As a Beginner, Should You Offer Free Shoots to Build Your Portfolio?

When you are new to photography or videography, it can be a bit tough to get clients to give you a chance, which might lead you to wonder if you should offer your services for free. This quick and helpful video discusses why it might be beneficial to do a few free shoots to build out your portfolio a bit.

Coming to you from Chase Turnbow, this excellent video discusses the potential benefits of offering your services for free as a new photographer or videographer (though it is oriented toward video shooters, the idea applies just as much to stills work). We are often told to never work for free, which is of course meant to help us avoid being taken advantage of and to maintain the collective value of our work, but when you are new to the industry, it can be a bit of a catch-22, as you need clients to build a portfolio, but clients want to see a portfolio before they hire you, which is why working for free in this specific situation can be mutually beneficial. Just be careful not get in over your head; take on small, easily complete projects that are within your realm of capabilities. Check out the video above for the full rundown from Turnbow. 

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Paul Clark's picture

His website is down.

Cool Cat's picture

I agree. If you charge nothing then your experience is worth nothing.

Rod Kestel's picture

Yeah once you've done a freebie, they expect more and will milk you dry.

Did one for the newspaper and I was painfuly aware that it devalued every professional photog. Even more painful was they were using my shots along with their advertising. While I enjoyed the job, I prolly shouldn't have done it.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Yes, as a beginner to build your portfolio.

And, just to clarity, in this context, free = trade.

Kirk Darling's picture

"Free" does not equal "trade" in any context. That's just a misuse of terminology.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

It does in this context. Like it or not, that is the terminology.

Cool Cat's picture

I agree with you Kirt. Free doesn't equal trade. When you give something for free you shouldn't expect anything back. Free is free. Trade is actually an exchange of products or services.

Just me's picture

Discount are possible in exchange of copyrights share for personal promotion. This is true all along your career.

It's quite unlikely your fist job will be with very "impressive" clients anyways, so not so relevant for someone starting a business.
Free is not an option,
Is a baker will offer 100% free bread cause he is new in the business?

Rui Bandeira's picture

If you decide to creat a construction company , call me out..i will accept you building my new house for free...just for portfolio...

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Sure, I'll built it for you. If I can stay in it from time to time. If I can have a video crew and/or real estate agent drop by from time to time to show my work to other potential buyers.

You get something out of it, I get something out of it. Capisce.

Dan Howell's picture

For years, maybe even decades, art directors, art buyers and photography agents would ask photographers that they were interested in working with, 'Let me see your personal work'. The implication was clear, they wanted to see work that the individual photographer had invested something in. It carried the same, if not more, gravity than assigned work. This applied to not only beginners but established photographers as well.

You will not, especially as beginners, get assigned to do the kinds of projects that have as few creative restrictions and greater potential to show your skills than personal or non-paid work. That doesn't mean you have to have to accept every non-paid shoot. But some non-paid projects have more value to a photographer than the fee they could have expected. It is an opportunity. If you don't choose to take advantage of opportunity, that is on you. The trick is in knowing how to take advantage of opportunities.

Michael L. McCray's picture

Photography is a business. If you plan to feed yourself never forget that fact. The things I shoot for free are the things I am interested in and own the rights completely.

LA M's picture

Well stated.

Feed yourself before you feed others.

Stoopy McPheenis's picture

I say do what will build a good client base. I didn't technically work for 'free' but I started as a set P.A. (in catering) and definitely took any chance I got to show that I knew how to shoot. Here and there, I was criticized by more established photographers who thought I was cheapening 'myself' (i.e. - them) for shooting from time to time on a P.A. salary/rate but that is how I built up my portfolio and made important connections and I would do it the same way again.

Obviously, don't let yourself be taken advantage of.... but grabbing an opportunity to show your stuff is wise, even if it's not high paid.

Kirk Darling's picture

The situation is going to differ between retail and commercial photography.

My basic principle: If it was my idea that we should take the picture, it's free; if it was your idea, I'll bill you.

I seriously resist doing any discounts. Discounting photography is IMO a bad business tactic because photography doesn't have a consistent comparable value. It's only worth what you charge and can get someone to pay.

If you charge $500 for a particular wedding, that's not a "discount," even if your normal fee is $5,000. The value of any particular wedding is only what you charge for that particular wedding.

So I don't try to convince anyone that he's getting a $5000 photograph for $500. I do have some low-price products, but those particular products are designed to be low-cost so that even with a low price, it's still a benefit to me.

Just me's picture

I guess the discount do not mean lower cost for lower quality, but as you explain; lower than making a benefice for the photographer.
The article title is "free shots" so it's obviously by losing money than someone will walk to such project.
This is even going further than discount.
It's killing your own value and expect something in return.

Kirk Darling's picture

Reducing the cost of production in retail portraiture might eliminating boutique frills Rather than a half-day portrait session in both studio and location, they only get 30 minutes in the studio, for instance. And they may get a fixed package rather than an a la carte menu choice. That doesn't mean the final product will be of lesser quality.

Robin Routh's picture

Shooting for free effectively advertises the fact that you shoot for free. Trying to raise your price from free (or even from some sort of discount) is difficult if not impossible. Research what the shoot you are doing is worth and charge accordingly. If you need samples, shoot them on your own.

Tony Clark's picture

It all depends on where you are in the marketplace. As a new photographer, I asked models to shoot and I shared the images. At some point, models contacted me to do shoots. It was at that point that the Agencies and models knew what they'd receive so started charging for a shoot. If you have experience with clients and you offer to give it away, you may be damaging the market and doing no one any favors.

sam dasso's picture

My guess is that "never free" people here never started any successful business or worked as an intern or apprentice. Never went to college or trade school either because in college you pay to gain experience. If you attend a barber school not only you pay tuition you also do free haircuts. If you attend photography school you pay tuition to be able to photograph models to build some kind of portfolio. If you want to start wedding photography business you need to jump at opportunity to be a free second shooter if main photographer allows you to keep some pictures. If by some miracle somebody allows you to shoot wedding for free without you demonstrating your portfolio - you need to send them thank you card. Your value as a beginner photographer is zero until you can produce examples of your work. Your value as a baker is zero until you give potential customers free samples of your bread. You can have a free lunch at Costco just sampling free products. Do you think that manufacturers of these products are stupid or you agree that this is best way to advertise and get into a new market? If you don't understand value of the free photo shoot to build portfolio you will never get startup business going.

Just me's picture

" Your value as a baker is zero until you give potential customers free samples of your bread."
I have a successful 18 years old video and photography business, never gave ever a free shooting during these 18 years.
I went to college and university and got teacher with knowledge to teach me in exchange of money.
I did internship, but was paid to do so.
There are different ways to be successful.
Some think they should learn by being the free B-Cam, when others got a degree to get contact/relationship and start directly as paid A-Cam.
Your choice.

Stoopy McPheenis's picture

While it's great that you were able to accomplish that, those who took a different route are no less worthy of success.

Kirk Darling's picture

A wedding photographer should know that you get what you pay for in a second shooter. Maybe that kid who is willing to work for nothing will pay off, but he's more likely to pay off if he's being paid. And he should always have some kind of portfolio to present, if for no other reason than to show he knows how to use a camera.

sam dasso's picture

You are absolutely correct. And you are actually proving my point. It is very difficult to get a gig as a second shooter without portfolio and experience and if main photographer allows you to be a second shooter for free you should jump on it. Just out of curiosity, how did you get your very first wedding pictures into your portfolio?

Kirk Darling's picture

I got paid to shoot them based on the strength of my other work. I was already doing events and had plenty of that work in my portfolio.

Michael L. McCray's picture

Everything I shot in college still belongs to me. Most of my classmates were producing commercial quality work before they ever walked out the door. I must confess that I have provided photographs to family members of their weddings simply because I wanted to do it, all but one had hired another photographer. I do not do weddings nor senior portraits. My value as a photographer was zero when I decided to major in photo-illustration major. All my classmates had a camera and been creating work for a while. I bought my camera when my first class started. I think a lot of starting photographers suffer from insecurities I know I did. If you are picking up a camera without a single example of some work your not ready to start a business. The only time I give a free print is when I work on my own projects. I give them to the subjects since I approach them for their image and a model release with an understanding that it may not be used commercially. That is as close as I ever get to free for prostitution is better than whoredom.

jay holovacs's picture

You might consider doing 'free' or nearly free samples for legitimate non-profits only. That provides a wall to keep you from being leveraged by others.

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