Is Working For Free Helping You Or Hurting The Industry?

Is Working For Free Helping You Or Hurting The Industry?

This is a topic that many paid video and photo shooters tend to feel very strongly about, and I’ve tried to analyze my experiences for some rational thoughts on the matter. If you want your voice heard, leave your opinion in the comments, but first read about how one particular band actually offered pro and hobby photographers press access to shoot images of their performance. For a fee of $150.

As this story was originally reported on Popular Photography, the band Hawthorne Heights posted saying the following:

“Are you an aspiring photographer? Come take pictures of us all day at Warped Tour! We will provide you with the access, and experience you need. We will also take your pictures and put them on our Instagram page, and give you full credit for it. This is a great package for anyone who loves taking pictures, whether its for a hobby or professionally."

Some deeper digging revealed that this “opportunity” would come at a cost of $150 to receive backstage access.

The band has since pulled this posting down, as there was a significant negative reaction as seen on the band’s facebook page. Hawthorne Heights have gone on to respond, and ultimately apologize for the misunderstanding, as they don’t want to offend or exploit any photographers.

This interesting news aside, all of this discussion got me thinking about the industry, and what it’s like to be a newbie. Specifically, where the line gets drawn between doing something to gain experience (and potentially paying for it) and when you should be getting paid for your work. Here are a few points that I came up with, and I’d really love to hear some of your thoughts on this too.


Experience vs. Being Paid (image above is me shooting footage for a no-pay project 9 years ago)
In developing this post, I thought about my own career with shooting video projects, and I noticed an obvious trend where there was an inverse relationship between the amount of experience I had and how much work I would take on as a pro-bono(unpaid) gig. In addition, as my experience increased, so did my costs. But there were (and still are) times when it paid in one way or another to work for "free." I’ll use myself as the example:

As a Student: In school I had next to no gear, and very limited experience. At best I might get $50 for a simple slideshow edit or the chance to “meet people” and “get connected.” While now I know better than to work for the chance to simply meet someone else to hire me to do more free work, at the time I had to take what I could get. I personally don’t see this as hurting the industry, because as such a beginner level, the client is going to get what they pay for, and the artist (myself in this case) is going to get another notch for the portfolio or resume. I thought of it as paying my dues, and as much as it sucked sometimes, I’m a wiser businessman today for having done it.

When I was no longer a student, had a fair demo reel, and a couple of clients to speak well of me, I wasn’t interested in doing work for free anymore. At the least, I was charging to cover the cost of the expensive video gear that I had purchased. I also found that subject matter influenced my asking price. For example, I despised shooting weddings, but did it for several years. It was great money, and I wouldn't have done it otherwise. Conversely, when I got the chance to do some editing for a independent movie, I eagerly jumped at the chance to work on it for peanuts. I guess it came back to not having any practical experience in this realm, and it wasn’t on my own computer, so I didn’t have to charge for gear. I was driving pretty far to get to the work location, so in a sense, I was paying for that experience.

Back to the Hawthorne Heights "Offer"
Whether or not it’s OK to pay to get experience, it really depends on the details in my opinion. In my case, I was paying (gas money, time, skills that I paid to develop) to work on someone else's project. I would NEVER had done this to shoot a wedding or edit a corporate video, but to get some experience in the film industry was huge for me at that time. And you know what? Over the next two years, I made thousands of dollars editing 2 independent movies. And I sincerely doubt that I would have been hired for those gigs without direct prior experience, that I paid to get.

So does that make paying $150 for backstage access an OK thing to do? For some, I say yes. If they are struggling to get gigs where they are getting paid to shoot performances, it might be worth it to beef up their portfolio. For anyone who went to school, besides the educational aspect, we were essentially paying a bunch of money to get better at our craft and eventually get paying jobs. Before I move away from the HH discussion, I want to be clear that I truly think it’s a slap in the face for performers to ask professional photogs to pay to shoot their event, IF THAT IS HOW THE BAND IS GETTING COVERAGE AND THE BAND WANTS TO OWN THE RIGHTS TO THE IMAGES. If the band has other press there, that are being paid as the working professionals they are, then I don’t see an issue. It’s a unique opportunity to give for someone who needs the experience only. Honestly, the only people who would do this are struggling novices and die-hard fans, so I don't think it's a huge issue. The band suggested that it was an opportunity for hobbyists as well as professionals, and I think that the professionals part was a slip of the tongue. It’s not for working professionals concert photographers. Period.


Moving Along
As the Joker said in the Dark Knight, “If you’re good at something, you should never do it for free.” This is true, but with some exceptions because there are some harsh realities at play. I’m lucky in that I have enough work so that I can pick and choose what projects I work on in my spare time. Besides personal projects to feed my soul, I occasionally will do work on a project that I truly feel is worth my time, from not only a creative standpoint, but from a portfolio standpoint as well. Here’s my proof– last year I agreed to shoot some video segments for a pilot TV show all about Michigan based food and producers. This included a vodka distillery, a cheese farm, local sourcing restaurants, and more. The guy producing the show is someone I’ve known for years, and besides owing him for some of my industry success, I know for a fact that he does great work. I worked for free for a number of shoots, and with only my travel and lodging being reimbursed. I enjoyed working with the crews, I really cared about the content of the TV show, and therefore had no problem working pro-bono. And wouldn’t you know it, the show just got nominated for 3 Michigan Emmy Awards.

Some might say that what I did hurts the industry, but in reality, there are 10 people waiting in line behind me who would throw themselves at the chance to work on that show for free.

What I think hurts the industry is when mid level or professional level artists do work with little personal benefit for compensation that is substandard or non-existent. This field is very competitive, and as long as it stays that way, up and coming artists will be lowering their costs to simply get the job. Clients know this, and some will try and exploit it for their budgets. The key I feel is the old saying “You get what you pay for.” If you are an artist and are producing high-level work, then your prices should reflect it, and vice-versa. And as an artist it becomes very important to keep working to set yourself apart from the competition, so that the client understands the value of you and your work.

Agree or disagree? Have some profound knowledge to drop or want to tell me how wrong I am? Leave me a note below, I feel that this is an important discussion, and there is much knowledge to be shared from a larger community on this topic. So please, let's keep it constructive and thoughtful. Thanks for reading.

Log in or register to post comments


From a concert photographers point of view, in this soft market there is barely any money to be made. Most of us work for spec especially if you shoot for an agency. Another problem is that I have lost consistent gigs with high-profile magazines because someone offered to do it for free.

And now we have a "pay to shoot" offer that can potentially set a precedent that woud be disastrous to those of us that are trying to make what little money we can these days.

Not to mention that someone with absolutely NO experience with concert photography doesn't belong in a photo pit. There are people there trying to do their JOBS and now anyone with $150 and a point and shoot can fill up the photo pit and pretty much wreck your job. To be honest most credentialed "pros" barely belong in the photo pit. I don't want to have to fight for space with someone who feels "entitled" because they PAID to be there.

We live in a society where everyone expects everything to be handed to them. It's the American Idol mentality. People want to start at the top. If you seriously want to be a concert photographer do it the same way everyone else did. Start at local clubs and work your way up. THAT is how you gain experience.

Mike Wilkinson's picture

Well said. I've known a few concert photogs, and been in the pit myself (shooting video) but haven't had too much insight into that particular industry, especially when it comes to compensation. Are you saying that some clients are simply not willing to pay for this work anymore? That's rough. Is that your passion, or do you find yourself not doing that kind of work anymore since it's not sustainable?

After 33 years experience as a concert photographer, the well has run dry (three years ago) and now I am back to shooting weddings for the money and I also teach basic photography and encourage ALL photographers to NEVER work WITHOUT a contract. Free or Paid. Sign on the dotted line.

With your last paragraph I agree with you 100%. this is EXACTLY how I've been able to get gigs shooting. I started in local dive places and I have since worked my way up to shooting Matchbox 20 and Fleetwood Mac. The experience has been well worth the effort thus far.

I think there is a definite balance to the whole thing. If there is value to you or your growth with a given opportunity I think it's worth thinking about. Say for instance you want to be a portrait photographer. Someone approaches you to take pictures of their beanie baby collection and do it for free... Does that help you or your growth? Probably not, and unless you can barter with them for a couple of beanie babies and sell them on ebay for a few hundred bucks a pop (does that still happen?) then you probably won't do it. Someone approaches you and says "hey Sandra bullock is right down the street and we need a couple more shots taken of her but we just blew our budget on Douglas Sonders, he's expensive, have you seen his camera strap??". =) Would you do it? or pass up the opportunity to get a portrait of a celebrity in your portfolio? I would definitely do it because I think there is value in having an image of Sandra bullock in my portfolio. I think that moms and dads of the families I want to shoot would see that and think "Why don't we get our picture taken by the guy who took Sandra Bullocks pictures?". Yes, I would do it for free 100% and not feel bad about it AT ALL. I think it just comes down to whether or not it is beneficial in your overall goals. That being said, I think you really need to have your goals in line in order to know whether or not it is going to benefit you or not, otherwise you'll just be doing free work all the time. Just my 2 cents.

Mike Wilkinson's picture

I hear you about Douglas Sonders, he charges me $150 just to go get HIM a coffee!

Zack Arias made a good post about this a long time ago :

I think as a pro photographer people pay me because they know I have to deliver. At the end of the day they've paid me money for good pictures.
If you get someone free, it sounds great, but they've got no actual obligation to deliver anything. It's not like you can sue them or anything, after all you've paid them nothing. If you were lucky and got a serious amateur who was looking for experience then you might get lucky. If you get captain amateur with a point-and-shoot then you might get absolutely nothing.
I think where the pictures are important to the client then there'll always be people who'll pay for the peace-of-mind of an actual professional.

I am an aspiring action sports photographer and I recently shot a fashion look book for a friend for free. Yes, fashion is not the field of work I want to get into, at all, but any experience is good. I felt I simply could not justify charging professional rates with the gear I was using, plus if I screwed up the shoot and they didn't like the photos, they got what they paid for. Turns out they loved my work, gave me 'free' clothes from their range, and offered me more PAID work in the future. With regards to 'competitiveness' for aspiring photogs like myself, I see working for free as a significant 'barrier to entry', and that being a good thing. Anyone not willing to work for free and turning down opportunities means less competition for me :)

Antonio Carrasco's picture

NO.. "any experience" is not good.

Action sports couldn't be any further apart from a fashion lookbook. Two totally different markets, two totally different types of images, you need totally different gear. About the only thing the two have in common is that there is a camera involved.

What people see in your portfolio is exactly what they will expect you to shoot. If want to shoot fashion, you really shouldn't have any action sports in your portfolio. And vice-versa.

"free" clothes... not free! You worked a full day for those "free" clothes!

Offered you "paid work in the future"... Get used to hearing this line. If you decide to pursue photography as a career, you will hear this EVERY SINGLE DAY OF EVERY SINGLE WEEK OF THE MONTH.... They will always tell you that future gigs might pay, if you will just please, please, please do this one for free. That paying job at the end of the rainbow is a unicorn. It doesn't exist. See if they had any money to pay you, they wouldn't hire someone who shoots action sports. They would hire a photographer with a solid fashion portfolio.

I'm really not trying to make you feel bad. You post just says everything that every noob photographer (myself included) does when they first start out. In a few years, you will be a little less optimistic and more realistic about your approach.

I disagree, Antonio. Sounds like he already has an offer from them, not a promise of an offer. I am starting out, too. And everything I have done for free so far has led to paid work, and one to being paid to have my photographs included in a book sold in all the major national outlets. The world is not 'one size fits all'.

Antonio Carrasco's picture

The most important lesson you will learn in freelancing is that until you have a check in your hand, nothing is guaranteed.

I understand what you are saying and I appreciate your advice. By "experience" I mean I had never shot a single photograph for anyone else other than myself before that. When I got asked to take photos for them I saw it as an opportunity, not an exploitation. I had previously done some intern work for a studio that often did fashion catalog shoots, but I personally felt I learnt more by going out and doing it myself with no guidance, even if that meant doing it for free. Now I have far greater confidence knowing I can deliver photos that other people are happy with which gives me more confidence to justify charging for my work.

Antonio Carrasco's picture

Cool... Above all do what makes you happy and you should always have a feeling of excitement about shooting.

Also, I apologize if my previous post sounded rude. I was just relaying a bit of the cold hard lessons that I have learned in the past.

Just remember that whatever is in your portfolio is exactly what people will end up hiring you to do. So if your passion is action sports then by all means go for it.

Don't worry you're comments weren't taken personally, I realise this is the Internet haha. Yeah I don't think I will be including the photos from that shoot in my portfolio. Unfortunately the types of photos I really want to get out of my head and into my portfolio require expensive portable strobes, but that's the goal! Thanks.

I honestly want to slap anyone that will do a gig for free. It's just letting them use you when they should be paying you for your time. I always tell my clients that say they have someone that will do it for free to call me when their free photographer can't cut the cheese. There is a reason why they will do it for free. They can't produce the same kind of images that a pro can.

I would rather sling drinks behind a bar than do a shoot for free that someone else is making money on in some way or fashion. My time is just as valuable as theirs. They are getting paid to do their job. Why should I work for nothing?

Antonio Carrasco's picture

Yeah, it's ok to do the trade thing if it's a project where you have a lot of creative control. Also, if it's something that is art and probably not very commercially viable, but super creative, then it might be worth investing your time.

But if it's something that is going to directly help someone else sell products, you dang well should get paid for your work. Whether headshots, fashion lookbooks, e-commerce, product shots or whatever, you should get paid

I think consistency is the key here. My clients pay my price because they know i will deliver every single time come rain or shine. You wanna save yourself some moola and get 1 wow image, 500 happy snaps and an iphoto photobook then feel free to go with gwc #1. You want 500 wow images and a quality made and professionally designed album you come and book me.
Educate your clients... (yes you have guessed. I am a wedding photographer)

Beware if gwc #1 gets sick on the day he may not show on the day. He's not getting paid. In that case forget about your "one" wow photo.

If people need/want professional quality and they can afford it, they
will pay for it. If they can find someone to do it cheaper, they will.
If someone wants to do it cheaper, there's nothing to be upset about.

This happens in every "industry." Ever helped a friend move? Painted your own house? Created a web page? Proof read someone's resume? Given someone clothing advice? Hemmed someone's pants? Walked someone's dog? Whatever, we do things for free for people all the time and we accept things for free from people all the time. Photography is no different.

No one is being exploited when they take pictures of someone for free, or even willingly pay for that opportunity. They're pursuing something they want to do. It doesn't take away from anyone else.

Exactly true. What one does for free depends on where they are in life and in their career. Maybe they like the security of their regular job, are good photographers and want to shoot for pleasure and to see people's reaction. Nothing wrong with that. Or putting yourself out there for free to learn and hone your craft before you charge. Or shooting for charity (something I think every photographer should do some of).

Karl-Filip Karlsson's picture

customers are very efficient

I personally believe that the industry is in a state of change, photography is becoming too cheap, too easy, and too mass produced to not change. I believe we as photographers need to think about what we offer and what we bring to the table, does your client really need an image that other photographers would be jealous of, or does he just need something to get the concept to the "photo-ignorant" masses? If he only needs to reach the "photo-ignorant" does he really need to pay a professional or can they find someone that is "just good enough." I personally hate where the industry is going, but I am not going to be left behind talking about the "old days" of photography, time for me to adapt or die and time for many photographers to do the same.

Michael Warth's picture

There is no money in concert photography. It's about making connections, not pictures. Most publications pay very little for a live performance photo. With 20 tour dates, and an average of 15 photographers at each venue, everyone making photos of the first three songs, there are at least 300 images that look exactly the same by the end of the tour. I would bet, there are at least 30 of those pictures that can be "published" without compensation (and I am low-balling).

Bands, record labels, and management rarely hire a pit photographer (freelancer or on assignment for a publication) to make the band's promotional photos. Joey L photographed Disturbed several years ago, he's not shooting from the pit, Jeremy Cowart shoots a lot of promos and album work, he's not shooting from the pit...from my own experience, live concert photos are not worth anything if one doesn't build industry relationships and makes money from their work.

Local bands have money to spend too, it's just hard to get them to give it to you...but they will. As for Hawthorne Heights, watch their schedule, they play small clubs in Ohio all the time, and have little control over who walks in with a camera. Spending $150 to get access and worthless exposure is a waste of money.

Michael Warth's picture

Oh, and to answer the question, 'Is working for free helping you or hurting the industry?' - I would say if working for free helps 'you' then do it. You owe the industry nothing, and the industry will not pay your bills. It is about you, and nobody else. I know this sounds crass, but as photographers, we need to do what is best for ourselves and stop worrying about what others think. Leave you damn ego at the door and make good pictures, learn how to be a business, and sell your work to sustain your standard of living.

Elliot McGucken's picture

The same people who killed digital rights management for musicians (alongside the music industry) also killed DRM for artists and photographers. It has saddened me over the years to witness artists and photographers raging against DRM, and then clapping as Tumblr gets sold for $1 billion while they no longer get paid. The least they could do is innovate and learn to quality shoot stills and video at the same time like we do during every shoot, but they rage against that too: . They rage against copyrights, stronger property rights, DRM, learning new skills, and innovation; they work for free, cheerfully undercutting their piers in a race to the bottom, and then, penniless, they say, "Woe is me!"

100% truth. "There is no money in concert photography."

Loads of good points made here, Michael.

As a rising fashion photographer, getting paid gigs is HARD. I only shoot for free if I'm testing with an agency model as I know it will benefit my port and I'm currently in the awkward phase of shooting fashion where I'm finally getting really good, but still am not getting paid fashion jobs.

Instead what I try to do is market myself towards people around me who need photoshoots to make a little extra dough on the side. I have read in a LOT of places that in order to start getting the paid jobs you need to test with the agencies, build up the port, and eventually your works starts getting noticed. I'm finally to the point where bookers want to consistently test with me and give me their better models. What sucks is I'm going to college in 3 weeks, lol. I know that the next steps for me are going to be magazine submissions and hopefully shooting a lookbook in the near future.

That being said, it's a completely different industry so you can't just go to an agency with pictures of your friends and expect to be paid - need to be agency approved first. I personally think that you should only shoot for free if it will get you tons (and I mean tons) of exposure, or if it will greatly enhance your portfolio. Otherwise just let people know you have reasonable rates and you are willing to work, but not for free. This is my $0.02, some may disagree.

I think you are doing the right thing. You might make a little money on the side while model portfolio building by doing actors head shots. Otherwise, I was a stylist years ago, and the path for photographers was the same then, and it works. Keep working on the technical quality of your work, stay currant with trends, add new shots to your portfolio and nurture your connections.

Tony Carter's picture

hmm, how do I say this without it sounding like prostitution (LOL): Whether a "gig" will be for "pay" or not will most likely depend on the type of "relationship" the "professional" has with the "client"...AND/OR the type of "relationship" the photog WANTS TO have (and keep) with the "client". Business vs. personal; for pay vs. for favor; for work vs. for fun/experimental...all those factors are at play and can be mixed. It really depends on whatever standard is set by that particular photog between him/her and the people who know them and their art.

To twist the Hawthorne Heights question:
"Are you an aspiring band? ..."