Five Reasons Why You Should Work For Free (Sometimes)

Five Reasons Why You Should Work For Free (Sometimes)

A number of years ago, I read on a photography/marketing blog that there are reasons why we, as photographers, should think about working for free. As I was just then beginning my journey with my brand-new DSLR, I took the information with a grain of salt and imagined a day where getting paid to do what I love wasn’t some far-off pipe dream, but a working reality which would be made possible by not actually working for free. So I read the article, looked around at what I was doing (working for free), and carried on with my life.

Fast forward a few years later, where I have come to the point where I was finally starting to get some recognition for my work. Granted it was in my local market, but it was recognition nonetheless and to be honest and I enjoyed it immensely. It was finally some sort of pay-off for all the hard work (read: photos of family, friends, and dog) that I had been doing and it meant that my work had reached a level where the people who were responding to it, weren’t just the people who were required (my family, friends, dog, etc). But overnight something changed. The comments and questions went from “I like your work,” and “great job,” to “I hope you’re getting paid for this!” and “you must be making a TON of money.” 

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Truth was, I wasn’t making much more than a few pennies here and there from a few random shoots I’d get hired for. In reality, those early paid shoots were so far from what I wanted to do and where I wanted to take my photography that despite the paycheck at the end, the shoot itself was more of a annoyance than anything else (though to be honest, the money did help ease any feelings of discomfort I was having). What I mean is that I had a vision; though it was clouded and somewhat murky at the time (so many bad and/or embarrassing shoots), I knew what I wanted to do and, more importantly, I knew what I didn’t want to do.

This knowledge or vision or whatever you want to call it, is an important key, I think, for young photographers to have because it’s so easy to get caught up on the trap of, “Ok, I have a camera, how can I make money with it?” and then go and settle for whatever comes your way. While that’s not the worst way to go about things, can you imagine what would happen if a young lawyer, upon passing the State Bar Exam said, “ok, I’ve got this title, what’s the simplest, cheapest, easiest, fastest way to make money…” 

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When someone learns your working for free, they’ll usually scoff and you and tell you that you should be getting paid for your work and I agree, if it’s work, you SHOULD be getting paid for it. However, in this insane everyone-has-a-camera world we live in, that’s not always the case and getting paid nowadays seems more the exception than the rule. It’s unfair, it’s not right, it’s taking away jobs, yes, yes, yes, all of that. But it’s 2014 - not 1983 and unless every DSLR magically dissolves and everyone takes up something else, it’s not going to get any better. The best thing we can do is to figure out how to make it work for us. Obviously doing free work isn’t going to feed your dog, but I’ve learned that if you switch your perspective up a bit, doing free work isn’t just something to do while you develop and hone your skills, it’s something that should be part of everyone’s marketing plan and I’ve listed five reasons why you should be working for free (sometimes). 

Networking. Everyone knows someone. When I was starting out, some of the best connections I’ve made in the local market industry were through some of the free events I’ve attended and shot. For example, one fashion event led to a few photos published in the local magazine, which led to a spread, which led to a another spread, which included landing the cover of that small magazine, which led to a paid shoot which appeared in Neiman Marcus spring catalog for a much higher rate than I ever thought was possible (at the time). The initial work was I did free, but it did put me out there in front of people who otherwise would never have heard of me and my little camera. Perseverance pays off, but the ability to network pays off more.

Development. Almost nobody signs a contract with a pro-level sports team and winds up on the floor/court/pitch/field/ice the same night - they need to be developed, their talent and ability worked on and honed. Shooting for free allows us the time to develop; to figure out what we want to do, how we want to do it, and how to go about getting the consistent results that’ll take us and our work to that next level. If the shoot works, great! You’ve done your job and have some cool photos for your portfolio - start marketing yourself. If the shoot doesn’t work, well, it was a free shoot….what did they expect? Go back and work on your craft until you deserve to get paid. Take time to figure out what it is that makes you unique and sharpen that until it’s a hair-splitting point.

Marketing. Build up that portfolio. More importantly, build up that portfolio in the direction you want to be working. It’s great getting paid to shoot Grandma’s birthday or to shoot Fluffy’s Christmas card photo, but unless that’s the direction you want to go with your work (and both are good, respectable directions), if your goal is something other than that, you most likely need to build that port through a number of free shoots (couples, engagements, model tests, etc) until your work is good enough to warrant a paycheck.

Value. Paid or free, there is value in your work. But it’s not something that happens overnight and it’s not something that happens simply because you own a camera. There are literally millions of other people walking around shooting what you’re shooting. Free work, in my opinion, allows you the time to build that value (yes. I do realize how contradictory this sounds). Ask any successful person and they’ll most likely tell you that value is built over time - it’s an ongoing process. Build the value and the money will follow. I promise. 

Love. I picked up a camera because I love the medium. I love capturing those fleeting moments and creating something from nothing. It’s totally cliche, but it’s totally the truth. I sometimes shoot for free because without it, I find myself getting agitated, cranky, and feeling somewhat withdrawn. Shooting for me is both an art and a means of expression. Because I believe in my work and believe there is value in it beyond that of what I place upon it is why I feel I should be be paid for it, but perfect world scenario (read: I’m rich), I would do it for free - or at least for a considerably reduced rate. I can honestly truly love what I do.

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Walking around now with my camera, it seems as thought there are people whose sole purpose is to ask whether or not I am getting paid for my work (rest assured, I am). I’m not quite sure of why they feel the need to ask me that question so often, but there they are. That said, I still do free work here and there, but it’s not to benefit the people I’m shooting - sure, they get free photos, but as I’ve explained above, with the right perspective, what I get can be so much more. 

Thanks for reading. 

John Schell | Instagram | Facebook | Vimeo 

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28 Comments

Savi You's picture

When I'm not shooting for a client (paid or free), I'm working on personal projects. The "appearance" of being busy is powerful. It seems like the busier I look, the more gigs come my way. Nowadays, I have plenty of paid work to keep me busy and sadly less time for my personal projects!

E Port's picture

What sucks the worst is when the results from a free job aren't worth adding to your portfolio, especially if the faults weren't on your end.

Give me an example of an instance where you, the photographer is not a fault for a bad image.

David Vaughn's picture

He's not saying the photos would be bad. They might be adequate for the job, but they just aren't as good as previous work or as good as they could have been because of circumstances out of the photographer's control.

Giving results "good enough" to please the client is not the same as having all the necessary ingredients to create a spectacular photo.

E Port's picture

I'd imagine it happening to other photographers more often that deal with multiple people on the shoot (talent, makeup, wardrobe, etc). For me, I deal with product and architecture. If the product design is poor or if the architecture is boring or if either don't fit your color palette, you have to convince yourself the networking aspect of the job is worth it.

When the client requests a cliche'd image that is a good "image", but isn't worth adding to your portfolio.... which is what he said in the first place, not "a sh*tty image.

Nice reading John!

I'm a big fan of making photographs for free. Typically, the free photos, are personal projects or to develop new techniques, or to discover new locations or models. Take a day to walk with friends and take some pictures is always good.

I'm doing a freebie shoot for one of my accounting clients in the next few months who is starting a new business and needs the prototype photographed. It's something I've always wanted to shoot and my agreement with him is that I take pictures for him to use for his marketing and I can take more pictures for me to use however I want. It's something that I don't already have a ton of in my portfolio and will be good exposure. And it will be fun as all hell to shoot.

A couple of my free jobs (personal projects) have directly connected me to paid work. The clients usually say I say your images of so and so and I totally wanted to work with you. You definitely want to make sure you're getting what you want out of the free work. :)

Exactly. You have to know how to finesse it. Also, no one else knows what jobs/work you shot for free and which you didn't. Looking busy is a good thing. Better than sitting around doing nothing for months waiting for the next 'big night' job.

Brian Anderson's picture

This is a great article. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

Tony Carter's picture

I call my free jobs "experimental" as I won't be sure of the outcome if they are non-typical (for my skill-level) shoots, such as: with cars or motorcycles, light-painting, or some sports-themed images. So going into it, I'll tell the client or friend that I won't charge them since it will be experimental and not sure of the outcome, but it has happened that they have given me $$ if they liked the images and wanted to use them!

I turn free model tests, etc. into paid work every single day. You just have to know how to finesse it and use it to your advantage. The people against it usually are the same ones that think turning 'free' work into paid work is simply just doing a shoot for free and sitting on the couch and waiting for the paid work to come in. It doesn't work like that. You have to know how to work it to you advantage.

For instance. I shoot some free model tests for some local agencies. I always shoot the model in the T-shirts of local breweries/businesses. I send them the photos for them to use for free on social media. I haven't paid for a beer in years AND I'm the first person the breweries call when they need legit photography.

You will get in trouble with a lot of (bigger) agencies if a company is using their models image without permission and for free. Even social media. Make sure you ask the agency ;)

Oh of course! In my (small) market, it's great for the agency too as they don't have to pay for some tests and it looks like their models are booking out often.

Mike Levad's picture

That is a GENIUS idea. Totally stealing that one.

David Vaughn's picture

I'm guilty of doing jobs for little or no pay all the time when I probably should be charging. Granted, I don't rely on freelance photography for all my income, but idk. It seems weird but taking money taints the experience for me, which sucks because taking photos is basically my own marketable skill. I just don't enjoy the idea of HAVING (in order to not starve) to take jobs shooting babies and family portraits and blah blah when I honestly couldn't care less about how "omg so adorable" your baby but I pretend I do. So then they pay me X amount for the experience of having me put on a facade. It seems so disingenuous.

I know it's a bad mentality.

That's why I shoot for free a lot. It takes the pressure off, and I don't have to feel like I'm scamming people out of their money by feigning enthusiasm and giving them decent but generic (because that's what they asked for) photos.

you know what most of us do for our hobbies? we PAY UP. if you can do your hobby for free thats a huge feat. stop thinking about a shoot as a potential loss.

David Vaughn's picture

The thing though is that I'm currently working hourly as a photographer for my college, and when I graduate in August I will be without a job with skills in...photography...So I'm either gonna have to go work in some menial job or I'm gonna have to put my one skillset to work. That's why I think about the potential loss.

I would only offer up one more here. Charity. Don't be afraid to help out a charity group once in a while. They need photography, they're doing good work. Why not help them out. Not every gig you do for them has to be free either but it's a great community gesture.

I shot my first 3 weddings just getting my expenses paid. Gasoline and in one case one night in a bed and breakfast. When i searched for couples to shoot i posted in an online forum asking for tips on how to find these couples. Wow i got a TON of negativity. I hurt the business. Its because of people like me this business is going downhill etc etc. I was put down but eventually decided that screw all those peole. If youre going out of business because someone who has never shot a wedding and is open about that to everyone does a wedding for free you probably deserve to go out of business.
Now ive got 3 weddings im proud of and a website and lots of bookings coming in. Sure, im charging about $1000 a wedding but hell, ive only shot 3 in total and the love i get in the emails is almost overwhelming to me.
Free work ftw!

Don't get upset when you lose a wedding job to the next up and comer willing to work for nothing.

Andy McRory's picture

Great point regarding the portfolio. Being all things to all people never leads to success.

Will Allen's picture

We just worked on this: https://vimeo.com/97101071

It kicked butt and so does Fstoppers.

I find that I learn, every single time I shoot, whether it's free, spec or paid. And if I'm learning, then I'm growing and getting better, which to me is the only goal - because it follows generally, that if you get GREAT, you will get work, unless you're dick.

It's my contention that there's nothing wrong with working for free. The most important thing for a photographer is to protect his reputation. If working for free can help build a portfolio that will increase his reputation, then there's absolutely nothing wrong with shooting for no pay. Of course, working for free can also hurt a reputation in some contexts so it's always a "judgment call" on the part of the photographer.

To a certain extent, working for free keeps a photographer in control of his own work. He works for himself, therefore he often has more room for personal expression rather than worrying about what a client wants to express.

The problem I have is with photographers that attempt to talk about the "profession" when their blogs, portfolios, online galleries (etc) are filled with obviously free shoots. It makes them come across as posers/fakes while simultaneously degrading those that actually make a living in the industry.

Overall, I wish the new generation of digital photographers would just stop obsessing about the profession of photography. They should just relax and enjoy photography without feeling insecure about whether or not they're making a profit.

If you want to be taken seriously in this profession, I would advise that you evaluate what your time is really worth. The business of photography is changing rapidly that most professionals could not even cope up with whatever business model they have. I think flexibility is important but I would avoid using the word "free". I'd rather use "complimentary work".

Selling is easy when you give it away for free. And it also projects the value you put on your work. Give it away, yet expect people to take it serious? Good luck.