Why Should I Do Unpaid Photography Work?

Why Should I Do Unpaid Photography Work?

Some people say that you shouldn't work for free because it devalues your work, while others say that you have to do some in order prove your worth in a world saturated with photographers. I know, I know: doing free work has been talked about ad-nauseam on every site and forum across the web. But I know better than everyone else, so prepare to get more nauseous. Grab a bucket and strap yourself in, folks.

I'm coming up on my first-year anniversary as a professional photographer. I have not "made it" yet (does one ever?), but I've learned a lot about myself in the past few months. I've learned that I'm more resourceful than I thought I was, I've learned that I'm willing to persevere when times are tough, and I've also learned that when it comes to business matters I'm a bit of a soft touch and a tad too generous. To be fair, it's not that I'm wholly naive, it's just that I'm so unsure of myself sometimes. Because I had no previous experience in the field of professional photography, I had no reference point for various scenarios. You can read all you can and ask as many questions as you can think of, but nothing teaches you like real-world experience. That's why, before I turned pro, I pondered about it for about a year, got sick of questioning every little detail, and then decided to just dive in.

Black and white photo of a startled photographer. Only a portion of the person's head is visible. The person is looking at the camera.

"I've made a huge mistake."

Many of you will say that I should have just done a few gigs on the side while I built up enough experience and added more clients to my list before turning pro. Let's just say that circumstances didn't allow for this. Now, moving on.

I had one client when I started and I struggled to find more in the first few months, so I did what I was advised not to do: I did some free work. Some of you might say that one has to take on free work at the start of their careers, but I didn't stop there. Oh, no. I continued to donate sessions to prospective clients who were offering gigs that I had no experience in. It was all down to self-belief. I didn't trust enough in my own abilities even though these people wouldn't have asked me unless they liked my work. It was madness looking back at it. Even now I have a free session lined up for the coming month. But, in my defense, I agreed to it a few months ago so I can't renege on my offer.

Here's the thing: if all goes well with this shoot, I'll get referrals. The majority of my work comes from referrals so I won't berate myself too much for giving away freebies. Could I have charged? Yeah, sure. Should I cogitate on it by writing about it at length in a public forum? Tell me in the comments section. 

Two vertical canvases side-by-side with yellow paint dripping down from the top.

Optimism Yellow - on canvas by artist Uncle Riley

There are other kinds of free work. There are personal projects to be done that help you hone your skills, as well as kinds of work that won't make you feel dirty after accepting them. No, on the contrary, this work will make you feel all warm and fuzzy (unless you're dead inside). I'm talking about using your powers for good.

For example, you can give talks or workshops to people with disabilities. I know a woman who helped a group down-syndrome kids learn how to use a camera, and found it to be an incredibly enjoyable and positive experience. From the way she described it, I think that she got more out of it than the kids. Many people talk about offering their services to the local animal shelter to help animals get adopted or to help the shelter get funding. The opportunities for helping out with charities are innumerable.

One that I've come across recently, with a focus that is close to my heart, is an artistic campaign co-founded by activist Whitny Sobala and an artist who goes by the name of Uncle Riley, in collaboration with Pantone, that aims to raise awareness of depression by promoting optimism and positivity through the color "INT-O Yellow." If you're interested in getting involved, head on over to their website for more details.

Have you guys got any stories about doing work for free? Are you thinking of going pro? Do you use your skills to help out local charities? I'd love to hear your experiences in the comments below.

Art by Uncle Riley.

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Over 15 years ago, my local volunteer fire department wrote to ask what I'd charge to do a full-dress group portrait. I said I'd charge the same price they charge me to get up at 2 a.m. and come save my house and life. At that point a wonderful relationship was born and since then I have donated my services to them (about 3-4 shoots per year) as well as to the local PBA. I get to give back to my community and not be up on a ladder on top of a raging fire.

So in that context, doing free work is great and I suspect almost all of us here at Fstoppers do something along these lines.

Otherwise, I can see offering to do some free work in your earliest infancy of a career to help build a portfolio and get additional clients. The issue is to ensure that no single project is too big. A quick series of 3-5 scenes outdoors for a couple approaching their 1st anniversary is a much more reasonable time commitment than shooting the entire senior class. Getting a shot of the delivery of a new fleet of garbage trucks for your town is way easier than offering to shoot their 5 day-long summer oyster festival. That kind of thing.

Christian Santiago's picture

Wait a minute...I am pretty sure the cost of the local fire department comes out of the taxes we all pay. We actually do end up paying for their services.

michael buehrle's picture

i think you missed the volunteer part with his fire dept. they don't get paid. yes our taxes pay for a lot of things, but not everything. plus can you have too many friends that are cops or firemen ? nope.

Nope. The taxes buy the firehouse and utilities, and the fire equipment. Manpower is 100% volunteer. Even the Fire Chief doesn't get even a token honorarium.

Leigh Miller's picture

Go watch Zack Arias' video on Youtube about "Unsplash" and this free work business.

It seems from what you have written that you on the right path when it comes to the "when" and "where" to provide services for free.

Mike O'Leary's picture

Haven't seen it yet, Leigh, but I will check it out. Thanks!

David Hynes's picture

yea it was a good video - Zack is the best!

Joe Healey's picture

Wow! Would be nice to see FStoppers write piece on Unsplash if they have not already. They seem to be under the impression that copyright laws do not apply to them and so do the photographers uploading to the site. This is insane.

michael buehrle's picture

i shoot events for the special olympics a couple times a year for free. sometimes things are worth it.

Mike O'Leary's picture

Awesome! I'd love to do a self-funded trip like that. They were held in Ireland a few years ago, but alas, I was not taking photographs at the time. I'll be on the lookout for more of this type of event in the future.

michael buehrle's picture

i shoot the local events so there is no real travel or expense besides my time. every state has a contact (probably different countries too). i know some people are against free shoots but this organization does so many great things for people that this is the least i could do for them. and they appreciate it.

Karl Fluch's picture

As a pure hobbyist it is a pleasure to shoot for charity as it is my only way to do something useful with my camera aside from making pictures for myself and going the learning curve.
Whenever I am in the Philippines I follow the incredible work of father Heinz Kulüke and document it for fund raising and awareness building. Even if I am in one of the planets harshest environments it's always the 'best and most emotional' day of my vacation. The pics are always welcome and really work - that satisfies a lot. Here is a flickr collection, easy to follow the learning curve...

Mike O'Leary's picture

Such heartwarming photos, Karl. Thanks for sharing!

Joe Healey's picture

Nice article Mike. Thanks

Patrick Williams's picture

Thanks for the insights Mike!