Free? Working for free? When I started out, being asked to work for free made my blood boil; Didn’t people know I had bills to pay, rent to make, black T-shirts to buy, rounds of beer to shout, girls to woo? These things cost money, and it still makes my blood boil when I’m asked to work for free. And yet I often work for free. Confused? Here’s how working for free is a good thing and how to ensure your blood doesn’t boil in the process.
Hint: there’s such a thing as the right kind of working for free.
There seems to be a lot of controversy over working for free. For me, this comes down to a simple misunderstanding as to how it all works. Let’s start with looking for parallels from outside the freelance photography industry.
People in a “proper job,” where they have a boss and a lunch break and maybe some kind of retirement plan, regularly work for free. This might be through working longer hours than they’re contracted to do or simply completing tasks in their day which won’t make any tangible difference to the bottom line of the company they work for. Most of us have had one of these proper jobs at some point so we get this concept. Yet when we apply it to ourselves we come unstuck. As a freelance photographer, you are that company. Doing work for free is part of the package. But there is a right and a wrong way of working for free, and here are my top five reasons you should do it.
1. Because You Wouldn’t Send Out a CV in Comic Sans
As a freelance professional photographer, my bills are paid by clients giving me money for my photography. Nevertheless, I regularly take photographs without any financial gain for the love of my portfolio. The content, quality, and freshness of your portfolio directly relates to your bookings. Think of your portfolio as your CV. You wouldn’t dream of using the Comic Sans font in an email to a prospective employer, or detailing irrelevant experience of your Under 11’s Chess Club captaincy, so don’t leave tired, less-than-brilliant work in your portfolio. You have to spend time on your portfolio and this costs money — it’s an investment. Essentially, when you spend time on it, you’re working for free.
And when you’re not being paid, there’s no pressure to produce anything. You can photograph what and however you want. About 85 percent of my work has zero creative input from myself, often to the point where someone has literally drawn the final image for me and asked me to recreate it with real objects. As much as I love the technical challenges this creates, there is nothing more satisfying than being in control from inception to the final image.
2. Because You’re Passionate About Beer
When you’re starting out, it is very hard to dive straight into paid commercial work and yet it’s all you want. Hey, if only someone would give you a chance! Damn them for being too short sighted to see your potential. Well, here’s what I think: if you’re passionate about something, shoot it. Don’t wait for a paying client. And don’t expect a client to cosmically know you’re great at shooting cans of beer. Show them. And then pitch it to them. Or just add it to your portfolio. Find the thing you like most, be it beer (can you see there’s a theme here?) or dog leads or bicycles or ice cream, and shoot it. Shoot it well. Then tell people about it. Marketing is important.
3. Because Mistakes Are Better Made Privately
Even within a niche area like portrait photography, there are so many sub categories, styles, and ways of working, so there’s always something to improve on. Working for free affords me the time to hone my skills. The better I am as a photographer, the more I can charge for my services. I also prefer to shoot beneath my ability, when paid. This might sound a bit odd, but unless I can do it in my sleep, I won’t do it in front of a client.
4. Because Karma
My friends work in all sorts of fields. If a photographer friend is stuck and needs help, I will absolutely be there, free of charge, to help them get the job done. Likewise, if a good friend needs a new headshot for work, I will do it for them for free (or a beer). A warning though: consider what a friend really is. When I shot weddings I had “friends” I hadn’t seen for 15 years asking for mates-rates. My theory is, if they don’t ask, it’s fine to offer for free, but if they do ask, they are quite possibly taking liberties. If you feel uncomfortable then they’re probably the latter.
5. Because With Pay Brings Pressure
Walking into shooting an ad campaign worth several thousands in a genre you haven’t got a great deal of experience in has the potential to be a nightmare job. The anxiety alone can simply be too much. Working with some smaller clients in a similar genre for free removes almost all of the pressure. They’re happy to be given a helping hand by you and you’re allowed that breathing space that the absence of a paycheck brings. That’s not to say you won’t do a killer job. The likelihood is you’ll perform better from the lack of pressure.
And when should you not work for free? When you hear anything remotely similar to this kind of nonsense:
- “If you shoot this one for free, there’ll be more work to come your way.”
- “It’s great exposure for you.”
- “It’s an opportunity to add to your portfolio.”
I used to hear all of the above regularly when I first started out. Did these comments ever lead to paying work? No. Did they make my blood boil? Yes. But always decline kindly and politely.