Why I Think All Creatives Should Consider Working for Free More Often

Why I Think All Creatives Should Consider Working for Free More Often

Let me set the scene: I’m a 24 year-old photographer based in London. I specialize in portraits with actors, models, and musicians and I started freelancing almost three years ago. I didn’t know what to expect when I first started working in the creative industry, but I soon learned the extent of how many jobs are expected for absolutely no payment in return. But is it really all that bad? Speaking honestly, I don’t think so. Here’s why I think we should stop complaining and, within reason, keep saying "yes" to more free projects.

Recently, I was trying to source a creative team for an upcoming photoshoot — just the usual: a makeup artist, hairstylist, and wardrobe stylist. The shoot was with an up and coming musician signed to a major record label and the feature is to be inside the next print issue of a renowned British magazine. I thought it was cool; this is exactly the type of project I want to be working on and exactly the kind of photographer I want to be. But when asking around to see which of my regular contacts were available and interested, I couldn’t help but notice a reluctance from quite a few of my peers once they found out there would be no payment. One said they were focusing exclusively on paid work right now. Another asked if it was for the magazine’s front cover and soon lost interest upon finding out that it wasn’t. This, to me, was really strange — to completely write off the opportunity to have your work printed in a respectable publication. I can’t help but feel it was almost a little arrogant for these people to be seeing nothing further than the prospect of money. It got me thinking about the state of the creative world.

The Hustle

The industry is changing; that’s for sure. Blogs and magazines are being more cautious than ever about which projects they distribute their money towards, because the truth of the matter is people are buying less physical print copies, and less sales ultimately means less advertising revenue. It’s now the norm for there to be no allocated budget for any given shoot, but still, there remains the expectation that the project will be shot in a fantastic venue curated by a large team, all of whom will inevitably be contributing their services free of charge.

From speaking to friends back home, I’ve discovered there is a big misconception when it comes to the relationship between the photographic world and money. Everyone on the outside looking in tends to presume that the bigger the client – particularly if a "celebrity" is involved – the larger the paycheck. Wrong! In fact, it seems to be the complete opposite, with the general protocol seemingly being that the bigger the client name, the greater the privilege, and thus, the sacrifice of any kind of actual payment; I mean besides social media tagging, which is virtually a currency these days.

You have to be willing to work hard. This isn’t a field in which you can dabble in and just blag your way through. Expect late nights and last-minute calls. In an industry saturated with creativity and with high-quality cameras becoming more accessible to the masses, you have to distinguish yourself as someone who is committed to the cause, and not someone who is merely in it for an extra hobby. Put in the hours, work the long nights, say "yes" to the free shoots. This is where those that are serious about photography are separated from those who just like the idea of it. It’s the hustle that separates those of us who live for photography and the arts. Perhaps I’m just sick and twisted, but I like feeling as though I’ve earned my place in the industry, and I’m proud of being able to say that I’ve worked myself into a position where I can be choosey of what free work I take on, and likewise, that I can book jobs that do pay and pay well.

I shot a magazine cover with British Musician James Bay for free. Seeing it on shelves across the country has meant more than any paycheck.

Think About the Positives

So often when discussing upcoming projects with other creatives, the first question will be: “Are they paid?”  My question is: as long as my rent is getting paid, does it matter? There are benefits to working for free; so, don’t be so quick to complain about the financial side of things. Take this time to hone your skills and also to develop new ones. Working with little-to-no budget creates an entirely different atmosphere on set. With the pressure of a paying client removed, you’ll find you’re more in touch with the ideas you have for the shoot and you’re not just worried about living up to the fee you’ve quoted. Free shoots usually mean a lot more creative freedom too, as paying clients almost always have an idea about what they want and are only willing to part with their money if they know the vision they have will be brought to fruition. And with no budget, you’ll be at your most resourceful, thinking about things further in depth and pushing through ideas in ways you’d never ordinarily have thought of if you could just threw some cash at it. Free shoots should be viewed as a chance to practice new techniques, to get to know your camera inside out, and to meet hundreds of new contacts along the way, so that you’re fully qualified for the paid jobs when they do start to come in. You never know who you’ll bump into on a set and at worst, you get the pleasure of working alongside people of all ages and backgrounds.

One thing I promised myself from the outset is that, within reason, money will not dictate my life. And it definitely won’t dictate my career. Of course, inevitably, there are some jobs I do for no reason other than the money. Corporate headshots are far from my favorite, but they pay the bills. Heck, if I wanted to be rich, I certainly wouldn’t be freelance. There are days I dream of what a luxury it must be to have a salaried job with a fixed income, so you can assess what you have coming in versus what you have coming out. But the reality is I wouldn’t trade being freelance for anything. It gives me the freedom to take my career in whichever direction I choose and allows me to be selective of the projects I choose to devote time to. And that, to me, is invaluable. Just because a shoot is without payment, that’s not to say it isn’t without serious perks. To be published is a privilege, not a god-given right. When you look back on your career in later life, you’re not going to be thinking about the time you got paid, or that shoot you in which you managed to wrangle a higher rate out of one of your clients. You’ll be thinking about the magazine cover spread you produced, shot, and directed, or the time you had someone email you to say how much they enjoyed the spread you shot in their favorite publication. That is worth so much more than money to me.

I wasn't paid for being featured in a recent issue of British Vogue, but this is something I'll forever be proud of.

Keep an Open Mind

Now, it’d be naive of me to sit here and promote working for free like we can survive without the jobs that pay. I’m not saying to scrap your fees and make a habit of running photo favors for people you’ve never met and may never see again. And yes, sometimes it does frustrate me when people just assume I’ll be undertaking their every photographic need for absolutely no fee whatsoever. That very attitude is the reason I had to work a part-time job that I hated when I first started freelancing. I’m not afraid to admit I’ve had some financial support from my parents along the way, which I know is not an option everyone is privileged enough to indulge in. Some people also have family to look after or a mortgage. I’m aware. But what I’m suggesting is to merely keep an open mind. Whenever possible, don’t let money dictate what you say "yes" to. Remember that although you’re forging a career out of your work, the reason you chose to get into this industry was because of your love of taking photos. So, stop complaining and get on with it. Make the most of every part of the photo-taking proces, and take control of all aspects of the shoot so that it’s your project and is worth your time. There are so many great experiences out there to be had. If it’s something you really want to work on, make sure you don’t miss out because you decided it was more important to get rich.

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185 Comments

Jason Ranalli's picture

Along the lines of this article let me give some advice from my years of working outside of photography which is really relevant to ANY line of business:

1) The biggest perk IMO of doing any work for free is that it gives you the right to take control up to the max. It becomes your project at that point and as long as you're not arrogant you can be more aggressive in the vision, direction, and execution. I say this because it is one thing not to get paid but it is another to have your time wasted so make it your own.

2) The bigger the client, company, employer, etc the cheaper and tighter on the pockets they usually are. This is not always true but nearly always from my direct experience. Folks want to work for the top company in NYC? Great, but be prepared to get paid the minimum, work the most, and have the toughest road to progress forward. Why is that? Because everyone wants to work for that company to have that name on their resume, portfolio etc and they don't need you. There's a thousand people beating down their door. Smaller younger companies tend to be a lot more accommodating to those working with them and for them.

Chris Quevedo's picture

I don't do corporate photography, I do portraits of families, couples, seniors, and also some modeling. I do not shoot in the corporate world. But I think if large companies were to contact me I would not tolerate this. I just can't agree with this article. It seems to me that if I am going to work for free it is for only a few purposes. yes there are times I would work for me, but it is for 1.) advertising. meaning I will be using this for shameless self-promotion. 2.) personal passion projects. 3.) charity. 4.) beginners who have no portfolios or weak portfolios.

now some of those have to be done on a regularly rotating schedule, always have to keep that portfolio up and always have to advertise. so it's easier to offer a contest where the winner gets a free photo shoot then it is to hire someone to pose for you in a shoot promote yourself.

but these companies are so big now I have to feel bad for them? I'm sorry, but if they don't value you enough to pay you, why is their an exchange taking place? this is right back to being paid with exposure! exposure puts zero dollars in my pocket in portraits, does it put money in yours? maybe for the top tier of creatives that has some impact on their bottom line but I live in the real world and I have to pay for the advertising that makes me business or I'm already doing free stuff as it is such as Instagram and Facebook and etc etc etc.

i have no interest in corporate photo shoots for magazines and such, but if I did I can not tell you how insulted I would be to find that a magazine editor wants me to shoot for them for free because "sorry! we're so big we have no money!!!" THATS SUCH BS!!! my heart does not bleed for them. i can't imagine why a photographer who is being told they are valued by their client at a price of ZERO would accept those terms.

"hey you are completely worthless and so is your work. you'd be cool with working for nothing right? I mean that's how much I value you at least."

"oh, sure! why not?"

the photographer who accepts those terms may not agree with me, may not admit it; but by accepting those terms you are implicitly agreeing that yes, you agree with their assessment of you and your value. not worth a dime. in fact there are so many college students with great cameras we can get any of them to do this so we're doing you a favor by paying you nothing. BULL ****. just because everyone has a camera, doesn't make all of them a worthwhile hire. doesn't make everyone an artist. it just means they have a camera. that's all.

Christian Santiago's picture

It seems to me I'd rather not work for that "big client' if the arrogance is such that they'd rather pay the minimum because creatives are frothing at the mouth to have the in their portfolio despite having the deepest pockets.

I'd advise anyone reading this to completely disregard this trash. It's crap like this that devalues the creative arts in general and curates the perception that photography/videography etc should be free or cheap. That whole "but my nephew has an expensive camera. He could probably do it" attitude. Cant' fathom how many times I've heard the old " but you should be doing it for the love of the art bla bla."

I love photography. If i didn't do it for money, i'd still do it for free as a hobby. But love, "exposure," social media likes etc. Do not pay my bills. The more you work for free, the more you curate the reputation of being "that guy who works for free." And if you think that "exposure" is worth anything. Keep in mind the only referrals you'll get are for other clients looking for cheap or free labor.

And guess what? When those clients finally have the budget to spread on a proper shoot, you'd be delusional to think they'd call you. Clients will be more than happy to use you when you cost nothing, but they won't spend money on you because perception is value. If you're the guy offering your work for free, then your work must not be worth that much.

Only 3 times you should ever do anything for free:

You're just starting out and need a portfolio
You're doing it for Charity
It's a personal project that you're passionate about. (But never for someone else).

Matthew Odom's picture

^^ This gentleman knows what he's talking about....KUDOS

Aaron Mello's picture

Registered just to 'thumbs up' your post and say "agreed."

Chris Cheek's picture

Amen

I registered simply to thumbs up. The author is delusional. Christian, on the other hand, seems to understand the importance of perception in business. Irresponsible content such as this article, masquerading as professional advice is exactly the kind of thing that has so damaged the creative business environment. Our skills are more valuable than many give us credit for. And you know what, the only way this will ever change is if there is a fundamental awakening with regard to this work-for-exposure garbage. Have some self-respect, Mr. Alexander. You are devaluing the profession, and frankly you should be ashamed.

Jeff McCollough's picture

Larry,

My thoughts exactly. We are in a day and age where people would rather outsource to people in India and not hire local professionals. We DO NOT want to encourage that. We DO NOT want to work for free. If you work for free then soon enough EVERYONE with want all of us photographers to work for free.

Brilliant reply.

Chris Quevedo's picture

have to agree. at the cost of sounding brutal, this article is sloppy journalism and even worse logic. the people with deepest pockets may not be paying the most but they SHOULD BE. and I'm not going to pat them on the back and comfort them because print is dying. TOUGH! you still want labor, then pay the price.

Keem Ibarra's picture

I could not agree more. Once you begin to do free work for clients in attempts of gaining "exposure", your work becomes worthless. Free work, even though it may look great will devalue quicker than a Toyota driving off the lot.

What Christian said. I know every word to be very true from my own experience. Everything else aside - it's a matter of positioning yourself in the industry, and working for free will not gain you any more respect. On the contrary - if you price high, then yes - you won't be able to take ALL the jobs you might have taken, but it will get you the right ones eventually. Be reasonable in pricing, especially if you started not so long ago, but don't drive yourself, and the rest of this tough industry, down - one free gig at a time. You'll will NEVER be commissioned for a high-end job by the same client.

Registered just to like this comment. Don't give your work away for free or very rarely...you can't eat or pay rent with 'exposure', only money works for that

Dave Kavanagh's picture

The thing to keep in mind in the situation you were in, is that although you were shooting a cool upcoming musician, it was the publication that were your "client". Theres no dancing around the fact they would clearly be looking to profit from your free work in the form of magazine sales and I think that's where a lot of people draw the line.

I've done plenty of work for free with high profile musicians but its usually been arranged on a collaboration basis and with musicians I'm either a fan of or have some interest in. For me this keeps the experience of doing the shoot as payment enough to justify my efforts. If I was to ask a MUA or stylist to get involved who didn't have the same interest in the band/musician then I could hardly expect them to share that enthusiasm.

I fully agree its important to do "free" work in the form of personal work, but I think as soon as you enter into a situation where some party involved in the shoot is directly profiting from it and not others then you have to fully respect peoples decision not to work on these shoots.

The point about not letting money dictate the work you do is fine in theory but within the constraints of only having so much time in a day, everybody gets to draw their own line in the sand as to how much time they can really allocate to a project like this.

I personally place a high premium on my time as I typically don't have a huge amount of it spare. If I'm dedicating 3 - 5 hours for a shoot, then possibly the same again for retouching, thats a potential 10 hours of my time I'm putting into this shoot. Thats time I could otherwise be spending with my girlfriend, my family, my friends, on learning new techniques, on chasing up leads for paid work, on retouching other projects, on organising my own personal work or many other ways that have a very real value to me. I don't think its unfair or selfish to expect that time to be justified in some form. It doesn't have to be financial compensation but I at least need to have a very real interest in the shots that I will get out of it and I would always fully understand or expect anyone else to apply the same justification on their time.

Bill Peppas's picture

Work for free.
Nope.

If you're past your initial portfolio creation you need no free work.
Especially when it comes to non-poor people/companies.

Jack Alexander's picture

If you had the chance to work with your favourite musician, or an actor from your favourite film, for an international magazine, you'd pass it up if they had no budget?

Rob Johns's picture

Geez Jack, favourite actors, musicians etc are just people like you and me. They are not gods that we need to make a sacrificial offering to be in their presence. Get over it.

There is nothing more satisfying than a big, fat pay check; investing in yourself and your industry.

This! FFS, I wish the photography industry would get over the whole "rock star" idolization thing - whether it's someone in the entertainment industry...or the photography industry. LOL

In what universe do international magazines not have a budget for features about celebrities from the music and film industries? I think you're confusing "no budget" with "we'll get some free pics off Mr Gullible".

Dan Howell's picture

Think what you like. Do you have actual and specific experience working with magazines? Many celebrity features in magazine come from supplied photos. The magazine did not assign or supervise the creation. In many cases they came from the celebrity themselves thru their PR agent/agency. Those image might or might not have been from a specific hired shoot. The scenario you responded to is a real and not uncommon situation. Your response is either uninformed or unrealistic. I'm not saying you or anyone has to accept those terms, but the 'in what universe...' comment shows a lack of experience or understanding.

Dan, I do have magazine experience as well as national newspaper experience, though I tend to deal more with direct commercial and corporate clients these days. However if you read the comment I was responding to, Jack was citing the scenario of working on assignment directly for a magazine, not for a PR agency. So, in that scenario, which international magazines commission photographers to work for them but without a budget?

Of course in the case of PR-submitted material, magazines don't pay for that because it's PR. The photographer will have been paid by the PR agency. Whether working for a magazine or an agency (PR or news), the photographer should be getting paid for their work.

I hope this clarifies my point for you.

Bill Peppas's picture

So you are an International magazine and no budget ?
I am a photographer with no budget.

I believe celebrities, singers and so on, are already living the free life and fun life without any hassle.
No free pass from me.
They go to a party/club/tv show and they get free shades/perfumes/designer-clothes/money as a "gift" just to be there. Should they also get professional photos ( from which they will make a profit too! ) for free ?
No can do mi amigo.

Unless the artist is a PERSONAL friend of mine and it's not about another company making money, I would do a photoshoot ( I've actually done this for a friend who is a plain person who sings at a few bars a few times per year, he has a low income and the shooting was for his personal facebook page ).

when would an international magazine featuring well-known actors or musicians have no budget?

Paulo Macedo's picture

I've worked for free for quite a long time. Well, so freaking long that i had to go abroad (inside my own country), to become unknown again and start it all over.
Guess what, no more free work for anyone! Hell, sometimes i skip tasks in my workplace because i feel that 600€ a month is not worth the hassle (portuguese salary...).
Free work, yes, for charity purposes only and a cause that would benefit the society as a whole. For companies and clients? No, a BIG NO!
Like someone said on the comments here, when they make the money to pay for the work, they will not look at you. You sold free, you are cheap and you are not worth a big investment, even if you are better than the photographer they are willing to pay 5000€ to shoot a full collection of clothing.
Working for free has doomed somehow my career and the effort i'm putting on myself now just to rise up again is monstruous.

Devorah Goldstein's picture

I think it's wonderful if you're quite young and have no obligations, and the biggest expense you have is your rent. However, for most of us, working for pay is not being obstinate, it's called running a successful business -- one that can pay the expenses of a family, college fund, home, various forms of insurance (and I don't just mean for your gear), mortgage, etc -- and by extension, a successful adult life.

Not every choice you make as an adult is about your creative fulfillment; actually most of them aren't, and if you're already working in a creative field that you love, you're about 95% ahead of most of the planet. Yes you can pursue personal projects for free on your own time, but with the knowledge that they will be taking you away from your spouse, your children, and your community as the tradeoff. Perhaps you'd like to review your own words when you're 44 not 24, and see how they've held up over time.

Jack Alexander's picture

Hey Devorah,

Fully understand what you're saying. The fact is, though, that I am 24, and rent is my biggest financial obstacle! I appreciate many of those reading this piece have bigger responsibilites, and that was why I acknowledged that in the article. This wasn't a suggestion that we should all work for free all of the time, I just worry that lots of people would rather miss out on a fantastic opportunity (one that means something to them) than swallow their pride. Of course, I wouldn't question someone who chose their children over working for free.

Devorah Goldstein's picture

Jack, I get where you're coming from (we were all 24 lol), but I think you should take to heart the suggestions of many of the commenters regarding giving away your work, and your long-term rights to licensing etc, for free, and how that might impact your career down the line. We all hope nothing but the best for everyone starting out and don't want to see anyone get hurt by decisions that have ramifications they may not fully grasp yet. :)

Jack Alexander's picture

I get ya. Thanks Devorah :)

Bruno Fujii's picture

Your are being rude and immature saying people are arrogant just because they don't want to partnership with you. The free work (whereas is a personal project, a charity or a work intend to be a portfolio experimental piece) should be good for both sides; other than that, you are just replicating the attitude of corporations that want you to work for free in their benefits. Can you see that? Try no to judge other people only based on your interests, OK? That's childhood selfish.

Chris Quevedo's picture

I would not go so far as to say it it rude, but it is definitely not cool to just expect people to devalue themselves. am I the only one that feels like this article is a joke? like all the big corporations got together, and had someone write and article for them to guilt people into working for them for nothing. sorry bro, I have value. and no it's not about the money. it's about putting food on the table. it's more than a job, but at the end of the day it still has to pay otherwise we are all just glorified hobbyists.