equipment, going on important assignments, and reviewing proposals or client emails that deal with tricky situations.
  • Feed interns.  Don't hold them hostage for more than a few hours without feeding them.  Hangry interns make very cranky office mates.
  • Create additional space for an intern to share your desk or your office. Whether you work from home or from a studio space, just create a little extra space.  Creating a space helps interns know that they are special and important to you.  Warm fuzzies make happy office mates.
  • Allow interns to understand the financial aspects of running a business.  When this information is hidden from them, they may walk away with a glamorous view of what it's like to be a freelancer without understanding the real costs and expenses.  If you're at all concerned about your intern becoming your competition, sharing the financial realities makes it more clear as to whether they'll pursue photography as a hobby, business, or work for someone else.


  • Give an intern essential tasks in your business.  Not only are you setting them up for failure if they don't have the experience or training, but you're also putting your own business at risk.
  • Hide information from interns.  Trust is essential in this type of working relationship.  A non-disclosure agreement should be all you need to establish a code of trust between the two of you.  The more they learn about the business, the better informed they'll be in all of their future photography decisions, which creates a healthier photography community in general. 
  • Expect an intern to pick-up understanding just by watching you.  You need to explain a lot of what you're doing, how you're doing it, and why you're doing it along the way before an intern can really understand how to do something for you.
  • Lose patience.  Your professionalism toward your intern is just as important as your professionalism with your clients, and your intern will share the emotional experience of with you well beyond the time you spend together even if they disclose nothing about your business.
  • Take an intern for granted by expecting an intern to do something you'd normally pay someone else to do.  If you'd normally pay for it, you should be paying your intern for that task as well.
  • Forget that an internship is a mentorship not an apprenticeship.
  • Assume that every intern is going to turn around and create a full time business with what they've learned.  Many don't become your competition because they see how steep the learning curve really is once they've had a chance to experience it at the fullest.  Sometimes knowing more actually means that people decide being a photographer isn't the right thing for them, and your internship is a way for them to experience that without making a huge investment in gear, mistakes in their own business, or in an education that doesn't result in a job opportunity.
  • Get upset if they do become your competition.  If you can, try to hire them if you feel like they're a great fit, and hopefully you've educated them about why it's easier for them to work in your business than to go out on their own.

Anne Ruthmann is an architecture & lifestyle photographer in New York City. She spent 10 years practicing marketing & management in corporate and non-profit businesses before pursuing her passion for photography full-time in 2004 as an independent small business.  She loves helping freelancers find creative and smart solutions to business problems.  Stay in touch on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.