Should I Work For Free? - As A Photographer.

This is a question that we all face at some point during our career and here you will find my guide as to whether you should be working for free, or not as a photographer. Also to help you along the way, I’ve also added thoughts on how to structure yourself, spot opportunities, how to barter and how not to waste your time.

The “work for free?” question repeats itself in most industries, especially in the creative industry; it’s a question that all photographers are asked at some point and at times wonder we whether it’s worth it at some point. Though the offer comes to me less these days,  it’s still a proposal that lands in my inbox from time to time. However, it’s not just creatives who get asked this question it can be models, MAUs, stylists or videographers, yogis or entrepreneurs who are just starting out.

Whilst everyone’s career path may be very different and it’s true that what works for me, doesn’t always work for you. There’s no real absolute guide for this and I am going to be honest with you as much as I can, in hopes it will help you along the way.

If you’re reading this post and you want an answer in a nutshell, then I will make it simple. No, don’t work for free.

Should you be trying to make a living from being a professional photographer, or if you are trying to get some extra cash on the side; then “free” doesn’t pay bills. In a previous post I roughly talk about how expensive photography is (a shameless plug) and once you add up the costs of the camera, lenses, laptop, lights etc you are looking at a few grand (most likely more). So “free” isn’t quite realistic; but let’s leave the cost of being a photographer outside of this scope.

Some Assumptions & Some Definitions

Before we go into details, I think  it’s important at this point that we define a few things and maybe have a few assumptions.

My Assumptions Are:

  1. Assumption: You are fairly good at what you are doing (photography) or enough experience in it to pull off the job.
  2. Assumption:. The client has approached you and is pitching you the idea to work for free.

Defining The Types Of shoots:

  • A Client Shoot: A person, group or company who will gain (financially, or save) from working with you on a project. A project that should really have a financial transaction.
  • A TFP Shoot: Trade For Picture where two or more people (a group) gain from working collaboratively together. This could be for creativity or simply because you think it will be fun.
  • A Shoot For A Friend: Where you do a shoot for free because you are friends.
  • Working For Experience: For example where an assistant or someone works for free in order to gain experience (similar to that of TFP).

For simplicity and clarity, I will leave TFP, shoot for friends and working experience outside of the scope as well and we can concentrate on the client side.

What Happens If You Work For Free:

There are many reasons why you should never work for free and here are a few reasons why.

  1. You Cannibalise Your Market.  Simply put, you are decreasing the value of the photography market. Meaning, by accepting a job for free the client will expect your next job to be free. Or that they can hire another photographer for free the next time. – Well Kerim Knight, did this for us free last year, so why should we pay you? – That would be me and the client devaluing the market, for you and for other photographers.
  2. You Decrease The Value Of Your Work: It’s simple economics. Your personal market price goes down if you are doing hard work for less than a penny to the dollar. Don’t sell yourself short.
  3. Educate The Market: By refusing to work for free (and you might not get the paid job), you teach the client a lesson.  If everyone refuses to work for free and the next photographer comes along and does the same; you teach the market that this is not the done thing. Resulting in the value of the photography industry going up. – Right now, it’s broken.
  4. Don’t Undercut The Competition in hopes to work with the client. Though this point isn’t exactly referring to “free”, I want to add this point in as well. Charge what you are worth. Differentiate yourself in the type of work you do or what you offer. Undercutting competition creates a pricing war and screws the whole industry and is just short sighted.

Don’t aim for low hanging fruit either. Or in other words, invest in short term projects with little reward. – Most companies or people who ask for free work can afford it. If they approached you, they see a value in working with you, which means you have a product or service they want. This gives you leverage.

Things To Consider

  1. The Future Is Bright, It’s Paved With Lemons (Or Carrots): Don’t work for free for just because the client promises to hire you for the next set of jobs. – That tends to be just manipulative on the client’s behalf and hardly ever true. If you can’t see the carrot at the end of the stick, then it’s pretty much not going to be there in the future. When people or companies have the budget, they end up going to the cities or people who are famous for the work. – They hardly ever pass it back to the creatives who helped them along the way.
  2. Bull Headed:  Some people don’t always understand the implications of what they are asking you. Educate them, be kind and be gentle. Try not to backlash back at them and come out as a professional. – Some people are just completely clueless.
  3. You Can Negotiate Anything: As a half Turk, I’ve learnt that pretty much everything is negotiable. For example you can design a contract where you are paid at a later date for your work. – Come a year or within 6 months. However, if there’s heavy financial issues within the company or person, then you probably won’t be seeing that money.
  4. Gain Respect: By demanding some form of payment, the client ends up respecting you and the work you do. – The client won’t think that you’ve been cheap on the job and they will value the end product more if there was some form of transaction to it. Also, from my experience they are more likely to return to you.
  5. Commercial Work: If it’s commercial work for a high profile client, then the client has money to spend on marketing, advertising and most likely on your work as well. The word “Commercial” derives from the work “Commerce” pertaining to the word “Trade”.

At this point, I want to bring us to a really cool scene from Batman, “The Dark Knight Rises”. The moment when The Joker is declaring he can rid Gotham City of the Batman for the mafia bosses. The mafia heads argue, that it’s in his interest as well to remove Batman from the city, in which he responds:

To me this really hits the nail on the head. If you have something (or are able to do something) that someone wants, treat it as a commodity and put a market value on it.

Is Exposure A Form Of Pay?

A line that I hear regularly is a company or person offering me a job on the condition that “This job will give you good exposure.” Or it will “be good for your portfolio” or “you can pick up a bunch of clients from the event”. Personally, I think this is complete and utter bull shit and it’s never worth it. In fact, it’s presumptuous and somewhat offensive.

It’s pretty much impossible for a client to know more than you when it comes what kind of “exposure” you will benefit from. However, at the bottom of this blog I share a few scenarios and few things I would consider should you find yourself in this conundrum of working for free & the pretence of “exposure”.

Also note that opportunities lie in many forms in a job and you need to train yourself to see them hidden in the shadows or laying in the highlights (yes, it’s terrible that I can be cheesy at times). For example here’s a bunch of scenarios or categorisations I use for projects (not just free work):

  • Do I need this work and does it add value to what I already have?
  • What is the gain from this project and is it worth it? Monetary, marketing, social/business connections,
  • What’s the amount of effort/energy I need to invest in this?
  • Where I am today, how does this help me in where I want to be in the future?
  • Does this fit within my social projects and interests?

The last point is something that resonates with my personal beliefs and you may have something that fits this kind of “outside of the scope” work. Personally, I like to give back to a community and I try to do a few projects during the year that helps charities, groups or people. However, I can’t accept every job offer that comes into this category, they are prioritised or rejected according to time, priority and my workload.

If a client really doesn’t have the finances to pay you the full price, then you can say something along the lines of this:

“I understand the financial situation you are in and I would like to help you build your business. Thus what I am willing to do is this: I won’t charge the full price, but as I am new to the industry, I’d be happy to shoot your event for a very small cost, something symbolic that I can then put towards expanding business in the future. For example $50 that will help me acquire some new gear.”

My point being is don’t sell yourself out for nothing, or based on the thought that exposure is good and a valuable commodity. Exposure has no tangible or financial market value.  If you are thinking of doing something with no financial transaction consider this instead of just exposure:

Bartering:

Financial payment is not the only way you can gain/reap benefits from a job and y0u can negotiate.

You have the power to barter or trade for your services or work. You need to gain something from you work and I don’t just mean expanding your portfolio. For example:

  • A print or media agency can design and print you business cards in exchange.
  • An insurance company may give you a better rate in insuring you or your gear.
  • A website design agency can host your website or even better redesign your site.
  • A yoga teacher can give you yoga classes for free in exchange for some images.
  • A lawyer or business can offer to do some services for you.
  • An accountant that works with me is paid by me helping him design and build his website.

You get the point. – Learn to barter something in return, and make sure that something helps you get up the ladder business wise.

Working For Free Considerations:

It’s understandable that you may get to point where you want to work for free. For example that you don’t have a portfolio to show or if you are just starting out. If for whatever reason you have to work for freem then here’s my tips or considerations that you should be thinking about at least.

  • Own the rights to your work: – Don’t work for free and give them full rights and ownership. That’s just plain stupid.
  • Make Sure You Gain From It. – Don’t be a sheep and just do as the client says, take control over the artistic direction.
  • Set Boundaries. – By working for free you need to set boundaries and expectations with you and the client. Remember, the client isn’t paying you, thus they can’t expect, demand or talk to you as a subordinate. It makes you are partners in this venture.
  • Apathy Kills The Cat: Don’t let the client get your hard work with a fat smile on their face. Make them work for it and make your life more simple. Outsource responsibilities to them. I.e. organising the model, getting food the for shoot or by actively introducing you to potentially new customer. Like email introductions, coffee or meetings. If it’s something you negotiated, then don’t hand them over the work until they have actually introduced you to people.

Rounding This Up

The photography or creative industry is not an easy road to walk. Especially when you are just starting up, or you’ve moved country or if you’re just trying to find your way. What I’ve tried to do here is give you some food for thought and I really do hope that this post has given you some thoughtful insights to help you along this journey.

Feel free to drop a comment or two or send me an email if you have questions etc.

And for those interested, below is an example how strategically thinking might help for some jobs.

Weddings:

So you’re a wedding photographer and you are being asked to shoot a wedding for free for good exposure:

  • Are the couple famous or have some form of popular exposure? For example, will the pictures be in a magazine, do they have 50k followers on Instagram, etc.
  • How many people are at the wedding? – Because the larger the group, the more “exposure” you will get.
  • What is the age range of the couple to be wed? – This changes the odds (%) of their friends getting married in the near future.
  • Are the guests mainly local? – You want a local community, because you ain’t going to be hired to shoot a wedding in Singapore if you live in Geneva.
  • Will the client introduce you friends that will be getting married or are engaged on the night? Because you want them to actively promote you.

Note, that if it’s a big wedding, they will have the budget for a photographer and they are just being stingy.

A fashion shoot:

A brand is asking you to shoot a lookbook for their new spring collection:

  • Are they local? – You want local brands, because local will be what hires you in the future.
  • Are they a new brand or established? – If it’s are a large brand, they can pay.
  • Do you get creative control? – Can it add to your portfolio in a new way?
  • Are they asking you to source the model, make-up artist and arrange all the details? – Basically use your network for free? This means more work for you.
  • Where will the images be used? – Magazines, online publications, online shop. – Make sure you are credited everywhere and if the client forgets to credit you “sorry” is not enough.
  • Are they willing to pay you for the images after 1 or 2 years if they continue to use them?

A corporate event:

You’ve received an email asking you to cover some corporate event for free (how common).

  • Who’s the client? If it’s a big or medium company, they should be paying. If it’s a small company, then exposure is very limited.
  • What’s the client’s event about? Are they launching a new product or is it an Christmas party? You want external exposure, remember so Xmas parties are just pointless.
  • Which department is having the event? – If it’s a marketing event with the product management, communications & public relations departments from the company, that’s probably the best (for exposure).  If it’s an event run by the tech team or the financial department, then forget it. – They aren’t the decision makers in a company that relate to hiring a photographer in the future.
  • Will the pictures be published in some corporate magazine or company brochure? Publications is better than nothing.
  • Will the client introduce you to potentially new businesses? – You want to meet key decision makers and where the client is promoting you and introducing you to people. You need “exposure” to be active.

Portrait Photography:

People are asking you to do portraits for free.

  • Are they famous (if so they can afford it most likely). – But famous helps.
  • Do they have a large amount of followers on Instagram for example? This will boost you and you can put it under marketing budget/costs.
  • Are the followers local? – Local is what will hire you in the future.
  • Do they have good local connections? Are they known within local circles. Get that exposure.
  • Are they decision makers or influencers? It adds value to your work.