90% of people in the creative industries have worked for free. In the world of photography and filmmaking, it's not unusual to work for nothing in return for exposure, experience, and getting a foot in the door — to the frustration of others. Whether you're the one moaning or the one undercutting, check out these ideas for how we can make things better.
Photographers and videographers complaining about being undercut by others who are willing to work for free is a familiar refrain in our industry, just as it is in the world of music, graphic design, and many other creative lines of work. If you’ve been lucky enough to carve a successful, well-paid career by having never quoted low or worked for free, you are very much in the minority. Even seasoned pros know that giving stuff away can be beneficial in the long-term (1, 2).
As frustrating as it is to see others selling their souls for nothing, this is simply part of how a free market works. Don’t hate the player, hate the game. The neoliberal, capitalist system that brings you those nicely paid jobs and an obsession with fancy camera equipment is the same system that allows fellow photographers to undercut you. If you don’t like it, it’s time to sell all of your possessions and go and live in a cave. (If you want to learn more about how the creative industries function by enslaving us through an illusion of autonomy and authenticity, check out point number four, The Capitalist Con of the Creative Industries, in one of my recent articles.)
If you’re contemplating working for free or want to help share some knowledge for those new to the industry, consider the following suggestions for how to deal with clients who want your hard work and creativity in exchange for nothing, especially if you’re new to the business and are looking to get some experience. Not all of them will be applicable to every shoot that comes along, but they're worth keeping in mind.
1. Put It in Writing
What you're going to deliver should be agreed in writing in advance. A full-blown contract is probably a little excessive, time-consuming, and potentially confusing and intimidating if you’ve not drawn one up before, but having a clear email where each side’s expectations are laid out can be incredibly valuable later on. It doesn’t have to be in hardcore legalese; just a friendly “I’m going to do this, and you can do this” will be sufficient. Make sure you get a reply stating that they have read and understood the terms that you are outlining.
2. Don’t Give Away Your Copyright
By default, you own the rights to your images and video unless you sign a piece of paper first. However, some companies are not so well versed in the laws regarding intellectual property and might assume that they have complete ownership of the content that you are delivering. The chances are that if a company is asking you to work for free, their legal department exists in the same universe as your paycheck. Make sure that they know they are getting a license to use the images and footage, not ownership.
3. Be Clear About Image Use
If the client wants the images for Instagram, make sure that your agreement states that the images are for Instagram and not for anything else. You might also want to set a time limit or a number of times that they can be used. You should also be clear that you will be using the images for your own social media and portfolio. As the copyright holder, you have every right to do this without their permission, but it's good for the client to know in advance.
4. Give the Client Medium Resolution Files
For photos, 2,000 pixels on the longest edge is sufficient for online publication and more than enough for Instagram. If the client then needs higher res for print, charge a fee, even if it’s a small one. (It’s rare that free gigs involve image usage for anything other than online use. As a general rule, if they print, they pay.)
5. Get Model and Location Releases
If you’re going to work for free, at least give yourself the opportunity to make some money from the images in the future, even if it is speculative and probably not a large amount. You don’t need a model or location release to own the copyright to the image (that’s yours by default), but if you want to be able to sell the images later (for stock or to other clients), you will need a release for anyone appearing in the photograph (even if their face is not shown) and any private property. Negotiating this later can be a pain.
6. Get Credited
There’s no point working for exposure and then not getting the exposure. Your agreement should state that you need to be credited each and every time that an image is used, whether it’s in print or online. For Instagram, you should be both tagged and mentioned in the caption — every single time. They should be plugging all of your social media accounts at every opportunity, so make sure that this is clear from the beginning.
7. Watermark Your Work
Not many clients will go for this option, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. Watermarks are a great way to ruin an image’s impact, but it’s a good compromise, especially if there’s a chance that your work will get reposted to other Instagram accounts or appear elsewhere. Keep in mind that images frequently get cropped for Instagram, and your watermark might not be the prime concern of whichever lowly intern has been tasked with managing the client’s social media accounts.
Trying to convince an entire industry to change the way it functions because you're tired of seeing people giving away their work is not going to happen. Instead, we can try to educate those people who are undercutting us (just as you would in their shoes) to be a bit more savvy when it comes to working with countless clients who are happy to take advantage of those starting out. If you've any more suggestions to offer, please leave them in the comments below.