My Response To Free Work

My Response To Free Work

The question of whether or not to do free work is always pressing. The debate becomes a grey area of ambiguity with many people firmly on one side or the other, and the rest of us stuck somewhere in between questioning our self worth as artists. There are strong arguments on both sides of the arena. Over the course of my career I have wandered back and forth across the defining line only to lately land in the anti-free work position, and here is why.

Recently, Fstoppers Writer, Rob Mynard, wrote a 'pro free work' piece. He does a great job presenting an argument that supports free work as a way to grow your portfolio, meet potential clients and learn as a photographer. Mynard makes some valid points; I very much recommend reading his article, Photography For Free, All The Cool Kids Are Doing It. However; Mynard, I must respectfully disagree, the cool kids are not doing it. The "cool kids" are respecting the value of our craft and helping build a solid foundation for pricing clients and taking professionalism seriously.

By labeling yourself as free you are doing damage to the market as a whole. I get the argument, that doing free work is an opportunity to do inspiring work, and learn about the craft in a professional environment. However; the arena of professional photography is not "on the job training for the unexperienced." If you want to learn how to be a better photographer, don't throw your name in the hat with hard working professionals who have made the investments of education and equipment. By labeling yourself as "free" you have instantly undervalued the entire league of local photographers, you have given your client (if you can call them that) the ability to reach out to other photographers and price shop from the bottom line of $0. I know from a personal standpoint you're earnestly trying to learn as a photographer, I respect that, but keep in mind the damage you are doing to the market. If you want to learn, to be a better photographer, assist a professional. Since when did it become ok for potential clients to say Hey I need this, but I can't pay you. When you have to hire a plumber, do you say "Hey bud, my toilet is broke... Can you fix it? I can't pay you... but you'll learn more about different types of clogs and subsequently become better at learning how to unclog toilets" (OH! and while we're talking about it, just because you have a plunger, doesn't mean you're a professional plumber - a discussion for another day!)

It is a steady balance, growing and learning how to be a better photographer while paying appropriate homage to the craft. To teeter more towards one or the other means to tip the scales and fall.

About a month ago, I received an email from a publication about writing a travel segment. The print publication (to remain unnamed) is quickly gaining traction. They are in third issue of their first cycle, have a very consistent brand, strong visual esthetic, and a tactfully sharp product. When I was approached about being featured, I was immediately flattered by their request. However; holding true to my fore mentioned theory of not doing free work, I declined. My stance is clear in my response, I encourage you to read the initial email and my response below:


Their email (with names changed for you Chuck Dickens fans):

My name is Miss Havisham, and I'm a full-time photographer, and at the beginning of this year started a magazine called Pip's Poems & Photography. It's a printed magazine, with a focus on artists and creative entrepreneurs. I'm not making any profit off of it [and don't really care to, honestly], and will say up-front that I'm not able to provide any kind of compensation to contributors. But! I would love to work with you somehow, and have you collaborate. I imagine you must be a very busy guy, but I'd be happy to send you digital copies of the first two issues, if you'd like, so you can take a look at the general vibe of the publication. I took a look at your website, and think some of your travel photography and writing would be perfect; maybe a little travel piece?

Anyways - let me know your thoughts, and if you'd be interested in joining in. I'd love to work with you! :)


My response:

Miss Havisham,

Thanks for the email and the thoughts. I am familiar with Pip's Poems & Photography, the design and content is beautiful! I really appreciate the compliments on my work and am very flattered by your offer to collaborate.

I have to say I’m a little disappointed. Regrettably, I cannot provide content with out some sort of compensation. I understand the financial responsibilities and distribution of profits for a print publication can stretch budgets very thin. I respect your drive to create something more than just a profit. I’m sure every magazine cycle becomes increasingly difficult with meeting deadlines, trying to grow your demographic, building ad sales, aggregating interesting content and producing an esthetically sound product that supports your brand. However; if your magazine is meant to focus on artists and creatives, shouldn't supporting them should be paramount?  
I’ve been doing this a long time, I very much enjoy the work and it has never been about being wealthy; in fact I find myself doing more free work out of inspiration and admiration than anything else. But, I think it is important for publications to stand up for artists and the creative community to break the cycle. There is a common expression, content is king, it drives the masses, it is essential in developing the brand - it’s not just the fluffy filler between the covers, slapped with a price tag, and left to accumulate in doctor’s office waiting rooms. By offering your content creators zero compensation you are essentially saying that their work is worth nothing, and thus beginning the cycle of exploiting hard working creatives for their visions, inspirations and hard work. I hope that as you build your magazine you’ll see this distinction, I hope as a photographer you never have to face it.
I am just a dime a dozen, run of the mill, glorified blogger and button pusher, but I hope you’ll read my message less than pedantic and actually more as support for your endeavors. There is no animosity in this letter, a simple “no, thank you” probably would have been fine. I needed to address this opportunity to support creatives and artists as a point of pride for all the times our talents have been undervalued by those in a position to make a change. You’re in a position to make a change. Pip's Poems & Photography is in a position to make a change. I hope when the next chance arises to truly make a difference for creatives, you’ll recognize the opportunity.


Jason Hudson


I get that my response in this scenario was a bit more than asked for. As I stated, I could have just said "no" and moved on, but something about this email struck me. Something about the concept of being expected to do free work really bugged me. Since when did doing free work become expected!? So many of the articles on this blog alone discuss how to better yourself as a professional, but we still struggle with the simple premise of what a professional is. I remember being new to photography, I remember just being hungry to learn... I still am. I remember undervaluing myself so that I could just get work, and I did, and I got better. However; the time wasted, struggling with pricing and understanding my business could have been cut in half if I had just taken myself, and the craft, seriously from the start.

Photography is a craft just like any other. They say it takes 10,000 hours to truly master something. Don't spend any of those hours giving something away from free. Instead, spend that time working on perfecting your style and building a business you are proud of.

For a long time since, I rested on the fact that if you're good, pricing isn't that big of an issue. You name a fair price, you stick to it and work hard. But, strangely, lately it seems that I've been reading a lot about free work and facing situations I thought I had long outgrown. It seems this next generation of creatives is more apt for getting featured, and gaining social notoriety as justifiable payment. I understand there is more than one way to make a buck, and a "buck" isn't always universally defined as a dollar. I have done many jobs for trade and still do, but frankly, exposure is a cop-out.

I recently asked a young, very talented shooter, what her definition of success was and she plainly answered "being famous." Now, of course, this is the root to a greater issue of the millennial generation (to which I arguably belong). The recent motivation for being successful is having a ton of followers... to which I include this argument by photographer Scott Borrero, and a screenshot from his instagram feed:

Anyway, I digress, DON'T DO FREE WORK! Rather, do work that inspires you... be original, be creative. Let me rephrase, don't do jobs for free. If you care to spend your time shooting and not getting paid, spend that time working on a technique you enjoy. If you want to grow as a wedding photographer then reach out to assist a professional - many professionals will jump at the opportunity for free help. If you want to get better at shooting landscapes, get out there and shoot landscapes! I genuinely understand the stance that being active as a photographer is a great way to learn and grow, but doing someone else's bidding for free does nothing except tell the market that what we do has no value. Please understand when you are marking yourself as "free" you are subsequently devaluing the whole creative craft. Have pride for the craft, have pride for yourself and don't dig a whole that you'll spend the next few years trying to drag your business out of.





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johnspannos's picture


That is all

Jeff Jones's picture

"When you have to hire a plumber, do you say "Hey bud, my toilet is broke... Can you fix it? I can't pay you... but you'll learn more about different types of clogs and subsequently become better at learning how to unclog toilets""

Bad analogy, because when was the last time you heard of someone having enough fun with plumbing to do it as a hobby? On the other hand photography is definitely something people do as a hobby (for free) all the time.

Jason Hudson's picture

that's a fair argument. photography is fun, but that doesn't make it incomparable. Photography is a service, plumbing is a service... I'm sure somewhere in the world is someone who is psyched about plumbing. This, said person, declined questioning because they are busy rescuing the princess.

Christopher Smoot's picture

Economics 101 - you have an oversupply of photographers with extremely capable gear (for little money) and a world of instruction at their fingertips (thanks fstoppers). Oversupply = lower price.

Plumbing doesn't have that issue. Not counting myself or my parents (serious hobbyists), I know four people I could call right now who are 1) a very serious amateur getting paid to do archival photography 8 hrs/week 2) a prospective professional photographer/videographer 3) a former professional photographer from the film days and 4) a current professional photographer. I know zero plumbers. I can get a decent headshot for free...not a chance I could get a roto rooter free...

Pretty much every "fun" activity has this issue. Singers, musicians, writers, dancers, painters, sculptors, athletes, actors, etc, etc, etc...oversupply. Unless you're in the very top of the talent heap, you'll get paid little to nothing.

You can plead all you like for people to stop working for free...but that is the market price for a heck of a lot of photography. Honestly, that isn't going away anytime soon.

Rather than constantly rewriting these articles, why not focus on how to increase the market value of your photography services? What do you offer that a serious hobbyist can't?

Stephen Rutledge's picture

Some people find gardening fun, doesn't make them landscape designers. If someone is asking you to do something for them - they're asking for your time - irrespective of what it is! It becomes a question of: how much do you value your time?

Barry Robinson's picture

There aren't thousands of people on social media boasting about their ability to fix a toilet, compiling galleries of fixed toilets, and gathering followers for their plumbing ability! If that were the case I think there probably would be people prepared to fix your toilet for the experience and exposure, especially if it was a famous toilet they could hashtag!

A vdS's picture

Did you had any answer from Miss Havisham ?

Jason Hudson's picture

NO, and it really bums me out. But I said my piece and I'm happy with the moral high ground.

Chris Collins's picture

I can predict that to be a sure, NO. Miss XYZ should have asked one of the 10 million "Wedding Inspiration" lovelies to do it and it would have been a sure bet!

Ryan Cooper's picture

The question then becomes: What is the best way to educate a potential client who is expecting free and turn them into a paying client? Is it possible?

The majority of people who send messages to me interested in my services a gone the instant I mention that there would be a cost to the shoot. I've always felt that there was be a strategy to turning a percent of them around but I've never found a strategy that even remotely works.

Jason Hudson's picture

Damn Ryan, you're right. I can't think of a way to educate potential clients with out sounding like an ass hat. I agree it would be nice to politely say something, but truthfully I think the root of the problem is with photographers, not clients.

Pricing strategy is it's own nut to crack. I love to incorporate the quote "he who speaks first loses." That is to say... let them name the price first, it gives you incite into their budget. If the budget is zero (with no trade angle) from the get-go it isn't a project worth doing. If they blurt out $1000, you know you have that as your wiggle room.

Anonymous's picture

I agree that getting the money talk out of the way asap is a valuable approach. Knowledge is king and understanding what number they have in mind in relationship to the work they want done will be a clear indicator if its worth continuing the talk or a waste of time for both parties. I've had to learn this lessen a few times over, a job coming together only to find it's a no go on account of learning that the money wasn't there after investing way too much time.

Vasilis Argyropoulos's picture

I have been able to perform paid work for clients who were previously collaborators on trade projects. I think the best approach is to state upfront that you would require compensation if a particular project will not enhance your portfolio or otherwise provide some benefit. I've been on both sides of this particular conversation and yes you will lose contacts once money enters into the equation. Those who are reasonable will understand this and convert to being your clients.

Anonymous's picture

Ryan, its absolutely possible. There is no "as the crow fly's" path to making it happen though. It's knowing when and how there is a chance to save an opportunity - versus knowing you need to walk because there is no chance of negotiating a good and fair deal for both parties. I recommend you (and everyone one else) read "Getting To Yes" by Roger Fisher and William Ury. It's a great read about negotiating agreement. Not photography specific but valuable insight on making great deals. I also can recommend "The Power of a Positive NO" and "Getting Past NO" both by William Ury. The knowledge in any of these books far exceeds the cover price.

Jason Hudson's picture

Warren thanks for the read suggestions! Probably needs to be put on the Fstoppers reading list!

Mr Hogwallop's picture

Unless the she is a newbie (which happens) this isn't the first time Ms Haversham has asked for free stuff. She does it because it works, playing the percentages for 10 calls she will get a couple "yes I'd love to have my work seen by 500 people!" responses for 8 no thanks...Is the work as good as yours? Maybe, or maybe not but a free picture is going to be run if they have no $ to pay .

The question is, when does it make sense to "educate" a potential client on how to run their business and when does it make more sense to find clients who don;t need no edumacation and will pay acceptable rates.

Sometimes it makes sense to do something for free but it need to be your decision and you get something of value out of it.

There's a lid for every pot. You decided not to be that pot's lid. No need to reshape the pot.

Pink Ninja's picture

I never looked at it that way. I solicited people to shoot for free for me to to build a portfolio. I never expected to turn them into clients. Now it's time for business.

David J. Crewe's picture

Fantastic Write up! I was having an argument locally basically stating the exact same sentiments....only a little less eloquently haha

Jason Hudson's picture

Thanks David! I'm not always that eloquent... sometimes my irritation gets the better of me.

Vasilis Argyropoulos's picture

I will agree that certain genres should not be done on a "free" basis even if you're a beginner. you pointed out several options including assisting an established professional. A landscape photographer can create some of the best images and not involve another human being into their process. A portrait photographer however does need a subject for their portraits. while they can and should spend time learning by assisting others, there will come a time when they have to press the shutter and someone else is in front of that lens... that person needs to be compensated also. I do see value in building relationships with other artists & talent by bringing your artistic contribution as your offering to the table.

if your project is personal or if you have intent on capitalizing on the images, then you should expect to pay those who work for you as well as demand payment when you are asked to work for others.

Also... Brilliant response to the magazine editor.

Jason Hudson's picture

Vasilis, Thanks, I was pretty happy with my response. :)

I agree with your comments about portrait photogs. I also agree that paying models is important. This is a great stance for a follow up article. I can't say I've always paid models... but in recent years of my professional career, I hold this practice in high importance and have paid models, grips and assistants out of pocket if necessary.

The creative community needs standard practices like this... though fighting it feels a little like Don Quixote - the dementia driven crusader fighting for the just and good at his own detriment and demise.

Vasilis Argyropoulos's picture

the artistic communities are traditionally a dog eat dog and sometimes artists are often left to chase down every lead just to make a living. At the end of the day I did not want to see myself behaving this way to make ends meet, hence I have a more conventional career as my day job. Else I might just end up like Don Quixote as you mentioned.

I do consider delivering edited photos as payment to those who help me create art. More often than not, I will incorporate ideas from everyone into the shoot so that they all walk away satisfied. I agree that projects where one party sets the specifications, would be considered "work for hire" and payment should be more conventional as in "money".

The unfortunate part is when commercial entities come into the party and expect to play with the same rules. for example I've been reviewing some of the "ambassador" programs that prominent apparel manufacturers use to attract models, etc... the terms and conditions are insulting in some cases.

Ben Eyles's picture

Informative read -- thank you.

I wonder if you considered countering with another offer? There's probably something of value to you, that's not money, that could have been negotiated.

Money is important, but it's not always the most interesting way to be paid.

Jason Hudson's picture

Ben, thanks for the comment. I thought about countering. To be candid, I thought about countering for $250 for a 600 word article with five photos. But it was part way through my response. I felt there really wasn't a way to make my point and then counter at the same time.
Professionally, I probably should have countered with something. Realistically, the exposure would have been nice for my business, especially with a little compensation... but I saw an opportunity to stand up for a few of my friends who had been taken advantage of by this same publication and felt the moral high ground was to deny collaboration all together.
Also, I probably secretly hoped my message would cultivate a response... a response with a financial offer. I reckon they called my bluff.

You're right money isn't always the only way to be compensated... but to echo my article, "exposure" is a cop out. Exposure alone can hardly be quantifiable. Additionally this is a magazine that claims to feature artists and photographers... offering no compensation urked me because you can't, on one hand, stand up for creatives, and then on the other hand, take advantage of them. Ya dig?

Henry Larson's picture

I recently moved. Upon arrival at my new location two representatives of the church I belong to came to visit. On learning that I am a photographer their response was wow we have been looking for someone to take pictures at our events. I said fine my fee is $100.00 per hour. They immediately lost interest in my services. I do not work professionally for free!

Jason Hudson's picture

Henry, thanks for sharing. I'm in the same boat. I just moved to a knew area. It's like taking 10 steps back and having to argue your worth all over again.

Arun Hegden's picture

Very good one Jason. Truth has been spoken. :)
Like someone said:
"Shoot yourselves for free,
Shoot your clients for a fee "

Jason Hudson's picture

catchy! I like it.

Rob Mynard's picture

Great read Jason and I completely agree with you.
I might not have gotten my point across as well in my article but my sentiment was that while I do shoot some stuff for free, if I'm ever asked too, my answer is almost always a solid no. I know the value of my work and I know how much I put into it. If I can see a non-financial, value return in something its my prerogative to adjust my price, but I don't put up with someone else expecting a discount - but my answer email's not a polite as yours so I might steal some of your wording.
And I stand by my suggestion that the cool kids are shooting for free, but the smart kids are getting paid.

Deleted Account's picture

The real problem that nobody ever talks about is the well-priced photographers that hack their way through jobs.

They do the most to hurt the reputation of the profession because they give the impression that all photographers are faking it. Nobody is surprised if a "free-shooter" delivers bad work, but people really get upset when bad work cost them a lot of money.

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