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

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

Hmm.. Says everything about you and this article to be honest Jack.. The "Vogue" publication that you'll forever be proud of.. Look at it.. It says clearly at the top of the page : "Advertising feature". That's a well known business model where they GET YOU to PAY THEM to be in their publication.. That's not being published.. That's PLACING AN ADVERT.. how can you be so proud of that????

Geof Kirby's picture

"Seeing it on shelves across the country has meant more than any paycheck." - It seems to escape Jack that seeing it on the shelves and savouring a healthy paycheck is an even better deal. Wonder what he will do when he needs to draw a pension ?

Jack Alexander's picture

So when there is no offer of payment, are you suggesting I should give up the amazing experience and let someone else shoot it (also for free)? No thanks.

I'm not condoning the attitude of many magazines, that we should work for free. But it is what it is unfortunately, and I'm not willing to sacrifice, for example, a magazine front cover, to single-handedly try and change an entire industry by refusing to work for free.

"I'm not condoning the attitude of many magazines, that we should work for free." But you are condoning it by working for them, for free!

Do you not see the magazines have you exactly where they want you? You are the kid in the play ground who the pretty girl would flutter her eyelahses at then you'd be carrying her books for the next three terms and you'd still be no closer to getting a date. Meanwhile she'd be off with someone who she respects.

It's. The. Same. Thing.

If you are good enough, you will get these amazing life experiences.

Jack Alexander's picture

Meanwhile, my rent stays paid.

Dear Jack,

You let them take a shit on your head, and now you're expected to say 'thanks for the hat'.

There is nothing wrong with working for free occasionally, provided:

a) Everyone on the shoot is also providing their time and collaboration for free and to benefit in some way from that collaboration, whether it be portfolio, work experience, networking or whatever.
b) The shoot is a personal passion/vanity project and not a commercial enterprise.

Where I believe you are going wrong, is failing to recognise that a 'major record label' has a budget for promoting their up and coming newly signed artists, and 'renowned British magazines' also are able to pay for their content, due to the advertising revenue they receive. Either the record company should have paid for the job, so that they could then place the shoot with the magazine for promotional purposes for the new artist, having licenced your work for that purpose, or the magazine should have paid for the shoot in order to get an exclusive feature on an up and coming artist. There is value here to both commercial enterprises - why should one of them at least, not pay for the work?

Had you simply shot the pictures for no fee, and then sought to negotiate a publication fee from the magazine, or licence the work to the record company, then there would be absolutely no issue with working for free here - it would be speculative with a view to benefiting financially by way of sales, and that is fine.
And if you paid your crew out of the fees you got, then all is good.

What I'd really like to know is, what rights have you given the 'renowned British magazine'? I can imagine that they will re-use in the future (for no fee), possibly syndicate (for no cut to the photographer), and most likely sub-licence the feature to their foreign partner magazines around the world, unless you nailed down the terms of supply. And what about the 'major record label' - I imagine they will want a piece of the action - after all, it is their artist. Promotional use, record covers, PR etc?

I'd like to hope that, despite only 3 years in the business, Jack might be more savvy than to hand over the rights to his free work. Every time somebody does this, it simply perpetuates the expectation from publishers that we will all be dumb enough to work for nothing.

I blame Rankin - I believe he was the first to introduce 'no fee' when shooting for Dazed & Confused. Now the rest of them think it's a great business model.

Jack Alexander's picture

Hey Graham,

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 - of course I do! But in the meantime, I'm not going to sit back 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.

I could not disagree more with this article, thinking that magazines don't have the money to pay photographer is foolish, only in England the company that own Vogue made a profit of £8.8 million last year. The only reason they don't pay photographer is that there are photographers that are willing to work for free. Photographers who agree to do so are cutting off the hand that feeds them and all of us.
The question I have is : Does fstoppers.com back this writer opinion. By publishing it looks like they do and I think it is dangerous. Encouraging this kind of behavior destroy our profession and forbid people to make a living of it.

The magazine needs many elements in place before it can publish anything: the workspace, light & heat, its own staff, phone lines, a printer, a distributor, its own advertising placed etc., etc. . Jack, do you think they had no budget for those? What I do has a value and, when anyone publishes it, I need to be paid because I have two kids at university right now, plus all the usual bills. When people publish my work without asking for my permission, they are suprised I want paying and are more surpised that I want paying at my rates not theirs. Why are they surprised? Because so many people give it away either for "Likes" or for minimal RF fees. Generally, people think photography has no value. It does. Yours does, too, Jack. Recognise it and you'll have a better future.

Robert Raymer's picture

Sorry, but I completely disagree. While there are times when working for free is appropriate (charity, personal projects, projects that close friends are working on, etc), working for free in the corporate world, or worse working for "exposure" is not only not beneficial for you (how many times have you been offered or won a bid based on free work you did?) it is killing the industry, and you touch on this in a very backwards way.

it is simple supply and demand. Of course it is harder to find paid work when you have so many people willing to work for free. Yes, print sales are down, but regardless, companies need to advertise in order to sell their products, and to do that they need images. After all, photos are not just used in print ads, but also on larger format ads like billboards, etc as well s the internet, which while it may be killing the print sales still has high advertising costs.

So yes, you can say that working for free is fine, but I promise you that the more we work for free the more we devalue ourselves, and the less paid jobs will be out there. Companies will see that we are willing to work for free and then will come to expect it. It is a vicious cycle that will continue until everyone stops working for free.

Rob Johns's picture

The clue is indeed in the top right hand corner of the Vogue spread, 'Vogue Advertising Feature.'

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

Why Jack? You paid to be featured in the magazine. The reality is that you weren't courted for your photographic skills. It's an advertising feature for which you paid to have your work shown as a thumbnail along with 20 others at around £400 each. Do the maths, British Vogue must have made around £8000 for a single page spread. That's good business Jack. Working for free is not.

Sadly, you're duping yourself and others but worst of all you're killing the professional photography industry and that is completely wrong and unacceptable. You have a lot to learn.

Favourite line from this post, "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," oh dear.

Barry Chapman's picture

Wow, I must have glossed over that one. It is a sad indictment.

Jack Alexander's picture

By that I am referring to working on projects that I enjoy. That I WANT to be involved in because it's a shoot with someone I'm a big fan of. Rather than when you start out, as an amateur, and get taken advantage of, taking on work you're not even sure you enjoy.

So you're a fan with a camera, rather than a professional photographer....

Jack Alexander's picture

If your definition of a fan with a camera being someone who also manages to survive month to month from his earnings through photography then sure, I'm a fan with a camera

Tim Skipper's picture

I have never commented on a post before but this is so effing stupid I can't believe it. There is a major difference between free collaboration between creatives for the sake of portfolio or even fun and giving away free work to corporations. Did the editor give away their skills for free? What about the printer? Paper supplier? It is nice to still be sucking your mother's tit for substance but for the rest of the working community we don't have that advantage.

The fact that FStoppers even ran this article is an insult to the industry. It is moron's like you that train corporations and magazines that the work is for free. Maybe is a-holes such as yourself would stand up and say my time and skill has value vs. bending over and taking it up the ass you could get paid. But hey you got to see your name in print, so you are special.

Brian Carpenter's picture

wait wait wait... you're proud of an ADVERTISING feature in Vogue?? Didn't you have to PAY THEM? If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, must be a... This piece should be removed from the site.

Jack, I feel bad for you. Sometimes, it's best not to share our opinions. But you're doing a pretty good job of sticking to your guns, and keeping your cool.

Tomorrow, someone else will post something they will later regret, and everyone will forget about this article.

Jack Alexander's picture

Haha! Thank you.

It's absolutely fine - I read over this piece many times before I submitted it, and when it came to sending it to the editors I was entirely confident I was happy to it, and believed every part of what was said.

I'm not advocating working for free on something you don't enjoy. I have full creative control of all the free work I undertake! I would hate for anyone to think I was suggesting otherwise!

Thanks again.

Ginny Palma's picture

Reading your responses to people's comments, it seems like the main issue with your article is it was poorly written. You failed to bring across the point you really wanted to, so now you're left with trying to explain yourself to those who are criticizing your piece. I think it's time to stop telling us that we "missed the point". We didn't. You weren't able to tell us what it was.

Jack Alexander's picture

Maybe so! But let's not rule out the fact that many have simply seen the words 'work for free' and from then on won't even consider anything I've written, but instead just enjoy being provided with the opportunity to be vocal on their despair at the state of the industry as a whole.

Now, I am not a photographer for my living so I have a slightly different perspective. I do charge for photography when someone wants to hire me to come shoot something. Occasionally I'll do it for free if it's a collaboration and we are both happy with the photo release (which is basically if I want to photograph their stuff and sell it as art work because I'll make the money I'd have otherwise charged them). But to put together a production and work for free? NO!

The thing is... I worked as an accountant and business consultant for close to 10 years. I'm a project manager right now. No one would ever DREAM of asking for those services free of charge or because they'll tell all their friends about my services. People have enough respect for those services and no one is giving them away for free. If people quit giving away their photography services, there would be more value placed on it and companies who can more than afford it would quit trying to hit up newbies to work for free "for exposure".

Jack Alexander's picture

Fully agree with you Jennifer. It's completely unjust that free work is only expected within the creative industry. Unfortunately it'll take more than me refusing to work for free for things to change, which is why I indulge in free work whenever I can afford to (on the basis that I am intrigued by the project, and get full creative control that is!)

Rob Johns's picture

Hang on a minute. You've just said it's completely unjust that free work is expected within the creative industry. But you're headline says All Creatives Should Consider Working For Free More Often so you're actually promoting that unjust practice.

For your information 'testing' is an age old tradition amongst creatives. That's the correct word for collaborating on a project for free. You haven't come up with something new. Most photographers are actively engaged in that process to develop their work, concepts and skills.

I'm afraid your article is confused, misleading and serves to destroy the profession from within. Experiences are fine and there's no shortage of that among creatives. Money is what we need to survive in this world and working for profitable commercial clients for free or promoting that premise is just stupid.

Jack Alexander's picture

Yes. Of course I don't agree that it's right that we're expected to work for free. But it's a fact that many corporations and publications expect us to. My point is people should consider shooting for free sometimes, so as not to miss out. Cutting off their nose to spite their face, if you will. There are people here who have commented that they have never - and would never - shoot for free, under any circumstances. That was who the article was aimed at. And no, I'm not dictating how they should live their lives or careers. It's an opinion piece, I've clearly stated that, and I'm not claiming anything I've said to be solid fact. I'm not suggesting we shoot for free all the time, that's ludicrous and I know nobody seriously believed that was what I was incinuating. Two totally different entities.

I'm also aware what testing means and I'm not referring to that either. I'm talking about published editorials where the photographer has full creative control.

Clearly, we'll just have to agree to disagree on this one. Thanks Rob.

Rob Johns's picture

And those corporations and publications are wrong to expect photographers to work for free.

How do you think that will change? Er....let me think. How about writing an article titled All Creatives Should Consider Working for Free More Often

What do you think the end result will be for paid photography if indeed, more creatives did work for free?

I'm sorry Jack but I do think your comments business practice and opinions are naive at best and stupid and damaging at worst. Your area of work is commercial photography, it's not great art and the key word is commercial. Certainly your work does not display any great art nevertheless because it's commercial it should have a value...but you are just giving it away. And you are giving it away to those that can afford to pay, do you think that those people that work in the music industry don't get paid? It's only naive photographers that don't get paid.
Wouldn't it have been a great article if you'd talked about how great your work was and how you also got paid because they value your creative flare.
My advice to you is find yourself an assistants job and learn how an experienced photographer works and runs a business. Go have a look at some great young photographers work, people like Chris Nunn and some of the young photographers at the AOP like Stephen Ambrose.
You say you work for free so you can have creative control...what creative control? What I have seen is not original.
All these hundreds of negative comments about your article here and elsewhere are not wrong. Please take them on board and have a rethink.

I don't know why everyone is getting so angry about this. At least I now know where to send all those "clients" with no budget. Jack should have a full diary between now and 2025.

Whatever anyone says, it doesn't really matter. Jack believes that if we don't agree with him, we've merely misunderstood his article. We haven't, but he won't have it any other way. After all, he's been a freelance photographer for almost three years! I was still in training, indentured on my local newspaper, until I'd completed three years and taken my exams - these days all you need to do is study the camera manual and you're in. Don't worry about learning about the industry, the law, copyright, licensing and all that boring stuff; now it's all about the self, taking pics for giggles and shits and maybe getting paid some time. Everyone takes photos because they love to take photos, what makes one a professional is also the willingness to respect the profession.

What I find sad is that having read the article as well as many of Jack's responses to comments here, the business model he seems to be promoting is one where you only charge for work you don't particularly want to do. What a sad career that will lead to. Meanwhile, all those magazines with massive budgets will cut them every single time they can find another source of free photos.

I'm not only directing this next paragraph to Jack, but to anyone who thinks money taints their art. It doesn't. It's the only measure we have of valuing it, however grubby that might sound. So stop being too proud to negotiate money for your work. If your work isn't worth paying for, then you're not good enough and need to keep working on your skills until someone's willing to exchange money for what you can produce.

Those music mags etc you say have no budget? Most do, they just don't want to part with it if they can avoid it. If they really don't have a budget, how does that work? How do they pay for articles? For office space, printing, telephones and so on? If they haven't budgeted for content, they're not really viable publications are they. If they want free photos, even if it's of someone you admire, let them go elsewhere. Don't be so in awe of celebrity heroes, they're just people like everyone else. Why should you promote their careers at your own cost?

If shooting for free is about development of style, I'd much rather test my skills and push my boundaries taking on the work I do and get paid for it. The industry might be going through very difficult times, but at least I'm not contributing to its downfall.

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