Ninety percent of small businesses fail within the first two years. With few exceptions, working for free is the fastest way for freelance photographers to become part of this 90 percent.
Here are a few excuses I’ve heard for working for free, along with my responses:
- I’m trying to get into concert photography, so when bands have called to ask about pricing, I’ve told them, “It’s on me.” It’s a great way for me to break into that market.
- I just did a free shoot for a young actress trying to make ends meet, like many starving artists. It helped her and was an opportunity for me to practice my lighting techniques.
- I offered to shoot free family photos for all my neighbors for their holiday cards. It’s a good way to promote my business.
- I got some valuable event-photography experience shooting one of my company’s employee celebrations for free. I got to shoot an event for a Fortune 500 corporation, and my pictures received excellent exposure on the company Web site, with over 25,000 hits. I was even given a free photo printer for my effort.
- Every photography job I’ve ever gotten has been through word of mouth — often because I did something for free first.
- I’ve been doing some free portraits of friends for fun, to use as their Facebook profile photos. When people see my pictures on Facebook, I’ll expand my network and it can lead to jobs.
- I like my day job in IT, but at night I am passionate about photography. I don’t mind self-funding my work because it gives me more creative freedom.
- I’m a young amateur photographer, close to graduating from college, so I’m focusing on building a portfolio I can be proud of. Money? Later.
- I did some high-profile assignments for free, and now I’m published in major magazines with a photo credit.
- I recently graduated from photography school and have been shooting like crazy, mostly for free. I’ve been getting very good experience. I’m also making contacts, and once the economy improves, I’ll be in a much better place than had I sat around waiting for paid assignments.
- It’s different now because of digital photography. Ten years ago, shooting for free meant eating the cost of film, processing and Polaroids unless the client paid your costs. Today, all a free shoot costs you is your time. Pixels are free!
- Once I stopped worrying about charging for shoots, I have had offers and requests coming at me from all directions. I want my photographs to benefit the world and to help other people. It’s not about the money.
It’s a great way to break into that market known as “free.” How many times do you think musicians have screwed themselves over and given away the farm to music labels? Too many to count. Don’t make the same mistake.
Romanticizing being a “starving artist” isn’t really a good thing. It’s nice when you’re sipping a chai tea latte with your beret in the local java house listening to beatniks recite their slam poetry, but other than that, it’s mostly a good way to remain starving. Doing a trade-for-prints/trade-for-CD deal is for C-grade models and photographers who almost never become pros. And while you may think that it helps you with your lighting techniques, it doesn’t help you grow in the area that matters most — the confidence to know that your work has value.
It’s nice to be a good neighbor. Then again, you might soon be getting lots of invitations to weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, with the suggestion: “Hey, why don’t you bring your camera? We’d love to have some photos, and you would really be saving us some money.” So now, you’re an even better neighbor than you intended to be — and you’ve knocked some local wedding photographer out of a paying gig. Or, if you respond with, “Oh, those holiday photos were a one-time thing; I charge to shoot events,” you’ll probably get something like this: “Come on, neighbor, you’re going to be there anyway!”
A free photo printer? You mean one of the dozen printers your company got for free when they ordered the last batch of CPU’s from Dell or HP? As someone who has shot for over half of the Fortune 500, I can tell you that I’ve earned $1,000 or more per assignment shooting company picnics, holiday parties, and so forth. It’s not glamourous, but it helps pay the bills. That is, unless you have someone willing to do it for a free printer. By the way, who insured your personal gear against spilled sodas or any other accidents? Let me guess: no one.
Right, word of mouth. As in, “Hey, I know this photographer who will shoot for free…” Congratulations! You’ve just become known all over town as the guy who doesn’t expect to be paid for his work. Maybe if you’re lucky, you’ll even get a client who offers to buy you lunch.
No, it will lead to more requests to take pictures “for fun” — from friends, then friends of friends, then people who just don’t want to pay to have their portraits taken. And you’ll be making lots of new friends among the professional portrait photographers whose livelihoods you are damaging. Happy networking!
Guess what, IT guy? When India’s night work takes over your day job, don’t call me crying about it. Also, don’t bother trying to make a living from your “passion,” because you’re already doing all you can to undermine your chances — as well as everyone else’s.
Excellent. One more student photographer who doesn’t care about money. I predict that when Sallie Mae comes a callin’ for payback on those loans that funded your education, money will become much more important to you. And I assume you’ll have things like rent, food and clothing to worry about, too. Unless Mommy and Daddy are still paying for everything — which is really nothing for you to be bragging about.
“Will work for photo credit” is one of the more asinine mentalities among photographers today. You’re helping no one, including yourself. All you’re doing is killing editorial opportunities for others.
That’s some photography school — where you didn’t get experience! Your problem is that you just want to shoot pictures rather than earn assignments. You don’t “sit around waiting” for work; you market yourself to people who are willing to pay for your services. Those contacts you’re making are worth about as much as your photography is worth to them.
No, actually, pixels are not free — but thanks for playing. Cameras and camera shutters have a lifespan of a few hundred thousand frames. Divide the number of frames you shot for free by the cost of the camera, and you’ll begin to get a sense of how much that shoot cost you. That doesn’t count the cost of Photoshop for post-production, storage of the raw files, burning them to CD for your clients, and on and on.
Of course you have “offers and requests” coming at you from all directions. So does the drunk girl at the club who hops on the slippery oak bar-top with a short skirt and no underwear and says, “If you see anything you like, I’ll be in the back offering it for free.” You’re surprised that a line forms immediately? So, you want to “help other people.” How about helping those who earn a living producing photographs by not undercutting them? That’s the best way to ensure that great photography continues to benefit the world.