Exposure or Exploitation? The Problem With Working for Free as a Photographer

Exposure or Exploitation? The Problem With Working for Free as a Photographer

Being asked to work for free can be a frustrating experience for photographers who have invested years of hard work and dedication to master their craft. In a time where equipment and running costs are so high, it has never been so important to politely decline requests to work for free.

For many of us, photography is not just a hobby. It is our profession and one that deserves to be compensated appropriately, just like any other.  If my bath was leaking, I would not expect a plumber to repair it for free. I wouldn’t turn up at the airport looking for a free seat on the next flight to London, even though they are going there anyway.

Picture this: You receive an email with details of an exciting opportunity. The inquirer has scoured your website or social media accounts and thinks that you are the right photographer for their planned project. Sounds great, so you respond seeking more information. You email back and forth a few times, obtaining details to start building a picture of what your client is looking for and the conversation is going extremely well.  But wait, you have replied five or six emails so far and there has been no discussion of budget yet. You find yourself wondering when a good time would be to discuss that. Unfortunately, when that thought creeps in, you might just realize that you are being asked to donate your services and shoot for free.

There are so many occasions that photographers and artists are asked to work for free, and this request doesn’t only come at the beginning of your career.  Having offered professional photographic services for the last 15 years, I am not at the stage where I am looking for opportunity to build a portfolio; I very much require fair compensation for my work.  That's not to say I never pick up the camera without a paycheck, but there are certain rules that I follow in this regard.

Some of the reasons that people have requested a free shoot have been quite comical over the years. I have been asked to shoot corporate events in return for all the free food and cocktails I want while I am there (did they want a drunk photographer?). I was asked to shoot a wedding for free because it was a really special small wedding on a speedboat, which would be great for my portfolio (see earlier comment about not needing to build a portfolio). I have been asked to shoot for product and fashion retailers to provide sales and marketing images. In return, I would receive exposure to their thousands of Instagram followers by being tagged in their social posts. Most of these requests come from cold callers, but one opportunity arose from an acquaintance who knew that I absolutely loved photography and invited me to their event saying that I was totally free to bring my camera along to capture the night and get some brilliant images for myself. Gee, thanks! There have been so many occasions, I could go on and on.

There are always indications and red flags where someone is asking you to work for free or well below a reasonable fee. There are a few tells which should raise alarm bells during initial communication and a sign that you should bring up the budget before continuing the conversation further.

There Is No Mention of Budget in the Initial Communication

This can just be an oversight, but sometimes, they will see how far the conversation can go without discussing money if they do not plan on proper compensation.  The reason behind this is to get you invested in their idea or product so that you will really want to do it no matter how small the compensation is. You should not go more than two or three emails without being asked for your rate or being advised of a set budget.

The Request Is Last-Minute

You have not been factored into the initial plans and therefore have not been considered within the budget. This is more often than not an indication that fair compensation is not on offer.

They Are Already Over Budget

Perhaps the most insulting response you can get as a photographer. When you ask what their budget is and they respond telling you that they are already over budget, that means that they have paid for other services, but they do not plan to pay you. Your services and your work that they reached out to you for are actually not valued at all.  This is where communication usually wraps up for me.

I’ll Pay You Next Time!

The lucrative promise of a larger paid shoot at a future date is often a carrot dangled in these scenarios. They just want to do a quick test of ideas first or to shoot a separate part one and plan another part of the shoot at a later date. That second shoot will not come, and you will be left scratching your head wondering once you realise that you have been bamboozled. Even worse, you might then see that they have gone ahead with your ideas but with another photographer and wonder if they too have donated their time, or if they were paid to bring your donated ideas to life.

Promotion and Exposure

The request may come with the promise of exposure, suggesting that the opportunity to have your work seen by a larger audience is enough compensation. However, exposure does not pay the bills or cover the time and resources invested. This will not lead to more work – other than more free work.

Why Does This Happen?

The nature of digital photography can be misunderstood, as some may not fully grasp the time, skill, training, and creativity required to produce quality images. The ease of sharing digital content may lead to the perception that digital photography is inherently less valuable than tangible products. Honing your skills as a photographer takes considerable investment of both your time and money. Whether you have a formal qualification in photography or not, equipment, storage, and insurance are just a few of the costs involved. 

What Is the Negative Impact of Working For Free?

Whilst many photographers might not see an issue with taking on the odd free assignment, there are some negative consequences for doing so.


Its easy to discount your fee, but near impossible to raise it from zero. Your work and your time are valuable assets! Be assured that this client will likely never come back to you in a paying capacity once they have secured your services cost-free.


There is no feeling quite like being the only one in the room working for free. That lack of value seeps within, and it is a horrible feeling. This can lead to feelings of being exploited or taken advantage of, which can negatively impact your self-esteem and self-worth.


You will never regret refusing to work for free, but you are likely to encounter a scenario where you regret agreeing to shoot for free (or so cheap it might as well be free). Those jobs will always seem more demanding than clients who understand the value of your work, as they try and pack in as much as they can for free.

What You Can Do About It?

Set Your Standards and Stick to Them

Set standards of what you consider fair compensation for your work. By making a rule for yourself with an average daily, half-day, and hourly rate, you set boundaries for what you will accept. You can always offer discounts on this rate if there is a project that you want to work on that is just a bit below your rate, or if it’s for a cause you believe in.

When Should You Work for Free?

The answer to this could be "never" in certain circles of photography, however, there is no steadfast set of rules. It's down to you as a photographer. As a general rule, if someone is using the images for profit, then you should absolutely be compensated for your work. I have offered photographic services at some fundraising events for causes close to my heart/ I’ve shot free portraits of a terminally ill child so that her family would have professional portraits as a lasting memory of her. I have shot portraits as a thank you from time to time and offer the classic 100% family discount on multiple occasions. There are other instances, but these examples give you an idea of what I personally find acceptable.

Is There an Alternative to Working for Free?

Sometimes, there will be opportunity for a trade in services, rather than being paid for your images. In this case, you will usually receive goods or services to the value of the session. A common practice for photographers building a portfolio is to shoot with new models in a trade usually referred to TFP, which stands for Time for Print. In this scenario, no one is paid, but both photographer and model (and makeup artist, stylist, hairdresser if you have a wider collaboration) all use the images for their portfolios. This is a desirable trade with value for all involved.

I once swapped a family photoshoot for car repairs. I allowed the editor of a bridal magazine to use my images in an article in exchange for a full page ad when they originally offered to just credit me. I have worked on numerous self-initiated personal projects, which have brought opportunities such as exhibitions, paid workshops, and talks. These are all examples of situations of more or equal value than monetary compensation.

How to Respond to Requests to Work for Free

Declining to take a job due to unfair compensation shouldn’t be something you feel awkward about. You are asking for a completely normal arrangement, and if it turns out that this is not what is on offer, there are many ways to say, "thanks, but no thanks." Let them know that you are unable to take on any unpaid work at present, as you have to prioritize paid work. You shouldn’t have to remind them that you are running a business, but sometimes, the inquiry comes in such a way that it seems they don’t understand this. State how much you would normally charge for such a job, and communicate that you would be happy to proceed on a paid basis. You never know, you might be able to negotiate some compensation with a well-worded reply. If they need you, they will pay!

Have you been asked to shoot for free or been the only one in the room who was not getting paid? 

Kim Simpson's picture

Kim Simpson is a photographer based in the West of Scotland. Her photographic practice is an exploration of the human experience, with a particular emphasis on themes of identity and belonging.

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"...one opportunity arose from an acquaintance who knew that I absolutely loved photography and invited me to their event saying that I was totally free to bring my camera along to capture the night and get some brilliant images for myself."

Yup: https://fstoppers.com/originals/photographer-totally-happy-bring-his-cam...

Hah, it seems that "totally" is a common word in the land of working for free! For what its worth, I usually bring my camera to the family Christmas gathering, but the images I take are on my own terms.

I've been invited to events a couple of times and people have said, "I thought you would have your camera with you."

One challenge is that, unlike many other vocations, photography is one where most photographers do it purely for the love and enjoyment of using their camera.

When shooting professionally, it would drive me nuts that I had to compete with people perfectly willing to shoot for free forever. (Most lacked the skill to really be competition, but some did not) It is not for exposure or opportunity but just because it is fun. Photography isn't a career like plumbing, where a plumber generally will never "plumb" for fun, but in photography, most of us first picked up our cameras because it was fun.

Over time I came to realize that they had it right. I never enjoyed the career of photography. It mainly was marketing, sales, customer support, billing, etc. The second money is involved, the shoot inherently is loaded with pressure and no longer on my terms. There is a massive expectation on precisely what you will deliver and pressure to deliver it timely. It refines the fun down to mostly stress.

I only shoot for free these days, even if I can make money doing it. I turn away potential clients and only work with those I'm creatively interested in working with. I no longer care about a consistent style or delivering to client expectations. I no longer guard the copyright or even my raw files. I don't put any effort into marketing or even social media self-promotion beyond just dumping my images on IG. I'm wildly happier this way. Though I do imagine it frustrates the aspiring pros in the genres of portraiture I work because paid jobs that they may have gotten end up being done for free by me.

Maybe the plumber was a bad example. There are many careers that people get into for the love of it. From a love of sewing to a clothing designer, from a member of a drama club to a professional actor, and a love of cooking honed into the career of a chef. None of those examples would be expected to provide their goods or services for free and in my opinion photography is no different.

I'm assuming that the fact that you "only shoot for free" even if you can make money doing it, means you have another income stream which allows you to practice photography as a hobby. If you take on what is supposed to be a paid job for another photographer, as stated in your last sentence, then yes that would be very frustrating for working photographers and sounds like there are occasions where you should leave them to it. Perhaps you love photography but not the photographic community. Its an interesting position to look at.

No, I'd say my example was exactly as intended. I meant to give an example of a typical career that would never run into this sort of challenge. But yes, you are right, there are other examples of careers where people get into it for the love of doing something. I also think it is a bit presumptuous to assume that plumbers don't get into plumbing out of a love of plumbing. They just would never do it as a hobby. I have a cousin who is an electrician, and he absolutely adores his job, far more than I ever have enjoyed any job I've had, it would never be a hobby, though.

The main difference here is that when engaged strictly as a hobby, for most hobbies there is no product of value that someone else gets for free. This is true, even in photography. A landscape or wildlife photographer can shoot their entire lives without ever conflicting with someone aiming to be a pro in those fields because posting nature photos on an IG doesn't compete with someone looking to sell nature photography to say a textbook or National Geographic.

Portrait photography is different, by nature, it can't be a solo pursuit. (unless you are doing self-portraiture but I'm too ugly for that. ;) ) In order to engage in my hobby I MUST work with someone else who could be a paying client for another photographer. My hobby is impossible without it.

You are asserting that their right to make money trumps my right to enjoy my hobby and that I should just step aside. That is a terrible assertion. We live in a free market. We compete in a free market, and the market will decide. In theory, they should have the advantage because they "should" be putting 10x the effort into it that I am, but "free" is a powerful thing. That said, it's not like I'm out there directly trying to steal jobs from working pros but if I'm in the mood to shoot some headshots, for example, I will email a bunch of actors and see if they want some free headshots which in turn means those actors won't "buy" headshots.

And to answer your questions. Yes, I have a full-time career in another industry where I can earn wildly more money than I'd ever be able to as a photographer. Photography as a hobby is a luxury. As for the community, I'd say I'm pretty active in it and advocate for photographers quite heavily, I have a massive catalogue of writing on Fstoppers, for example. But again, that really doesn't have anything to do with the pursuit of photography as a career. Pro photographers aren't inherently more deserving than hobbyist photographers. To assert I am being selfish in my pursuit has to inherently have a corollary that they also are in theirs. Who is more deserving? Neither so we let the market decide.

Photography isn't low value because it has hobbyists. Photography is low value because there are too many photographers, in general. Note that I don't say undervalued, because it isn't. The market determines value based on supply relative to demand. Demand for photography has been crashing for 20 years while the supply of photographers has been skyrocketing. Based on the current market dynamic the default value of "photography" is worthless. This is only going to get worse. A small percentage are able to build some of that value back by creating exclusive value tethered to them specifically but it will always be an insanely difficult path. Most creative vocations face similar but photography probably faces it worst of all because everyone has a camera in their pocket and that phone camera continues to get better and better at using technology to bridge skill gaps and make nicer and nicer photos.

Thanks for this. Many articles on this topic suggest I should feel bad for approaching photography as a gift that I choose to give to others.

I have no issue with free stuff. What else do you have to give. Can you ship it to Europe at your cost. Let me know.

Sounds like exploitation to me.

Don't offer free stuff if you feel giving free stuff is exploitation. You contradict yourself.

Hmmm, I don’t recall offering you free stuff. Giving is not exploitation; taking when not given is.

You sure didn't, all you did is brag about giving your photography or brag about your photography which ever it is, one obviously linked to the other.


The way I read your story, you thought photography was like a party and fun all day. This sounds like bad or poor business plan or no plan at all. It doesn’t matter the industry, 80% of any business is the same and 20% is your specialty. Notice that fun represent 0% and matches the revenue of free work. But people can have lots of fun if they run a business properly. I think running a business of photography is challenging in many ways. The coolest part is actually to be challenged by the client and provide what they are looking for with time restraint and all and get paid for it and get called again or get referrals. No one will ever complain on free work unless it really sucks and you waste their time.

Of course plumber, electricians, mechanics are always in demand. That’s our bottom line with the food industry to make our lives acceptable to a minimum. Some retire some are booked for weeks, some work week to week and some fail and close shop. But any of them that leaves the industry is quickly replaced creating new opportunities. There is always a new smart one who starts with nothing and becomes the leader in town. None of them however work for free. Even the guy who works on cars for other people on the weekend in his garage gets paid or at least trade for something valuable.

Not at all, I said I got into "photography" because it was fun. Just as I imagine you did. I didn't say I got into pro photography because I thought it was fun. Being a pro photographer is a LOT of hard work, and almost all of it doesn't involve photography.

I wasn't looking to "party" all day as you sarcastically suggest but I also didn't expect my entire life to be sales, client relations, marketing, billing, etc. Pro photography is way more work, doing things I disliked to earn way less money. For me, it made sense for me to walk away and return to my previous vocation. This is a personal choice, I'm not suggesting everyone should make it.

Why I chose to leave it as a career isn't really super relevant to this conversation though. This conversation would be the same as had I never chosen to take that journey, to begin with.

Well you may have started for fun, but still say absolutely nothing about why you went pro. So yes my sarcasm is not inappropriate when you write "I never enjoyed the career of photography. It mainly was marketing, sales, customer support, billing, etc." I have to assume you didn't think it through seriously and that's what I wrote. If you didn't study what it entitles, then like it or not, the process you used and ending are quite obvious. And then: "The second money is involved, the shoot inherently is loaded with pressure and no longer on my terms" That simply confirms my previous post. I know a photographer who was fired on the spot for pushing his ideas with persistence on a big shoot. Some jobs you can, most you have to follow the client guidelines, but that typically still leaves a lot of room for creativity, fun, make connections and even get referrals. When you listen and bring your knowledge in a way the client feels comfortable with, you get repeat calls and with regular work you have less invoices to take care of because bigger jobs are your main income. Of course you don't get there on day one.
Regarding free service you write "Over time I came to realize that they had it right". And then you sound like you joined them. I don't see what I wrote that was off.
To answer your question, I was interested in photography since I was 10. I started shooting cars when I was about 18. Later I went to a photography school, assisted a local guy. My goal was to enter the advertising industry. I was told by pros to get with the couple Pro labs in town because of the connections and to understand the industry and actually see their work on rolls and 8x10 sheets. Then I worked for all types of labs there was from Pro to overnight processing plants. Eventually I started working for a pre-press house that was very early into digital backs where I learned prepress softwares how to flight check files set them for image setters, proofing (laminated and IRIS), drum scanning, wide format... for six years. They hired me because I knew Scheimpflug, lighting... They called me in other departments when photography was slow and learned a lot that way. Next I went on my own. To say I do it for fun, sure, I love it, but I listen and study and take opportunities only if I understand the outcome.

Bare in mind that it was a comment on a post and not my autobiography. I'd say my comment was wordy enough without going into heavy depth on all the specifics of my personal journey. I only spoke to my own career to add context to my position, that's it.

You can do all the research you want but until you live it, you really can't really know if it is the thing for you. It sounds like you found the path for yourself. For me, it wasn't the right one. There isn't a ton more to say than that. We could hash over the details of every second on my move into the career and then back out of it but it really doesn't change anything.

It sounds like you are just a bit salty that I felt the career was not something I wanted to continue. There were a lot of factors that went into that decision. Free time, job security, income, etc. I made the right choice I'm happier with my photography now, work fewer hours and make much more money. I don't mean it as an insult to you as someone who decided to go and stay in the professional realm.

Is it a problem where photography/photographic services are undervalued? Yes, it is a problem.

I would decline or ignore the offer as well

My favorites were the types that offered exposure and referrals. My quickest way to decline the exposure BS was to say express mildly sarcastic gratitude and state that when my bank began to accept "exposure" as currency I would be first in line to accept their generous offer.

The best one, ever was the guy whose claims could have been easily interpreted as he was the most connected man in my home city and that he could hook me up with SO many people and blah blah blah. I was running out of buckets to fill with the BS that was flying from his mouth.

Once he concluded his self-aggrandizement I responded with gushing appreciation for his social acumen and counter offered a deal that only an idiot or a scammer would pass on: I told him that I would be mroe than happy to shoot for him but he would pay my full rate for the shoot. Before he could argue, I also told him that I would have my lawyer draw up a contract designating him as my agent and for every PAYING client he sent me, I would pay him a 20% commission off the gross sale. Not only would I do that until he had made all the money back that he paid me, I would continue to pay that commission to him for every subsequent paying client he sent me.

The conversation ended with him very angry that I didn't fall for his scam.

Nowadays I just say no.

Fred, that is a golden example! Love it.

Working for free is a double edged sword.

Personally I would never do it, but I have done it . . . with a directive, an intent, a target which would ultimately pay me a lot more.

That is business sense . . . being able to look at and understand what will come.

A few decades ago, I was hired to do some stills work on a promotional film for a business interest. Pay was okay . . . but the aftereffects were far more fruitful.

The producer of that film called me not long after, inquiring if I might do some work for a non-profit that did a lot of work in Africa's developing countires.

I wasn't paid for time, but the agreement up front allowed for expenses, including print reproduction at a highly elevated rate . . . many non-profits have weird budgeting set-ups that wont allow for a multi $k day rate, but will allow for ancillary expenses like zillionteen dollar prints . . . that is an industry standard folks.

I ended up shooting for the organization for a few years, and it brought me contacts that were worth far more.

Ultimatley I went on to do one shoot after another for two world reknowned orchestras (no advertising work, that was someone else . . . I only shot in house company magazine stuff) . . . same deal, no day rate, but the billing for printing covered everything, AND in both of those incidences, I was allowed, no questions asked, no limit on the amount of performances, . . . four tickets to premiere seats for any spectacle I desired . . . a value that could reach into the multiple thousands per year.

So shooting for "free" can be quite profitable, if you have enough sense to do it right.

Thats a great example - sometimes an overall value has to be considered outside of the day rate, which is why discussions of budget need to be established so that you can make the decision whether the assignment is something you can take on or not.

"The lucrative promise of a larger paid shoot at a future date is often a carrot dangled..."

And the answer is... "Tell you what. I'll shoot the paid job at a larger fee first, and after I get paid we can talk about the free job."

Absolutely! Instead of buy one get one free, how about just reasonable compensation for both?

It would seem that we have consensus on this topic.

This is such an important issue.

If you say yes to working for free then it is costing you money. The opportunity cost of a photoshoot - i.e. the money you could have been earning elsewhere - means you are out of pocket.

Any business is there to make a profit. They will always seek to get the best possible for as little as possible. You rarely get anything in return. I've been asked by strangers to provide services for free, and I say I am sorry, but no. I explain how much it costs me to do so.

I recently had a former client of mine who has since turned professional and was approached to shoot headshots for a small business. She asked me what she should charge and I said at least the same rate as she would for weddings. The reason for that is she still uses her valuable time, and she is investing in her equipment, insurance, and the training she received from me and elsewhere. So, she quoted accordingly and got paid that rate.

If it is photographing for a not-for-profit organization that you believe in, then working for nothing is fair. I do occasional shoots for a free community news magazine and for a couple of worthwhile causes. I've also bartered use of facilities to do a photoshoot in return for a photo.

Absolutely, by agreeing to work for free you are already out of pocket right from the initial communication and time spent arranging plans. It can be hard for photographers who are just starting out, but start as you mean to go on is always the advice I give.

Very good advice!