Sometimes, Photographers Are Their Own Worst Enemies

An email requesting photographic work recently landed in the inboxes of eight Taiwan-based photographers. Seven of them accepted the gig. One did not.

The one who said “no” was me.

I’ll tell you the offer — and you can tell me who’s crazy.

The Music Promoter’s Email

The email was from a music promoter. He said his company was relaunching its website and that he was recruiting a select group of photographers to shoot events at nightclubs across Taiwan. It sounded like photography would be a central part of the site.

I replied expressing tentative interest and asking for a few particulars, like what events he had lined up, whether permits or passes to the events had been arranged, how many photos he wanted from each event, and what kind of licensing he sought.

His answers to my questions were a little vague, but not deal-killers. What most concerned me in his reply was that he asked where I was located.

My location is stated in the first sentence of the “About” page of my website, as well as on Facebook and Twitter. It seemed that the promoter hadn’t bothered doing much research — and had instead just contacted every photographer in the country he knew about.

I responded to his email and then asked about fees. I also inquired about expenses, since I would need cab rides home from the late-night assignments. The promoter expected many of the events to go till 3 or 4 a.m.; he also expected the images to be processed and uploaded the next day.

His reply was as follows:

This is a no-budget project, and we currently pay all the costs from our private money. We’re giving ourselves time until Summer 2011 to make this profitable. Then we’ll gladly pay money to the photographers. Meanwhile, we’re willing to cover the expenses for basic things like taxis.

I was stunned.

How I Replied

I thought about how to respond for a little while. Then I replied:

I can understand the pressure of just starting out as a no-budget project. As you’re expecting the photographer to provide free images, I hope you’re also asking

  • the electricity company to provide you free electricity
  • the printing company to print free flyers
  • Apple and/or Microsoft to provide you free operating systems
  • other software vendors (e.g, Adobe) to provide free software for layout, web design, etc.
  • computer hardware manufacturers to provide you free equipment
  • the phone company to provide free phone calls and sms
  • etc.

Photographers, who will be responsible for creating content that attracts traffic to your website and the advertisers that traffic brings, are no different from any of these other vendors.

I make my living as a photographer. I have constant, ongoing expenses including equipment upgrades, workshop fees, continuing education and development to stay at the top of my game, marketing costs, website hosting fees, the normal costs associated with running a business, and so on.

Working for free doesn’t pay for any of these things. And it does nothing — nothing at all — to advance my career.

If you can prove to me that every other vendor, service provider and contributor is offering their services free for your project, then I’ll consider doing the same.

End of Story?

The promoter wrote back, apologizing if I was offended. He talked up the free exposure his photographers would receive, and said he was sorry we couldn’t work something out.

End of story.

Except that I later learned that seven other photographers had accepted the assignment on these terms. From what I’ve gathered, I was the only one contacted who did not take the job.

Taiwan does not have a huge nightlife scene. Seven photographers shooting it for free should effectively kill off any future opportunities for paid work in this area.

Sometimes photographers are their own worst enemies, aren’t they?

30 Responses to “Sometimes, Photographers Are Their Own Worst Enemies”

  1. I wouldn't worry so much about the free guys killing off future opportunities. This happens all the time, but a year down the road, instead of 8 photographers receiving emails, they'll probably only be 3. You being one of them. Again,sometimes photographers are their own worst enemies, but this isn't anything new.

  2. Great experience and write-up. I agree, you did the right thing.

  3. read your article, and couldn't agree more.

    I just also want to add that this doesn't only apply to "work for credit" armatures who pollute real market with quality of their "work-for-credit" attitude (although the only real portfolio it builds is you're the dude that does it for *free*) BUT

    yes, selling equipment/lenses second hand. I see people who are selling off equipment at ridiculous discounts, and market seems to make it a standard now. Before having good piece of glass allowed you to know how valuable it is. Nowadays, who knows.

  4. I've seen some of these "up and coming" photographers work some similar type events in my market. The event managers are getting what they pay for! I'm appalled to see so many of these so-called photographers (amateur or not) using the automatic settings on the camera with no regard for the background, lighting, and other conditions. Since most of these events are in dark venues, better settings (even on P&S cameras) are a must if you are trying to call yourself a professional.

    At one recent event, they did a call for gratis photographers on THAT day. They didn't even look through the guest list to see my name and studio listed in attendance. I occasionally donate photography. If they'd given me equal billing with the other sponsors, I'd have considered it. Alas, it was not important enough for them to truly consider. I guess that's why the last of their events was also very amateur and took MONTHS to get posted online.

    They are getting what they pay for....nothing.

  5. Sadly, even when the other five are gone, I'm starting to have the horrible realisation they'll be replaced by another five free amateurs, working for nothing. Amateurs, college students, etc, all doing the same undercut of their future selves.
    We can be great photographers, the greatest artists in the world, but there are fewer and fewer people willing to pay for that art at a rate one can live on...

  6. Here's a story for you. I recent shot a fashion show and posted the watermarked photos on Facebook to try to drum up some business. The organizer of the fashion show said that my photos were the best of the photographers. She asked me if I would 'give' her the photos so she could provide look books to the designers.

    Here's the kicker. She charged the designers to be in the show. Included in that charge was the cost for the look book. How could she expect that a photographer would just hand over their photos.

    Well I went on Facebook the other day and I saw a post from her thanking one of the photographers for getting her out of her jam!


  7. Good move.

    Unfortunately, the website owners won't change their business model when, or if it becomes profitable.

    They'll be so used to free photos, they won't budget for the coverage of future events. They'll use the same line.

    I've even seen this happen with smaller newspapers. Why hire a photographer when the writer can get a decent enough photograph?

    They just learn that they can get images without paying for them. which devalues the market as a whole.

  8. Send them this link to Harlan Ellison's pay the writer... very eloquent...

    Makes me angry, too.

  9. Thanks for the comments.

    I've actually been informed by another photographer that there were 2 of us who rejected the "offer".

  10. They will continue to do so, even if they become profitable, but it is also the reason why they will never grow so big as anyone who has good skills would require payment for their work.

    There has always been photographers willing to shoot for free or a very very low rate, digital has made that even easier but don't let that bother you.

    I only shoot for free for charity, it's my policy.

    It's a shame that most people don't value photography, guess you've already read that article but just in case :

    Have a nice day,


  11. I agree with the comments here and applaud the OP's handling of this situation.

    Sadly, I think we almost need to redefine, or find a new term, for what we do (assuming that we all consider ourselves professional photographers who earn the majority of our income from photography).

    A 'photographer' nowadays, as far as the wider community sees it, is anyone with an SLR camera. When the call goes out for a photographer, from the many seekers of images, such as the Taiwanese company cited here, these parties really do think they will get someone with an SLR to come and do it gratis.

    Sadly, they can.

    A couple of decades of fashion magazines taking fashion editorial 'submissions' from aspiring photographers, and then not paying for the images they printed, certainly helped to get us into this mess. But then, this is only one example of many factors that have got us here.

    One of my good friends, a highly experienced specialist in shooting art and objects, several months back declined a job offer as a photographer for one of Australia's leading public art museums because the salary was SUBSTANTIALLY less than he earns making coffees at a cafe in a picturesque seaside town. He has now given up commercial photography, declines shooting offers from a top magazine publisher, and solely engages in photography as an art form.

  12. great article, great experience. i love your reply to them asking if they are getting all their other services for free. great reasoning - i;m keeping your article for my future use. i've had peep ask for free or discounted services. i've said no and now i can give a kickin answer. in my experience, peep who want something free/discounted right off the bat are going to be an extremely difficult person to deal w/, continually wanting more and more for nothing. happened once, wont happen again.

  13. Craig - great write up. Interesting to see the inside baseball here. The slack labor market as a whole is too willing to work as slaves, spoiling it for the rest of us. Currently my day job is cutting my hours drastically... What's a guy to do?

  14. Don't worry about photographers working for free, my clients all have digital SLR's and they take 80% of the pictures themselves! and only call in a pro in when they cannot make it work.
    Wellington photographer

  15. I'd just like to pat you on the back for sticking to your guns. I can relate 100%. I used to feel bad or lazy for not taking on the work because I thought... "well, working is still better than sitting on your ass. At least you'll have photos to show for your time". And this is how you get caught! At the end of the day, it's a self worth issue. I've paid my dues more times than I'd like to mention, however they were calculated and I did benefit from the job, even if it was work I could put in my porti. But I knew from the beginning it was just a means to an end. It will definitely not be a habit! To date, I've had to decline many a job (freebi) or even fire a client (shock, horror!). But all in the name of self worth. So here's to the photographer with a spine and self worth!

  16. Hey Craig,

    Retraction alert!

    You need to correct that info lumping me in with the "other photographers" I didnt nor will I raaaaaaaarrely at this stage do any job based on "free, or vague dreams of possible remuneration in the future" . I remain a bust-your-ass paid photographer (I cant speak for the rest) It was another avenue for me to show the results of my event photography. Plain and simple, I get hired to cover an event by the promoters / club / newspaper. Photos remain their property. Waako, The real Taiwan, FB and TN are another way to get the masses to see the photos and inevitably in return it promotes the party or future ones. Should the club, promoter, artist not want the photos seen on any of those mediums I will refrain from sending (its happened in the past)


    Love always bro,

    Keep up the good work and stick to your guns.


  17. http/

  18. Thank you, for this blog post !
    You get the point...

  19. "ian campbell said:
    October 28th, 2010 at 3:28 pm
    Sadly, even when the other five are gone, I'm starting to have the horrible realisation they'll be replaced by another five free amateurs, working for nothing. Amateurs, college students, etc, all doing the same undercut of their future selves.
    We can be great photographers, the greatest artists in the world, but there are fewer and fewer people willing to pay for that art at a rate one can live on..."

    Since when did artists have a guarantee of a wage they could live on?

    Consider that the market has spoken and decided that the quality of 'non-professionals' is adequate for 90% of their needs. Leaving the last 10% for professional photographers to bicker over.

    Not every art form can be a profitable way to earn a living. Last century ink/pencil illustrators were complaining about photographers killing their livelihood in magazines. Last decade journalists have been complaining about bloggers killing print. It's all a moving target.

  20. Vigar, so are you shooting in a work for hire type arrangement?

  21. Yes. I get paid by the promotors. When I post on other sites for free, it's a bonus for the promotor because they get more publicity, and I get more exposure for my work. It's win-win.

  22. So the photos belong to the promoter?

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  24. Or, some guys thought this would be a great opportunity to party and maybe get some experience at the same time. Or at least be able to pick up more chicks with a camera around their neck.

  25. Good grief K. That same retort is thrown out too many times. I am sure I can get more "chicks" if I spent my allotted equipment budget on dates or maybe a nice new shiny car. Photography is a passion, a medium of artistic expression and a super fun job. My mantra is as always has, I simply want to be involved in part of the "big arena" that is photography in some capacity. If there is a need for event photography coverage I think that's great! If my skills lent themselves more to family portraits I'd do that too. Shooting everyday, making cash-money money whilst having as much fun as is humanly possible is a life worth living. I have spoken to most if not all other event photographers in this country and they really honestly seem to share the same passion. Unlike the dudes with the shiny cars, the photographers without the abilities to produce strong images within a timely manner get weeded out fairly quickly.

  26. I 100% agree it is too easy to be lulled into this type of trap where your talent and efforts are used to benefit others on the promise of rewards tomorrow. Unfortunately rewards tomorrow do not normally materialise. There will always be those who will be sucked into this but you must learn to stand firm and charge for your time - don't follow the crowd, be brave, stand out and be different

  27. I agree people shouldn't give away their skills for free but several people have commented about how amateurs and students agree to this type of work for exposure or experience in trade for the photos. I see people approaching photographers with the "this will look good for your portfolio" line all of the time but someone starting out might need that experience. What would you suggest?

  28. Great Piece.I subscribed. I also agree with your blog and readers comments. In the end, "you get what you pay for." Photographers time is just as important if not more in my opinion. Furthermore, we as photographers are in fact our worst enemies. Stand up and express what your time is worth.

  29. I can't agree with you more. Especially in the area of music and gig photography, this can be a huge problem where I also do see a lot of young photographers who shoot events for free or for a couple of drinks and free entrance for some friends. It happens the whole time, but as said before, they do not always tend to be the quality you would deliver yourself.

  30. Thanks this is an interesting article. Its True Photographers are often their own worst enemies.

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