3 Ways Working For Free Can Be More Empowering Than You Might Realize

3 Ways Working For Free Can Be More Empowering Than You Might Realize

It always starts innocently enough: you buy a new camera and start taking photos. Then someone you know asks a favor and you’re all too happy to oblige them with all the photos you can snap. Fast forward just a small amount of time later and you realize, with great sorrow, this phase of freebies doesn’t have an end.

Fear not, there are actually some great reasons to work pro bono but they aren’t readily apparent. And with the general disdain in the industry towards free work (well earned I might add) few openly want to talk about the positive side of this. Let’s dig in.

For the most part, these apply to those that charge for their skill set but overall the thought process here is to think the long game. Also, if you're just starting out and are still in the early learning stages, it's safe to say, you're going to shoot a lot for free. It's just a necessary part of growing and gaining experience before people are willing to part with money in exchange for your talents.

1. First and Foremost, There Is Always a Need

From charitable organizations to close relatives in need, the world needs photography and can’t always pay for it. But when the need far outweighs the finances is a great opportunity to build some street cred for yourself and do some good at the same time.

Example one is a group of friends of mine that literally watched their apartment burn up while the NYFD tried to put out the flames. One of them is a fellow actor so I extended an offer to update his headshots and materials when he was able to get his affairs in order. The title image to this article came from that shoot. Did it make the experience less traumatic for him? No, but that’s not the point. I did what I could to help propel him forward past this crap time.

Example two is a local church in NYC that’s been providing 1,500 meals, every Sunday, for more than a decade. Yes, one thousand five hundred meals to needy people every single Sunday. As if that wasn’t enough incentive to help out, they started a new program that provides therapy and coaching to whoever wants it to deal with past traumas. The program has waypoints for progress and they can graduate after achieving certain personal goals over weeks, or months, of effort. They wanted to promote the program to more people and also seek funding so I was more than happy to provide photo and video services to them.

1.5. The Effect It Has On You

I was going to throw this in as an aside but, after thinking it through, I think this qualifies as its own entry. Working with my friend after the fire allowed me to connect to him on a deeper level because he was so vulnerable. Take that experience and times it by 100 when I worked with the church, because I was interviewing the graduates from the program. Nothing is more humbling than listening to someone recount drug use, prison time, abuse, homelessness, and then be thankful for where they are in life because they’ve made it through all that. To see that transformation in multiple instances gives me a sense of renewed purpose as an artist. Both of these were rewarding on a personal level that can't be tallied on an invoice.

2. Exchange of Services 

This one is a slippery slope and may take trial and error to know when it’s actually worth the effort to work on a professional project with little to no budget. The easiest litmus test is to determine if the exchange offers you a tangible or measurable return. Keywords or phrases to turn right around and run the other direction are exposure, engagement (likes and comments), and a portfolio builder. If at any moment there is a denunciation of your skillset, it’s time to walk away. If a friend can take these photos for free, you can just use your phone, there’s no need for fancy editing, or any number of excuses to devalue your creative skill set this isn’t worth your time.

Before I get into examples it’s important to take stock of your level of craftsmanship before trying to barter for services. Wanting to work with someone that has 10 or more years of experience in their field while you have 1-2 is a non-starter. Don’t commit the sin of undervaluing someone else’s creative talents in pursuit of your own ends.

So what are the times it’s worth it? Exchanging professional services on a 1 for 1 basis can be a huge win because we can’t be experts at everything. This can be a lot simpler than you might think too. If you need a website then be on the hunt for a web designer that needs imagery. There may be a local shop with clothes, services, food, etc. you might be able to swap services. I strongly encourage you to stay away from large businesses because unless you have a serious following to bring them more brand awareness they aren’t interested in a collaboration. 

If you want to build more of a career then think about how you can forge new relationships with people in key positions. Research who runs the company or agency you want to connect with and figure out a way to approach them with a free session that caters to their look. I once shot headshots for the manager of a crazy nice hotel in Williamsburg and ended up with a free weekend stay in a suite.

3. To Build Your Own Body of Work

This one may seem like the most obvious but it can have the greatest impact and it’s important to remember that we all work for free in the beginning to just learn the craft. Later, however, you can take that knowledge and create a body of work that’s wholly your own based on your experienced creative vision. Quite a few photographers create their first published work this way, or start in a new genre of photography altogether.

Joey L used his earnings from commercial gigs to pay for his trips to Kurdistan and document the freedom fighters there. "We Came From Fire" is now in print and has been shown in numerous galleries in Europe to promote peace and bring awareness to war-ravaged countries. He's also made a multi-episode documentary about the experience.

Pre-COVID I wanted to see if boudoir photography was something I would want to invest my time in so I reached out to a handful of ladies I know and put together some shoots. By the time the world caught on fire, I had the beginning of a new portfolio but decided it wasn’t for me. I wouldn’t have known that had I not used what I know now and ventured off into unknown territory.

Free is a four-letter word, both literally and figuratively, in the creative world but that doesn’t mean you can’t use it to a positive outcome. The key is to determine if someone wants this for free because they don't value the work and are therefore unwilling to pay for it. Knowing that will save you a ton of stress and beating yourself up for saying yes, again.

As always, this is my experience and is meant to inform and inspire. Happy shooting.

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Robert Nurse's picture

This was a superb article in which I saw myself in spades. Most of my work is for the love of the artform and self interest and I don't charge people for anything unless I incur expenses. If I have to rent studio space, hire a MUA, etc., I have them cover those costs only. But, there are times when I'll see a face that just must be photographed. It is then that, on my invitation, that there is no costs to the subject.

Section one was quite moving! The word "purpose" is what I believe drives me forward in photography. I treat my pursuit of the artform as a journey for which I hope I never arrive at a destination. Well, as long as "arrival" doesn't mean that I'm never moved or excited about a shoot or an image. Just that certain things become second nature in the creative process. I'm also trying to use photography as an avenue for "social self improvement". I'm not a people person for a lot of reasons. But, when photographing people, it's a must if you want to get the most of others for the sake of their imagery.

I once worked TFP for an MUA that needed images highlighting her work. An entire afternoon in a studio with seven beautiful models and me as the sole photographer was an experience I'd repeat again and again. I also gained insights into a model's world by being a fly on the wall listening to their success/horror stories and what they liked and disliked on past sets.

But, again, great article! Oh, and Joey L. is FANTASTIC!

craig salmon's picture

Isn't it weird that Fstoppers and some other photo educational sites keep posting articles titled along the lines - the benefits working for free? A) these articles are clearly aimed at career motivated young photographers. And B) the articles aways seem to compare apples to oranges almost by design to trick young naive career orientated photographers.

How many articles have been pushed on these "educational blogs" talking about putting down the camera and spending the first four years of your career as an assistant or grip? Your city doesn't support the need for photo-assistants move to the big city and put in your time, like most chefs, doctors, lawyers basically everyone else that wants to service people at a professional level. Apprenticeships to a career in the arts are not new basically as far back as history records.

How many articles show celebrated artists who refused to sell themselves take on jobs like house cleaning so they could pursue their art in a pure form?

Testing model poses/lighting, shooting your own art series is much different than these articles "benefits working for free" imply with their underlying notion it's ok for young people to get suckered into working for charities/organization that "can't" pay for the photography. If they have the money to market their message with your free photos afterwards they had the money to pay for the photographer upfront.

Finally yes back when I worked at a newspaper (film days) I took on a charitable assignment to Moscow. All the travel was paid and honestly where the images were published I could easy use to name drop in job interviews. I never did nor did I ever use the images in my portfolio because at the end of the day I knew I hadn't been hired "paid - like a true professional" for the assignment I was both embarrassed and displeased with myself as a career orientated photographer not standing my ground demanding a legit payment/respect for my career path.

If you're a young photographer don't be fooled by these articles there is great satisfaction standing your ground on financial matters even if you don't get the assignment. Know this I learned a 1000 times more assisting photographers at an assistant's rate than any free/low-paying photo assignment ever could provide.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

The thing about free work is that there is literally nothing to learn on the business side. I'd at least mention how much I would charge for the same service just to make a point and also get the other side's reaction. Clients who pay want results and improvisation is to be expected at any shoot. Charging or not, same deal, and learning under the pressure will make you a better photographer. You can charge $ and if it goes bad offer the money back, but when the pressure kicks in you get better instantly.
No one can really justify shooting for free to learn unless it's to learn to shoot the same way all the time. There are no two shoot that are identical, even something as simple as copy work has it's own multi facets and challenges. You can shoot an aquarelle and think you master copy work, but then you may hit the wall when a client brings you an old oil painted canvas and didn't tell you they retouched part of it recently or if you shoot a paint sample that has raised texture or sample metallic strips that reveal finger prints all over the place.

craig salmon's picture

I agree, allow me to add even if a photographer decides to work for free or at a very low rate they still very much need to write up a licensing agreement spelling out the publication usage for the images and time limit the organization can use the images. Photographers should do this even for model tfp work.

Deleted Account's picture

The article sounds more like self-promotion. I may be wrong, but this is the way I felt when reading it. If you genuinely want to help someone - then help without expecting anything in return. Working for free and helping people in need are different things. If you have a regular income and can afford working for free - great for you. But most of pro photographers cannot afford working for free, 1 - because they have to pay for living expenses, 2 - because working for free does nothing but helps you create a reputation of a cheap photographer who does not value his work and time. Working for free leaves you and your bank account empty. Fstoppers, please stop promoting the "trend of working for free".

Clay Swatzell's picture

It's interesting, 2 of the 3 reasons listed are examples of not working for free. Exchange of services, i.e. I do something for you and you then provide a service to me which would have cost me otherwise and to build your portfolio, i.e. I'm actually working for me to give me some new or updated images in my portfolio and I am supplying the subjects copies of the session(s) for their use, also an exchange of services.