If You're Going to Work for Free, Read This First

If You're Going to Work for Free, Read This First

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.)

Working for free

Insert shoddy pun about "working your way up" here. Thanks.

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.

What Else?

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.

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Stas Aleksandersson's picture

If it’s for free, can you call it work?

Jeff Walsh's picture

Well done, it's early in the day but I believe this might be the dumbest thing I'll read on the internet today.

Will Murray's picture



1 Activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result.

Tony Clark's picture

I am in the 10% because I understand the value of images and chose not to give away content.

I once worked for very little 20yrs ago and it got me nowhere, in fact all that agency ever did was call me up for the really cheap, low budget jobs.... I was there after known as the cheap job guy...

So don’t do it.... EVER...

When I moved countries to NYC I very quickly sold my costly MF gear and used the money to finance some really REALLY great shoots, fab talent, great locations and then ran an 18 month long campaign targeting the work I wanted...

Every extra money I made I did more shoots to freshen up my book...

I never had anyone ask me to work for free or next to nothing again, it’s all about perception, don’t cut corners on models and styling. They take your work to the next level.

Forget extra fast (heavy) lenses and all that bokeh shite...

Get your work up to and exceeding standard pro level and they only people who call you for freebies will be people who know nothing about the industry, these people you don’t want to work for anyway.

It’s about your work NOT YOUR GEAR...! You should be spending more money a year on producing the very best photos not kit....

There is some good advice in this article for folks who are doing free work as a means to promote themselves and hope to get paid work at a later date. Some of us who do lots of free work do it merely for the joy it brings. I guess I should be more sensitive to the fact that whenever I do something for no pay, it may cost someone else a paycheck. It has never been my intention to be purposely hurtful to others. I just love photography (and graphic design) and thankfully I don’t have to rely on either to put food on the table.

I don’t do everything for free, for businesses that contact me I will charge something for my efforts, but I admit it isn’t a lot. But I do lots of product photography for people just starting out (mostly jewelers) and I never charge them. I also do headshots for local actors who don’t have a lot of cash. I have been very lucky in my life and this is my small way to help out people who could use the money they would pay me to pay other bills they have. The only thing I ask of the folks whom I don’t charge is that when they are in the position to help someone else, that they do so.

I encourage all of you talented folks to volunteer your time when you are in the position to do so. Most of the people I help, wouldn’t have been able to pay for services so I doubt (or hope) that I am not taking money out of someone else’s pocket. I am certainly not the greatest photographer out there, I just try to help where I can.

Vladimir Vcelar's picture

Nothing destroys an industry than disrespect for that industry, where-there it's the one "providing" or the recipient. If your appendix bursts, would the doctor treat you for free, or if your water mains get blocked, would the plumber do it for "exposure"? It's one thing to do something for the love of it, or when it's a contribution of sorts, it's another when you have to feed your family. Doing something for free robs the one getting paid for it, and robs you in the long run. Asking someone to do work for you with the intent of not paying is called theft. Doing work without due compensation is also called theft (you're stealing from those who do get paid). It's economic suicide. Business 101. Unfortunately, there are those whose desperate attempts for work are preyed upon by unscrupulous businesses, and our only defense is knowing our rights and educating those who don't know any better. I'm not saying do everything for money; There's two schools near me where I do sporting and academic functions to help out, simply because neither the school or the parents have much to offer. That's one of several examples of my contribution for the community. It's a whole different kettle of fish when a company, worth millions, ask you to work for "exposure", knowing that they're going to make a heap from your images.

I agree that is someone asks you to do work but has no intention to pay, then that is absolutely theft. However, if both parties agree that no money shall be paid, then that is between them and not in anyway theft.

So, is a doctor who goes into the impoverished areas of Appalachia to offer free health care services to the poor committing economic suicide? And, I know two plumbers who do volunteer their services to Habitat for Humanity, and I don’t think they are in anyway failing Business 101. Sometimes, it is just people trying to do a nice thing for people less fortunate.

You are correct that if a multi-million dollar company tries to cheap out and steal images from an artist that is a premeditated crime and should be prosecuted. Thankfully, I don’t count any such entities as customers. I choose to do work for people who could use a hand up, although not exclusively. I have to still generate enough income from photography to justify my buying new equipment and taking the tax write-off :)

Francisco B's picture

Really the only reason to ever do work for free is if you're building your portfolio and feel that the product would benefit your future business so greatly that you'll forego getting paid. You're better off asking a friend to pose for some portraits, or finding locations you can shoot without dealing with some company thats going to act like they are doing you the favor while you're handing them over free content.

99% of the time doing a job for free will make you look like a complete chump; the people hiring you won't take you seriously & think you're amateur. It's a purely psychological effect, but even if you're a complete novice, people will respect you more when you charge them.

Besides that, there are few bright sides to doing free work, and good luck ever getting a single dime out of those people that you didn't charge. Once you've done free work for someone, if you present the idea of charging them for the next job they'll look at you like you're crazy. Don't be suckered into doing "test runs" by people that claim they want to see how you work.

You are worth however much you charge. Don't make a habit of doing free work and/or giving people special rates, most people won't appreciate it and you'll probably lose business in the long run because of it.

Alec Kinnear's picture

You have expressed a very materialistic and selfish view of the world. Doing the work for free may mean you support the cause, believe in the artist – there's lots of reasons to do work for free. It's called volunteering.

Francisco B's picture

I don't think work & volunteering should be shooed in together. Helping someone for a noble cause or just plain doing a favor for a friend is one thing. Doing work as a professional means that by definition you get paid for it. I was speaking in the context of working professionally, not charity.

Yeah I may have been cynical with my post, you are right, but the reality is some people will intentionally muddle that line between volunteering and plain old free work to take advantage of professionals. I think people should be firm and confident about what they charge, and there should be no ambiguity there, thats all. I do understand that you also have to be flexible, Ive just seen some of my artist friends get pushed around by companies, so its also about knowing when to push back.

Thank you for the response, I will curb my cynicism :)