Is It OK for Photographers to “Write for Free” for Black Star Rising?

A lot of photographers — pros and semipros alike — are angry these days.

Pros are angry because good-paying work is harder to find than it used to be; much of this anger is directed at semipros and amateurs, who are blamed for the oversupply of images in the marketplace.

Semipros, in turn, are angry at pros for blaming them for their problems, rather than looking in the mirror and adapting to the changes around them.

Battle Lines Drawn

Black Star Rising has published nearly 1,000 articles on photography topics to date — but none have generated as much passion from both pros and semipros as the posts we have run on “working for free.”

For example, a post by John Harrington, “12 Excuses for Working for Free — and Why They’re Bogus,” has been retweeted nearly 1,200 times, “liked” by more than 4,000 Facebook users, and received nearly 400 comments.

The battle lines are clear. One of the more thought-provoking questions that has been raised, by Jonathan Worth among others, is this:

If a photographer writes a blog post for Black Star Rising for free, and in this blog post argues that photographers should not work for free, is this person a hypocrite?

Some say yes. Some have even suggested that, by publishing these viewpoints while not providing monetary compensation to Black Star Rising contributors, we are participants in the hypocrisy.

Assignments vs. Personal Projects

Here are my thoughts on this.

First, Black Star Rising is agnostic on the issue of working for free. We’ve published posts for it, against it, and for/against it with various qualifications and in various circumstances.

But still, I do think the question is an interesting one.

My answer is no. And I’ll explain why.

Photographers write for Black Star Rising on the topics of their choosing. They say what they want to say. They aren’t given assignments, as they would be if writing for a newspaper, for example.

So in that sense, it’s more like a personal project, which many photographers do for free as an outlet. We like to think we’re that a similar outlet for photographers who want to express their thoughts and feelings verbally.

Now, I understand that some contributors specifically write for Black Star Rising in hopes of a financial return of some kind. Some have reported winning new clients who found them here. Others have been invited to speak at industry events or have seen an increase in traffic to their websites.

There are also cases where photographers saw no benefit and stopped contributing for that reason.

Hypocritical — or Not?

And that’s fine. It’s their choice.

But it’s not necessarily a hypocritical choice to write a “free” blog post venting about the evils of “free” photography.

Or is it?

What do you think?

27 Responses to “Is It OK for Photographers to “Write for Free” for Black Star Rising?”

  1. It can only be free if you don't receive anything in return.

    I think artists need to be careful not to equate everything worthwhile with just monetary gain.

    If writing for a blog enhances my prestige and brand then why not do it?

    Ultimately the challenge is to keep true to the very reasons why we picked up a camera in the first place. For me if it ever comes to just shooting for money then I'll look to do something else.

  2. It's a very interesting question!

    "People photograph on the topics of their choosing. They take the kind of pictures they want to do. They aren’t given assignments, as they would be if photographing for a newspaper, for example.

    So in that sense, it’s more like a personal photo project, which many non-professional photographers do for free as an outlet."

    Do you recognise the (slightly modified) quote?

    And then they provide the photography (or text) to anyone who is interested for free or for very little money.

    I think your reasoning is not very logical, but then you are agnostic, as you say, on the work-for-free question.

    Yes - there is an obvious contradiction.

    But it is understandable to do it. Everyone does what he thinks is right for him.

    I'm not particularly surprised. Nor upset.

  3. If this should annoy anyone it should be me. Not only am I a professional photographer but I'm also a professional writer for the UK photographic press. So I have to worry about people making pictures for free AND I have to worry about people writing articles for free too.

    HOWEVER, blogs are a little different, they are a great way of increasing your reputation and offer amazing SEO potential too. The thing is, I've never been beaten to a writing assignment by a blogger but have been beaten to photographic assignments by the free-photography brigade.

    What we should be more concerned about are the blogs that give away advanced technical advice on how to take professional pictures. It's those sites that are damaging our industry the most by showing the weekend-warriors how to shoot. It's short-sighted to say the least.

  4. There are obvious benefits (mentioned by others here) for a photographer to contribute posts to a reputable photography blog. This is much different than other cases, such as HuffPost, where apparently all contributors get paid nothing for providing story and graphic content.

  5. In many ways it is worse. Not only are they not being compensated, they are using their time to produce something that does not pay revenue, and educate their competition in the process.

    And all of the additional 'hits' on their web site is fair compensation is ludicrous. Why? Because they are from other photographers, who are not very likely to EVER purchase a photograph from another photograph. The readers of this blog are NOT their target demographic...unless they further whore themselves by further educating their competition with classes, workshops, etc.

    I've never known a very, very good photographer who spends any time offering workshops and writing photography books for fellow photographers. All it tells me is that they are unable to make it as a photographer on their own. And if they are unable to make it as a photographer on their own, should budding photographers be taking lessons from them in the first place?

  6. @ Todd - the consequence of your reasoning is that it is pointless to go to photography classes. Might be true. I wouldn't know.

    @ Bob Q - So your reasoning is "let's keep the tips and tricks to ourselves, let's keep it a secret how you make good pictures and let's not tell anyone. Let's make sure that no amateur can easily learn good photo techniques". Not convinced that is a formula for success. Nor that it is possible.

  7. Honestly, the whole thing about pros being mad at semipros and amateurs for loss of revenue is ridiculous. I mean, in view of competition, none of them are competing on the same level. I can only really speak from a wedding industry point of view, but a client with a $5000 wedding budget is not going to book a $400 or even free amateur, and probably not even a higher charging more seasoned semipro. They have a $5000 budget for a few different reasons, one being they more then likely understand the difference in price vs skill level, experience, and quality of any products they may purchase. The same can be said for the brides with $400 budgets. Not everyone can afford $5000 wedding photographer, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be able to have a quality photographer in their price range.

    I guess you compare it to cars. Sure all car companies are in competition, they saturate the market with 1000s & 1000s of cars to choose from, but the Porsche owner is not going to buy a KIA and probably not even a Mercedes. Same with the KIA owner, they are not even considering a Porsche. They are targeting different customers.

    If your a semipro that in the same price range as the amateur, or a pro that is the same price range as the semipro, then spend your time making changes to standout, get better, offer better customer service, a better experience, and educate your potential clients, so you can start charging more and get further away from your current competition. Sitting around complain is only wasting your time.

    If all you want to do is complain, blame others, and cry about the good old days, then just quit. No one is forcing us to be a photographers, it's a lifestyle we choose. Everything changes everyday. As a visual people, dealing in a visual hobby or career, we should all see this. Either adapt, make a change, or just stop. Maybe we should start blaming videographers and the world for liking video for killing photography.

    The same can be said for any industry, not just photography. There is different levels of competition in everything we do in life. We all start somewhere and the pros or semipros that are mad, were in the same spot as amateurs at some point. Most will fizzle out, some will just keep doing what they are doing, a few will become good pros, a couple will really stand out and become amazing pros.

    As for people contributing to blogs for free, who cares. If people want to spend there time contributing to blogs or anything else, that's their prerogative. If some comes to me asking for help on getting better at photography or anything else, I would be glad to help. That's just the type of person I am.

  8. Maybe the more pertinent question here would be: If I take free pictures for BlackStar, am I a hypocrite if I'm paid to write about it?

    It sounds equally absurd to me. Writing and Photography are two different crafts (woops, did I mean "arts"?) and most people are good at either one or the other, which is why they make a living with only one of them, let's call it their "main craft". If they are reasonably competent at their secondary craft, they can use it to publicise their main craft by getting the attention of people outside the bubble of this main craft.

    Back to the specific question of working photographers writing for free, I'll answer with another question: Would you *pay* to read the articles written by these photographers? If you wouldn't, then BlackStar (or any other publication) probably won't pay for them to write them either, so if these photographers want to publish their writings, they have to write for free.

    Conclusion: They're not hypocrites.

  9. If an executive of Google writes a series of detailed how-to articles about each of the company's processes, pending patents, sales tactics, etc., or if a retail store gives away its inventory in hopes it creates more business, it is called foolish and it would give Apple, Microsoft, et. al. a leg up on them. If a photographer does it, it's called a prudent marketing strategy? Makes no sense.

    Why do you think there is a paper shredder at every desk in the office buildings? Why does Apple sue when someone leaks info about a new product? Doing anything free, unless it caters to your core demographic, doesn't create more business. It just hastens your demise.

  10. Todd Klassy wrote, "I've never known a very, very good photographer who spends any time offering workshops and writing photography books for fellow photographers. All it tells me is that they are unable to make it as a photographer on their own. And if they are unable to make it as a photographer on their own, should budding photographers be taking lessons from them in the first place?"

    Ansel Adams did both.

  11. And didn't make a cent until he was old, fragile, and dead. But if that's your goal...

  12. Jonathan Worth is fantastic for raising this point. I am a professional writer and semi-professional photographer. I get paid by my clients because I can do for them what others can not. The quality of my work, their experience working with me, and my rates are all factors in whether people wish to hire me.

    Saying that the explosion in ownership of digital cameras has ruined the field of professional photographer is akin to condemning all of those people who learned to write and who own computers with fancy word processing software for ruining writing.

    I suspect that most of the whining on this subject comes from marginally skilled individuals who feel threatened. If you are good at what you do, offer a great client experience, and produce quality results, then you will find work if it is there.

    I have never once feared losing a client because someone learned to write. I have, though, grown weary of all the photography experts telling everyone else what to do because they are unable to adapt to a changing world.

  13. I love contributing to Black Star Rising. I wouldn't even consider asking for payment because I get to write about things I like and get people to read my stuff that wouldn't have seen it otherwise. I'd be blogging the same articles on my own sites anyway if Black Star Rising wasn't around so I see it as a win-win for both parties.

  14. "And didn't make a cent until he was old, fragile, and dead. But if that's your goal..."

    lol - simply not true. He had plenty of commercial work through the 30s and 40s (including being editor of the most popular photography magazine in America). Not rich yet, but certainly not short of work either.

    Fact is that plenty of "very very good" photographers have made income both teaching and/or writing about photography. Dorothea Lange, Edward Weston and Minor White all lectured at one point or another.

    Hell, Aperture Magazine was founded by Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Minor White and Barbara Morgan. I am pretty sure they all ranked as "very very good" photographers.

    Steve McCurry also does workshops. Even James Nachtwey gives the occasional workshop.

  15. I don't know where Todd Klassy gets his information, but it is in error. I knew Ansel Adams when he was writing books and teaching and he was neither poor, nor frail, nor dead. Ansel was an immensely successful commercial photographer in San Francisco long before he got fame as a landscape master. (Try reading a book about him Todd.) His books were bestsellers the day they hit the shelves. He was a pioneer in photography books, prints sales, assignment photography and workshops. He was far from poor. But in addition to Adams, there are many extremely successful photographers who wrote, taught and lectured: Tom Ang and Michael Freeman are two of the best photo book writers around today and they can compete commercially with any photographer alive. Bryan Peterson is perhaps the most successful photo how-to writer in history and Todd, he can shoot circles around any photographer alive--he is one of the highest paid corporate photographers working. He teaches because he has a calling and he is generous with his knowledge. That is why any person teaches, why any person writes books. Artie Morris is, without question, the greatest bird photographer in history but he is constantly teaching, writing, giving workshops, writing blogs and mentoring younger photographers. There is no better wildlife photographer on this planet than Art Wolfe and he writes, produces how-to TV shows and lectures constantly. Where do you get your silly nonsense idea that only wanna-bee famous shooters are teaching and writing?

    Historically speaking: Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz, to go back many decades, were the two greatest photographers in history and both taught, wrote books about photography (including how-to books) and both were extremely successful. For Klassy to write "All it tells me is that they are unable to make it as a photographer on their own" is utter nonsense. Pay no attention to it.

    Instead of spouting off about how untalented photo writers are, perhaps he should pick up a biography and learn something about the history of photography. The master photographers who write books do so out of generosity and wanting to pass along a tradition: many of them intentionally give up much higher paying work to perform that noble deed.

    jeff wignall

  16. Jeff, obviously you either can't read or are far too sensitive. I'm sorry if you felt my point was a personal affront to you and your friend, but it certainly was not intended as such. I'm sorry, but we ALL become "frail" and "dead" at some point.

    Also, I never said photo writers were untalented. I said I never knew a very, very good photographer who shared his or her secrets. And my definition of a "talent" is a photographer who can (1) take good photographs that (2) can earn an income on their own.

    The thrust of my argument was that I don't feel photographers should be spending so much time educating its competitors when there are so many people out there were cameras how who are trying to figure out how to earn an income with them. From a business standpoint, it makes no sense.

    As for Ansel Adams, I'm very fond of his photography, but according to several accounts (including at least one documentary) he did not achieve national fame and true wealth until much later in life when an associate began assisting with the marketing of his portfolio.

    If that is incorrect, I am sorry. But my original point remains.

    Now have a drink of water and please settle down.

  17. Todd, when you come blazing into a conversation criticising a host of photographers (including the writers of this blog) that they're "unable to make it on their own," and back it up with dubious (and historically ignorant) declarations, you can't really act all surprised when one or two get a little irritated.

    I really like the photos on your site BTW. 🙂

  18. The author asked a question. I answered it. I did not make it personal and nor did I attack anyone. I gave my honest opinion and answered it with a real concern. Those who write about photography are only educating their competition. As for "dubious" and "ignorant" declarations, well, no one can argue that Adams' fame became larger in the years after his death.

    The only person here who made things personal was YOU. And when you did so, you already lost the argument.


  19. lol - whatever you say, buddy.

  20. For those who think great photographers don't teach, write and do workshops need to look at many of the National Geographic photographers who teach regularly like William Allard, Steve McCurry, Jodi Cobb and many others.

    I think many who do things for free are establishing value so that later folks will want to pay them for a more customized workshop for their company or for themselves.

  21. Its writing..... Not photography! Stop whining so much and enjoy the wisdom being given by those much more experienced in life and move on. My god some people are like children..

  22. There is no hypocracy in writing for free on here. The benefit (theoretically) is that the articles help to improve the photographic industry in which the contributor works.

    Given most other media outlets have a vested interest in getting work for free, they are unlikely to pay someone to pay you for writing an article to the contrary. Better to do the work on a photographer driven website, by photographers, for photographers.

  23. First, let me say that I am a semi-pro and I work, at times, for no monetary compensation. These are not shoots that will end up in print or even would be wanted as assignments for most. I volunteer for NILMDTS and will begin doing work for Hearts Apart. This kind of work does not take any cash out of anybody's hands. It won't feed your stomach, but it will feed your soul.

    The real issue with the photography market today is the concept of 'good enough'. The normal public thinks crap their friends take is good enough and the crap they take is great. An iPhone image looks great on an iPhone display and what else do they need?

    Decades from now, when they have long lost their images and their kids are grown, they may realize the error of their ways.

  24. "The normal public thinks crap their friends take is good enough and the crap they take is great. An iPhone image looks great on an iPhone display and what else do they need?

    Decades from now, when they have long lost their images and their kids are grown, they may realize the error of their ways."

    That unfortunately is very true.

  25. I'd be interested in writing and other things for Black Star. Too bad they don't answer emails.

  26. Email me at [email protected] or [email protected] with your post idea, Brian. Thanks.

  27. It's an old question I guess is working for free ever beneficial, those already working in the field will usually say no, those starting out will say maybe and those looking for the services of the worker will say yes.

    Many talented photographers will have worked for free at the early stages of their career as part of the learning curve if nothing else (in my opinion all wedding photographers should be forced to have worked an apprenticeship prior to being permitted to sell their services) working as an assistant etc. Others will have given their work away for free to help them become known or establish links with clients that go on to become important to them in some way. The same goes for writers, once you name is known your work becomes more valuable as you are already in the public eye.

    Big business will often give things away for free, in the shopping world they are known as loss leaders, and the hope is people will come in for those items and then buy more expensive stuff. A prime example is Mobile phones. The will often be given for free as the money is then made from the contract paid over time, look at the cost of buying any phone on the market sim or contract free and you will see the price is usually quite high, but buy them with a tariff and the cost is hugely reduced.

    If it is beneficial to the writer/photographer or any other practitioner to give their service away for free then they should do so.

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