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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Michael Glenn's picture

I cant get past the irony that you were paid to write this. I have done things for myself that were free, but if the event then wanted photos, we had to have a discussion. If that discussion did not yield pay, then I did not yield work.

Michael Glenn's picture

To be perfectly honest I am disappointed in Fstoppers for even letting this horse out of the gate

Dean Wilde's picture

Wow Jack, you’ve garnered a lot of responses from a lot of self-righteous, grumbly ‘old hat’ photographers here; but I’ve become used to that as I’m sure you have too. Must have a lot of spare time on their hands, eh.

The fact is that photography has devalued, or rather fallen into an appropriate range after having years and years of being highly over-valued. They will all have you believe what you advocate is bad for creativity and bad for business, as though a certain set of beliefs (be it yours or theirs) is all there is to being successfully creative or making a lot of money, but what they are really afraid of is the ‘trimming of the fat’ that’s been weighing down the industry for years. If you, as a photographer, are concerned that somebody young, enthusiastic and willing to work for free is a danger to your profession then you have good reason to worry. You know this fat that’s being trimmed……you’re it.

Your captured image, whoever you may be, is worth less now than 10 years ago and even less than the 10 before that. This is a fact and one that isn’t likely to revert any time soon. It costs less to produce and there are many, many talented youngsters (the people you should be respectful of as they are about to take your best clients off you for half the price) producing work that’s twice as good in half the time. There are those who accuse youngsters with cheap cameras of being dire photographers, or baulk at the idea of paying a high end retoucher £100 per hour, you know, those exquisitely masterful creators of hyper-reality, blending creative lighting to perfectly suit your clients needs when you failed to get it in camera. Painting strokes that appear in the mind like master painters of the renaissance………Oh, don’t tell me, you do your own retouching, talk about double standards. You know that 80 megapixel medium format you just ordered, don’t suppose you’d be paying retouchers four times as much for quadruple the pixels? Didn’t think so, so stop playing the victim.

In my 20 years of experience photographers are some of the worst business people you are ever likely to meet. Many, especially dealing direct, don’t pay their assistants or retouchers enough, they mark them up sometimes as much as 100% and then pay late, they’re quick to point the finger when a job goes bad, inclined to play the victim rather than work to satisfy the client, and many treat their work as though they are mis-understood artists instead of what they really are which is an operator of a pinhole box and some lights. Do you know how many incredibly talented artists there are who paint better photographic-like images than you can get out of your digital £30k medium format? Do you spare a thought for them and how much photography and the digital realm has played it’s part in devaluing traditional, time-consuming and important visual crafts like sign-writing, illustration and painting? I’ve seen first hand what each of these sectors get paid for their time, and I know most creative rates are in decline, but trust me photography is nowhere near the bottom of the pile, so stop playing the victim.

I know that creative satisfaction and commercial success are often at odds with each other, but it’s much easier to achieve the latter than the former. Whether you work for free or not isn’t some hard and fast rule, if anything it’s probably barely relevant (I worked for free for two years and have earned six figure profits every year since). If you produce your best work for free you might get a huge job in the future from a much more interesting and ambitious portfolio, or conversely if your highly paid jobs are all bland and uninspiring your not going to interest anyone else in what you have to offer and might have ‘painted’ yourself into a corner.

I’ve never seen such a range of amazing creative visuals as those we see today, and they keep getting better. Don’t listen to anyone who says things are in decline, they are only changing and it’s our responsibility to adapt accordingly. There has never been such a large audience with genuine interest and knowledge in visual media. If the industry has to kick a load of moaning, overpaid photographers off the deep end I don’t have a problem with that, in fact I encourage it. If you can’t keep up don’t expect everyone else to wait. We are busy finding efficiencies that you were too stuck in your ways to bother with, because that’s what market forces demand. That’s business, so stop playing the victim.

Jack Alexander's picture

Thank you, Dean, for this breath of fresh air. I enjoyed reading it.