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Stop Charging, Start Shooting For Free

Stop Charging, Start Shooting For Free

This past Monday I wrote a piece titled "Six Things Every Beginning Photographer Should Know". One of the points I made was the importance of sometimes shooting for free. Here are just a few excerpts of reader responses:
"Shoot for free? Really lol?"
"Shooting for free is what's wrong with the photography business."
"Go ahead shoot for free. You set your price point and show how much you value your work that way."

So I thought it would be worthwhile to explain what I meant.

Here is an excerpt from my post: "If your portfolio isn’t very diverse, start thinking about the types of clients and jobs that you want to get, and then approach them. There are plenty of small businesses or bands out there that would be thrilled to have you shoot for them for free or for trade or a for a discounted rate. If it means that you get to add the types of images to your portfolio that you need, then it’s mutually beneficial."

What I was not saying was that you, professional photographer that you are, should get yourself into a situation where a client is taking advantage of you. That is the last place you ever want to be. Shooting from this mental state is not conducive to creativity. What I meant was that you should for free on your terms.

For example, I want to do more editorial-style portrait work. My goal is to be a regional freelancer for publications like Rolling Stone, Esquire and The New York Times. If a photo director from one of these publications were to visit my site, would they see the types of images that they are looking for in a freelance photographer? If not, I will certainly not get the gig. So how do I get the images in my portfolio if no one will hire me in the first place? I do this by shooting for free. I acknowledge the areas in my portfolio that are the weakest or least diverse and I do a free shoot that will give me the type of images that meet those criteria.

Let's say that I need more mens fashion in my portfolio. Now that I know what I want to photograph, I pull in a makeup artist, hair stylist, model and anything else I will need to execute the shoot, such as local clothing boutiques. And then I shoot it however I want. After I am done editing the photos, I give the files to everyone involved who also donated their time.

Now maybe fashion isn't your thing. Maybe you love bands. Or food photography. Or architecture. If your portfolio isn't everything it could be, adding a few more, diverse images to round it out could mean the difference of you getting a job or not getting a job.

Once you have acknowledged where your portfolio lacking, think about local, up-and-coming talent or businesses that you think would be perfect for a shoot. Approach them. Tell them you will shoot their space/band/product for free (this one time) and give them the files for them to use (crediting you whenever they do). Now you have another shoot under your belt and more images in your portfolio that reflect the exact type of photography that you want to do more of. Plus, they now know your name and have a relationship with you. And it WILL turn into paid work.

Still not convinced? Let me describe three scenarios where I have shot for free. The first scenario involves The Ohio State University dance department. But it didn't start out this way. It started with my overwhelming desire to photograph dancers. I didn't know any dancers, but I knew that OSU had a renowned dance department. So I got on their website and looked up the email addresses of every graduate student in the dance department and emailed every single one of them, introducing myself. I got one response. After I shot her (for free) and gave her the files, a couple more of her dancer friends came along. I shot them for free as well (after all, this was what I wanted to be shooting). After doing about half a dozen of these mini-sessions, that dance class started graduating and a new class of grad students came through. By now, my name was know throughout the department as the go-to guy for dance photography. But these new students didn't know me as the "free guy". So now I was shooting dancers (which I still loved) but was getting paid. A year after that, OSU came knocking. They needed marketing images for their dance department. Now the legit money had arrived. I have since shot three commercial dance shoots, directly for The Ohio State University, and was payed well for it.

The second scenario concerns one of my favorite musicians, Chelsea Wolfe. I have been a huge fan of her music since her first album. Since she is based in L.A. and isn't on a major record label, she doesn't make it to my neck of the woods very often. So when I saw that she was to play a Chicago show with King Dude (another musician I love), I knew I had to go. And what would make this photographer even more stoked than seeing two musicians he loved play live? Photographing them of course. So I emailed/Facebooked them. I introduced myself and shared my portfolio with them. I mentioned that if they put me and my friends on the list to the show, I would shoot them and give them the images to use. And they said YES. So even though I wasn't getting paid cash for the shoot, being able to work with them and see them play was like currency to me. And now they are using the images on their social media sites, literally reaching tens of thousands of people.

The third scenario involves a client that approached me. And while I would normally not even respond to an email from an unknown client soliciting unpaid work from me, this was different. This was from one of the largest design firms in Columbus. They were asking me to shoot the marketing images for the largest fashion show in Columbus. And guess what. They weren't getting paid either (sometimes the most exciting work is the stuff that pays the least). But now I have a killer portfolio piece and I have an in with the director of the design firm. The design firm that contracts out photographers at their $10,000 day rate for commercial clients.

I don't know about you, but I, for one, get more life out of certain types of shoots than others. Certain types of jobs pay the bills while others fill me up inside. My goal in business is to unite the two so that I can make a living off of shooting exactly the type of photography that I adore.The types of gigs you love may only come around every few months. So when it does, and you are competing against several other people to get that perfect gig, you definitely want to have the best possible odds of getting that gig. As the saying goes, "If you aim at nothing you'll hit it every time."

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Paul Hance's picture

Nick I agree with you 100%. All of my images I work with designers, models, hair and makeup stylist to get the images I wanted. You have to Shoot for the type of work you want to get paid for. Thanks for the post.

Ezequiel Poccard's picture


Andrew Griswold's picture

Just fantastic! The strategy involved goes above and beyond what people see as FREE work. It pays off in so many other ways and in some ways in real paid gigs later down the road. Just brilliant sir! 

Bert McLendon's picture

It's called Strategy.  If you don't have any kid portraits in your portfolio and you want to be a kid portrait photographer how can you convince someone that they need to pay you 500 bucks for a sitting fee to shoot their kid?  It's common sense.  Lots of well known photographers "give away" the shoot with the hopes that they will buy products.  Even if they don't (which means the shots probably suck), you still have images to put in your portfolio to show other people that you can take images of kids, pets, families, birds, hooters etc...  Good post and then better repost, I think that's an Fstoppers first?

Bert McLendon's picture

Funny and weird thing just happened.  As I was reading this re-post I was listening to the Glyn Dewis Kelby Training course and he just said at 12:13 of the very first video basically saying "I still do a lot of free work when I think there is a mutual benefit".  It creates a new network that you didn't have before and can generate new avenues of revenue.  Of course on the flip side, if your images suck, that network is now in the toilet.  =)

Absolute nonsense.  If your work is worth using commercially, it is worth paying for - whether you choose to use it in a portfolio or not.

Torbjörn Skogsberg's picture

Did you read the article? You where given this as an explanation of the concept of shooting for something else than money. You where given exsamples on How this turned profitable and you call it nonsense. I don't understand this. 
In the case of the dance school, it did pay money in the long run. The only time it did not was when it was done it for free.  But free is a hell lot better than something that will Cost you money. See like this: You swapping your time for some very clever advertisement aimed directly at the certain type of work you are looking for. Imagine the cost of placing ads. Your payment is that you get to shoot the thing You need. You get contacts in a new market and you do it on Your terms. Bylines never pays money - but it might cost you less money, in the long run. You might not agree with the concept but don't call it nonsense when it clearly has provided work. 

Aspiring to shoot content that is more than just a paycheck isnt exactly your goal in life is it pop. 
anyone who has had to try to get a BIG job that to most is considered a dream job has had to do free work at some point in their career. especially at the beginning.

RepublicWay's picture

You seem pretty bitter....Not getting enough paid work that you THINK you should be getting?

Quite the opposite actually. I have more work than I can handle. Highly paid work. It;s ridiculous to hear people continue to spout nonsense about "having" to give away work on the off chance that it "may" get you more work. If you need to fill up your portfolio,c all on your friends, family and colleagues.  

Also note, charity work is not "free" work, there's a distinct difference. Free also doesn't include personal projects for artistic/technical growth. Free is giving away work that will be used for commercial purposes that otherwise should have been paid for.

Björn Lubetzki's picture

Fraser let me ask you a question. How did you get in contact with a client like Monster,  Specialized, Oakley? Is there a chance that it might be EASIER (and I don't mean totally easy) for you to get an in, cause you ride bikes? Don't you think it would be easier for an outsider to get an contract for say a biker or a skateboarder, bmx driver, if he first shot one guy with a sponsoring and tell him "sure, give it to your sponsors and let them use it in a campaign". This might get you into the "inner circle". You can be the "best Photographer" on earth, if nobody knows you, it isn't worth a god damn dime.
Another thing is quite simply the experience. It's possible, that the first Skate images you will take in your live will be cool, but it isn't very likely. You can watch say something like skating (and by you, i mean a hypothetical photographer) on videos, or live, you can even drive yourself, but if you have never shot it, the possibility, that these will be some sick images is second to none. So practice. If they do come out great and the guy even has a sponsoring and uses them your in the green. Other guys will see the images and will most likely also want images from you (this hypothetical photographer).....It's the same with biking

Of course it was easier for me, I worked in this industry as an athlete while I was working on a degree 15 years ago. I also work in the snow industry and am far from a professional snowboarder or skier; (although to be fair, many of my contacts cross over.)

The giving free images to sponsors part is the stumbling block for most "beginner" photographers, for lack of a better term. I don't mean to demean anyone with that usage, there's a ton of people starting out their career with tons of talent and technical know-how.The point is, athletes are almost always ready to shoot. It's what makes them professionals, part of their responsibilities to their sponsors include this. So ask away, you'll get an enthusiastic "yes" more often than not. Then feel free to send sample images to their sponsors, that's the idea, obviously. However, if your work is good enough for company X to use commercially (say in a print ad, on their website, etc) it's good enough for them to pay you for. Don't make the mistake of underestimating the value of your work simply because you are "just starting out". Art directors/marketing staff do not care. All they are concerned with is if the images is one that they would like to have representing their brand.

Scott Hargis's picture

"...Free also doesn't include personal projects for artistic/technical growth...."

You clearly didn't read the article. That's the exact point the author is making. Also, calling on friends and family to fill up the portfolio? This is your advice for the aspiring fashion photographer, that he should get his little sister, or his mother to model for him? That's so absurd that I don't even know where to start. Good models are professionals. Similarly, someone shooting architecture is not going to get anywhere by showing photos of his friends' crappy apartments.
There is a wide range of photographic genres out there, many of them are highly technical and highly specialized. It's good to keep that in mind.

Christopher Hoffmann's picture

You really should read the article. You are missing the point that this is not referring (from what I understand) to the seasoned pro. It is, however, referring to those that have little to no experience in an unfamiliar genre.

Matt's picture

Im so happy you went and posted this up Nick! My photo/business partner and I have been struggling in the last couple months deciding what we should charge for and when we should do the "free" thing. and this article just clears so much up! I love the examples you gave as well! The ones that dont understand or choose to attempt to debunk this are the photographers that wont make it in the future! 

Donna Budahl-Patterson's picture

Thanks for posting this so I can show my husband that it does make sense for me to be doing some shoots for no charge....and it's the photos from those shoots that have gotten the attention and publicity that I need!

Richie Velasquez's picture

Come on guys. Don't be so anal about it. Here are some free jobs I do yearly, for both photo and cinema:
I do at least 3 charity events a year. Meaning, I do photos, or edits for inner city schools, or even poor schools in the countryside( I live in Honduras) for fund raisers, or just to raise awareness of the trials these kids go through. I also help friends out, whenever possible. Some of my friends want to get started with their careers as designers, or even models. They are friends. If we didn't help each other out, and give each other a hand, then why be friends? Some shots even make it into my portfolio, but nothing makes you smile more than to see another fellow human being smile and say thank you!

 I don't think I'm as conceited as Fraser Britton who probably won't push the shutter button unless he sees the bank deposit receipt or check in his drawer. Through our images, we can do lots of good to help others. Sometimes, it very worth you while to spread some love, and give others a hand with something you are gifted with.

Bert McLendon's picture

Just because there may not be any money involved in some shoots doesn't mean that there isn't any value to doing the shoot.

Michael SP's picture

I've done a ton of Pro-bono work for clients and they've in turn, gotten me a few more clients. I truly think there's absolutely nothing wrong with doing a free gig every now and then, to me it helps me hone my skills so that I can be a better photographer. 

Almås Jan Helge's picture

I do all my work for free, but I ask in return that the models share and comments on my webiste.

A good way to get good advertise. I also try to do new things on every shoot, so it will be a good training session. When I am starting to do more boring stuff like the same lighting and children poses every time, I guess I will start taking money for it. But now the expirience, training and the advertising is the best way to build a brand for the future.

Gustaveux's picture

I totally agreed. I have done a few just to get my name out there and it works.

Tony Carter's picture

 When you shoot an event purely for the enjoyment of it, then that enjoyment is your payment!  If you happen to  get an offer for the photos you took, get a paying gig because of it, or seeing others enjoying your photos, then that's just EXTRA payment!  If you think about it, I would bet that 100% of photographers get paying gigs by their work getting exposed in some way to that person or company that wanted to hire them.  Who would pay for a photographer's services that has never seen any example of their work?

Steve Watkins's picture

It kills me to see photographers doing this.  I shoot musicians quite a lot, and shooting for free is a cancer in the industry.  When you shoot for free you are taking food off of someone's table, you are devaluing the industry you are trying to get into and so by the time you have the skills to start charging there is no one willing to pay.  With every free concert you shoot, you bring down the wages for all of it. 

If you need practice, portfolio, etc shoot friends, family members, etc.  If you want to shoot musicians, do so then post watermarked photos and offer to sell them.  I've sold a lot of photos that way.  But never give away your work.  You cut all our throats.

Chris Newman's picture

A client with no money for photography is not yours to loose.

Nathan J Lester's picture

i still shoot for free on a regular basis.  I shot in the music industry and will shoot for small time bands for nothing.  Advantages, they become loyal to you and return with payment in the future (most of the time depending on how successful they become), they tell their friends (the music indistry is very small in most ways people know people in other bands) who then hire you, and you get into a ton of gigs free (some of these gigs may be free but you definately get looked after by the bands) and have a great time.  Its also good to shoot this stuff for free as they are happy with any shots they dont pay for and because you are shooting for them you have a load of creative control over the images.  So yeah shoot for free from time to time its good for your portfolio, your reputation and you as it gets you a different headspace.

Nathan J Lester's picture

i still shoot for free on a regular basis.  I shot in the music industry and will shoot for small time bands for nothing.  Advantages, they become loyal to you and return with payment in the future (most of the time depending on how successful they become), they tell their friends (the music indistry is very small in most ways people know people in other bands) who then hire you, and you get into a ton of gigs free (some of these gigs may be free but you definately get looked after by the bands) and have a great time.  Its also good to shoot this stuff for free as they are happy with any shots they dont pay for and because you are shooting for them you have a load of creative control over the images.  So yeah shoot for free from time to time its good for your portfolio, your reputation and you as it gets you a different headspace.

if the photos on your facebook that are watermarked are any indication of what you think value is then you have very little room to talk here bucko.

Fact of the matter is that shooting for free(in the right circumstances) is necessary to fast track your career. In his example of shooting the concert he went to, Chelsea wasnt looking to hire a photographer. She isnt a huge artist with a large label behind her willing to hire a photographer for every show.  So your argument of that "taking food off of someone else's table" is just plain dumb. Photo/Film jobs are not a finite commodity. There are not 100 jobs on earth and as soon as they are gone there are no more left. That is a fallacy in economic thinking. In fact that might have created jobs! Him offering a free job and then her seeing the result may have caused her to see the worth of a photographer and hire a few more by the time her tour ends that she otherwise wouldn't have hired.


Joe Topping's picture

It is all situational. I am going to say this: 'time is money'

you are spending (wasting) time for no immediate return, what is the
point? Ah, for a promise of future work? So this is an investment? which
involves a gamble. This sounds very happy/cheerful and good 'for the
greater good' but these attitudes are devaluing the industry. 
It is easy to support the view when you are well established and already have a name...

you are going to work for free, work for cheap instead. If they aren't
willing to even pay your travel expenses, dont bother. To many,
photography is a business, and you need to realize that if everybody
adopts this view there will be a massive decrease in demand for 'more
qualified' photographers. You cannot simply trust people to know what
good photography is. Obviously the word 'good' is subjective, but in
honesty it is not as much as everybody likes to think.

people sit on their technical laurels, by having a flashy camera and
photoshop actions, people may think 'ah, good photographer'. Often the
technicalities of photography overshadow the concepts. You may have a
great idea but if the image looks crap, who will be interested?
So you kinda need to consider how people see photography, and what it is worth to THEM.

of course you are not on the 'level' yet to be paid for your work / you
need more experience; it is a great way of learning. I support this
more than learning through formal education. But again, if you are good
at photography - don't do it for free!

Think about this: You see some bad photography work done for free
You see some great photography work done for free

1. You kinda expect it. You get what you pay for (or in this case what you don't pay for)
2. You realize that you do not have to pay much for great work (we are all bargain hunters)

I could list some more ideas but I am tired. Just don't work for free if your work is good...

only exception I can think of is if a major publication wanted to use
your image (for free) and would credit you in an article or something.
That would be a very good gamble to take.

pvbella's picture

I have shot for free for many occasions. I get more work from that. Some of it is spontaneous. I was sitting in a well known bar/restaurant one day when the manager approached me. I had shot some great pictures of his staff and other stuff over time and let him have them. A group was there having an event and they wanted a photographer. I made a deal on the spot with them, shot their small event, and got paid. Some of the people even bought prints off my website. On another occasion a media group saw some of my pictures in the web and contacted me to shoot stock photography for them. It paid very well.

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