Photography for Free: All the Cool Kids Are Doing It

Photography for Free: All the Cool Kids Are Doing It

It’s almost a daily occurrence: you open Facebook or Fstoppers, and someone is telling you that it’s not okay to shoot for free. If you’re not getting paid for your work, you’re devaluing the entire industry. But chances are we’ve all done it at some point, we’ll probably all do it again, and If you don’t, you’re only hurting yourself.

I wasn’t born a skillful photographer with a complete grasp of composition and a mastery of light; I had to learn, then I forgot, then I grew a magnificent beard, and then I had to learn all over again. Early on, I was terrible. Luckily, I didn’t realize just how terrible, or I might have thrown in the towel then and there. No one was paying me to shoot, which meant that no one had to feel ripped off. Thankfully, I did get a little better.

We shot coverage of the "A Darling Affair" wedding fair, made a lot of contacts, and got valuable targeted exposure.

I never officially studied photography; I’d always intended to, but people started paying me to play music instead, and I was forced to choose between spending my money on guitars or film, and guitars won. 10 years later,digital cameras had reached a price that even a musician could afford, and a Nikon D80 with a 50mm f/1.8 reintroduced me to photography, but I still had no thoughts of becoming a working photographer. I shot because I loved it, I shot whatever I wanted, and I learned a lot. So, when It came time for my first client, a 21st birthday party, I felt confident in putting my skills where their money was.

Another year of personal projects later, and Photographer Duncan Cox introduced my wife, Lizzie, and I to the exciting world of wedding photography. Lizzie worked as his full-time assistant with me tagging along whenever he needed. At Duncan’s suggestion, we set ourselves up as our own company so that he could recommend us for jobs he wasn’t able to shoot, but no one was going to hire a photographer that couldn't show them any previous work. We needed to build a portfolio, so we shot for free. We got onto a Facebook group for budget brides, explained our situation, and offered our first ten weddings for free. A few weeks later, we had our own portfolio and felt comfortable again asking people to pay for our services.

We shot a lot of weddings in those first few years: 50 weddings a season, sometimes 3 a week. If we just went through the motions and shot the same shots every time, we would’ve burned out pretty quickly, but at the same time, the middle of someone's wedding is not the time to start messing around learning new techniques. So, all our spare time we spent experimenting and shooting for free to keep up the creativity: everything from our own location-scouting, fun runs, backstage for the local theatre, to a two-day youth festival. Whatever needed shooting, we offered to shoot it, and then fed the skills and the experience back into our weddings, building value for our clients.

We shot a little behind the scenes at a local theatre production just for fun, but they loved the images.

I’m now in my 40s, and I’ve shot a lot of stuff where I didn’t get paid, I don’t have any problem with it, and I’ll offer it if I want to; where I draw the line is being asked to shoot for free. If I have an idea that I want to explore, or I see a situation that I think would benefit from my photography, I’m happy to shoot it. Sometimes, the people I’m shooting for haven’t realized how photography could be of benefit to what they’re doing, so I’ll show them, but when someone can see the value, but still have the gall to ask you to work for free, that’s the true villainy. This is the big difference: choosing to do unpaid work as opposed to being asked to do free work.

This isn’t just a problem for photographers; it’s not even just a problem of the wider creative industry. I’ve known doctors who can't go to a dinner without someone showing them a funny rash, mechanics who can't go to a BBQ without having to give someone's car a quick listen, and landscapers who can’t attend a garden party without having to run their fingers through someone else's compost. In the music industry, we were constantly expected to perform for free, or worse still, “pay to play,” sometimes running entire tours at a loss, chasing the golden apple of “exposure.”

The first Ayia Napa Youth Festival hadn't thought about photographic coverage, so we offered for fun and ended up selling some of the images to the local skaters.

"Exposure" is a dirty word in the photography world; this is because it’s the hook that the cheapskate hangs his promises on, but it’s not the concept that’s flawed, it’s the execution. I’ll bet that some of the same photographers who bemoan the “working for exposure” model post their stuff to Instagram, Facebook, 500px, etc. This is the business model that these companies live by: give us your images for free, we’ll make money off them, and you might get some exposure. The only thing missing is the client brief, although if you tailor your images to what gets the most likes, that’s your client brief right there. Anyone using social media to share their work is essentially working for free or paying to play if you boost your posts. A lot of people disguise their unpaid work by renaming it “advertising.”

But we all know that not all exposure was created equal. Having your work seen by 1,000 people who are never going to need your services has as much value as no one seeing your work, but an hour or two of unpaid work or social media posting that snowballs into a string of paid shoots is worth the inconvenience. Working for exposure is always going to be a gamble, but if you know the odds and the value of the cost vs payout, you can minimize the risk, and if it doesn’t pay out this time, you can usually learn from it.

The "A Darling Affair" coverage included elements that we'd never shot before, like a fashion parade. Now, I have that in my portfolio.

The key is value. If someone offers you unpaid work and it looks like they’re getting what they want while you take all the risk and get nothing of value, it’s probably a good idea to say no. If, on the other hand, you choose to work, with your highest value being to get nothing more than the experience, then you’ve removed the risk, and anything else is gravy. Usually, you’re aiming for a sweet spot somewhere in the middle, but like a lot of sweet spots, it can be hard to find, and the people that haven’t found it will tell you that it doesn’t exist.

What do you think? How much unpaid work or time do you do as part of your business? If you don’t do any, please tell me how?

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Todd Boyer's picture

Rob, I'm of the same mindset. I shoot car shows regularly, and share on social media. This often turns into paid photo shoots with the owners of cars that I make contact with either while at a show or via Facebook groups. I'd be going to the shows anyway, and I do very little, if any editing. And if it turns into paid gigs, why not?

Rob Mynard's picture

Nice, it's great when you get such direct feedback from your personal shots as well.