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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Previous comments
Rob Johns's picture

Free work for charities should only be considered where everyone is a volunteer. Not in the case where your fee is a drop in the ocean compared to the CEO's salary.

Justin Haugen's picture

Jack, I'm curious to see how you will feel about this article in 10 years. Not to say you don't have any valid points here, but I think it's premature for you to make those assumptions about how you will feel looking back in retrospect someday.

You may find yourself with a mortgage, wife and kids in the next 10 years and you'll hopefully be looking back on a long and successful career doing what you love an supporting those you love. That's a great feeling too.

I was you 8 years ago. Things change. People change. Goals change. Stay thirsty.

Tom Lew's picture

My thoughts exactly as soon as I read "money will not dictate my life"

Justin Haugen's picture

There is an appropriate time for free work, it's called charity.

Jack Alexander's picture

Hey Justin,

If that does happen, then perhaps I will have a different perspective. And I don't doubt my opinion may change somewhat. My point was that we shouldn't miss out on shoots we'd love to work on, purely for money. Within reason, of course.

I'm not advocating we all work for free, all of the time. I do lots of free work, and my rent is still paid. And yes, I realise others have families etc to provide for - that was acknowledged in the article.

Justin Haugen's picture

When I work for free, it's usually my idea and initiative.

I think where your sentiments go against the grain here is that many of the working professionals commenting here are most proud of their best work that is high profile and getting them paid commensurate with their efforts.

Rob Johns's picture

Niaive at best but mostly stupid and just wrong. Helping to drive the final nail in the coffin of what, once, was a profession where you could earn a good living.

Collaboration amongst creatives is something else but shooting for a money making commercial venture for free is just ridiculous.

Social media is almost a currency, really? Try paying your bills with it. Likes and pokes are for the narcissistic needy.

I wouldn't be so proud of that cover. Free and cheap plays into the hands of greedy publishers to max their profits while screwing the photographer.

Jack Alexander's picture

Do you have any idea how much money can be made from Instagram alone? I have friends who earn £30k a year from advertising (ie taking a selfie with a tooth whitening product). And that's not a friend's cousins dog's mate - I've seen the receipts.

I'm not saying that should be our incentive to use social media at all, I just think it's a tad naive of you to write off social media as a currency.

Rob Johns's picture

Do you have any idea how misleading your article is?

YOU paid Vogue money to have a thumbnail included in an advertising feature. Anyone can do that and inclusion of your work is no endorsement of quality or skill. Your caption suggests otherwise, that Vogue wanted to feature your work but didn't want to pay you for it. What kudos! I think not. The clue is at the top of the page, Vogue Advertising Feature. That suggests the 20 people featured paid Vogue money to have their work shown. In that instance why even mention that you weren't paid to be featured. Of course they're not going to pay you because you have to pay them.

The whole premise for your article is skewed and just wrong. You have a lot to learn about photography and the industry and accurate captioning for that matter.

Jack Alexander's picture

You're focusing a whole lot on the Vogue feature. That is something I just threw in whilst trying to think of appropriate photos to accompany the article, hence why it wasn't something actually discussed in the piece. I was contacted by Vogue who invited me to be a part of it, that's what I am proud of. Sincerely, I apologise if you found it misleading.

My point is that magazine work (which is, the work I do most of) is often without budget. And what I am saying with this piece is that we shouldn't be too proud and let experiences pass us by IF:
1) The shoot is something we're genuinely enthusiastic about, and get full creative control over. That's the only free work I do!
2) We are doing free work within reason. Of course I'm not advocating we all give up paid work to do full time free work.

Rob Johns's picture

Er.....hate to be the bearer of bad news but Vogue advertising will contact anyone purporting to be a photographer with a website. That's the truth of it.

And if you the majority of your work is for magazines, often without a budget how comes you didn't have any other examples you were proud of?

Yes, I am focussing on the Vogue feature a lot because it is hugely misleading. The caption should have said that you paid Vogue to be featured in the magazine but that really takes the wind out of your sail really doesn't it.

Jack Alexander's picture

Well, many apologies for not selecting an example you feel more suitable, but the point of the article stands regardless.

Rob Johns's picture

May I suggest you amend the caption to say that you paid Vogue to have your work included in an advertising feature and in that instance of course they're not going to pay you.

No other examples that you're really proud of then? That kinda sucks :-(

Jack, you are clearly a good photographer and your work has a value. Please do not give your work away, all this does is devalue photography to the extent that clients are now expecting photography for free. In ten year time when you may be happily married with children and a mortgage to pay you may think differently!

Jack Alexander's picture

Thanks Robert for the kind words.

Of course in 10 years I'm sure my life will be very different. I will inevitably have more responsibilities and I tried to acknowledge that many reading this article are already in that situation. My point was that the industry is what it is (the one I work in anyway, fashion and music etc), and we shouldn't be too proud to say yes to free work and ultimately miss out on amazing experiences shooting with people we'd genuinely love to work with. Thanks dude!

Anonymous's picture

Good Idea. Where I live the most well known celeb.....dog catchers and my ex

Jack Alexander's picture

Have to admit I had a good laugh at that haha

This is what hurts our industry. If you want to work for free, fine, do it with personal projects. However when I see "Seeing it on shelves across the country has meant more than any paycheck." I cringe because I know your rent/mortgage is due and your landlord or bank could care less about your photos on a magazine that is structured to MAKE MONEY. Personal work and collaboration, not commercial freebies. Please people, stop this awful trend. I see kids all the time broke as a joke complaining about not having any money but they give their talents away for "exposure" or "access." Again, for personal work and collaborations fine. For commercial work or with clients who expect to make money with your images...stupid.

I was first published when Jack was still wearing a nappy. And yes, that job was sort of free. Unless you count dinner and beverages, along with the experience of covering the event I photographed. It was mostly a favor that opened a few doors, and it certainly paid off. But to suggest that photographers continue to give away their work to clients that can afford to pay a proper photographer, that's poor business. You'll now be known as the go-to guy when someone needs something for nothing.

Jack Alexander's picture

The point of this article was not to suggest we all become charity cases and slave for free. It was to say that we shouldn't miss out on shoots we'd genuinely love to work on and be a part of, for the sake of our pride. Working for free every now and again is fine - as long as within reason. I do lots of free work and still manage to pay my rent every month from photographic earnings.

Anonymous's picture

I like the photos you have included with this article and if you can afford to work for free and it's giving you some much-needed work for your portfolio, then good for you. Sadly, the taking bread out of other's mouths ship has sailed for many types of photography, so there's no sense arguing about that.

My advice, though, is to make sure any work you do free is not truly free. You had better get a lot more than exposure out of it. Contacts, relationships, tax write-offs, etc. -- things that will lead to paying work or offset costs all come to mind. If you're just doing it for exposure (whatever that even means these days when you can self-publish on the web), as a favor, or out of a perceived obligation than you are likely making a big mistake. Family stuff excepted, of course.

cqphoto's picture

ok, here is what I take from this article. just a summary in my own words.

1.) photographers and creative professionals think they are worth too much and should lower their expectations so you can make art.
2.) money isn't everything.
3.) exposure on social networks is worth about as much as money.
4.) big magazines and publications are so big they can't be bothered to pay because everyone has a camera and so they don't need to.

ok. #2 is correct. I disagree with #1, #3 and #4.

now the vast majority of this article you spend saying why I should offer myself for free more, and then in the last segment titled "keep an open mind" you double back and almost act like you didn't mean that. I'm sorry my friend, but either you are saying I should work for free more or you are not. which is it. you give no frame work or guidance as too which types of jobs you think should be free. maybe that's a good thing as I am a creative and can make that decision myself, but leaving it out almost makes you so ambiguous as to make your point lose any power you thought it had.

I ultimately feel there is a time and place for free work. but I believe that time and place should become smaller with time. and not the other way around. and when a company refuses to pay me, it's a slap in the face and nothing more. even if it is a passive slap in the face while they are wearing a smile.

Jack Alexander's picture

Hey Chris,

1 - definitely not what I was intending to convey whatsoever!
3 - never underestimate social media, I get plenty of paid work through it, and know friends (moreso models) who get paid to takes photos of themselves with products. We're talking upwards of £400 per post.
4) I'm definitely not advocating the attitude of magazines who expect all work for free. I'm not saying it's right. But I am saying that I'm not going to miss out on projects that genuinely excite me simply because I want to get paid. Within reason of course - I do still have rent to pay.

Chris Cavallari's picture

1) then you nee to learn to be a better writer and communicate what you mean.

Let's see how you feel in 3 years time when you're struggling to get paid work because everyone you've ever dealt with knows that someone will believe the "it's great for your exposure" line...

Meanwhile, giving your work away for free is devaluing mine, and making it hard for me, and other professionals, to find paid work.

Thanks for that.

Jack Alexander's picture

I feel like many have misunderstood what was meant. Clearly, I am not advocating that we should all work for free all of the time. To assume that is the case would just be ignorant. First and foremost, I used the terms 'Why I think', because it's an opinion piece, and not everybody has to agree with it. Secondly, I also said '[work for free] more often' - not work for free constantly.

Where I live and work in London, the specific type of work I want to be doing comes with little to no pay. I want to work for music magazines and every single one I've encountered has little to no budget - and that is widely known within the industry and by my peers. So I'm left with the choice of: do I work with someone I'm a HUGE fan of, that inspires me, that makes me want to shoot, that brings ideas out of me - and do it for free. OR, do I sit back, demand pay, get rejected and watch somebody else shoot it instead? The answer is obvious.

I am by no means justifying the attitude of many who think we should work for free. And I hope one day it does change. But in the meantime, I'm not going to sit back here and miss out on amazing opportunities. And by opportunities I don't mean 'I hope this exposure leads to something else!'. I'm talking about getting to tick things off my bucket list by working with musicians and artists I adore.

My piece was merely asking people to keep an open mind. As was proved in the comments, some people claim they never, ever shoot for free. If I had to rank my 10 favourite past shoots, my favourite life experiences, and the achievements I'm most proud of in life, they all came from shoots I have done for little to no pay.

The bottom line is, I pay my rent and bills every month entirely from my earnings from photography. So I am living proof that us creatives CAN afford to do free work, within reason! I'm aware not everybody is 24, and that some people have a family to look after, or for one reason or another may have a different financial situation to me - I acknowledged that in the piece. I feel that if it was the case that I worked full time in a bank and did free photoshoots at the weekend, I would understand your fury somewhat. But like I say, I find a way to make it work!

"Where I live and work in London, the specific type of work I want to be doing comes with little to no pay. I want to work for music magazines"

I think you'll find that the Jason Sheldon you are replying to is a well known music photographer. Rather than trying to tell him that you can't make money from it, perhaps you would do better to beg him for advice on how to 'make it'.

Let me correct you quickly:
" I want to work for music magazines and every single one I've encountered has little to no budget - and that is widely known within the industry and by my peers"

Sadly, that statement also highlights a certain amount of naivety and is also patently false. Every single one you've encountered has TOLD you they have little or no budget. They have a budget, they just don't want to spend it.. THAT is widely known throughout the industry. They're hoping to catch people who will give them valuable content, for free. Tell them you don't give your pictures away for free. You are perpetuating that business model by not only believing them, but encouraging others to give in to them as well.

Your bucket list is great.. It's fantastic that you're getting to shoot musicians and artists you adore.. but where does it say you have to let profit making publishers use your work for free? Those images have commercial value (for editorial use of course, but 'commercial' in the business sense, to you). What you mustn't forget is that those opportunities have commercial value to other professional photographers.. who are finding it harder to get paid commissions, because there are people like you who think seeing their name in print is worth more than any pay cheque.

There is a difference between shooting for free, and giving work away for free. From the examples you give, it seems you confuse the two.

Vanity won't pay your bills.. when your money runs out and you need to find a client that pays - remember this, when they come back and say "Oh, we've got someone else who will do it for free...". Attitudes need to change, Jack, and articles like this are going to make it harder to do.

Excellent! I wholeheartedly concur young man! Are you available this coming Saturday? I need an assistant for a wedding at the Registry Office. Lovely couple and very lively after a few drinks. Quite famous in the local paper, so right up your street. There's no pay but you're guaranteed some quiche and the opportunity to finger one of the bridesmaids. Let me know ASAP.

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