The Art of Photography Podcast: Ted Forbes Hates the Idea of Working for Free

Everyone's been there. A friend of a friend asks you to take their family portrait, a cousin wants you to shoot their wedding, a local business would really like some event photos — but nobody has a budget. Working for free is something every working professional gets faced with frequently. In this video Ted Forbes from The Art of Photography talks about the pros and cons of free work.

Below is the TL;DR version. 

Scenario 1: A high profile client asks you to do work for free. This could be an important local business or a national brand, everyone likes a good deal. However, Ted points out that when a client of this caliber is looking for free work they likely aren't too concerned about the project quality, it likely isn't worth your time and, no matter how much they insist, does not necessarily lead to future work.

Scenario 2: Working "for exposure" is another thing potential clients throw around. Unless it puts you in contact with your exact clientele it's probably not even the exposure you're looking for.

Scenario 3: Non-profit / pro bono work can also be a slippery slope. While, I believe, philanthropy should be a central value of any business venture, it's important to not let yourself be taken advantage of. A strategy that I've found particularly successful is to work with the organization to come up with the budget they need for your services. You can cut them a deal, you can volunteer some of your time, but charging (even a nominal fee) for your professional services is important.

The Alternative: Working for trade. Even if a monetary payment isn't an option working for trade is something that should be considered too. While it won't pay your bills you'll still get something meaningful out of it and the other party will see that your time has value.

What are your thoughts on free work? Is it something that you occasionally do? Let us know in the comments below.
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Gustav Hoiland's picture

My fundamental rule in working for "free" is that I must be working for "me." This could mean trying out a new genre of shooting, building a high quality portfolio piece, or otherwise trading my time for something that will advance my understanding of working with a camera. It means I have the creative control, and if what I want to do with the time doesn't align with what the client needs, it's probably best not to engage.

This is different from shooting for free for a client in exchange for "exposure," in which the client gets the primary benefit of free work and the photographer gets an image credit tacked on at the end. I spend my marketing time trying to make real connections with potential clients, not giving away my services.

One last point - working for "free" doesn't have to be client-initiated (e.g. an inquiry about shooting for free). I built much of my early portfolio on reaching out to people hoping to trade my images in exchange for the access to create them (and the control to do them right).

Jennifer Kelley's picture

I've dealt with #1 and #3. Keep in mind I don't make 100% of my living on photography, I'm taking a very untraditional route.

With #1, the client told me he wanted a certain type of shoot with a zero budget. I produced it, he seemed happy. Then he changed his mind and got upset that the shoot wasn't in the particular style that he changed his mind to after the fact. He flip flopped on some other things as well. It was a nightmare for me. And to add insult to injury, the product took off and was all over major media sources internationally... and he didn't even bother to credit me. I decided that in the future if I lose my mind and do another shoot like this with anyone else, I will still make them sign a contract outlining what they expect of me and what I expect of them as a client, same as if they were paying me.

#3 I like to do edgy projects about social issues from time to time. I typically approach them about helping me with a project rather than marketing my services. They can use my photos as I outline, however if they wanted a certain type of pictures taken for their website or print materials, they'd have to pay for that (a nominal fee since I'm already involved).

Michael Comeau's picture

It makes a lot of sense to collaborate with other creatives to build portfolios.

But working for free for people who would otherwise be clients if not for their cheapness is a waste of time and energy.

In my experience, people who don't pay have zero appreciation of what they're getting.

Why? Because if they're not shelling out actual money, the work itself has no value to them. Since it's free, they think it must be easy to produce and that anyone can do it.

The less they pay, the more entitled they get.

And what happens to you on the other side?

You start resenting them and you wonder why you got involved in the first place.

It's disastrous for everyone.

Rather than working for free for others, just work on your own shoots.

This way, you avoid unreasonable cheapskates and you retain total control.

Tony Teofilo's picture

I *wish* working for free was a good idea. I worked for free several times, and in every case, it ended up being a mistake. For instance, I did event photography for a charity at a vastly reduced rate. They immediately started asking for $25 less every single time I agreed to "work" for them. This is a major multi-million dollar charity that was hosting events in very expensive locations. They were spending more on the floral arrangements than on my abilities. I got mad for a minute, then realized it was my own fault. Same for taking headshots for starving actors. I was trying to do some good for folks who needed headshots who couldn't afford them. But they weren't paying, so they would flake at the last minute and reschedule almost every time. I started charging, and suddenly people were showing up on time and prepared. But I didn't feel good about the quality of the work. I wasn't ready, I guess.

So, I stopped. I just went back to taking pictures and video for myself. I miss the money I was making. It was an excellent second income. My conclusion was that photography doesn't command enough respect to be a proper profession anymore (at least, not for someone like me). I admire photographers who are still making a real business for themselves in the current climate. It's a brutal jungle out there. But it has always been that way. The great HH Bennett once said, "The amateur photo craze has cut into my business to such an extent that I have had to, and am still trying to find something else to sell." That was in 1902.

Stronz Vanderploeg's picture

I have to disagree. I think these kinds of statements are detrimental to those just getting into the industry because they believe they should be paid at a professional level when they have nothing to prove that they are worth it. I've met many people over the years who were just getting started but wouldn't take work if it didn't pay them a "fair rate."

Working for free helps build your network when you have nothing in your portfolio. It can lead to future work, good relationships and possibly nothing at all, but it's better than sitting at home not working. Because if you're not working and you want to be, you have to start somewhere.

Tom Brady's picture

I completely disagree with you on this one.

Working for free for someone is just really bad idea. You will get disrespected over and over again when they tell all their other business buddies that "Hey i know a photographer ho will shoot your stuff for free here is his number". You can never recover from that. Once words gets out that you are "That photographer who is free or super cheap" your business is done.

If you are going to shoot for free, shoot with other creatives only for your portfolio. If the concept works for your portfolio then its game on of not..."F#*K YOU PAY ME"!

Anonymous's picture

Been there and done that.

Learn from the mistake and I just don't accept their offer. Sometimes if I like their direction product, I'll give them a rough 'Cost Estimate" just to show them how much does it cost to get quality image for their product and give them study case why it is so important to pay at least a reasonable amount for their brand.

They'll either Ignore or be open with it, agree with the reasonable budget. Sign a Contract and walla!