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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If you have integrity in your personal work, which means doing it for yourself and not for a magazine, then it can get massively more publicity and audience than any one magazine can provide. And maybe even bring you a decent income along the way.

Why are you doing work you don't want to do?

If cooporate head shots are "far from your favourite" why are you doing them? Would it not be better doing what you enjoy doing and get paid doing that? At the end of your career you'll regret all the time you spent doing work you didn't enjoy because you had to do it to pay the bills. While all the time you could have been earning money from the work you do enjoy doing. It's a no brainer really isn't it?

You see Jack, you really are a client's dream - and not because of any self-taught skils. You are the reason people are slashing photography budgets - someone younger and more naïve comes along willing to work for less, it's a race to undercut and devalue photographers, it's trap you've fallen into and now you're just a fox hound.

You see the thing about fox hounds is there are one or two that know why they are there - they are the dogs at the front, leading the way, but all the other fox hounds are just following the rse hole in front of them with no idea why they are there, what they are acutally doing or where they're going.

Would it give you more pride to know that your clients value your work enough to pay you, and are not just using your work because you save them money? The reason I ask is it must bite you wondering whether your work is good enough, if people aren't willing to pay for it to go on their cover.

You see I get paid for covers, magazine work, brochure work and I love my job: I get to hang out of helicopters, sail and photograph million pound yachts and I travel the world - I have those memories, the delight that I'm being paid and I don't do jobs I don't enjoy. I can make my "holidays" pay for themselves, and yes they are "holidays" because I'm doing what I love doing, taking photographs. I don't need people to use my work for free for it to be seen, magazines pay me to use my work and they use it because they want to, not because it's free or it saves them money. I get more pride knowing my clients want to use me and my images above anyone else's, and I'm chosen on merit.

It's true I'd still want to do that if I wasn't getting paid for it, but I'm a professional, photography is my profession, it's my choice and I value my work. So do my clients.

Jack Alexander's picture

Your first sentence tells me you misunderstood the piece. I would never do free work that I didn't enjoy! Totally pointless. I was trying to suggest we should not stick our nose up at projects we'd enjoy doing simply because we won't work for free.

Sorry Jack, it's you who has misunderstood me – As well as being a professional photographer I'm also the Tech Ed of a magazine, I edit and write features to accompany my photography. I read and understood your misguided methodology, for I too was young once (I'm still young now, but probably an old bloke in your eyes).

I realise you are not doing the work you don't enjoy for free, if you'd have read my reply and thought about it, that was not what or why I was asking. I was asking – in the context of your paid work:

If you don't enjoy doing something, why are you doing it?

Think about this...go on, you know this one...To pay your rent? To pay your living expenses? To fund your free work you do enjoy? All of the above? Now, if you didn't need the money would you still do that work – which is far from your favourite?

I realise you're doing your unpaid work for the joy of doing it and that mythical currency "exposure" (worth 2/10th of nout: btw, no one accepts "exposure" except green photographers). But wouldn't it be more beneficial to you both financially and spiritually to get paid for the work you do enjoy doing, then you would be able to drop the stuff you don't?

*Lightbulb Moment*

You wouldn't have to work for free to do the work you enjoy doing because you'll be getting paid for it and doing it anyway. It's what I do.

If that doesn't make sense...Here's a scenario for you, which will hopefully show you why working for free is a silly thing to do:

You have an unpaid gig, doing it for the love of photography. All booked in, all ready to go next week, the artist you love is only in town for Thursday only. Then a client comes you with a two day job, which has to be on Thursday/Friday next week £4,800 (£4,500 £300 in expenses). The paid gig could be as good if not better than the unpaid one, and it will give you more of what you crave "exposure". What do you do - the free gig has been in your diary for ages?

You see if you were getting paid for the unpaid gig it would be easy to refuse the other gig, not great that you may only earn half as much, but at least you'll have earned something. Your way you're paying to shoot something - and giving your work away.

Anthony Woodruffe's picture

Working for free is actually 'paying' to work, as you have initial overheads that need to be covered and additional costs specific to that project. If the reward to you is greater than the financial loss then great, yet it's still detrimental to the industry as a whole.
In the meantime I don't see too many doctors doing free heart surgery because it was a privilege to save someone's life, which in comparison to having a feature in Vogue is pretty hard to trump.

Want to do a project with friends and create something special? Even produce a short film or a book. Go ahead, you're in control and everyone will gain a life goal of being involved in something magical that was not based on meeting a demand of someone else. (Yeah I read the bit about forfeiting money so your client shouldn't have any expectations). The 2 are similar but the difference is one is a separate concept that can be used by all for marketing their brand to the industry, the other is a project that should be rewarded a commensurate rate of pay.

Paying to shoot for magazine X or Artist X, who require your skills and talent to produce something for them so they can get richer whilst you struggle to pay rent sounds like exploitation to me. The biggest problem this industry faces right now is a great big cue of young people who think after 3 years of fiddling around, are ready to take on large assignments. Yet they're not ready which is why the corporates see no worth them and the only way to get the work is to beg and 'do it for free'. Once you finally realise the only reason why your shooting is because you're being pulled over the table and leave, the next naive and gullible wannabe is right behind you slavering at the chops to grab that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

My advice to anyone who wants to work with the large corporates who should be paying a fair fee and do to the top photographers. Go earn a 6 figure yearly income from your creative services. See how F'in hard it is to reach that point where your calendar is always full of paying clients. Then come back and tell us why we should be taking on more free work.

Anyone can work for free.

Martin Van Londen's picture

Im not opposed to working for free. But I have a set of standard that have to be met for me to do that. Everyone has the free will to work for who they want in any capacity they want.

What I think we all need to be careful of is leaving money on the table. You have to ask your self don't they have money for this really big opportunity. I alway like to push back a little bit when they say there is no budget. Often times the money is really there you just have to find a way to get it.

In the end if some sort of money is exchanged... even if it is just to cover expenses.. they will respect you and value your work more. Its human nature to over value something you have paid for and under value something you get for free.

Jack Alexander's picture

Thank you Martin, fully agree with this!

Martin Van Londen's picture

Of course! It seems like you got a lot of hate from this artical.. I think that shows that a lot of people are having trouble adapting to a changing world.

Jack Alexander's picture

Haha, at the risk of being savaged by the wolves, I couldn't agree more!

Anonymous's picture

Jack a courageous post and you might have known you would get some negative feedback.The problem is photography is in danger of going the way of the typing pool we used to take all our letters to many years ago when I started work.The fact we can all type our own letters now made them obsolete.They had to find other work.I have done some free stuff over the years, mainly for family. Not everyone has the means and support to live on nothing as a photographer.I hope professional photography lives on as a gifted photographer is usually streets above the amateur but the gap is closing.I like your pics Jack. Good luck with your career.

Jack Alexander's picture

Thanks so much Geoff :)

Anonymous's picture

Just a further comment. The most satisfying shoot I ever did was for free and was 2 shots on and old polaroid camera.My wife who is a nurse gave one of her elderly patients a lift to the vet to have her old favourite cat put down.She was upset and told my wife she did not have one photo of her cat. My wife rang me and said do you have any film and can you come to the vets office.I only had 2 shots of polaroid available.I went to the vets and took a 2 shots of the lady holding her dead cat on a basket on her lap.It looked peaceful and lifelike.She was overjoyed to have her pictures.

It must be a slow news day for this clickbait article. Can't really add much to what's already been said here, however I will say this - when you give your work away the message you are sending to the receiver (and anyone else) is that your work has no value and worse that you yourself do not see the value of your work or your time. If you fail to value your work then you can be sure that nobody else will. Those companies must see you as an easy touch (no matter what they may say) and here's the thing bona-fide companies have budgets for creative as they have budgets for every other business cost - the bigger the company the bigger the budget - again, no matter what they say). I cringe that you allowed Vogue - Vogue! to take the mickey... considering ads worth hundreds of thousands of GBP form 90% of its content. I'd love to know if they give away free ad space - NOT. Or if their editors work for no pay. And the companies profit - or they are not in business long. But if you want to work for free of course that is your choice. Just please refrain from speaking for all creatives who should continue to stand up for their right to payment for their work and refuse,name and shame companies that want them to "work for free." You just make it that much more difficult for them.

Jack Alexander's picture

I feel like you 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 all the time.

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 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, 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!

Hope that makes sense.

No, Jack I didn't misunderstand and neither did the other commentators who took the time to respond to your original post. I read your article. You are backtracking or trying to now justify what you wrote and what you believe is right, so right that others should consider doing it. What you now say you meant did NOT come across as such, that much is clear.You say you don't condone "working for free" yet you say companies expect creatives to work for free, so more creatives should consider doing it. You say that like the music industry apparently with little or no money in it, photography is changing - so if only free work is offered photographers should understand that and if asked to work for free do it (for the opportunity). And you don't condone magazines asking for your work with no intention of paying you for it - so you know it's wrong - but getting the opportunity makes it worth doing

So here's the thing, Jack. Your responses seem to be full of contradictions. If you meant Collaboration then that is entirely different. Collaboration isn't about one party profiting from another. With much of the public, especially companies, already ignorant of the value photographers bring (thus expecting to get free work, from which they profit - while they would never dream of asking other suppliers to give them their product free) each one of us has a responsibility to reflect the value of the industry, each in our own way when it comes to our service being devalued. Also it wouldn't make any difference whether you did photoshoots at the weekend or all day. To be clear I think everyone recognizes there are times when a free shoot would be appropriate, such as for charity or a personal project. But that isn't what your piece was about.

michael andrew's picture

I have turned down every single "free shoot" experience offer that came my way, including multiple offers to travel overseas to work in beautiful remote areas.

Why, because fuck them thats why. Go buy a camera and learn to shoot, not on my dime.

If I shot an image and it got ran in print and I didn't get paid it is like an instagram post to me, worthless EGO driven self satisfaction.

No It has nothing to do with money, but honor and respect to uphold my profession for myself, my family and my fellow creative.

Jack Alexander's picture

Why oh why would you deprive yourself of a chance to travel overseas? If you can financially afford to take the time out, and presuming the client was paying all expenses, I'd jump at the chance. Life is for living, swallow your pride!

Jason Odell's picture

Your pics are average, I wouldn't pay you either.

Jack Alexander's picture

Good stuff - can I get a link to your portfolio, please?

Seems fstoppers was a bit mean to the author to publish this.

Tom Lim's picture

Perhaps, but it's this kind of article that can really increase traffic to the site.

Jack Alexander's picture

Why so? It was my piece, I wrote it, I stand by everything that was said.

This is satire, right? 24 year old Jack Alexander, who’s been freelancing for almost 3 years? Well Jack, I’ve been a freelance photographer for many years longer than you’ve been alive, and like you I’ve had some success with cover photos, double-trucks and multi-page stories in various publications.

The difference between us that I was well paid for all of those. That’s “well paid” in dollars, sterling, euros, bones or clams or whatever you call them. You on the other hand would have been happy to settle for some Facebook likes and Twitter followers.

Well, good luck with that. Don’t forget to write again in 10 years time to let us know how it all works out, because whatever business you’re in it ain’t going to be the photography business.

And if anyone else wants a glimpse of of Jack’s future, you can see it here: <http://www.thedailymash.co.uk/news/business/getting-your-name-out-there-...

I'd ask myself just one question: would the singer singed a deal with major company just in exchange of printing his CD's with no money attached to it? In my 10+ years career I sadly never got a job just from my name printed in a magazine. Good clients rarely search for mew photographers from credits in magazines.
Sure there is an opportunity as you said to work with celebs or to work at a special venue but on a long run this will only lead to more gigs like that - unpaid.

Jack Alexander's picture

Do you understand where the music industry is heading? There's little to no money in sales these days. More and more artists sign '360 deals' with their labels, whereby the label gets a cut of profits from gigging and touring - because that's where the money is at. Photography is no different in that it is changing and, unfortunately, lots of work is expected for free. I'm not condoning it, but I'm also not missing out on doing the exact type of shoots I want to be doing when someone else will just take my place.

From one free shoot that was published, I was contacted by a syndication agency who now sell my photos and contribute to a fair whack of my income. So that's where I'm coming from.

Sorry I'm a little late to the party.

And I will probably get in trouble for this,

but any way, there really is no nice way to say this Jack. "You sir are a fucking idiot" is about the politest way I can put it. Almost daily I end up explaining to someone younger than myself, why they should pay for what I do. Please be quiet and let the grownups get on with it. Sheesh

Jack Alexander's picture

Why is it that my age is such a factor to you, Jason? If you have an issue with something in the piece, let's discuss it. Don't let my age be the reason you have a problem with my article. I've had people twice my age email to say they agree with what I have said here.

Then they are also "fucking idiots". Seems age is really no barrier.

The point Jack, as others have pointed out, is that you are now backtracking all over the place.

Collaboration on an equal footing is one thing, working for free, for ANYONE, who is in business to make a profit is never an option. The only correct response is "Fuck off".

Do they work for nothing? Hell no! Every magazine that has tried to pull this crap with me has got the same answer. You sell magazines to make money, you (usually an editor or art director) get paid for your work? Then why shouldn't I? They then trot out the "Exposure" bullshit. I'll see if the landlord will take exposure this month.

You are naive at best, sorry if the truth isn't what you want it to be, but grown ups run businesses, children seek attention and want everyone to like them.

Jason Berge
www.shoot.co.nz

I have no real words apart delusional or stupid - this is the kind of sentiment that has got our industry in the mess that it is in today and it is not helped by youngsters continuing to propagate this lunacy. I suggests that the next time he is in Tescos that he offers to take a basket of shopping for free so he can promote Tesco's services - I look forward to hearing their response.

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