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

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What astonishing self-serving twaddle. I'm not a photographer, but someone with long experience of the exploitation of young people in television where the pressures and the promises surrounding unpaid work are just the same. The biggest reason that Vogue et al have the bare-faced cheek even to think about asking you to contribute your work for no payment is that you and others will say yes. In the end you crowd others out who can't afford to work for nothing; it really is that simple. Working for free means you and your work is worthless.

Derk Schultz's picture

Personal projects aside, if someone is going to make money from your images Jack, then you should not be giving them away. It sends out all the wrong messages. – It says, "I am a mug, here are my bank details too! Take what you want." – It says, "I don't value my images, so why should anyone else! Help yourself!" – It says, "Photography is easy and we photographers just press buttons, so I feel too embarassed to ask you for money!" – It says, "I'm not charging you, so make sure you don't pay the next photographer who trys it on either!" You are giving the wrong perception, no matter what you meant Jack. But, it's too late now, you have damaged the profession a little bit more.

I think working for free is a capital idea. I'm doing it now to launch a candid portrait business on Facebook. It serves the purpose of, as Jason said, taking creative to the max and I'm learning this new camera. Thank you for writing and sharing this!

Sturt Jasher's picture

Hi Jack,

I'm sorry if you've been stung in the past from any negative experiences in the photography industry - I say this because it made me feel as though it was written out of frustration, anger, and regret. I read your article and I actually found myself agreeing with some key points - namely privileges in life, keeping an open mind, and not living solely for money. These are very important things! However, I also have a couple of problems with your post.

1. The ratio of negative to positive responses generated from others in the industry indicates lack of connection, not simply a positive discussion. Regardless of your intentions, you have clearly failed to communicate these with your readers (including myself - I wholeheartedly agree with Christian Santiago and Devorah Goldstein amongst others) and real empathy is not apparent.

2. I'm sure you're an excellent photographer Jack, but there are a great many people out there who dabble (as you well know by the sound of things) and it does not blemish the industry - I for one am glad there is room for dabblers in life. For me, photography is a passion and I will always be striving to improve my work.

3. On a slight tangent, your profile states you are self-taught. Really? How?

I think we need to stop using the word free in the first place. Free suggests nothing was gotten in return. I prefer to use the word exchange or trade..... there's no such thing as working for free to me. If I'm working for someone but there is no pay, I'm getting photos for my portfolio in return. Therefore I choose very carefully who I trade with.... if it will boost my portfolio and status significantly, then yes. If it won't, then absolutely no, I will not do it. No photographer should work for free, don't work for credit/exposure..... work to build and maintain a good portfolio, to boost your credibility and connections.

peter dazeley's picture

I have to say I think you are just wrong wrong wrong! When you are working for magazines have a look and see how much they are charging for their advertising space. I have been a photographer for over 50 years I have seen it all. The only time now I work for free is if it is for a charity. Of which I have done an enormous amount of work. But why anyone thinks giving their work away to a commercial concern will reap rewards will eventually learn this isnt the way forward. If the work is free, what it means is that they dont value you or your creativity and expertise. With an over supply of photographers in the world they will wait for the next young person to come along who they will get to do it for free. I've learnt from past experience that promises that if you do this shoot for free we will make it up to you on the next one, just doesnt happen.

If this is the way forward, how will the next generation of creators be able to afford to create?

"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."

You've just completely negated yourself with that sum of lines right there. You don't ask a plumber to come in and fix a pipe with promise of exposure when you recommend his business to your friends. You don't ask for a spec hot meal at a local breakfast diner with promises of posting a photo on Instagram, tagging the restaurant.

This is the whole reason, day-in and day-out, that designers, photographers and other creatives (both freelance and in-house) bust their asses because the commercial industry has such a skewed view of the worth of the creative community. There are almost no other professions where an individual would be asked to work without benefit. There are bills to be paid, sustenance to be consumed and software to be purchased to provide those "luxuries".

Putting written pieces like this online are an invitation to the rest of the world to continue the current "ethics of practice" that are often plaguing the current creative community. I'm not saying don't do charity work for the right cause. But don't give away commercial work for free, that's just asinine. People continue to put crap like this online and no creative will ever be taken seriously.

I have to say kudos to Christian Santiago below, he's nailed the only three reasons you should ever work for free. FYI, only started my account on here because I found this article incredibly irritating.

Peter House's picture

Working for free is perfectly fine if you have a plan on how to monetize that. Could be free advertising that leads to more work. Could be a chance to test ideas which otherwise would have been out of pocket expenses. Could be a way to barter for things you need anyways. Could give you access to networks you otherwise would not have.

The hey idea is leverage. Can you leverage the work and effort you are putting in to come out ahead. If not, and if the free work you are doing only eats up your time and finances, then you will never move forward. But if it is part of a long term strategic plan, then go for it.

There are so many paths to success in this industry. As long as you keep perspective on what you are doing.

For me the most problematic part of the article, and the bit that shows that Jack really needs to do a bit of soul searching, was this:

" 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."

What is arrogant are two things: one is your assumption that these people see nothing further than the prospect of money: and two that this is indicative of anything at all about the state of the creative world.

I have no problems gifting my work to a number of organisations that I choose to work with. Occasionally I do this as a promotional opportunity or to improve my portfolio. But most often I do it because I support a particular organisations goals and I want to do my bit to help out.

If you were to ask me to work for free to achieve something that you wanted to achieve I would turn you down. I'm not turning you down because the magazine is paying no money: these "opportunities" present themselves to me every day and it is very easy to just ignore them.

I'm turning you down because you (Jack Alexander) see no value in the work that I produce. You call it a "collaboration": but it isn't, because you said this:

"this is exactly the type of project I want to be working on and exactly the kind of photographer I want to be."

I don't care what type of photographer you want to be. If you want me to help you become the photographer you want to be, then pay me my hourly rate and I'll do my utmost to help you achieve your goals. You are the client here, not the magazine. People are turning you down not because they are opposed to the principal of working for free but because it was freaking presumptuous of you to ask them to work for free in the first place. Make-up costs actual money and asking people to give up their time for what is essentially a vanity project is not a very nice thing for you to do.

Who I choose to gift my work to is a personal decision, and your judgemental attitude towards those who turned you down says more about you than it does about them. If you need people to help you collaborate on your projects you really have two options.

1) You pay them. If this project means so much to you, then pay them out of your own pocket. Problem solved.

2) Develop strong, genuine relationships with fellow creative's in the industry. I can pick up the phone right now and put together a creative team that would work for me for free for a job that starts in a couple of hours. And if any of them picked up the phone and called me, I'd be grabbing my gear bag and be on the road to help out. I once had a mate call me up three hours before a wedding to tell me his camera had broken and he was up the creek without a paddle. Could he borrow my camera? Instead of lending him my camera, I shot the wedding for him (he was a relative newbie), edited it and delivered it all for free because he was my mate, he was being paid bugger all for it and because that is just the way that I roll.

I'd help out my mates. But with all due respect I wouldn't help you. And the fact that I have chosen not to help you says absolutely nothing at all about the state of the creative world.

Hi Jack

How do you manage to live in London and work for free?

Anyhow when I first started out I shot for free for a number of outlets, I didn't like shooting for free but I did it because that's the way I thought this business worked. Whilst I was shooting for free other photographers in the pit asked me who I shot for and when I told them they either laughed, stopped talking to me or wanted to slap you. You see in this industry many of the people within it know who the freeloaders are and believe it or not can actually be detrimental to your career. These freeloading outfits are so well known other editors will refuse to pay you because they know you have worked for them for free.

If you want to work with musical heroes then fine but you can't base a music photography career on shooting just your heroes, there are just not enough heroes and at some point you will have to photo X factor entrants, oh yeah you've done that, if you want to shoot music for money then you really need to change your direction and get business savvy otherwise you will be like a number of photographers I meet in this business with no money, shooting on old knackered gear, three or four nights a week with no financial compensation to show for their troubles, shooting for the same tired freeloading music outlets over and over again.

Good luck in your career in a niche market that is over saturated with imagery some that has value and some that does not..... How valuable do you rate your work?

Dear Jack, I totally disagree with your article. I talk from 20 years experience of working within the music industry and front line music publishing when I say you are totally wrong in your opinion.

When I was first commissioned to shoot for the UK's most successful music magazine it wasn't because I was cheap. I was commissioned because I was good at what I did and the art editor knew it. It felt good to be finally accepted and respected as a Professional Photographer. As I boarded the plane to LA to shoot my first major feature I knew I couldn't mess up, not because I was getting paid but because someone had put their faith in me. If you work for free you will never earn respect.

By working for free for major label artists your are not seen as a 'true creative' by the record label, Artist, publisher or management, you are just seen as someone they don't have to worry about i.e. budget. You are wrong when you say the labels no longer budget for photography (I know because I shoot for the labels every month). By working for free you undermine every photographer that aspires to make this a career. I think what your piece is getting at is you have a picture in your portfolio that will help your career progress - good for you! Would you have got that shoot if you were being paid for your work? Probably not, so I doubt this shoot genuinely makes you feel warm & fuzzy inside! Why should make-up artists and stylists join you and work for free? I pay all my assistants that work with me even though many would gladly do it for free. Know your worth before the world sees you as the Amateur Photographer you are proclaiming you are! Remember Professionals get paid.

I agree it feels great to see your work published but it feels so much better to get paid for it. I think you are immature and naive to tell other people how they should conduct their professional life when yours has barely begun!

Franz Pagot's picture

At first I thought this piece was a troll or a click bait, hard to believe someone was seriously writing this. But then I noticed that you actually answer individual comments too, with passion and I have to say patience too, even when some were quite aggressive to you. You have hit a nerve, and with a hot rod too. Working for free is not right, as many pointed out, and while I do not expect someone who is creative and passionately talented (yes you are) as you to fully admit it, I am sure in a while full-of-gravitas-realisation will hit you. Why? because there is something that we all have in common when we do a creative job, something that defines us and at the same time blind us: passion. An illustrator, painter,poet, photographer,designer and cinematographer have all one thing in common, and while some might be better than others at manage their creativity, (in a business sense) most of them don't drive it, but are driven by it. It's not you who are writing what I have read, but it is your frustration produced by the sheer passion of what you do. Why can't everyone else see what I see dammit? - you scream in your head. If it is of any consolation you are not alone, and as a 52 years old cinematographer with a decent career I will let you in a little secret: I did exactly what you did at your age, in fact even a bit earlier, and wrote more or less your words in an article on a newspaper at the time, it smelled of cellulose and left my digits black while reading it proudly to my dad. Yes, time were different,but the problem was the same. I was struggling trying to find people who would help me experimenting with my projects, and in those years it was even more difficult, no internet to access huge database of willing collaborators, processing chemicals was expensive and hard to get and, well you get the picture.
I come from a very modest family, money was never enough, like food. I remember showing to my dad, a blue collar worker in a printing company, the newspaper with my piece. He read it, smiled tiredly and said "I would love to be creative, I just can't afford it". That was a big lesson for me, and even now I keep these words around, trying to weight down the ever floating arrogance of a misunderstood creative on a greater mission for the benefit of mankind, and no, it's not you, it's me I am talking about, still after all these years thinking my job is important. I have held lectures on various subjects, obviously all cinematography related, and it seems that the one that creates the most debate is the "WORKING FOR FREE" I occasionally give, work permitting. However it might surprise you that my answer, at the end of the talk is not that you should NEVER work for free, but that you should ask yourself a series of questions before you do, and if the answers are positive then you can. What I am surely and undoubtedly state though is that the most dangerous thing you can do though is not working for free, but to promote and defend the practice, especially publicly. Why am I so sure of this? Because I did exactly what you did, many, many years ago and I still cannot forget the sad look on my father's face, who would break his back and breath poisonous lead every day for a pittance to feed a family, including his image obsessed creative son, driven by a passion that deprived him of the most precious quality any decent human being should have: respect for others.

Chris Davies's picture

Shame on you Fstoppers for allowing this ridiculous article by a very inexperienced, in the business sense, photographer to be published on the site, the poor guy has been hung out to dry. Judging by this article he is nowhere near ready to provide comment on this subject, and I think all the negative comments back my view up

Jack do yourself a favour and listen, and learn, from some of the very experienced photographers who have commented on your post. Giving away work for free is absolute bullshit, no matter how you try to spin it, and whether you chose to believe it or not your naive approach to this IS damaging the industry and seriously fucking up your chances of being seen as a credible photographer by the by people you want to work with.

"I feel like you have misunderstood what was meant." or words to that effect, seem to be in Jack's responses a lot. Which suggests he should stick to photography rather than writing evidently unclear articles.

Bottom line, Jack, is that the music magazine who you photographed James Bay for, for example, has exploited you whether you like it or not. Exploited your enthusiasm & talent. If this magazine, and any other business like it, have no budget to pay for the photographs they want taking then I'd question their business model and how many other people they're taking advantage of - especially the writers. Any entity which makes money but relies on free labour to do so is morally corrupt and you're just perpetuating it and your advice to other photographers to provide work for free for this type of thing is the *exact* opposite of what you should be giving.

I hope all the responses here & elsewhere help you to realise your error. You're clearly good at what you do - don't let people take advantage of it. If you *really* want to photograph people you admire then contact them yourself, saying why you'd like to photograph them, and then *sell* them the usage rights if they want to use them in a commercial way. I did this with a world famous film director and the outcome was perfect. I photographed someone whose work I'd admired since I was a teenager and who was kind enough to spare 5 minutes for me to photograph him - he loved the results. I, importantly, earned the guy's respect, the pictures were used internationally, and I earned a pot load of money - it can work. But giving work to money making magazines for free? No, just no.

Chris Cavallari's picture

Oh goody, yet another "professional" photographer giving his work away for free for the chance to work with his "favorite" musicians! Why does Fstoppers allow crap posts like this here?

I've worked for free a few times -- usually when I'm uncertain of the potential employer and want an escape route in the event things don't work out. In those instances, it was the right thing to do. And my time limit? Two weeks, no more. Anything beyond that and I get paid or I bail.

Seems a good idea to you but Jack please start charging for all the work you do. The only winners are the clients who receive your beautiful work for free, the industry looses respect and value, you may never get paid work again conducting your business in this way.

when you're starting out you'll work for free for experience. longer term, what you're proposing is to seriously undercut your rivals. this is how strong economies come undone - outsource everything to a much cheaper country. England did it quite some time ago, as did the USA and even China is beginning to. it signals the start of an often terminal decline. over time, working for free only works if you have independent wealth, which you (thankfully) acknowledge in the form of your parents' support. so actually you're not working for free, just like Murdoch newspapers can haemorrhage money and still say they're working the 'free market' because they're being propped up by another part of the Rupert Murdoch empire. BTW - it's often said that the only way to live in a city like London or New York without a serious job is to be supported by your parents, which is clearly your situation. so i'd advise against making it an ethical scenario for others who don't have this choice

Nick Rains's picture

Lots of strong opinions here! That was predictable given the thrust of the article.

But consider this - working for 'free' does not mean working for nothing. Money is not the only way to get something out of an opportunity. If you truly get absolutely nothing from a 'job' then yes, you're an idiot, but there are so many ways to get paid in-kind - experience and contacts are just a couple of examples.

How about shooting travel images for a tour company as a contra - no fee per se but all expenses paid? Play your cards right and you end up with lots of images that you'd never be able to get access to, for stock, articles, whatever and they get images to use in their brochures.

Payment need not *always* be in hard cash.

Give the guy a break...

Jack Alexander's picture

Thank you Nick! My point exactly.

Did you receive payment for writing this article? Serious question.

Once again, simple question: did you get paid to write this article?

Jack Alexander's picture

Hi John,

I'm currently travelling around Australia and have been without internet for a few days - reposting your question won't make me able to reply any sooner.
Yes, I am a staff writer. And I stick by everything I said in the article - I do various free shoots every month.

Thanks,
Jack

No sweat it's only the fifth time I've contacted you directly over the last three weeks, without any response from you.

I appreciate your answer. But it's not exactly clear if you've answered the question I asked which was:

Were you paid to write this article?

Can I assume that "Yes, I am a staff writer." means that yes you were paid to write it?

Jack Alexander's picture

Apologies John, it's a busy time for me at the moment and I gave up trying to answer everyone on here. As I'm sure you can see, there were plenty of comments to contend with!

Yes, it is a paid writing position, and each writer themselves chooses the topics of the article(s).

Yeah sure, appreciate the response.

Good gig, don't complain too much about having to respond to comments, you got paid to write about working for free!

Good luck with the career. Don't let yourself get taken advantage of too much.

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