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Should You Ever Work for Free as a Creative?

No matter how long you’ve been involved in photography or other creative work, you’ve probably been asked to do something for someone for free, or worse, for “exposure.” Is it ever sensible to give your time without some form of tangible remuneration?

Having worked in the creative industry for most of my adult life, I’m still surprised by how little value some clients give to the time and work of creatives. Whether it be photographers, videographers, models, dancers, or artists, we are all quite regularly asked to join in with a project or commercial venture without any expectation of being paid. Often, a client will claim a job will be good for your portfolio or it will offer great exposure. A phrase that I’ve heard too many times in my life is “there’s no budget for it,” especially when all other aspects of the production are paid for without question. I can’t imagine an event organizer or creative agency calling a studio or equipment hire company and offering them the opportunity to be part of this venture because it will be great exposure, so why not assign a budget to every aspect of the production? I’m pleased to have noticed, at least in my own experience, that requests to work on commercial ventures for free are becoming less frequent.

Internships

There are still a number of roles that are taken on by unpaid interns who will give their time to learn about the industry, make contacts, and work for free in an attempt to build the foundations of their careers. There’s a much bigger conversation to be had around whether this practice is acceptable or whether it excludes those from less affluent backgrounds from getting a foot in the door of specific industries because they don’t have the financial support available, which allows them to work unpaid. I couldn’t write about working for free without at least acknowledging that there are many roles where unpaid internships are commonplace, rightly or wrongly. This article, however, is aimed at creators who are either established or at least competent, working freelancers, whether full- or part-time.

Who Wants You to Work for Free?

Who is most likely to ask for freebies? Sadly, it seems to be our friends, family, acquaintances, and occasionally, engaged couples.

Should you ever give your services for free? Yes, of course, there are times when it’s appropriate to provide services for free, but you must always know your worth and know that you are valued.

I was raised to believe that we should always help others, my father was a strong believer in the ethos of paying it forward, that if we all do good deeds for others, the world becomes a better place. As a result, I have given my time for free far more times than I should have. Looking back now with the wisdom of my years, I should have said "no" far more often than I have.

With No Cost Comes No Value

The most important lesson I have learned is that generally speaking, with no cost comes no value. When someone outright asks you to work for free, they are saying that they don’t put any value on your time. At best, this is insulting. At worst, they may even treat you as though you aren’t valued.

That distant relative who invites you to their wedding and says “oh, and bring your camera” isn’t being complimentary of your skills as a photographer. They’re undervaluing the time and expense it took you to acquire those skills.

I have stopped offering freebies to encourage people into the studio, as I found a far higher number of no-shows from those who hadn’t paid for the session. They didn’t make a financial commitment; therefore, it had no value. Now, I offer discounts as an incentive, but rarely give anything for free.

To those people who say (and I have heard all of these things) “my friend's son has a camera, he’d do it for free,” or “there’s no budget,” or “just take a couple of shots, nothing difficult,” you must remember that your time has value, and these people aren’t putting any value on you, your time, or your skills. These people are unlikely to be good customers, and it’s okay to politely decline.

Why Would Anyone Work for Free?

The digital age is a blessing and a curse. In this modern age, anyone can be a creator. Anyone who puts in the time to learn their craft can be an artist, a photographer, a filmmaker. Platforms like YouTube and Instagram have given everyone with smartphone access to an audience and flooded the market with those who just want their work to be seen. I’ve met people who only put a value on the number of likes and followers on their social media; therefore, they’ll take unpaid work simply to get fresh content. Many creative people I meet aspire to be influencers and monetize their social media platforms. Some of these modern creators are exceptionally talented, so I don’t want to undervalue those with big social media followings. There are also those artists who don't depend on it as an income and will gladly get involved with a project just to create. The issue comes when competent people start working for free, as it devalues other working professionals in the industry.

Should You Ever Work for Free?

Of course, there are situations when it’s appropriate to work for free. I will offer my services free of charge to charities that I want to support, good causes, those in need without the means to pay, or some of my immediate family. I also see value in collaborations with models or other artists when we want to specifically create something. Where you draw the line is entirely up to you. I have a rule of thumb: I will offer my time and services to those who I feel need help or those who I want to support. I wouldn’t usually give my time for free to anyone who expects or asks for a freebie, especially when it’s a commercial undertaking. I feel that if there’s money involved in a project, then all parties should be remunerated.

Reciprocal arrangements are another good way for someone to show they value your time when they don’t have money to spend. I have often exchanged my services for the services of others. I was raised to believe in helping others for no reward. I have learned to not be taken advantage of. The key point to me is that there is some value placed upon my time.

What are your thoughts on working for free? Do you have any personal rules on when you will give your time and to whom? Have you had any experience in feeling undervalued? Let me know in the comments.

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10 Comments
Ola Åkeborn's picture

It's wonderful to be able to work for free for someone ... if you get the opportunity to do as you please. To be able to take the pictures you want and that there will be no requirements afterwards. It's just to make it clear to the "customer" that if you do not want to pay for this, I will take the pictures that I like and of what interests me. If you have specific wishes on which pictures you want, it costs money, otherwise you are welcome to take part of my pictures but I never want to hear that they are not good enough or not what you think. If it's unpaid, it's my free time and in my free time I do what I want!

Brad Wendes's picture

Great guidance to live by, if someone is demanding something specific, they can pay for you to create it the way they want it done

Kirk Darling's picture

I think the discussion should always be what "for free" actually means. I personally never, ever, ever work "for free" if it means I get nothing I value in return.

I do work fairly frequently "at no monetary cost" to people who will get my pictures, but in all those cases I also get something I value in return.

My primary rule is: "If it's your idea, you pay, if it's my idea you don't."

If I see a fantastic person, conceive of an image I can create of that person, and convince them to let me make that image...I won't ask them for money.

As well, if I volunteer for a charity, that was my idea to volunteer. So I don't ask for money. The value I get is feeling good about myself.

Brad Wendes's picture

That’s a great set of rules to live by. The article mentions collaboration and mutually beneficial arrangements. As artists, sometimes we just want to create for the sake of creating

Charles Mercier's picture

You could also say, fine but I own all the rights and can make money off of any creative work that I do.

John Ricard's picture

When I shoot without being paid, I insist that everyone on set is also working without being paid. And, I make sure the shoot is a collaboration. Not only do I not want to feel like I am working, but I also don't want the crew (usually a model, makeup artist and hair stylist and maybe a fashion stylist) to feel like they are "working" either. Everyone should have a creative input on what we are creating and everyone should benefit equally. What I don't do is something like shoot free images for a fashion designer wants her/his fashion collection photographed. In that scenario, the fashion designer benefits more than I do.

Ryan Cooper's picture

The trouble that I think many don’t realize is that unlike most vocations the line between hobby and pro is incredibly blurred when it comes to photography.

This is a non issue for someone like a plumber because the plumber’s only reason to “plumb” is to earn a living. For most photographers, we shoot because we love to shoot. Even if there was no possible way of earning any money with a camera, we would still shoot.

For me, I never “work” for free when “shooting” because when I am shooting, I’m not working; I’m playing. I have a job, I don’t want a second one. I don’t want photography to be a job. For me, its a hobby.

As soon payment enters into the equation so do many other things that I want nothing to do with. Timelines, expectations, budgets, compromise, sales, customer service, billing, networking, finances, etc.

I shoot for free because I am shooting for me.

Brad Wendes's picture

Thanks, that’s an interesting perspective. So, as a hobbyist, would you shoot something commercial if asked? A wedding or products for a local company for example?

Ryan Cooper's picture

Nope. But then again I wouldn’t shoot those things even if I was shooting professionally. I’m a portrait photographer.

I do regularly create portrait work that does look “commercial” but there is never a client involved.

Mark Harris's picture

Like others here, I usually only work for free when it's my idea.