When you start out in photography there’s a few things seasoned photographers will tell every amateur like read your camera manual or always have extra SD cards with you. Some of the advice is concrete, but one I always had a problem with is never shoot for free.
The problem is… how do you get better if you only take paid work? How do you make connections if you’re always telling people no? Working for free is all about growing. You can’t grow if you don’t take risks and new challenges, but it’s not right to take those risks when someone is paying you.
The Key to Working for Free Is to Always Hold Some Type of Leverage
What this means is at the shoot you’re in charge and you’re getting “paid” through the experience and networking. You’re using this sample of work to get real work down the road. When you have leverage, you’re going to benefit from the shoot no matter what.
Before We Get Started
This isn’t for working professionals. If you’re doing projects with Vogue or you have the contracts with your local businesses, you don’t need this. This is for newer photographers who aren’t known and have little to no connections and are looking for how they can grow. That being said, here’s some of the ways you can shoot for no money and still feel like you profited from it.
It’s for a Personal Project
When you’re the creative director for the shoot and it’s your project, you shouldn’t expect to be paid for it. At the end of the day it’s all about what you want. You intrinsically hold all the leverage in this. Everyone else is buying into your idea. This will be built specifically for your portfolio.
These are my go-to ways to work for free. Some of my most influential work came from personal work. I say influential because they’ve been shared the most and they impress people the most. If you can get a team together with just your idea, you will benefit from the process.
It’s a Portfolio Upgrade
Sometimes people reach out and they’re better in every way. More experience, more professional, and even more connected. When I was starting out I tried to not say no to these people because at the very least, the images were more likely to be better than anything else I had and for me that was worth it.
Sometimes people reach out and I’ll say yes just so I can be in their space and ask them questions. This was especially the case when I first started out. I never went to school for photography and I never interned with a fashion or beauty photographer. I knew nothing about contacting agencies and models. Every chance I got to work with a signed model I would ask them questions. What’s a “fit model”? So how do you get in touch with agents? What’s casting like? All things I just had no idea about that I was so grateful to be able to learn.
But that’s not even the best part. The best part of working with “portfolio upgraders” is if the images are incredible, there’s always a chance that the people who see the finished photos will also reach out. This brings me to my next point…
It Can Lead to Something
Now this one is a gamble, I want to start with that. There’s a 95% chance you’re never getting another opportunity out of this. But there’s a way to do it and hold the leverage. If someone is asking you to shoot their event or product line and you have no creative input, chances are nothing is going to ever come from it. You’re only free talent and you should never say yes to these.
But if you can make your own opportunity that gives you the chance to show your value, there’s like a 5% chance it could lead to more. And even if it doesn’t, it’s portfolio work with a name you can drop.
When I was in college, I really wanted to be a headshot photographer. No matter how much I tried, no one wanted to shoot with me, I didn’t have the bulk of work to show my value to potential customers. So I kept looking for lucrative opportunities until I found a way to show my value. Every semester there was a Career Day where all the business school students would get dressed up and go talk to potential employers. I thought since they’re already dressed up why not set up a headshot photo booth so I could take the photos of these people who would never pay in the first place. Broke college kids aren’t going to be paying for headshots anyways so at the very least I could build my portfolio and get my name out there.
I pitched the university the idea and told them I’d do it for free to show it would be popular. They said yes, and it was successful. The first year it was 60 people and everyone loved it. That summer and fall I had a bunch of people reach out to get their headshot done and they all name dropped someone from the photo booth or saw me that day and weren’t ready then.
The next Spring semester they asked to have me back and I was paid my actual rate for the day. With this paid opportunity I was able to shoot more headshots for my book and show my value once again. I saw an opportunity and took it. I still use some of those photos on my headshot portfolio to this day.
The key to this is I found the opportunity on my own, pitched it, and proved my value. That’s what you need to do. If someone comes to you and says "Hey we have this thing, can you do it for exposure?", you're just being used. You need to be the creator and identify the opportunities on your own.
There’s Opportunities All Over the Place, You Just Have to Find Them
Want to shoot fashion? Reach out to local boutiques and offer to shoot a lookbook for them that they can keep in the store. Maybe they see better sales from it and decide to have you back for their next season. At the very least your book will be filled with designer clothes in real-world experience. With the most positive outlook you could have that boutique and others contacting you for similar experiences.
Want to shoot real estate? Use Zillow to find local real estate agents that could use help. Shoot a couple houses for them and maybe they see the value and start to hire you. At the very least, you get really nice houses in your book that you wouldn’t have had access to and at best you now have a client who sees your value.
In these situations you need to make sure you’re actually getting something out of it. If you talk to a boutique and plan on shooting a lookbook with a model and they say yes, but now you’re shooting outfits laid on the ground without a model, you’re now in a losing situation. Don’t do this if you don’t think it’ll benefit you. You need to make sure that no matter what you’re getting something from it, that’s the whole point of doing this.
Whether it’s an addition for your book or the connections you’re making from it, having more than one reason in this situation means you’re still leveraging the shoot into something positive. If you go in thinking it's a bad shoot, but maybe there will be more, you will lose.
It’s Real-World Work
In the real world, no one wants to be the first to bite the bullet on you. They want to see you’ve done it before in some fashion. This is true in all walks of life and always has been. Being able to show you worked on a project that was more than just “I had an idea and did it” shows you know how to work under actual parameters in a professional environment.
Going back to the previous section on finding opportunities, working for small businesses and actually building something with them has real-world value. Being able to take someone else’s vision and making it come to life is a skill not everyone has. It’s good to show your ability to do this because it won’t always be your ideas.
This is why I try and shoot speculative work when I can. These can technically be filed under personal projects, but they’re not really creative. I try to shoot work that looks like advertisements or catalog photos because that’s what people are usually looking for. This shows I’m capable of shooting what they need and not just creative photos.
Another way to get real-world work experience is to assist on a set. Interning for a professional photographer for no or small pay may seem ridiculous, but being able to see a live production from start to finish is an eye-opening experience.
I’ve assisted for a few different photographers, and there’s nothing like it. If you have the opportunity and you don’t have any real world value, that’s a very quick way to start picking up skills for your own work.
With this your leverage is education and connections. People pay tens of thousands of dollars a year for education through universities and almost none of it will be real-world experience. Most college students still have to intern if they want a job out of school. With this you’re cutting out the university and getting your education from the people who are actually working.
Shooting for Free Is Just Investing in Your Business
You can’t just buy a camera and lights and start charging. It takes years to get to a point to where you should be charging for everything. Every free shoot is just an investment towards your goals through growth and opportunity. Not all investments work out, but those are balanced with others opening doors you didn’t think were possible.
Just remember to always try and find the leverage. If you can find the leverage in an opportunity, it’s worth going for.