Why Professional Photographers Should Work For Free

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.

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16 Comments

Fortune McLemore's picture

My motto? No loot...no shoot. Period. My 27 years of experience mean a lot to me.

michael buehrle's picture

i'm shooting special olympics this weekend, for free, i can't wait. they are such fun events and zero pressure. everyone is in a great mood too. i always have many great shots that i am super proud of. i always have a pocket full of business cards and it always leads to paid jobs.

Usman Dawood's picture

"Because Mistakes Are Better Made Privately"

YES!!^^

awesome article, really enjoyed reading this and I whole heartedly agree with you.

Tino C's picture

I never gave a single image for free in 30 years as a freelance photographer, and it worked out great for me.

Once you give something for free so someone, it will be harder to ask for money next time. Full. Stop.

I also chase hard anyone using my images not within the licensing agreement, or pinched for whatever reason.

Matt Williams's picture

I think articles like this, especially with this title, are a disservice to photographers or artists of any kind that are trying to work for a living. It's unnecessary too, given that most of these points are about "aspiring photographers" or aspiring professional photographers if you will. Of course you cannot expect to be making money like a full-time photographer the second you pick up a camera. But, you can (and should) expect to be paid if you get hired in an entry-level position (or gig), like an assistant. Or if someone wants to use your work.

Anything that gives people the idea that expecting free labor is okay, or that you should work for free, is part of what's led to this explosion of unpaid gigs (or "internships"). This goes not only for photography, but equally (if not more so) for artists like videographers (or anyone in any position in the filmmaking industry) or writers or virtually any type of creative. I'm a (produced) screenwriter, though I have largely moved away from writing into video and photography work over the past few years. This is largely due to disillusionment toward the film industry, and while that disillusionment is probably greatest as it applies to writers, it is also somewhat applicable to many production positions. When I lived in Los Angeles, unpaid PA positions probably outnumbered paid positions 15:1. Don’t get me started on the plethora of “internships,” which has been redefined as simply “free labor”.

The only reason the idea that expecting free labor has become so commonplace is because people said it was okay. They said it was something you had to do to work your way up. They said anyone without five solid years of experience and a vast portfolio to reflect that shouldn’t expect to be paid for their work.

Yes, you will need to work at building your talent and skill. You’ll need to practice, you’ll need to study and learn what an f-stop is, what ISO is, what the difference is between APS-C and full-frame, etc. and you shouldn’t expect to be paid for every moment you spend improving your craft.

But you should absolutely expect to be paid for your work, whether it’s physical labor or your artistic property. Unless, of course, you WANT to work for free (which I, like almost everyone, has done - and still do). But don’t think that you HAVE to.

(and as for the analogy to other jobs outside freelance work - either you have an hourly wage and therefore receive overtime pay, or you have a salary position in which case 1) you ARE being paid, and you knew what you were signing up for and 2) I believe salaried positions should receive overtime pay as well - this is actually required for employees earning below a certain threshold, though like anything the laws need refinement)

Mr Hogwallop's picture

I knew a production manger who figured she could get PAs to do anything, unload trucks, pack boxes, do lawn care or wash cars for $0.00 a day (maybe a box lunch) if she said it was for a movie. And every 5 or 8 years the Labor dept busts a photographer for fake internships....

Brian Stricker's picture

I think the some missed the point of this but it creates a great chest thumping moment.

LA M's picture

Rarely have I read such a bad argument put so well...

Jonathan Reid's picture

Another time to work for free is when you're changing direction in your photography. For example, if you're a wedding photographer who wants to shoot real estate, what are you going to show in your portfolio to get clients? You'll need to do a couple of free real estate shoots (maybe friends houses) to get some work in your portfolio to prove that you can do it. Think of this as a very short internship.

Simon Whitehead's picture

This isn't really advocating working for free, it's advocating doing personal work for your portfolio.

Kirk Darling's picture

No photographer should shoot for nothing, but there are good reasons to shoot sometimes for no money.

I think the article title is clickbait and the article is written as though it was bringing to light breakthrough concepts hitherto unknown.

Most photographers do most of those things. How many of us never practice or try out an idea or technique before doing it on an assignment, for instance? How many don't do private or personal work that ends up in our portfolios? How many of us would charge our mothers for a family Christmas picture?

And even if we didn't, who argues against it?

Mr Hogwallop's picture

The article seem to be aimed as new pros who will do anything to get something in their book. I just saw a FB post looking for fashion photographers to shoot studio shot with two models 40 changes of clothes for $300, and he was flooded with responses from folks shooting decent looking work. Go figure.
The thing is, it's up to you. If a client who has a plan to make money asks you to shoot for free that shows how much value they put on you and your work. Zero. and if you ask for $ then next time client will find another rube.
I do shoot for free for 3 "causes" that I support. I asked to shoot with them because I like them.
Many non-profits ask for free work because they are "non-profit", but almost eeryone gets paid who work there. Why shouldn't I.

Julian Foglietti's picture

I've always followed the rule no price or full price. It's far easier to charge a client you shot for free full price down the road, than it is to increase price when they have always gotten it cheaper.

David Eichler's picture

I disagree entirely with the premise of the article. I believe you should always be compensated for professional work. You might want to factor your level of skill and experience into the rate, but you should always charge, with the possible exception of shooting for some philanthropic organization that you might support and that has a very minimal budget. If you are new and need subject matter to build a portfolio, hire a model, rent a space, perhaps offer to shoot someone's venue on spec and then charge them a photo licensing fee for usage of the photos if they want to use them. However, if you do work on spec to get started, the licensing fees you charge should reflect the kind of usage involved, as well as the production costs involved, as well as your creative fee or day rate.

As for pressure, that is part of the job. You have to learn to handle it. As the old saying goes, if you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.

Jacques Cornell's picture

Why you shouldn't -
Because when you steal a client from another photographer who competes on quality and service to earn a living, any hopes you may have that the client will pay you a living wage on future work are delusions because you have convinced the client that the appropriate price for professional photographic services is zero, nada, zilch, free, and the moment you ask for money, they will ditch you for another desperate sellout who will work for free. It's called a race to the bottom, and the bottom is not only where you will stay, it's where you'll drag all of your colleagues as well.

john hryniuk's picture

Terrible article. Look I get it. There are sometimes when you can work for free like lets say you're going to benefit from the photos. You partner with an ad agency and you want your foot in the door. They have a client who has no budget and the shoot will allow you exposure because it's something cool. The ad agency will usually pay for your expenses such as digital processing, assistant, gas, etc. When it comes to places like hospitals, corporations and even foundations that have a good cause who want you to shoot an event. NO. Just NO. Why? have a look at their financials? does the Director work for free? ( their salary is usually over $100,000.)

Do they get office space for free? do they get advertising for free? NO. Would they hire an electrician for free? do they get their catering for free? NO. Working for free allows people to think your business is worth nothing. Oh you just have a camera and lighting and a computer and software that you use and it's worth nothing. Your experience is worth nothing. It does a huge disservice to the industry by working for free.

As I said yes there is the odd occasion where you may want to ( as described above ) but at the very least you should provide them with a quote so they know how much it would have cost. Maybe even ask for a tax receipt. I don't know of any other profession where someone would work for free. Plumbers? electricians? catering? not usually.