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Should You Work for Free as a Photographer?

Art either has extremely high value or no value at all. Getting from one to the other can take decades. Some never make it to the other end. The same is true for photography. At the start of your career, you will surely create art for free. But should you? Art for free, or as they commonly call it TFP(time for print) is an agreement where the team agrees to work for images at the end. This is a very old way of working and has been around for decades if not centuries. The earliest examples of TFP are agreements between artists and their assistants who want to learn. The assistant would live with the artist, help them in their daily life for free, and in return get to see the artist at work. TFP, right? 

Model @sannabjelm // @swedenmodelsagency

Hair & Makeup @som_alice

Styling @alinaellstrom

In the photography world, TFP is a common thing for projects requiring a team. This is common in the fashion world. A fashion shoot is a collaboration between creatives from different fields. You can’t expect to do styling, makeup, assisting, directing, modeling, and so on by yourself. Naturally many creatives work for “free” at the start and some are happy to work on a TFP basis later on in their career. 

A Word on Editorial

With print magazines falling out of favor with customers, the budgets decrease. 20 years ago, Elle would chase photographers asking for images, now photographers chase Elle to get their images in. The difference between the two is massive, and it shows that the photographer should be grateful that a magazine such as Elle is even going to accept the photos for free. The budgets that magazines may have are small and often not enough to cover the whole crew costs. This leaves some crew members without a salary while the photographer usually gets to take something home.

Is it fair? No, I don’t think so. Unfortunately, there is rarely something I can do about this. Even if there is some editorial budget, it is a lot less than commercial. As a photographer, I have editorial rates, so do most production studios. Nonetheless, some say that TFP practices in photography have led us to a point where not everyone has to be paid and some people can work for photos while others should drop their rates just for the magazine. 

Styling @hadishasovetova
Hair @karinajemelyjanova
Make-up @knollmakeup
Model @rekafedra/@facemodelmanagementhungary
First assistant @seloua_benkaid_kasbah
Retouch @retouchconcept

Is TFP Ruining the Industry? Has It Already Ruined It?

There are countless arguments against TFP. Social media has made connecting with photographers and crew extremely easy. Facebook has countless TFP groups which are a great place for any beginner to find crew. It wasn’t always like this, as before the social media era, aspiring models, makeup artists, or even stylists would go and pay a photographer to build up their portfolio. This was a very profitable cycle, as models and photographers made images and paid each other for them. Naturally, the model had to pay upfront and hope that the photos end up making them money.  

Styling @hadishasovetova
Hair @karinajemelyjanova
Make-up @knollmakeup
Model @rekafedra/@facemodelmanagementhungary
First assistant @seloua_benkaid_kasbah
Retouch @retouchconcept

Yet as social media grew things changed. There are plenty of beginner photographers who are happy to shoot any model. It’s as simple as the model posting 1 image and saying that they want to shoot tomorrow at 5 PM. Given that the group is large enough, the model will be the one picking a photographer who is happy to work for free. 

The analogy given is that in any other industry no such thing exists. Lawyers don’t give free advice, nor do doctors give free treatment (especially in the US). Why should photographers? This is a valid analogy and photographers absolutely should not work for free all the time. But when is it ok? 

As a fashion photographer, I know TFP first hand. That is how I started and how I sometimes still shoot. Photography for me is loads of fun and that is the main factor when I create. The budget is, most of the time, a secondary factor. If the shoot is editorial and looks like fun I am happy to do it for free, expenses covered. 

The Real Enemy

What is really running the industry is the point of view where if there is no price tag on something it means that it is worthless. Creatives are so bogged down in seeing their work as a cash cow, they can’t see beyond it. Instead, I treat photography as my partner. I wake up inspired by them and go to bed inspired by them. If I were to go up to my partner and ask her where the money is at, she would leave immediately. Same with photography. If you chose photography for the money, you clearly are not having fun with it. Hand on heart, you can have a much calmer and steadier career as someone in a corporate job. Photography is a paid hobby, and I am paid to have fun. Can I have fun without being paid? Absolutely yes. Ask how you can contribute to your photography, not how photography can contribute to you. Contribute to your photography in a way that’s the most fun for you. 

Styling @hadishasovetova
Hair @karinajemelyjanova
Make-up @knollmakeup
Model @rekafedra/@facemodelmanagementhungary
First assistant @seloua_benkaid_kasbah
Retouch @retouchconcept

Before doing any job, paid or not, you should ask yourself:

  1. Will it be fun to create? 
  2. Will I learn something from this creation? 
  3. Will the crew be grateful for this creation? 
  4. Will this make me money? 

The last one does not imply making money through the exact image, it means that the image you will create will end up landing you a job. It means money as energy. Will the image create something greater?

Closing Thoughts

Coming back to my original question. Art for free, should you do it? Yes, you should! Doing art is about expression, not about making a profit 24/7. The reason you are able to have fun with art should be because of what you create, not because of how much you are paid for it. Practically, there is money to be made in every genre of photography. If you choose to create what is really fun for you, what is fun for your crew, and what is fun for the world. Be yourself, and shoot as much TFP as you want. There is no right or wrong. 

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22 Comments

J.d. Davis's picture

You said "The earliest examples of TFP are agreements between artists and their assistants who want to learn."

WHAT THE ACTUAL BLEEPING BLEEP????

You do not give an assistant something they can use in their portfolio just for assisting you - that's what the money is for.

Watermarked images for makeup, hair, wardrobe and models- perhaps....

Illya Ovchar's picture

Medieval art training was based on this principle. I don't refer to current affairs per se, I simply refer to how it was when Michelangelo or Raphael were around.
Although to be frank I had people come to assist for free, I've done it myself too. I don't see anything wrong with it if you're there for the right reason.

J.d. Davis's picture

SERIOUSLY? What part of the Sistine Chapel was Francesco Granacci.given for his help?

TFP is TIME FOR PRINTS - and I seriously doubt you can find any examples of that in the era of which you speak.

Editorial writing should be factual - google will help.

J.d. Davis's picture

P.S. Granacci was paid by the Pope - so was Michelangelo...The Guild system was Apprentice, Journeyman, and MASTER

Today we call it Student Disciple and Master!

Illya Ovchar's picture

Sorry, my friend. I defined TFP in a different way. I defined it in terms of getting something non-monetary in return for work. Nowadays few photographers give actual prints. Immaterial things can be knowledge, prints, or anything else. Your definition is perfectly good too if that's how you see TFP.

J.d. Davis's picture

Except it really is TIME FOR PRINT -

Anywho, have a blessed day

Illya Ovchar's picture

You won, give yourself a pat on the back.

Tony Clark's picture

Thought provoking and makes a case for doing what is best for you. I have always approached requests for free images with the question, will the images generate revenue for the other party, if yes then I deserve getting paid.

Illya Ovchar's picture

One of the questions to think about, certainly. Above all the images should generate value for you, then it's most fun.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

Why you may need to chase Elle to give your photos to them for free? Vanity? Paying your team with a publication (like it has a value)?

Illya Ovchar's picture

From my experience in fashion, an editorial publication has incredible marketing and brand value, Alexander. I suggest every fashion photographer trying to get published by major magazines at some point.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

I don't know what to say, I actually pay my assistants so they can make a living during the time I hire them, have fun, get free lunch, work hard and learn, but I don't do fashion.

Illya Ovchar's picture

Certainly being an assistant is a paid job. However, there are instances where someone comes to me who wants to learn and offers their help for free. If they are genuinely helpful I'm more than happy to have them on set, for an agreement they're satisfied with. Money is an important factor, but far from the only one on this planet.

Jan Holler's picture

Yes. And maybe it's worth mentioning that there were times when you had to pay for practical training. Today, at least here in Switzerland, you are paid as an apprentice.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

I don't allow these types of visitors anymore. Every single one I have dealt with were more about my client list and contacts than any form of learning. There is no going back to this.

Glem Let's picture

I started shooting for Elle magazine just over 20yrs ago…. Believe me when I tell you, they never chased you. It was just as tough, if not tougher back then to get your book under their noses…

I haven’t read any articles on Fstoppers for 6 months or so, I come back and it’s just the same…. Wannabe’s pretending to be photographers, writing click bait articles for amateurs to read…

Spend more time getting work and you will wonder ‘why did I waste all that time writing stuff… instead of actually working for clients.

G

Alexander Petrenko's picture

You are not the target audience for these articles. It’s for Illya’s (future) students.

Illya Ovchar's picture

The target audience is anyone who is interested in the topic. You seem to read my work quite a lot, you're part of that audience actually ;-)

Illya Ovchar's picture

Actually my friend, you have read articles on Fstoppers in the past 6 months. No worries though, time flies when you have fun ;-)
I'll let you know when I'm looking for advice, but thanks anyways, I appreciate your input.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

What bothers me with this article is the specific type of photography it focuses on. You have a generic TFP suggestion in the title but target fashion exclusively. To me that's a recipe for confusion.