“Free”lance: How To Work For Free
Over the coming weeks I will be releasing a series of articles that will guide you step by step through the process of pricing your photography for commercial work. I will show you how to structure an invoice as well as go in depth to discuss the different parts of the invoice itself. I will show you how and why you should be using license agreements on all your work. I will even explain how you should calculate your own rates in the commercial marketplace. Before we get to all that however, I think it is crucial to start at the very bottom and talk about TFP (Trade For Print), or in today’s world, TFE as I like to call it (Trade For Experience/Exposure).
You see, I like free things. Wi-Fi hotspots, online storage, jogging, junk mail…..wait…..scratch the last one. So several years ago when I decided to take my photography full time I successfully became a freelance photographer. Free to pursue my passions. Free to be my own boss. Free to direct my own life. Free to be artistic. That was a lot of free things, and I liked that. You know what I didn’t like? As job offers began pouring in quite a few of them had one thing in common. They seemed to focus on the “free” in freelance.
We have all been offered these promises of grand exposure and unparalleled opportunities for experience. We are told that if we do this one “special” gig it will lead to many more just like it, except somehow, next time they will all be paid. What is it that drives a business to try and hire freelancers in this way? In order to correctly price yourself it’s crucial to understand why TFE will be one of your biggest challenges in the marketplace.
Let’s explore some of the reasons why TFE is so popular, and whether or not you should partake in the practice.
If you want to become a doctor, an archaeologist, a mechanic, a plumber, or even an astrophysicist, there are clear cut paths of higher education you must complete. These paths come in the form of obtaining degrees or putting in a set amount of hours through apprenticeship to gain accreditation. Upon completion of these programs you are certified to practice what you have studied and there is real world value in your skills because you’ve actually gone into debt to obtain them.
You can’t wake up tomorrow and declare yourself a brain surgeon. I mean you can, and I’m sure it would work well at a bar, but in the workplace you would be labeled a fraud. If you woke up tomorrow and declared yourself a photographer however, it may not work as well in a bar, but as far as the workplace is concerned you are a 100% certified photographer.
This lack of certification in our industry is interesting because in order to build up value in an education based workforce you need to incur some debt. The more debt you incur through tuition, generally, the higher paying job you will end up receiving.
In a sense photographers are very fortunate that there is such a massive volume of information on the internet about our work. A quick trip to YouTube or any photography blog will provide you with more hours of education then any classroom can provide, and most of it is completely free. This free education however also leads to a devaluation of the profession because of the readily available information which anyone can pick up and use without certification.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against free education. I think it is marvellous. What is less marvellous is that these newly educated online photographers (I myself was one), need to build value somehow by incurring debt. Your education is worthless if everyone else has it, so what sets you apart? Work experience of course!
In order to build up a portfolio that will hopefully entice more clients photographers are willing to work for free, in a sense, this is our tuition. This is how we build up value by incurring debt. An engineer will pay $50,000 in tuition, and we will do $50,000 worth of free work.
What happens when we do this is also quite interesting. As photographers we end up creating a workforce filled with employers who are used to getting things done for free. These employers are seeing a constant supply of fresh talent willing to go into debt just to obtain a little value. This is the real supply and demand problem our industry faces.
Barriers To Entry
A barrier to entry is nothing more than an obstacle that prevents you from doing something. What prevents me from being a professional basketball player? About a foot of height and a seriously pathetic jump.
Becoming a professional photographer has gotten to be very simple over the last decade. Professional grade equipment is cheaper then ever. In addition our equipment is so automated that even Apple is claiming anyone can be a photographer with their latest version of a cell phone. A cell phone!
The lack of certification, as discussed earlier, coupled with the plentiful and cheap access to equipment has turned your average photographer from a hobbyist to a potential pro. “Anyone can do it” is the mentality and “good enough” is the flavour of the month.
Photographers will know and understand that a real photographer will ALWAYS need a vision and a sense of style, but these are ambiguous things which the general marketplace does not understand. What the marketplace sees is an influx in available photographers. The barriers to entry are very low and supply has gone up, so demand must come down. How can a photographer compete, much less, make any money?
How TFE Can Work For You
Now that we know the causes of why TFE is so popular, what do we do about it? Do we accept that this is the way things work? Or do we boycott and stage massive protests?
Frankly, working for experience isn’t bad. Really.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, you need to build up value. You can only do this through experience. This is the nature of the workforce. The normal way you are supposed to go about this is to get an education, then climb your individual corporate ladder until you reach a nice comfortable senior position, and then you retire. This is all very gradual and happens because you slowly accumulate experience. We need to replicate this same system for photographers who are simply “thrust” into the workplace and expected to produce results.
So if TFE is necessary, why are so many people against it?
The problem is not so much working for free. The problem is WHO you are giving free work to. Businesses who offer you opportunities to work for free are not raising your value but rather their own. They are taking your efforts and monetizing them for their own profit, meanwhile, selling it to you as a form of education.
I think the key to raising the value of our industry will lie in collaboration and support for our new artists. Here are some steps we should be taking:
Free Work Amongst Artists
I strongly believe that artists should collaborate on free projects. Photographers, models, MUA’s, stylists, we should all offer each other free services as time permits. Sure we could charge each other a few measly dollars here or there, and bicker about who should be the one to pay, but if these new artists can’t create work with each other, they will turn to the businesses trying to take advantage of them. By collaborating together, artists can create strong portfolios based on commercial concepts, without being taken advantage of. This is the real way to build value by going into debt. You are offering your free time and effort to other artists in exchange for each other’s experience. That is your tuition and education. Your hard work will not be going to a corporation that can generate profit from your efforts.
Become An Apprentice
Veteran photographer’s should be taking on more roles as mentors and educators. Offer young and aspiring photographer’s internships and apprenticeship opportunities that will give them a hands on approach to learning. You can provide them a safe alternative to practice all the real world concepts they will need to be successful in their own ventures. This goes beyond the technical side of things and should incorporate the business practices we use every day that actually keep the business afloat.
What I hope you get out of this article is that working for experience isn’t bad. It will not devalue the industry. It is a necessary form of building our own individual value. Nothing happens overnight, and we can’t expect to be working with Fortune 500 companies as soon as we open shop, but the path to getting there isn’t paved by giving away free commercial work. That is the only sure fire way to devalue YOURSELF. If we just dedicate the same amount of time into collaboration as our peers put into their degrees, we might find ourselves in a better position to find paying clients.
Stay tuned for the next article where I will begin to explore how you can figure what to charge your commercial clients, and how to present it to them. Feel free to visit me anytime at Peter House – Commercial Photographer to follow our work.