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.”
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…”
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.
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.