Ask the Photo Business Coach: When Is It OK to Work for Free?

In this installment of “Ask the Photo Business Coach,” I tackle a controversy that has been raging on Black Star Rising since John Harrington’s post, “12 Excuses for Shooting Photos for Free — and Why They’re Bogus,” last week. The question is: “Should I work for free, and if so, when?”

17 Responses to “Ask the Photo Business Coach: When Is It OK to Work for Free?”

  1. I hesitate to get into this again but from my experience, working for free has very rarely (read: never) worked out as a win / win situation.

    Like the many photographers I assisted over the years I built my book by shooting personal work, something I continue to do until this day. On many occasions I have been approached to work for free or below my cost of doing business and as a starting out photographer I thought this was a win win situation. The reality was however quite different and the photographs I shot on those occasions never made it into my book and never lead to more work. For me I have done much better in business by spending that energy on fostering relationships with potential clients (perhaps this works only in Japan?)

    I think photographers would do better in business if they took the opportunities presented by clients and potential clients asking them to work for free and used it to practice their negotiating skills. Learn how to explain and justify to clients the value of your work, it's a has been the better thing to do for my business.

  2. I guess this only applies to those people who have a large sum of money in the bank to pay off all that equipment that they bought - oh and to pay the rent and electricity.....

  3. One question.

    How do you come out of school without a portfolio???

    While tearsheets demonstrate a certain level of experience, a portfolio should demonstrate what you are capable of - your personal vision. You do that largely on your own time. Off the clock. Experimenting and developing skills. Sure, shoot your friends and family to hone those skills. One point I think many are missing is that you shouldn't let your lack of experience be taken advantage of by potential clients. If your portfolio demonstrates a level of talent that's attractive to a potential client, then they should be willing to pay for it.

    Building a portfolio is an ongoing, lifelong process. But how the hell does anyone make it through school without even beginning that process?

    I dunno. I always though you should have a portfolio BEFORE you begin the process of becoming a professional.

  4. I think this is being overdiscussed and overcomplicated.

    Free work and success don't go together. Does Apple give away free computers? We're your cameras free? Is the grocery store ever free? Why should photographers ever be expected to do their work for free.

    And Scott is right - if you're finishing school without a portfolio, ask the school for your money back because you got ripped off.

  5. I too have worked for free. There has been some success but I think the main drawback was psychological and I felt that I wasn't being valued.

  6. "One point I think many are missing is that you shouldn't let your lack of experience be taken advantage of by potential clients. If your portfolio demonstrates a level of talent that's attractive to a potential client, then they should be willing to pay for it."

    Well said, Scott. Your portfolio says "This is me. This is what I can do." It should be respected as such.

  7. I think your response is outstanding. Just because there isn't a cash payment does not mean there won't be any value to an assignment. As you said, it depends. It's up to the photographer to analyze the opportunity to see if it's worth pursuing or not.

  8. Yep...



  9. Here is the danger of working for free. When you work for free you setting the value of your work. I am not against shooting for free if it is a good cause or charity but shooting for free in general is not a great idea.

    Doing trade is one thing if you are getting a service or goods in exchange for your work, but if you are not you walking into a mine field. The big thing to remember is if you are doing trade get a written contract. In that contract state the value of your work.

    Do not give your rights away to your images. A lot of people will shoot a sporting event or concert and not read their paper work the promoters have them sign. If someone wants all rights to your images walk away because you have just lost all benefits in the deal.

    There is a hard lesson every shooter that goes down this path of getting published for a photo credit learns: You are ether a player or you get played. I hate to be cold blooded and burst the bubble but I will. I have worked for various publications the reasoning never changes.

    The Fantasy, they pick my shoot out of millions because they really, really liked it. I am getting credit for the image and that will say how they cool my work is and I can show my friends and family.

    Reality, they want to use your shot to fill a hole nothing more, If they remember and if they have space you will get your photo credit. Your work has no value to them. If they can't pay they will find some other sucker. They value the paper in the bathroom more than your image. If they feel like it they might give you a tearsheet, or sell you a framed copy of the page your image ran on.

    Not as romantic but is true.

  10. Ralph Barret.


    Your website has been hacked.

    Unless it is supposed to be in Japanese.

  11. The only time I do anything for free is when I'm out and about, say I go to a concert or I'm at a farmer's market. (great place for stock imagery!) If I like what I've shot I'll go up to the band after the show or to the person who is running the market stand, give 'em my business card and say "I can provide you with web sized files if you want some shots." I'll get their contact info as well. Sometimes the band or business person will hire me to shoot their next promo or pic's for their website, sometimes it gets me nowhere. BUT most often I get inquiries and get hired from people at the event who see me shooting and/or talking to the people I just photographed.

    In this instance it is a win/win because I'm out enjoying time for myself, shooting for the fun of it & practicing my technique but am always looking to see how can I market myself.

  12. I found a coupon for a free Mcdonalds smoothie in the paper the other day...went to Mcdonalds and had the smoothie...It was awesome!!! So the next day I went back and paid for another one! I guess free stuff can pay off!

  13. Further up the thread, someone mentioned doing shoots for charities and good causes. Well, I'm here to tell you that there will come a time when you say, "Enough! If you want me to shoot, pay me."

    I reached this point a couple of months ago. Was asked to shoot a benefit concert at a hall here in Tucson. I might add that this hall is a union shop. Meaning that there's no way on this green earth that the stage hands or lighting people are working for free.

    So, why should I give up a good part of my Sunday to do so?

    Nowadays, when I get the calls to shoot for free for a good cause or a charity, and, BTW, some charities pay their top people a lot better than I've ever been paid, the answer is no unless I'm getting some of that green compensation. Y'know, the kind you can put in your wallet.


  15. I agree with Harrington...working for free is a bunch of horse manure. I have worked for free with the promise of future work that never materialized. It makes me feel used and it is a complete waste of time. I personally believe that you can find subject, people or things to photograph without exhausting yourself into a frenzy. Folks will use you up if your let them. #JUSTSAYING

  16. What you are saying is actually that you shouldn't work for free.

    I think the term 'free' means a different thing to you than me. To me 'free' means no compensation, no reward, NOTHING!

    A professional photographer, whether brand new out of school, or an old pro, should never work for 'free'. Always get some kind of reward, even if it is only the right to publish the pictures in your portfolio. Even that small compensation, in my mind, means it is NOT working for free.

    The only exception to this should be when you donate your services to charity.

  17. The only shooting I do for free is doing the church events photos. Its pretty win win. I get references from the church and they get some free photos for their newspaper and bulletins.

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