When Working for Free Pays Off

When Working for Free Pays Off

“Exposure doesn’t pay the bills.” As photographers, we’ve all heard this saying, and we’ve all probably even said this at least once. It’s frustrating to be expected to work for free at all as a creative professional. You and your work need to be taken seriously.

That being said, let’s consider the idea that some unpaid opportunities do provide value beyond monetary compensation. When developing a career in photography, using these stepping stones now can lead to financial gains later.

Shooting Editorials

Shooting editorials provides value in more ways than one. Conceptualizing and producing editorial content independently flexes your creative muscles and creates a learning experience in production. Editorials are typically shot with a wider creative team, and developing these teams can introduce you to new connections in styling, assisting, and production fields. You never know who you’ll meet on set that could land you your next gig.

Additionally, editorials provide the opportunity to give your hard work a platform, be it with a digital or print publication. Plenty of websites, blogs, and magazines with large audiences are looking to showcase up-and-coming talent, and editorials are a perfect way to get into that spotlight. This builds your credibility as a photographer, arms you with tear sheets, and creates professional ties.


Internships, paid and unpaid, can provide a wealth of knowledge and practical experience. Taking a few months to shadow under someone in a higher position can lead to a lot of learning. Whether it’s at a brand, a studio, an agency, or a magazine, interning allows you to continue to grow your career while absorbing a different perspective. Later, when producing your own work, you’ll know a lot more about what particular clients are looking for.

Internships also bring you connections in the industry that may end up useful to you down the line: this could be a gig, a job reference, or an introduction you might not have otherwise had. When an entry-level position opens up, their interns are typically the first people they’re turning to for a new hire.

Model testing can be a great way to get your foot in the door.

Test Shoots

What do you have in common with models, makeup artists, and hair stylists? You’re all looking to develop and improve your portfolio. Testing is a great, stress-free way to collaborate and build out your book, so you can showcase a book with agency-standard models and professional styling. Having a polished portfolio will help to land future paying clients who can see that you’re experienced working with high-quality talent. Reaching out to test also puts your name onto agency radars, so when you’ve built a trusting relationship, they may come to you for steadier paid work down the line.

Influencer Collaborations

Exposure doesn’t pay the bills, but in some cases, it can. Collaborating with social media influencers puts your work on a platform that is, for the influencer, their full-time business. They are looking to secure their own brand deals, and brands are looking at them as well. Coming across your work on an influencer’s profile is an easy way to catch the attention of editors, producers, and brands that are scouting for talent.

In addition, it’s likely that you’ll see some return in the form of followers. Although follower counts are “just a number,” to scouts using social media, it’s a sign that your work is well received by a large audience. Who is a scout more likely to look into, a photographer with 500 followers or 5,000 followers?

Influencer collaborations are a great way to get the attention of Instagram scouting producers.

Blogging and Resource Sharing

Share the wealth— of knowledge, that is. Blogging is a great way for photographers to develop an even stronger web presence. When you share your tips, tricks, and skills with others, you build up credibility. If you can talk about something you’re passionate about, do it! It signals to people that you know what you’re talking about.

For example: If a potential wedding client comes to your site and sees that you have lots of writing about wedding photography, they’re going to think: “Wow, they really know what they’re talking about.” Sharing builds trust in your brand and your knowledge, something that is invaluable.

Can Working for Free Really Pay Off?

Paid jobs are great, but a paycheck isn’t the only gain you can get working in the photo industry. Shooting an acquaintance’s wedding “as a favor” is nowhere near the same as targeted, developmental opportunities that can further your career. Before you turn down work that doesn’t pay the bills, consider the deeper worth for your career.

Megan Breukelman's picture

Megan is the owner of Brooklyn Wedding Photo, and host of the Photo Opp Podcast. She aims to share actionable tips to help photographers grow and scale their businesses.

Log in or register to post comments

every image i take for free i need a release form signed so i can sell it on getty images.

Exactly. Lots of stock photographers do the first few shoots TFP so they can sell the images on stock.

do see it as a win/win. model gets practise and use of the photo's, the photographer gets to earn some money back and use the photo's.

Exactly. But the major issue is getting the model to agree to sign in the first place.

"get free photographs for only 1 signature" reason with the model/ contract party, they want free images and practice and you want to earn back the cost by selling the pictures. free works both ways. free photographs for a free signature.

Im not sure how I feeling about a thread condoning unpaid work. This is kind of why we have a problem with people thinking not paying artists for their work is ok, to begin with.

Unpaid work? I'm ok with volunteer work for charity, unpaid work to benefit a cause you believe in, work for immediate family, and work for personal development such as test shoots.

Exposure is crap, most unpaid internships are just exploitation, and influencer collabs fall under the "exposure is crap" category with the addition that you're prostituting yourself in hopes of riding on the coat tails of someone else's success rather than your own merit.

I think the article makes some fair points. I think the operative question for any particular opportunity is whether it will benefit you in non-monetary ways in a manner that equals or exceeds what monetary compensation you would have received doing the shoot.

For example, SpaceX's first space tourist Yusaku Maezawa is looking for a photographer to accompany him on a free 5-day trip to the moon in 2023. If I got that opportunity (assuming a pretty good confidence of safety, etc.), I would shoot that at no charge if that was the deal. Going to the moon to shoot photos is a pretty compelling marketing point of difference.

On the other extreme, "credit" is completely worthless.

But sometimes there are opportunities between a moon trip and credit that may make shooting for free worth it for some photographers. As long as the value is real and comparable to any pay, I can see its occasional validity.

Articles like this are a big part of the problem.
Just for example "Influencer Cooperations"...
These so called Influencers generate their income directly out of your images/your work. So you should deliver them this material for free because there is the tiny chance that someone somewhere discovers you?
Sounds like some sleazy casting video...