There are normally two points of view that come up when you bring up this topic:
- Version 1: Never, Oh my god, you are ruining the industry, NOOB! Exposure doesn’t pay the bills. You wouldn’t expect a doctor to work for free. You are the reason photographers can’t earn a decent living.
- Version 2: Yes. You need to gain experience and you can’t expect people to pay for it. You are not the reason that people can’t make money at photography. If you don’t need the money, then why should you charge people? Do what you want to do and ignore everybody else.
Well, as with all things, it is a bit more nuanced than the arguments you hear on internet forums. Free is happening at all levels of photography all the time. From those of you just starting out, taking photos of your friends kids, all the way through to superstar photographers doing a favour for a friend at an advertising agency. Sometimes it pays to shoot for free. Sometimes you just want to shoot for free, and no matter what some might say, there is not always an issue with this.
Chase Jarvis wrote a great blog post about this years ago that always stuck with me. If it doesn’t give you two out of the following three things, then it is probably not worth shooting:
It is a simple approach that really makes it simple to help you figure out whether you should shoot for free. Now, as much as I wish I were at a Chase Jarvis point in my career, I am not. Therefore I changed it; does it pay me, build me contacts or build my portfolio? It has done me pretty well so far. So with this fresh in your mind, let’s look at how you can use free to your advantage.
Pay to play
I will be honest here; if somebody is willing to pay me my rates to photograph paint drying, I will do it.
As much as social media floods our feeds with photographers “living their best life” (god I hate that phrase) and choosing only jobs that feed their soul, most of them will at one point or another (and many still have to) take whatever job pays them. They just conveniently forget to add it to their Insta story. Sure, you only put work in your portfolio that you want to shoot, but if they pay and you need the money, you take the job.
I have been paid to photograph things that will never make my portfolio, but they meant I get to pay my mortgage. The old saying goes that money can’t buy you happiness, but it can give you freedom. If by doing boring jobs it means you can travel to shoot the project you always wanted to, then you get your creativity out of the job, just in other ways. However, this article is about when you should shoot for free, so let’s move on to the most obvious reason to work for free – to build your portfolio.
Building your portfolio
You need to build a portfolio to get clients to pay you for your work, yet you need clients to get a portfolio. It is the classic chicken and egg scenario. When you are starting out and thinking that you might want to have people pay you for your services, you need to be able to show you can do the work you want to do. The simple solution is to offer photography in return for portfolio material.
This option also means you may be able to get into situations with specific people and locations that you may not have ever been able to get to on your own or paid to shoot with your current portfolio. In the music world, I shot for free a lot. I kept all rights to the images and sent them to a picture agency to make money that way. Whilst the website I shot for did not pay; they got me access.
Shooting for an agency is unlikely to get you stage-side access at a music festival. Shooting for the right publication, for free, can. The ability to get five minutes with a person that would look great in your portfolio is priceless. Unless there is similar work in your portfolio, you will struggle to get paid for this. This is the kind of free work that leads to more paid work and builds you a kick-ass portfolio.
Let’s not forget, that being published is a major buzz, especially when you start out. Unfortunately, many photographers used to being paid for assignments can forget this. You should never underestimate this type of boost to your self-confidence.
My photography started in Skateboarding. It was the reason I picked up a camera. I shot everyone who came into my area and sent photos to magazines all the time. Then, something amazing happened – the magazine published one!
Very little replaces the thrill of being published for the first time. A photo I shot was in the magazine I had loved since childhood. That was the best feeling ever! Who cares if I got paid? I was young, and I had done the one thing I always wanted to do – get featured in a magazine. This one thing was a signal I could actually do something with my camera. I was good enough to get featured alongside photographers I looked up to. I still have that magazine in a box somewhere, and I will never, ever get rid of it.
However, this type of free shoot treads a very fine line. When you shoot for free, you are always the right price. Try not to get into making this a habit, especially for the same publication.
Testing, 1, 2, 3
Even more established photographers sometimes need free shoots. It could be as simple as testing a new camera or trying a new technique. I am planning on hiring a couple of cameras soon and I will time it for when I have a couple of jobs on a weekend. However, I will also offer a free shoot for someone during my time with the camera.
When someone has paid for your services, asking them to bare with you whilst you scratch your head and try to figure out which menu setting you need is not a way to build their confidence or your profile. That means I can only really experiment with the camera later in the shoot when I know I have some great images for the client.
By organizing a free shoot, however, I can spend all of the shoot experimenting with the camera, testing it how I want. The person who receives the free shoot will not mind (or will simply have to grin and bare) the time I spend working out which menu setting I need.
Time for print/gym membership/whatever
Bartering has been around since the dawn of time. The exchange of modeling in exchange for the final images has been around almost as long. You get great images for your portfolio, and the model also gets the same great images for theirs.
However, there are more creative ways in which you can trade your photography for services. As in the portfolio building, this can again be a way to build a portfolio but also get something for your time, albeit not money.
I really need to get back in shape and haven’t been to a gym in years. I am getting older and feel I need to get a level of fitness back. Now, I could simply go out and pay for a gym membership. Instead, I am going to approach gyms in my local area and attempt to trade a photoshoot in exchange for a yearly gym membership.
Why do this? Well, I’ll save money by not paying for a membership for starters. I have my camera gear, and if I book them in for a time when I have no other work on, all I am losing is the time for the shoot (plus processing). It also helps me build a portfolio in this area of photography, which like my fitness, is lacking.
The gym may be interested as they will get some shiny new photos for their website/social media and it costs them nothing apart from letting someone use the already open gym (plus a 30-minute induction session).
Now, yes, I could get paid more for a promotional shoot. However, how many companies respond to a cold call from someone with no portfolio in this area, asking them if they want to pay hundreds of pounds for a photo shoot? In my experience, very few. Then, if other gyms see my great work and the response it gets, then they will be in touch. This is when I can use that shoot to leverage getting paid.
Depending on what photography you do, there will be people you need to impress. This could be business owners, record companies, or chairpersons. By doing work for these people, it can be a way to get where you want to be faster.
As an example, you could shoot family portraits. One family you shoot are wearing clothes from the local children’s clothing boutique. The shop asks if you would mind them using one of your images on their social media accounts. How should you go forward?
The most important thing is that you must get written permission from the family to use the images in this way. But, assuming you have done this, why would you give them the image for free?
There are two ways of looking at this, and neither is wrong. You could let them know your commercial rates and let them decide whether they want to use it. Alternatively, you could allow them to use it for free, but make sure they tag you in the posts. You could even get them to include your photography flyer in the bags of their customers. This means you get great, targeted advertising for your photography. Also, when the company does want to arrange a photo shoot, you will be the first name that comes to mind.
Photograph things you believe in. If I can help out a charity I believe in, then I will do it for free. This is the karma side of photography. If your talent can help people, then you should do it. As much as it won’t pay the bills, working for a charity will give you a feeling that money can’t replace.
So that gives you some good reasons to shoot for free. Do you have any more? Or am I completely mad for ever suggesting people should shoot for free? Post a comment and lets see what people think.