How I Had My Photos Published in Playboy Magazine

How I Had My Photos Published in Playboy Magazine

Playboy Magazine is famous for one thing, — okay, maybe two things — but there are no nude women in any of my photos, nor do I have any shots of the late Hugh Hefner. So, how did I do it? 

Back in February, I wrote an article about the benefits of doing unpaid work. In it, I list a number of things: it's good for the soul (if you choose the right project), it can get you some of that dreaded exposure that I and some of my other creative peers complain about, and it can end up getting you paid gigs. This is a common business decision that almost all photographers need to make at some stage in their careers. The pros and cons of these jobs need to be considered carefully before committing to them.

Well, I took on an unpaid gig a few months ago. I wrote an article for Fstoppers back in June detailing my experience. You can read it here. If you don't feel like reading it, let me quickly summarize.

Conservation photography with US veterans in Africa

Some of the VETPAW team. From left to right: VETPAW Founder Ryan Tate, Ben, Mike, and Trevor.


This particular unpaid gig started with an offer to go to South Africa, which, to me, was an absolute no-brainer. My main motivation for going was to photograph an NPO known as VETPAW: a conservation organization/anti-poaching unit made up of US military veterans. Second to that was an opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes look at a conservancy in action.

While I did have to give up my time and get there on my own dime, when I got there, room and board were taken care of in exchange for my services. It was a wild two-and-a-half weeks. I had a blast, I made some great friends, and I was able to provide VETPAW with some images that it could use for its social media.

Conservation in action. Photographing the critically endangered Black Rhino.

Ryan Tate helping conservation ranger Níall Beddy put a tracking collar on a tranquilized Black Rhino.

Here Comes the Bunny

The fact that I felt I had contributed a tiny bit towards raising awareness for an iconic animal such as the rhino was fulfilling enough. I didn't expect anything after that and considered it to be money and time well spent. However, a few weeks after getting back to Terra Verde, I was contacted by Níall Beddy, the conservation ranger from the reserve. He had already told me that prior to my visit to the reserve, a journalist from Playboy had shadowed VETPAW for a week or so with the intent of writing a piece on them, because Playboy Magazine isn't just about bare-chested maidens, it's a gentlemen's interest magazine. And gentlemen are interested in conservation.

While Playboy had initially enlisted Beddy to get the shots needed, as he is an accomplished wildlife photographer himself, he is also, of course, a full-time ranger, and ain't got no time for taking pretty pictures of heroic, animal-loving veterans. I, on the other hand, spent quite a lot of time photographing these guys; in fact, we even scheduled a shoot at sunset where they donned their best camo and meanest faces. Just to reiterate, all of this was intended for their social media. You can see where I'm going with this.

Photographs from a Playboy Magazine assignment

Three of my six images that appeared in Playboy Magazine.
Yes, people were wrangling giraffes. Yes, it was absolutely mental.

I'm in Playboy Magazine (Sort of)

To cut the story short, I sent Playboy a few sample images and they ended up using some of my images and some of Beddy's in the article. I have now had my images published in the September/October issue of Playboy Magazine, and I got paid for the privilege, all because I followed my instincts and shot what I cared about. Don't get me wrong, I realize that an almost perfect storm of events had to happen for it to come to this. But, as the saying goes, you create your own luck. 

Do any of our readers have any stories about how an unpaid gig led them to something interesting? Please share them in the comments.      

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Karl Johnston's picture

I hope the replies on this are constructive, but a part of me is expecting them to be cynical. Nonetheless;

When I was starting out photography, about 10 years ago, I did column writing for the local newspaper. I was told at that time that columnists don't get paid, only journos. I met another photo/editor/writer who wrote for $0.55 a word and said I should be compensated. Writers and photographers should be paid. That he did not take a piss without getting paid first.

But I found value in this "exposure" because it leads to other opportunities. People recognized me for that, they gave me more credibility behind my work because it was in "the news." This lead to local portrait commissions, family photos, it worked like repetitive advertising. Share something educational, something that contributes - you'll be surprised where it goes.

About a year or so later I was trying to go full time with photography and when looked around for a space to rent.. average quote on an 800 square foot space was $3000/month. I eventually talked to someone who rented me studio space for 1/10th what everywhere else was quoting me. "I've seen your column in the newspaper." was the response. Indirectly, this contact would eventually lead, 9-10 years later, to my work to being printed on the side of an airplane

I think people get confused when they hear someone does "unpaid work" - unpaid does not mean uncompensated, it depends on situation to situation. As long as both parties receive equal value from the work, intrinsic or extrinsic.

Mike O'Leary's picture

Thanks for your story, Karl. Unpaid work is a very vaild option, especially where your starting out. The only thing I'd say to others is, choose wisely. Unfortunately, some are out to exploit, and you might not get the kind of exposure you need or want.

Thierry Jolibois's picture

When a cause looks good, we make a donation, your donation has been reporting "free". It's a chance for you to have had this adventure. And luck was with you again because Playboy Magazine did not have everything they needed to illustrate their article.
If many think that we should not work for free, personally I think it is a mistake. A free job for a good cause will not feed you of course, but it's so rewarding that it's worth all the gold in the world.

Robert Altman's picture

BTW- unpaid work for a not-for-profit can be considered a donation in kind and the value taken as a tax deduction...

Patrick Hall's picture

Can you elaborate on this? I used to try to donate my photography for write off purposes and two different CPAs said I could not write off my time. Essentially I said my time was worth $250 an hour (my family and wedding sessions were $500 per 2 hours) and both tax professionals said I could never get away with writing that off. I believe they said I could donate a physical book or prints that had a real value from another vendor but not my time in shooting. Their argument was there were too many loop holes like what if the client never used my services (you can’t donate 100 hours at $250 each and no one ever actually takes you up in it) or why can’t you value your time as $1000 an hour?

Trust me, I tried to do this but both CPAs said I would be audited in a heartbeat.

Robert Altman's picture

I do not see why you can't deduct the reasonable value (based on the rates you charge paying customers) of actual photography work done for a not-for-profit. I would not deduct a 'theoretical donation' of unused services- only those where I actually have shot. I have done it without triggering an audit. It could be my 'luck' or your CPA being way to conservative...

Steve White's picture

"I do not see why you can't deduct the reasonable value"

The simple answer is because it's not allowed. Your income is taxable. When (if) you work for $250 an hour each hour of work results in earning $250 in taxable income and you pay tax on that $250/hr (less deductions, of course). When you work for free you only pay income tax on the $0 per hour that you get paid. It doesn't matter who you work for. It works out the same way it would if you had charged the non-profit your usual rate and then donated the money they paid you, which if effectively what you've done. Of course you can deduct related expenses as charitable donations. In the case of the author that means airfare and other travel expenses, and other actual costs of doing the work.

"I have done it without triggering an audit."

How did you declare the deduction? Everything is deductible until you get audited and the deductions are disallowed. If you donate more than $500 other than by cash or check you need to fill out another tax form, and because you can't deduct for donated time there's no line for donated time. You're free to write whatever numbers you want on any line you choose, and if you choose wisely the IRS may not flag it, but that doesn't mean it's a legal deduction.

Of course if you're not in the US perhaps it works differently for you.

Joshua Boldt's picture

Patrick, you would never be able to claim any kind of deduction for volunteer work for friends and family. That is just not part of the tax code at all since they are not even volunteer organizations. But you can deduct expenses for doing work for a bonafide 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status company.

The IRS does not allow individuals to deduct the monetary value of their volunteer service to a nonprofit -- cash and physical items are the only things you can give to a nonprofit and take a deduction for -- but if you accrued expenses like mileage while doing work for a legit 501(c)(3) company, you can deduct those.

For instance, volunteers at a hospital are sometimes required to purchase a nurse's uniform and they can deduct the cost of that uniform on their taxes if the hospital has a 501(c)(3) foundation board that accepts donations to the hospital. The deduction has to be a direct cost of doing the volunteer work, like mileage driving there -- in other words, the cost incurred only because of the service the volunteer donated... This means you need to have your CPA dig deep into whether it was a personal expense or a legitimate cost that incurred from the volunteering before you choose to deduct it.

Color Thief's picture

If you're in the US the IRS is explicitly clear about this. See: On page three there's a helpful chart the clearly show `Value of your time or services` in the Not Deductible category.

Robert Altman's picture

Interesting- I guess the deduction would have to be for the actual images donated - not the time. Same dollar deduction...different semantics

Color Thief's picture

That's a creative idea Robert. The IRS has a form (8899 Notice of Income From
Donated Intellectual Property) the donees of IP have to fill out regarding IP donations. There are some exceptions to what can be deducted including:

"The following property is not considered qualified intellectual property for purposes of the additional charitable deduction
A copyright held by a taxpayer:
a. Whose personal efforts created the property, or

So it seems that if you made an image you can't donate the IP to the image and deduct what you think it's worth. A print itself might be deductible, but that would be for the fair market value of the print, not your time making it (or the cost of materials if you haven't already deducted those). Unless there's an active market for your prints, it will be hard to demonstrate the fair value of the work.

Robert Altman's picture

If one charges for the digital images delivered to clients then it is those pixels that you are essentially selling - it should not have to be a physical print. When I am contracted to shoot an event it is those images that a client is paying for (and it is up to us as photographers to price them appropriately to cover expenses/time/etc). Rarely do my paying customers request physical prints.

Color Thief's picture

Robert, I wish you luck on your journey toward creative tax deductions. I hope it works out well for you.

Patrick Hall's picture

You'd have to print the actual image and deduct the cost of the physical print. You can't donate digital images and set a price on them.

Quincy Fivelos's picture

Color Thief is correct. Time & services are NOT deductible. Expenses are. So the OP can deduct the costs of transport to South Africa and any other expenses related to this project but time spent shooting or editing is not deductible. Also, if OP did any paid work while there then the IRS will not look favorably on the expenses deduction unless deducted from genuine business expenses.

Stas Aleksandersson's picture

I only clicked cause I was hoping to see naked babes. Bummer.

Mike O'Leary's picture

Ha ha. This is the internet, Stas. There are naked women everywhere! If you check under the comment section, not only are there beautiful women and men in sensual poses, but there are awesome photographs of said sexy people by our astoundingly talented community :)