The True Cost of Free

With alarming frequency, I receive e-mails asking me to provide my services for free. Very often they state that a “great opportunity” has knocked on my door and that, once that door opens, a myriad of fame and fortune will come pouring in. In other words, if I just do this one job gratis, it will invariably lead to paid work.

Big Event, No Photography Budget

Let me give you a real-life example that happened to me. One month before London Fashion Week, I received an e-mail from the press secretary of a new designer who was showing at an incredibly fancy venue in London.

It was the designer’s first show, and he was putting together an ultra-expensive extravaganza — which would ultimately amount to a 15-minute viewing experience for his well-heeled audience.

All of which is fine by me. I’m all for people creating a strong visual experience to help promote their business. Isn’t that what commercial photography is all about?

On returning the call to the press secretary, I gave her a reasonable price for the expected two hours of work, including travel, shooting and postproduction.

The press secretary apologized. She had neglected to mention in her e-mail that there was no budget available for photography.

The job, she said, would be a great chance to add images to my portfolio and to get my name in front of the fashion media, leading to paid opportunities.

Politely, I declined.

Everybody Loses

Aside from the fact that absolutely no one (apart from perhaps other photographers) would even glance to see who shot a catwalk image, runway shots don’t do much to bolster an editorial portfolio.

What saddened me most was that this designer didn’t realize the importance of what should have been his No. 1 marketing tool, photography. It ought to have been factored into the budget at the onset.

Once the memory of the designer’s big event subsided (aided by the flowing champagne), all he and his press secretary would have left to promote the brand is images. Should these really be left to the chance of finding a professional photographer who would take the job for free?

Of course, they found someone to shoot the event. I checked the designer’s Web site afterwards; it didn’t mention the photographer’s name once.

The press secretary’s offer turned out to be a bad deal for the designer, who failed to budget for high-quality photography, and for the photographer, who I’m sure got little if any business out of it.

Clients should understand that, with photography as with other services, you get what you pay for. In the current economic climate, it is more important than ever for marketers to set their brands apart — and distinctive imagery is one of the best ways to achieve this.

32 Responses to “The True Cost of Free”

  1. This blog post, in my opinion, MUST be read by every single photographer out there. Be they a hobbyist, an amateur or a seasoned professional. Thank you for so lucidly explaining WHY photographing anything for free is such a bad idea. This post will be linked from my own blog - Tiffinbox - in a day or so.

  2. I get the same kind of nonsense in my main industry: aviation. I recently got a call from a staff member for a "big name" television producer who wanted some aerial shots done at a location about 45 minutes from my base. There was no budget for the helicopter, of course, but they'd include an interview with me as an "extra" on the DVD and that would surely lead to more paying work. In short, he wanted me to give him about 3 hours of flight time for FREE. I told him I wasn't interested. And I've said the same thing to at least a dozen photographers and charities who have tried to get me to fly for free.

    My point is, it's not just photographers who are asked to give away their services. It's professionals in many industries. Unfortunately, there will always be one hungry idiot in the crowd who will give away his services. That gives the cheapskates hope and wastes our time dealing with phone calls from them for their events.

    Just say no.

  3. Now if it were a non-profit, which I hear from often, I love what the former president of Black Star Howard Chapnick always said. Yes we do pro bono work. The first requirement for us is that everyone else involved is also doing it for pro bono. So, is the caterer, the venue, the person calling you and so on all giving of their time for free?

  4. Truly. I agree.

    Good thing you had the foresight to know that this offer wouldn't benefit anyone. I wouldn't have known...

  5. I am in the 29th year of my career as a professional photographer, and I still get people asking me to shoot for free, always going to the "great marketing opportunity" card. I turn away 100 percent of all requests, and unlike the author of this great article, I stopped doing it politely a long time ago. As a teacher, I find myself spending a lot of time convincing my students that they too should never work for free. It's hard, because the prospect of being published is enticing, and it's hard convincing a kid that the person soliciting them is just looking to take advantage of them. A byline means nothing. I tell the kids, take that byline and send it to your landlord in lieu of your rent payment. If he takes it, then do the shoot for free.

  6. I agree with you.

  7. awesome take on the matter, but I'd like to point that the photographer for that show - even if shooting for free - could have come up with a contract of sorts, binding the designer to inform the credits of the images. I've made that myself (I'm a begginer and shoot stuff for friends a bit, to generate portfolio) an we have agreements on paper stating that any use of those images MUST be creditted to me. far from ideal, but better than shooting for free and not getting even some PR in return.

  8. Excellent article! Thank you very much for writing this and I will be sure to Retweet it on Twitter.

  9. Great article!

  10. I'm in total agreement with Stanley Leary. I generously donate my time to several non-profits. One of them is heavily supported by a local furniture store chain. The owners of the chain even host events at their stores and throw huge parties for children in foster care. Events that have food, entertainment, inflatable rides, face painting and other fun activities for kids. These guys pick up the tab for everything that isn't donated by others. They don't make it part of their marketing plan. People know they do it, but there are no advertising campaigns with furniture tie-ins. The agency that works with these children in foster care is comprised of people that really want to help these kids have a successful childhood and enter society as happy, adjusted, and productive adults. Unfortunately many of these children also suffer from some kind of disability, often mental or emotional. One of my greatest and most challenging assignments is coming up next month: I will work with one child that I will meet the day of the shoot. My job is to get them to connect with the camera in some way. Last year was my most difficult. I could barely get that girl to make any sort of eye contact beyond a fleeting flance. Her eyes almost never connect with anyone as a person.
    She was one of a very few deliberate profile portraits - at least she was 'smiling'.

    I told you that story because I wanted to convey how something has to hit me for me to do 'free' work.

    I really hate it when some charity throws a FAB-O party with insanely expensive appetizers (that they paid for), expensive venue (that they paid for), then they go to the other vendors and want their services donated because they don't have a budget for 'those kinds of things'.

    I don't need my name on some obscure website that bad.

  11. "People die of exposure."

  12. Great article. A couple of weeks ago, I gave an image of a band to them for free to use in a newspaper ad for a charity CD launch party. Never again - not only did the band in question get credited for the photo, I didn't even get a thank you from them.

  13. I completely agree. Even if it's a friend, charge a little. You do free once and then everyone expects it. You can't really pick and choose.

  14. Every month, I talk to students who are passing out of photography schools in Bombay city, now Mumbai, India and I also tell them, work for free only if, all others on the project, are also working for free. Also the person who is asking for free photography, that person should be willing to beg. This also works. Try it.

  15. Great insight into the realm of "Free Photography". I also agree with doing charity work. Our team regularly assists with a local foster care program here in South Florida: They do some tremendous work in our community. Other "great marketing opportunities" are a waste of time. Thanks for speaking the truth in your article!

  16. I have been a semi-pro photographer for 30 years, and I never ever do anything for nothing.
    I started life as a professional musician in 1960, and from the time I actually started playing in about '57, I was asked to do free work because the band I was with would get exposure and hence, fame & fortune!

    Needless to say no matter how many freebies we did, it never resulted in any work.

    Recently, I was asked to do a shoot for a cancer hospice brochure, for a moment I was very tempted to do it for free, but I stuck to my principals and said that I couldn't do it for free but I would do at cost, which they accepted. The brochure was duly printed and distributed it looked great, very professional from every point of view, I got a credit and I got paid. Nobody lost and everybody won!

    Unfortunately, you will always get people in every walk of life who are prepared to give away their product.

    I was asked many moons ago, by a guy who owned a grocery store, if I would play on a record session he was arranging for his daughter, who he said was going to be a big star one day. Unfortunately, he couldn't pay me or any of the musicians, but we would all get a credit on the record.
    I explained to him that the only 'stock' I had to sell was musical talent. That was it, I didn't have anything else to sell. I said to him if I came into your shop tomorrow and asked for some of your stock for free, say, a dozen eggs, some bacon and maybe a tin of beans, and that I would tell everyone I ate with that day that I had got the food from his shop, how would that sound to him as a proposition?

    His response was "ah but that is different, I had to buy my stock, your is a gift"! I said if you think spending money on tuition fees from the age of 11 and then practising 7 days a week for 5 hours a day (even after I had turned pro) was a gift, he should try it!

    Great article thanks for posting


  17. Thank you everyone who has replied to this posting. It's wonderful to hear that there is so much unity amongst us.

  18. Free is much better than doing it for a reduced price. In the situation you describe it's unfortunate but I'm sure there would have been someone else who would have done it for free. A far worse situation is when you allow your rates to be reduced because the customer can't afford it- that sets the expectation that photos is cheap: at least if it's done for free as a sample or trial then you don't de-value your skills.

  19. Speaking from the point of view of a student (and part-time photographer) I completely agree. I have been recently offered the access to photograph major sporting and corporate events in several major venues in return for giving all the pictures to the venue. Once more, there was talk of a competition based upon corporate events held in these venues - which seems to me like a rather unsubtle way to get photographers for free.

    Yes, I love shooting sports, I am always looking for more experience at it, and would happily shoot these events for nothing if it was for my student paper where everyone works for nothing. But when a large company wants my work for nothing, I find it very offensive.

    The unsettling thing is that I know there are plenty of guys who would take them up on it. Student photographers, or those who are just starting out, just don't know what is reasonable to ask for, they aren't confident enough in their own abilities and often aren't comfortable with asking for money. When they do work for nothing, or for "experience", it only undercuts the professionals/semi-professionals and boosts the expectations of those who think they should be able to get good quality pictures for free.

    I am thinking of starting some kind of website, or maybe a facebook group, to help spread the word among young photographers that they should not undervalue themselves.

  20. This is a great article,the only time I do anything for free with my Art or photography is for a worthy charity,we all learn a lot over the years and this takes our time and personal effort,I do not believe passing my crafts on for nothing,I would not expect a motor mechanic to fix my car for nothing and he would not any way,this is the first rule of any business,profit or you will not survive.I agree with Helen,do not under value yourselves.

  21. Really nice article. I'm startig as pro (2 years). I've spent all day calling/looking for new clients. A lots of them have asked me: "Are you interested in working for 'your portfolio'?". No thanks. I've paid my camera and studies with cash.

  22. I TOTALLY AGREE. I am amazed that a business has asked me for photography for free for an expensive ad they are placing in local magazine and have no budget left for photography.... So they want me to provide it for free?

  23. This video says it all. Welcome to my world!

  24. Great article. Must read. Thank you.

  25. It's not just photography. As a composer, I've seen more and more job requests asking "for free" as well. "It will look GREAT on your reel! Everybody will want to hire you after this gets out!".

    No thanks.

    Worse yet, they very often want to KEEP all or a major percentage of the publishing rights as well, even furthering the lose of income.

    Sadly, some idiot out there will accept the offer, thus perpetuating the problem and making it even harder to find real work with a real budget that you can actually make a living from.

  26. Interesting read great comments too

  27. I don't know if you have a blog for your photography company. If so, you could have accepted the job and photographed it for yourself with your images selected being posted to your blog with a watermark. You could give the organizers the link to the post on your blog and used the event to drive traffic your way. The event is covered and your client wins, you get traffic to your website, and you win. If they want images for another purpose like promotion than you provide them for the proper usage fee.

  28. Although I don't buy that doing a job for free is a no-no in the absolute (in so far as there are instances and opportunities where the effort you expend can be akin to marketing expenditure) but from what you've reported here, I guess the tog who did take the job (presumably to do for free) was taken for a ride and was very foolish.

    If in that situation and for whatever reason accepting a job at your own expense [read - no charge], then, surely you *should* have a contractual obligation for attribution at bare minimum and to satisfy a payment in kind.

  29. I've been involved in the industry for about 20 years now, and the requests for 'free' images still come in the door. While pro bono work is a good way of giving back to the community (I've shot for the Canadian Cancer Society a number of times, I've always received a donation statement for tax purposes in the total amount of the would-be invoice), giving away your time, effort and essentially your professional worth is never an acceptable business practice.

    Here's another angle. If a photographer works for free, gives away their images to whomever, they are deemed worthless from a legal standpoint. Meaning, if a large company (or anyone, for that matter) rips off said image or images and uses them in a national campaign worth thousands, the photographer doesn't have a leg to stand on in court because they've demonstrated that the images are worthless... BY GIVING THEM AWAY FOR FREE!

    Get binding contracts demonstrating usage and image value signed. Always. IF you decide you want to discount images for a client (there can be good reasons), demonstrate full value in your invoice. BE SURE you have a usage license signed by all parties.

    You're running a business, people. High time we all acted like it.


  30. same thing just happened to me i was offered free tickets and a gift bag.... are you kidding me. gee i get to go and waste my time

  31. 30 years in the biz and I still get these freebie requests.

    One shining example:
    Large Cable music production company is doing a documentary on a now deceased VERY Large Rap Star (one of the originals). I worked with said rap star for several years with a major not-for-profit.

    Large Cable company, wanted me to go through several years of FILM archives and provide them with high rez scans. "Photography Budget? Umm sorry we don't have one..."

    I calmly asked the production manager who contacted me if they were working for FREE. Dead silence on the other end of the phone...

    ...true story

  32. Absolutely love the way you wrote this ...well done !

    In Cape Town, there's a whole bunch of strange activity happening where people with cameras that don't make money from photography are offering FREE PHOTOSHOOTS to random people , but they label these photoshoots as TFCD so that they do not receive scornful looks and disdain from paid photographers in the same industry as them.

    Then you get others that build their portfolios on purely TFCD photo-shoots and thus get their NAME out for `great-quality photos' because it was FREE.

    Anyhow...I could go on and on about this specific topic, but then I would move your audience away to discuss it.

    So I will leave with that bit.

    Again - well done on your honest piece.

    Very entertaining and blunt !

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