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.