As a full-time freelance photographer, we often ask ourselves why we should work for free, especially at the start of our careers. Are we being taken for a ride, or is it worth investing in our client for possible future returns?
To give you a bit of background, I’m a photographer residing in Cape Town, South Africa. In my experience, photography is not really seen as something more than a mere hobby where I live. We have a handful of top professionals, who managed to break the international barrier. Yet, there are tons of photographers working under the international radar and trying their best to hit the big time jackpot. Unfortunately, most of them find it difficult to pay the bills at the end of the month as well as grab those high-end clients. So why should they accept free work?
Starting out as a band photographer in 2008, I only did free shoots for musicians, whether it was a studio/location shoot or concerts. I did it for the love of the game while finishing my studies in Photography. Every now and then I was lucky when I was offered payment for the shoot, even if it was just a beer or a free T-shirt to say thanks. What remained after the shoot was an established relationship. I became friends with many of the artists I shot during the early years of my photography career and only about a decade later did it started paying off when I was contacted again by one of the musicians I worked with. This time the work was fully commissioned. I managed to shoot one music video for the client and he referred me to someone else who also needed some work done. It only takes one person to believe in your work for you to succeed.
I’ve also established a relationship with a few digital agencies over the years from shooting events for little or no payment and because of that, I’m receiving commissioned shoots or retouching projects from them years later.
So why work for free when I could’ve charged for all those projects? Some people could say it’s the drug dealer’s tactic of charging very little or nothing at all in the beginning and then raising your prices later. I network and meet clients face to face and establish a proper foundation first, making sure they remember me as well as my work. The years of doing free work allowed me the opportunity to meet the people I needed to meet in order to grow my client base through word of mouth mostly.
Through the years I made the decision of not doing any free work at all anymore. I turned down at least 3-5 clients per week due to not being able to adjust to their small budget, or in some cases thinking I was above doing shoots for free. This made me realize my network wasn’t expanding as fast as it used to, and I was busy digging my own grave. I started accepting free shoots again when I had time, as long as they fit into my style of work and if it’s something I’d like to add to my portfolio. This way I had a chance to network again and build up contacts in the industry.
From the free shoots I’ve done in the last while, most of them either referred me to paying clients or commissioned me themselves to do another shoot. I think the key here is a balance, and to never lose the passion you had when you first started with photography. If you have time to spare, why not do a TFCD/TFP shoot or two if you think it’ll add to your portfolio. Establish new business relationships or follow up with old clients. I’ve met so many talented make-up artists, stylists and models through doing free work. I was lucky enough they liked my work an kept that relationship going through the years and work with me again on commissioned shoots.
As any artist or photographer knows, your work evolves over the years. You only become stronger if you practice enough. And I’m sure this is why the relationships I established in the earlier years of my career paid off in the end.
What are your thoughts on working for free? Would you ever consider it?