No, no offense taken, and you’re right, I should have edited the comment about shooting clients for free. But what I mean is, basically, get out there and shoot. There is no other way to learn photography.
I see no harm done by shooting clients (or potential) *clients* for free, both to gain experience AND learn your camera and setup. I can and have done it, and usually share the best of that particular session with the people involved; however I was careful to explain that I am doing it for fun or experience with a certain lighting situation, trying out a new lens or technique, whatever the case may be. So I didn’t give them any idea whatsoever that I was planning to go pro.
But then, if they were to contact me now, as my skills have improved considerably, and expect a freebie or cheap session I would say no, this is my rate now. And I could show them my current work as proof that I can get much better shots of them than I did 2-3 years ago, when I was still shooting random strangers. Sometimes I’ll use strangers for a challenge, and send them the link to the page with the entry so they can see how I did. And if they want prints of it, they pay the going rate.
If I can pimp DPC once again…everyone here could learn a ton about photography just from reading the forums there and entering challenges. Hell I entered a lot of crappy pics my first couple of years there, but at least I requested critiques and learned how to fix my weak areas. I still have some weak areas, but at least now I know enough about photography to be writing critiques on that site.