So in the olden days being a photographer was a fairly rare profession. Cameras and lenses were very expensive and only professionals – or very dedicated hobbyists – had the necessary equipment for taking good quality photos.
Nowadays anyone can afford a good camera and “everyone is a photographer” (or at least they think they are). And the tendency – sadly – is that online papers and magazines rely partly on their readers to provide photography for their news articles for free instead of having a full time professional photographer on their books.
This has quite rightly angered a lot of professional photographers. You’ve probably heard this piece of advice many times on the internet:
Stop working for free!
There are articles on prominent websites dedicated to this issue as well as a popular open Facebook group with over 20,000 members who are all against this tendency of people asking (and expecting!) photos for free.
Many photographers are of the opinion that you should never offer your services for free. I disagree: there are some instances when working for free is not only OK but a good way to get a lot of proper paid work.
Here are some examples of my own experiences of having done some free photography that has resulted in paid work:
First of all, when I was just starting out I wanted to take restaurant photos. I reached out to a recently opened local restaurant and asked whether they’d like some photos. My offer was that if they let me do a practice shoot in their restaurant, they could have the photos for free. They agreed to it, liked the photos I took, and soon after hired me to take photos of their sister restaurant in London – this time paying me a proper fee. And they have hired me to shoot events in their restaurants, portraits of the staff, and every time they open a new restaurant they hire me to take the photos for their website.
A few years ago a local venue was looking for someone to take photos at a New Year’s Eve cabaret in exchange for a free entry to the event. I didn’t have any other plans that year so I thought “Well, why not! That’d be a novel way to spend New Year’s Eve!” The show was brilliant fun, I had a great time and got some good practice working in a dimly lit venue. I made friends with some of the performers and ended up going back a few more times for burlesque and cabaret nights, just for fun. I posted the photos online with my watermark on them, tagged the performers and got a lot of “likes” and comments from people. Over the years since, I have had lots of paid-for studio shoots with performers as well as a few weddings – all because I did something for free first just for fun.
Business portraits at networking event
Another example of an almost free photo shoot: I had attended a local business networking event a few times and then thought of approaching the organiser about arranging a business portrait shoot at their next event. I created a page for it on my website and marketed the event with my offer of a £20 business portrait photo for anyone attending. The day itself was hardly worth the money for me to set up my portable studio, travel, expensive car park and time spent taking the photos and chatting with everyone, but as a result of this little shoot, the people who I took photos of have over the years hired me for two weddings, a full day corporate headshot shoot and other bits and pieces. All from a one-off shoot that I didn’t make any money from (after expenses).
So when is it OK to work for free?
Only when you work on your own terms. Only when it’s YOU who wants to take the photos even if you didn’t get paid for them, or if you have a specific plan how to benefit from the free shoot. And a word of warning: if someone asks you for free photos because you are going to get “great exposure”, run.
Because “exposure” never paid for anyone’s rent or mortgage. No one is going to see your photo in a paper or magazine and hire you for a well paid shoot just from seeing one of your photos. Especially if you didn’t even get credit for the printed photo (which happens)! People who play this “exposure” card just want your photos for free and give you false hope of some paid work that will result from this “amazing opportunity” of giving your work away for no compensation.
Not everyone is that evil, though. People can have quite innocent beliefs that if they get your photo with your name into a paper or magazine, you will get lots of work from it. So they may think that they are doing a huge favour to you. Or they have grandiose beliefs that if your name is on their website as the photographer who took their portrait, you will get tonnes of work from it. Just remember that unless it’s the cover of Vogue, most likely nothing will come out of it.
Because it doesn’t work like that.
You don’t get work because someone saw your name under a photo in the paper. You get work because you build relationships. You get work because someone sees how you work and how you treat people, AND because of the photos you take. You get work because you connect with people.
That’s how I got many thousands pounds worth of work from taking a few £20 business portraits at that networking event. That’s how I have had half a dozen more restaurant shoots for the restaurateur after the free one I did years ago. And that’s how I have had the pleasure of photographing really fun cabaret weddings and taken performer portraits after having done a few free shoots just for fun. And I could give you many more examples from my and my fellow local photographers’ experiences.
Working for free is absolutely fine in my opinion when you have a solid plan on how to make it result in some well paid work somewhere down the line. Just be very aware of the fact that people will try and get you to give your work for free by promising fantastic “exposure”, or saying it will “look great in your portfolio”, or (empty) promising paid work some time in the future. Don’t be fooled by any of that nonsense.
And of course you can take photos just for fun if you enjoy it, like I did the burlesque and cabaret photography. Then, if something fun turns into paid work, that is just a brilliant bonus.
There’s a fabulous chart on ShouldIWorkForFree.com – have a quick read through it and follow the advice!
Have you had any experiences in getting plenty of well paid work from a freebie you offered? I’d love to hear your thoughts! Please leave a comment below.