Should Photographers Ever Work for Free?
Every photographer knows the drill: “It will be a great opportunity to build your portfolio,” and “We don’t have a budget for photos.” Given the strong competition in photography, it’s tempting to accept requests for free work. We strongly discourage working without compensation, but when a Pixsy employee was recently asked by a friend to do a small shoot for free, we wondered how photographers should handle these situations. So we gathered a panel of industry experts and asked then one question: Is it ever OK to ask a photographer to work for free?
The consequences of taking unpaid photography work
Photography is your business. It’s a product and service that others will either buy or pass up on.
Professional photographers constantly get emails asking them to shoot for long hours and provide top-quality images—for no payment other than “exposure.” Any mention of a fee (or lack thereof) is buried under several paragraphs of praise and flattery, and when they try and quote a price, the response can sometimes be hostile.
The Association of Photographers has plenty to say about the common “marketing” promises that come with working for free:
“Too often, work opportunities are presented to photographers on the basis of garnering ‘great exposure’ in return; the opportunity to have your work seen far and wide, the oft-heard line, ‘It’ll be great PR for you!’… Trouble is, it rarely pans out that way. There are so many avenues for publicity these days that aside from some major brands perhaps, that ‘great exposure’ will be meaningless.”
Filing yourself into the “will work for free” category is not good publicity; it’s bad networking, and ruins your own perception of value. When you agree to shoot or produce photographs for nothing, you’re essentially locking yourself out of your own price range.
After all, how can you expect to turn your photography into a profitable, sustainable business if you aren’t able to set your own price? Unpaid commissions can sometimes offer more creative control, but is that really worth undermining the economic value of creativity?
Photo: Julia Anna Gospodarou
Julia Anna Gospodarou is a multi award-winning black and white fine art photographer and architect. In her workshops, mentoring programs and best-selling books, she emphasizes the business and financial side of photography alongside the artistic.
“My work is my passion, but it also has to provide me with financial support for myself and my family. There is a creative part that goes into it that is very energy consuming, and there is also the investment the professional photographers have to make in their gear, studios, electronic equipment, professional trips, education, bills, taxes and everything else.”
From a practical point of view, working for free creates an awkward expectation of quality:
It’s hard to get honest feedback for free work, and it doesn’t matter whether they love or hate your finished photos, everything you produce gets stamped with a “freebie” level of quality.
Working for free is an expensive risk. In gear costs alone, photographers need to replace older cameras, order new lenses, and invest in specific tools so they can shoot in all conditions. || Photo: Jakob Owens
Tiffany Mueller is a professional photographer who also writes tutorials and guides for DIY Photography and Light Stalking, and her work has also appeared on the Pixsy blog! She says that if someone with a budget asks you to work for free, they’re not complimenting your work—they’re devaluing your skills. “Whether they realize it or not, they’re basically saying, ‘We like your photography, but not enough to pay you to do it.’ These type of people are the bane of the industry. I try not to waste too much time on them, but if I’m feeling snarky, sometimes I’ll send them back a playful email.”
Unpaid assignments are even worse in the long term, Mueller adds, as you only drag other photographers down with you.
“Each time a photographer takes an unpaid job thinking they’re jump-starting their career, what they’re actually doing is destroying any hope of job security. If we all started saying no to unpaid gigs, we’d all be asked a lot less.”
Remember when you agree to work on a handshake instead of a contract, you get none of the protections of regular photography work:
Members of the ‘Stop Working for Free’ Facebook page regularly post job listings where photographers are asked to shoot for free.
We often see such stories on Stop Working for Free: a Facebook group where freelance creatives share their experiences of being asked to work for little, if any, pay. The founder, Mark Pringle, is very direct about the effect unpaid photography jobs and internships have on the job market:
“The willingness of (increasingly) young middle class people, frequently supported by their parents, to work for nothing — this is turning photography and other creative professions into a middle class ghetto,” he says. “It’s people’s willingness to work for little or nothing that is creating the situation whereby existing professionals are finding it impossible to find work.”
Robert Kenney, a professional photographer and regular contributor to the group, posted this statement in regards to dealing with unpaid internship and job offers: “Be on your guard for people who act with a sense of entitlement. It’s a mind game. They act as if there is something wrong with you because you do not want to work for free. It is a deliberate trick. View them as con artists, used car salesmen, politicians and the like. It’s not worth arguing. There is no paid work in the future. JUST SAY NO.”
Why are photographers asked to work for free?
Photographers aren’t the only creative professionals getting these requests. However, there are specific reasons why if you can take a professional-looking photo, you will at some point be asked to work for free.
“Because photography is so popular and everybody can do it, many think that professional photography is just as easy as picking up a camera, shooting a few photos and that’s it,” says Julia Ann Gospodarou. “This is a distorted perception, and it is happening because many don’t know what goes into doing photography as a profession.”
The commoditization of photography means that every person walking has a camera in their pocket, and less will appreciate the skills and services of a professional photographer. || Photo: Jay Wennington
“I even hesitate to say we enjoy photography, because of Snapchatting, Instagramming and Facebooking,” says Bryan Caporicci, a wedding & portrait photographer and host of the Sprouting Photographer podcast. “We take the image, we share it quickly, and then it’s on to the next one almost as quickly as that one came to us,“ he said.
An entrepreneur before becoming a photographer, Bryan believes many photographers simply don’t have the necessary passion for business:
“We need to be embodying professionalism, because if we don’t it’s easy to see why a lot of people see what we do as a glorified hobby.”
“If we start running our business like a proper business, with processes, systems, expectations and policies… I would never walk into a cafe and say “Hey, can I have a coffee for free?” I understand this is a business; they have a shop, they have employees, and they have prices listed. Most photographers don’t have that level of infrastructure.”
Marketing and advertising are vital for a successful photography business – more so than taking photos || Photo: Matt Druin
One photographer who certainly does is Matt Druin. He put himself on the map by offering free travel on all his U.S. destination wedding shoots. Hardly another photography freebie, he turned his love of traveling and easy-to-fly-from Atlanta location into a key selling point: “I use it as marketing; I put it everywhere. It’s all over my website, it’s all over our social media posts every time, just because it’s something unique.”
“Obviously I would make less on those weddings than I would a local wedding. At the same time, it shows too how much we’re invested in our clients, that we’re willing to do that for them and not take as much money to work with them. I think it’s all about showcasing value” he said.
Photographing for your own benefit
Sometimes photographers will waive their usual fee for personal reasons. Perhaps the client is a friend or family member in a really desperate situation. Maybe they have a beach house that you hope they will lend you for the weekend. Or, you just owe them a lot of money and want to stop the crowbars coming out!
When it comes to larger businesses, here are some scenarios where our photography panel have offered their services strictly for their own benefit:
If new to the field, some work for the sheer experience of shooting an event or in a studio to build their portfolio, and to start establishing industry contacts.
“If you want to start a portrait studio you can start building up your portfolio by shooting your friends and acquaintances for free so you can show your skills,” says Julia Anna Gospodarou. “Same thing for real estate photography. You could ask some building owners to shoot their buildings and give them some photos for free in return for you being able to showcase this work.“
Photo: Matt Druin
When an experienced professional wants to move into a new field of photography, they may not charge initially if they don’t have working shots or a strong list of clientele in that industry. However, that doesn’t mean the client/company can’t cover additional costs.
“When I got into doing destination weddings, my very first one I ever did I did for free, in exchange that they would pay for my travel expenses,” says Matt Druin. “Once I had that one destination wedding, and I was able to showcase that to other people on my blog, and start really marketing, doing the SEO and have visual representation… you’ve shown “Hey, I have travelled before, and I have the experience,” and that eases things on their end.”
Some feel justified photographing without compensation if it’s for a worthy cause or campaign. But note that charities and NGOs often do have the budget to pay photographers.
“I’ve done pro bono work for local animal shelters and low income families who aren’t in a position to have professional portraits taken and found the experiences to be rewarding in ways outside of finances,” says Tiffany Mueller. “If you’re really passionate about a cause and have the opportunity to help by using your camera skills, go for it. Just make sure you’re actually helping someone in need and not being taken advantage of.”
Experienced photographers may want to develop their portfolio and diversify their collection. Rather than taking free work, you can always ask customers if they’d be willing to stay a little longer after a shoot to help you with your experimental photography. You can even offer the prints as appreciation for their time.
“I have no problem publicly announcing things like that to my Facebook page,” says Bryan Caporicci.“But I set the expectation that it’s for a specific purpose. Obviously I’m happy to collaborate and take input on things, but this is not you hiring me as a photographer; this is me hiring you as a subject to photograph. When you frame it that way, I think it really helps keep that value really high.”
Shooting for ‘payment in kind’ as opposed to ‘for free’
If you want to provide your camerawork for something other than money, here are some ways you can make it worthwhile:
Agree on some kind of goods and or services trade. For example, is your client a web designer who could help design your webpage?
Bryan Caporicci said “When we were looking to do some container gardens for our home, there was a local florist that specialized in doing beautiful urns and all these great things with outdoor florals. So she came over, realized I was a photographer, and said “I actually need pictures…” I told her: 'I want to talk about everything I need as your client, and I want you to give me a price on that. And then I’m going to talk about everything you need from me as a photographer, and I’m going to give you a price on that. Then let’s actually just pay that difference.'”
Set out how much work you’ll do: Make sure your client understands you won’t work a second longer or take a single photo more than what’s required.
Matt Druin said "Just be very clear of the process and expectations of everything. For example, 'I’m gonna shoot for exactly eight hours on this specific day, it’s going to be consecutive time,' because you don’t want to get into a situation where they say 'well we had eight hours and only used five on this day, so can we use three for the next day?'”
The Association of Photographers said “If the brand/company/organization in question are capable of paying for professional photography (and indeed, seem to be paying for everything else but), then why should the photographer be the one to succumb?”
Don’t accept any vague promises of exposure. Sort out something concrete, like setting up a stall with your portfolio, prints and business cards, or putting an advertisement on their website.
Photo: Bryan Caporicci
Bryan Caporicci said,“If I’m photographing for a magazine that I was already hoping to advertise in, and I was already looking to spend $2000, that for me seems like a fair trade… I always use magazines, because in the wedding industry it’s very prevalent. They’ll ask you to shoot a free creative in exchange for advertising or for photo credit, and I often say ‘that’s nice, but photo credit doesn’t feed my family.'”
Regardless of the money, always sort out a contract. This negotiates what’s expected from both parties and can guarantee that you’ll be able to use the images in your portfolio to potentially land some paid work down the line.
Matt Druin said, “All the free shoots I’ve ever done, even for my own personal stuff, there’s always some kind of contract that outlines the who, what, when, why and how things can be used.”
Tiffany Mueller said, “I got my first photography job by pitching a photo shoot with a local band I had already done as a personal project to a local entertainment magazine. Sometimes people don’t know they need a photographer until it’s suggested, so don’t be so quick to reduce yourself to working for nothing.”
Explaining why you won’t work for free
When the person asking you to shoot for free is a close friend or family member, the situation can get awkward… sometimes even ugly.
You don’t have to take it personally. Non-photographers don’t always understand or appreciate the amount of work that’s involved, and may not fully recognize that this is your business. Instead of typing up an angry email or burning a few bridges, you can gently decline their request for unpaid photography work in the following ways:
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