12 Excuses for Shooting Photos for Free — and Why They’re Bogus

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

  3. 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.
  4. 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.

  5. I offered to shoot free family photos for all my neighbors for their holiday cards. It’s a good way to promote my business.
  6. 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!”

  7. 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.
  8. 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.

  9. Every photography job I’ve ever gotten has been through word of mouth — often because I did something for free first.
  10. 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.

  11. 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.
  12. 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!

  13. 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.
  14. 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.

  15. 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.
  16. 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.

  17. I did some high-profile assignments for free, and now I’m published in major magazines with a photo credit.
  18. “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.

  19. 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.
  20. 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.

  21. 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!
  22. 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.

  23. 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.
  24. 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.

508 Responses to “12 Excuses for Shooting Photos for Free — and Why They’re Bogus”

  1. THANK YOU for this List!!!
    I can't count how many times I've been 'advised' to start out for free to build word of mouth, even coworkers and bosses who think they can take advantage of my talents for free, to the point that I never mention my photog or art at work anymore. I've had family members volunteer my services to others without asking me first.
    *I've never done any photog for free and this is a great list to remind me that I never should.

  2. I have a friend who wanted to be a photographer. She was told these same things. After several months of frustration and nearly quitting the pursuit of this dream, she did the opposite. She started charging more than anyone else in the area, offered a guarantee of satisfaction and the next thing she knew, she was turning away request. Not sure if this would work for everyone but it worked for her. The old adage of you get what you pay for, is what she built her business on.

  3. I think WE need to find the balance in all we do in life, no matter what it is.
    All the comments are helpful and I see a lot of wisdom and emotion in the responses. I am going to share a little about my experience in a few lines below....i hope it helps.

    For me, while I was working a graveyard job that I hated, I took 4 years of multimedia training. I began providing photography and video projects free for some events at my school, for my church - like a wedding and a baptism for members, now I have been charging for the same work I provided for free. I don't regret the FREE. It gave me the exposure i needed to begin my business. It is a bit of a struggle, owning your own business, but I also enjoy my freedom. I have found my balance.

    I believe FREE is a good thing to get the exposure IF you can afford to do so and you have some talent. I can't think of a better way to get some exposure to your work. I do have to say the balance for me also comes in having a loving supportive spouse, who encouraged me that my work was good, my time was valuable, and it was time to begin making money.

    I have been blessed to own my own construction business when i was a young man, creating and providing custom interiors and finish carpentry for my clients. I built my business by time and materials only and then once my work became known, it became time, materials, and profit.

    That was a life time ago and after it became too physical to continue, I began a career in computers that paid the bills and benefits for 15 years, the last 6 in which I began to follow my passion, retraining in multimedia.

    Photography and video are my best efforts, then graphics and web.

    I encourage all readers to find your passion in photography or where ever life may take you.
    The regret only comes in not trying and not taking the journey.

    Why be miserable all your life. Be positive and don't stop trying! If you fall, get up, brush yourself off and try again. Reading the pearls of wisdom here from others with regard to warnings of loss and regret, it's good advice, but it just was not the way i preferred to start my business.



  4. Most people only assess quality based on price. So sometimes you can pick up more paid work by actually increasing your price. Also bottom end work is more likely to be for slow payers and bad debts.

    I tell my clients to say to customers who can't afford the market price that I'd love a Ferrari but I can't afford one. Ferrari don't lower their price just for me, so I drive a Nissan!

  5. This website has been really helpful in terms of SEO - thanks for that.

    But this post is nonsense. It is exceptionally bad business practice to charge money for a service which you are not duely qualified or experienced to carry out. To make money from photography or anything else for that matter, you must be able to prove that you can do it by building up experience, testimonials and portfolios. This means that for a short time, it may be necessary to do some work for free.

    When I started out, I developed a website, business cards and all other mixed media, but left it all offline and did not distribute it. In the mean time I was offering my services to relevant people as nothing more than a man with a camera who wanted to get some portfolio shots. I wasn't approaching them as a business man representing a brand - that was not yet born. I was looking for 5 to 10 opportunities to do some work for free in exchange for a testimonial and some portfolio work.

    Once I had collected all of this together and learnt from the experience, I set myself up and launched myself as a freelance photographer. I was now in a position where I could justify charging money for what I do. But even then, I was honest about the fact that I was new and made sure my rates reflected that. As long as your clients understand where you are in terms of your own professional development, they can expect your service to improve and your prices to rise in a manner which is natural and fair. Furthermore, as you gain experience as a freelancer the types of clients that you can expect to get. You grow beyond the leagues of small clients who you did the free or cheap work for.

    Successful business is all about honesty, growth and development - Everyone starts somewhere and that's OK!

    So to summarise, thanks for your advice on this site - I hope you can see my point here though....



  6. John,

    Tell us how you went from buying a camera to charging $1,000 per day? You sound pretty angry for someone claiming to be a pro, especially when the low-ballers and free shooters are not likely to threaten your prospects, as they shoot in a different 'price bracket'. If someone maneuvers for a free photographer, I really doubt that they will also consider someone in your range. So - do tell what made you so angry?

  7. Interesting, except I've heard it all before.
    Paid wedding photographers cranky because of all
    these, so called, free photographers. Like any other
    artist, I shoot for myself. If I shoot for "free"
    (and I do a lot), it's for me I'm shooting. The people
    I'm shooting for get what I give them. And they like
    what I give them, and the photos are published.
    They are "web" quality photos that serve a purpose.
    I keep the dng's, and I own all rights. So, not really
    giving much away after all, and I get some sweet access.
    As for weddings and conventions, don't worry, I don't
    shoot those at all, much less for free. Unless it's
    something that has some real interest.

  8. There is NO reason to shoot for free - ever.

    A portfolio is not required but marketing skills are a necessity.

    Marketing is the key to any small personal business no matter what it is you sell. If you cannot find a customer for minimum wage when starting looking at your marketing skills and marketing process as it is what is failing not your photographic skills.

    The camera will take a minimum wage saleable product on automatic settings so yoru failure in not image quality it is in lack of marketing skills.

    My portfolio is made up of paying clients and although i tried some tfp in the early days that process brought me people how did not wish to invest in any way in the q2uality of the product while the paying clients did all they could to create the best results. Meaning my portfolio immediately improved with people who invested money in the process.

    There is NO BANK or BUSINESS MAN who will invest in your company that plans to build its market by advertising services for free. That is because it is not a business plan but a hobby plan.

    I wager 99.99% of those people replying to this are NOT full time professional photographers and and therefore can only provide advice that leads to failure.

    A business is a business and non of them survice without a sustainable profit..

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