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."