Stop Charging, Start Shooting For Free

Stop Charging, Start Shooting For Free

This past Monday I wrote a piece titled "Six Things Every Beginning Photographer Should Know". One of the points I made was the importance of sometimes shooting for free. Here are just a few excerpts of reader responses:
"Shoot for free? Really lol?"
"Shooting for free is what's wrong with the photography business."
"Go ahead shoot for free. You set your price point and show how much you value your work that way."

So I thought it would be worthwhile to explain what I meant.

Here is an excerpt from my post: "If your portfolio isn’t very diverse, start thinking about the types of clients and jobs that you want to get, and then approach them. There are plenty of small businesses or bands out there that would be thrilled to have you shoot for them for free or for trade or a for a discounted rate. If it means that you get to add the types of images to your portfolio that you need, then it’s mutually beneficial."

What I was not saying was that you, professional photographer that you are, should get yourself into a situation where a client is taking advantage of you. That is the last place you ever want to be. Shooting from this mental state is not conducive to creativity. What I meant was that you should for free on your terms.

For example, I want to do more editorial-style portrait work. My goal is to be a regional freelancer for publications like Rolling Stone, Esquire and The New York Times. If a photo director from one of these publications were to visit my site, would they see the types of images that they are looking for in a freelance photographer? If not, I will certainly not get the gig. So how do I get the images in my portfolio if no one will hire me in the first place? I do this by shooting for free. I acknowledge the areas in my portfolio that are the weakest or least diverse and I do a free shoot that will give me the type of images that meet those criteria.

Let's say that I need more mens fashion in my portfolio. Now that I know what I want to photograph, I pull in a makeup artist, hair stylist, model and anything else I will need to execute the shoot, such as local clothing boutiques. And then I shoot it however I want. After I am done editing the photos, I give the files to everyone involved who also donated their time.

Now maybe fashion isn't your thing. Maybe you love bands. Or food photography. Or architecture. If your portfolio isn't everything it could be, adding a few more, diverse images to round it out could mean the difference of you getting a job or not getting a job.

Once you have acknowledged where your portfolio lacking, think about local, up-and-coming talent or businesses that you think would be perfect for a shoot. Approach them. Tell them you will shoot their space/band/product for free (this one time) and give them the files for them to use (crediting you whenever they do). Now you have another shoot under your belt and more images in your portfolio that reflect the exact type of photography that you want to do more of. Plus, they now know your name and have a relationship with you. And it WILL turn into paid work.

Still not convinced? Let me describe three scenarios where I have shot for free. The first scenario involves The Ohio State University dance department. But it didn't start out this way. It started with my overwhelming desire to photograph dancers. I didn't know any dancers, but I knew that OSU had a renowned dance department. So I got on their website and looked up the email addresses of every graduate student in the dance department and emailed every single one of them, introducing myself. I got one response. After I shot her (for free) and gave her the files, a couple more of her dancer friends came along. I shot them for free as well (after all, this was what I wanted to be shooting). After doing about half a dozen of these mini-sessions, that dance class started graduating and a new class of grad students came through. By now, my name was know throughout the department as the go-to guy for dance photography. But these new students didn't know me as the "free guy". So now I was shooting dancers (which I still loved) but was getting paid. A year after that, OSU came knocking. They needed marketing images for their dance department. Now the legit money had arrived. I have since shot three commercial dance shoots, directly for The Ohio State University, and was payed well for it.

The second scenario concerns one of my favorite musicians, Chelsea Wolfe. I have been a huge fan of her music since her first album. Since she is based in L.A. and isn't on a major record label, she doesn't make it to my neck of the woods very often. So when I saw that she was to play a Chicago show with King Dude (another musician I love), I knew I had to go. And what would make this photographer even more stoked than seeing two musicians he loved play live? Photographing them of course. So I emailed/Facebooked them. I introduced myself and shared my portfolio with them. I mentioned that if they put me and my friends on the list to the show, I would shoot them and give them the images to use. And they said YES. So even though I wasn't getting paid cash for the shoot, being able to work with them and see them play was like currency to me. And now they are using the images on their social media sites, literally reaching tens of thousands of people.

The third scenario involves a client that approached me. And while I would normally not even respond to an email from an unknown client soliciting unpaid work from me, this was different. This was from one of the largest design firms in Columbus. They were asking me to shoot the marketing images for the largest fashion show in Columbus. And guess what. They weren't getting paid either (sometimes the most exciting work is the stuff that pays the least). But now I have a killer portfolio piece and I have an in with the director of the design firm. The design firm that contracts out photographers at their $10,000 day rate for commercial clients.

I don't know about you, but I, for one, get more life out of certain types of shoots than others. Certain types of jobs pay the bills while others fill me up inside. My goal in business is to unite the two so that I can make a living off of shooting exactly the type of photography that I adore.The types of gigs you love may only come around every few months. So when it does, and you are competing against several other people to get that perfect gig, you definitely want to have the best possible odds of getting that gig. As the saying goes, "If you aim at nothing you'll hit it every time."

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Thanks Nick.

I've found myself 86ing all kinds of worthwhile projects lately because they "didn't pay" or "weren't worth my time" or "I don't do TFP" and then all of a sudden I find myself sitting around the house not shooting ANYTHING AT ALL.  As a 10+ year photography veteran, that's a problem.

One of my 2013 resolutions is to take on more personal projects, even if they don't give me an immediate return on investment, or even if I lose a little capital putting them together.  I'm looking to take a creative detour from some of the types of shoots and clients that I've been doing for the past three years (incorporating HD video work, especially) and I can't do that if I'm waiting around for someone to hire me to do them.  Because without prior work experience to show, they won't.

ps) good to see you contributing to fstoppers, fellow Centennial alum!

what kills the business is being cheap and not doing it for free.

Free is a four letter word that starts with F

In my case doing work for free has been a life saver. I make short films/promotional videos specializing  in martial arts. One of the very first videos I made was with one of the biggest names in the sport, Paul 'Semtex' Daley. He took a lot of convincing to let me shoot him and there's no way he would have if he had to pay. Once he saw the finished product he was willing to pay for more and his name value in the industry has gotten me a lot of new work and a decent bit of money. It was one video, and I never really have to work for free.

Agreed Nick. I am trying to build a diverse portfolio and the only way to do that is to shoot bands at gigs for free, shoot portraits of strangers on the street, and shoot my chef friends wonderful creations. In think as long as you are 'doing it on your own terms' there is no issue. I want to shoot all the time, not just when I get paid for it. I would loath becoming one of those photographers whose kit sits in the cupboard until someone pulls out the check book. As such, I will always be on the look out for willing and interesting subjects, because I'm shooting to grow and build my skills and portfolio. Some will try and take advantage of this, but I'm a big boy and have no problem saying 'no'. On top of this I would rather (perhaps naively) err on the side of generosity than insecurity. Peace. (  

I feel like what you describe as free work is more your own project.  You are your own client.  you organise the photography you want to do.  I dont necesarily see it as working for free. You are just creating your own assignments that don't nessarly have a monatary profit.  You are paying for it you are paying who ever you are shooting with photos. But its your project you are doing it for yourself the second you are doing free work for others thats when it starts to be come a problem. 

This is exactly what I've been saying for some time, only I think its misleading to say you're shooting for free. Your shooting for something else, just not hard cash. 
A lot of well established photographers who don't have to struggle to get a name for themselves in a very over crowded market, probably do feel its undervaluing their trade, but its very rare, if it happens at all, that an agency will commission a free photographer. Think about it, no agency is going to commission someone who they have no control over, because how can they if they're not paying them, the free guy might not even bother to turn up!
Get real, no Pro Photographer is loosing work to someone building up their portfolio, by going out of their way to contact potential subjects, chances are the subject had never thought about photography in the first place.

Bob Bell's picture

Not sure which made me shake my head more out of Steve's "shooting for free is a cancer in the industry" or Joe's "these attitudes are devaluing the industry".....What?! 

Great article btw and way to go :)

I've been trying to get this point across to many of my fellow professional photographers for years, and this piece illustrates the argument very well. I don't call it "shooting for free" anymore, I term it "investing in an income stream". When done correctly, the payoff is huge.

This works not only in photography, but in many other businesses, as well. Try arguing how stupid Google is for giving away so many of their services for so many years.

In the previous thread, I commented that markets are social and subjective. A self-employed photographer cannot operate successfully on any kind of rigid formula or rules. But I wanted to bring up another point that is important to understanding the controversy that always surrounds "shooting for free"...

Western countries are in the process of de-industrialization and this is having a profound effect on our culture. Several generations have grown up in an industrial economy where they were expected to work for corporations and factories. They were trained in public schools and universities to find a job and work for hourly rates or a salary. Basically, people have been trained to be "clock-punchers" and "company-men."

The clock-puncher or company-man attitude works great for people that intend to work for others, but it is the kiss-of-death for anybody that wants to be self-employed. Working for free is definitely nonsense to the kind of person that thinks like a union or office worker, but it is often a necessary evil for folks that intend to start and run their own businesses from scratch with little resources.

Ultimately, I think that the debate about shooting for free in photography is really rooted in the conflict between two totally different approaches towards working. On the one hand, there are the people that still have an industrial era mentality of working for a salary or punching a clock. On the other hand, there are the people that recognize that being self-employed requires a radically different approach and building the type of reputation necessary for getting future work often involves doing things like working for free at certain times.

Really good point. Thank you for the comment.

Glad you put this out here - makes perfect sense!  I did a bunch of "giving it away" to get my portfolio started: working with models from Model Mayhem in exchange (time for print), working with a tattoo studio (print for free ink!) and so on.  It allowed me to get some killer shots for the portfolio - shots that help to get my foot in a door that otherwise would be shut.

The "Free" word has a lot of stigma surrounding it in the pro photography area.

Maybe a better way to consider it would be as a Personal Project / Collaboration - where you also share the photos with the subject(s) (unless you pay them of course)

Brad Delaney's picture

I'm with Carlie ! My shoot for free work nowadays is work where I consider me to be the client, my own projects.  You have to think about your portfolio and say. " I would like that shot in my portfolio", so sometimes you have to shoot TFP to get that shot in your portfolio and sometimes that means shooting for no cash.  The "pay off " might be down the track when some one sees that shot and goes " I want one of those " here's the $$$$. Beats doing any other job I have ever had, and I've had a few !

Sarra Nelson's picture

Every single "free" shoot I've done has been far more meaningful than the paid ones. In fact, the first one actually ended up generating 2 large orders from those images, and they were sharing my name and work with anyone who would listen. I expected absolutely nothing from that session whatsoever, and would have been happy with a simple "Thank you." 

I don't believe doing a favor for someone or sharing your gift takes food off someone's table at all. If they can't afford to pay anyone, the only thing being lost is the time and effort of the person willing to help. I don't consider it a waste because I am able to use the images in my portfolio, and am grateful for them letting me use them as subjects. In reality, they are doing me a favor. I didn't have to pay a model, so it was mutually beneficial. 

I value my work, time, and efforts as much as the next, and see the investment that giving away these thing can generate. I'd rather help someone and risk receiving less ROI than walk climb over people to make a buck. Thanks, Nick!

Agamemnon's picture

I only shoot for free.

i have done this! it works... never would do it for a wedding or headshots but, for family  kid, and pet portraits? HELL yes!

It's amazing that you had to spell this out. The nay sayers of your post on Monday must have a bottomless bucket of clients who only hire them for prefect gigs.

I think the devil is in the details... If you called this type of work what it is "Personal Work" and not "FREE" so many people wouldn't freak out by the notion that you are shooting for FREE. It's not an uncommon thing for a photographer to shoot a personal job to gain experience or to test gear or beef up a part of their portfolio they may be lacking in. 

The bigger issue is there are just flat out to many unqualified people with camera's calling themselves photographers and charging money for half ass work.

Homer Horowitz's picture

I'm all about personal work but shooting "would be/should be" paid gigs for free is like SHOOTING YOURSELF IN THE FOOT! Think about the future of our work - If there's always someone willing to do a job for free or very cheep then how much is that job really worth?   
Instead, why not talk about free ways to source models or how to create an editorial style portrait. How about doing a story on how to get a job with your local paper... There's a million ways to build your portfolio without lowering the perceived value of our services.  


I read your article and I'm sorry but in my opinion your stirring the pot for your own attention. I am a working full time professional photographer and this kind of attitude is what is perverting our industry. Spreading this nonsense for others to blindly follow is irresponsible and downright appalling. Letting amateur photographers read this kind of dribble instils nothing but the idea that in order to garner attention and open doors you must work for free in order to build opportunities. You should be ashamed of yourself for writing such an article. While you and the rest of our industry turns to the "free work in order to get noticed" business model the rest of us are working our asses off taking meetings, improving our craft, purchasing marketing material and educating ourselves any way we can in order to be successful enough to provide for our families doing something we love. Your answer to this is to give it all away in the hopes of creating opportunity? I am so glad I never fell into this trap of a business model and learned very early on that in order to succeed you have to respect your own craft, figure out what type of money you need to make in order to support your family and charge accordingly for your services. For all the other aspiring professional photographers reading this try and ignore this kind of talk. Learn to run a business the professional way. Free NEVER pays the bills.

Harvey MacIntosh's picture

I see the logic but I don't buy it. If you DO shoot for free, make sure you're the one offering it, and not them asking on the basis that it will 'be good for your portfolio', and only do it for free if there is no other option and you absolutely need to have the shoot for your work. 

Dennis Helmar's picture

It took thousands of photographers a hundred years to convince clients that photography is a business which should be paid for as any other business. Creative professionals will always be compensated for their unique ability to produce inspiring photography. Your philosophy of working for free for your personal well being undermines all that. Working for free has never worked and I'm sorry to say will not work for you! What does work is producing inspiring ,emotional and creative photographs that clients want to pay for. They will always look at you as the free shooter and when you want to charge for your work they will Laugh at you like I am now!

currently I am expanding my business into video as well as photography, It is mainly property, architecture and interiors. Anyway I have done and will continue to do a series of free and low priced shoots, till I improve enough to charge full fees and have a good portfolio of work together. I still get paid as in many cases I am also working on photos and the clients are using the freebies to get other customers to cough up money to get it done in the future

Thanks, I've been stumbling thinking if I should continue doing my work for free or start charging. Your post was inspiring and thank you.

"No one cared who I was until I started shooting for free." (Loved the Dark Knight Rises!)

wao i did this for wedding film, i'm a mograph designer and video editor for the las 10 years doing tv commercials and documentaries for a boutique facility here in Aruba, but i want to do films for a different field on my own, and well weddings is a no brainer since i know all the editorial and commercial tricks, well i thought is a easy move for me, well guess what it was but no one was hiring me since i only show them my demoreel with 3d and tvc, and wasn't a single piece of wed films on it, so i decided to do one for a friend of my mom, it when great she loved and did recommend me with the wed coordinator of one of the busiest wed hotels here in the island, now i do have a wed highlight to show and they liked it, already expecting 3 weds this Q1, so yes i support totally the "FREE" gigs idea.

There is even the case of photographers that PAY to shoot and still make profit on the end. (A good example is a photographer that pays a kids football team a fee to be allowed to shoot all "home" games and then sells action shots of the kids to their parents)

Scott Wilson's picture

My first job ever was a pro bono job that I got because "I had a big camera". It was, of course, for exposure. I was taking photos at a Farmer's Market and a lady approached me and said, "Who are you? You must be somebody to have a big camera like that." I explained that I was out practicing photography because I'd just bought my DSLR, and she said, "Well, practice for us! We need photos for our website!" I ended up taking shots of local farms and gardens and the local community college, got great experience shooting people in midday sun successfully, worked with a lot of influential local businesses, and frankly it ALL worked out great. I later booked jobs because of it that were paid, and now have a return client from it that I am very happy to work for. At the same time I supported a cause I believe in, local farms.

I also did a lot of trade work with a local magazine. This was a woman's magazine, so I got a lot of trade at salons or dress shops. My female assistant was regifted these trades. ha ha. But that has led to quite a few repeat jobs that were paid cash, including being the campaign photographer for a state politician, and a job with a national advertising firm, as well as my first wedding (and that got me a free trip to Florida and a paycheck too). Sarah Darling's agent got ahold of me and asked for use of the photos I got of The Bachelor while they filmed locally. I shared gladly because it gave me some national exposure on her facebook page and some music blogs, and permission to use the photos in my portfolio.

I often take photos at local businesses I like and post them on their FB page. They appreciate the support and often support me back. Sorry to necro this, but I came across it on a random search and it's been very similar to my experience.