When Friends Ask You to Take Their Picture, Ask Them to Pay It Forward

Sometimes it doesn’t take long for friends and colleagues to make the connection. They realize that “Hot Shoe Digital Photography” is me.

And when that happens, a question often comes next: “Will you take my picture?”

Substitute “my daughter’s” or “my dog’s” or “my band’s” and that just about covers the gamut. Once, it was a request to photograph a ferret.

An Awkward Dilemma

And then what? I love capturing people. I love making portraits.

But how do you quote a healthy rate to a family member, a neighbor or a co-worker? Especially if you want to stay friendly?

So, I recently came up with a novel pricing structure for family, friends and friends-of-friends.


Free of charge, that is. There is still compensation involved, but not to me. To others.

I ask some of my portrait subjects to “pay it forward.” It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve done with a camera.

A Non-Traditional Photo Company

I run a very non-traditional photo company. And by non-traditional, I mean one set up not to make money, not to shoot $50,000 weddings, not to fatten a retirement account.

That doesn’t mean I don’t want to do all that. Because eventually I do.

The truth is, I am a 20-year journalist who has worked the past dozen years as an investigative reporter for a Norfolk, Va. television station.

When I started in newspapers, I shot my own pictures and wrote my own stories. But one day at The Virginian-Pilot, they told me to cut it out. Put in photo requests, they said.

Still, I never put down the camera.

And a couple of years ago, during a rough patch at work, I decided to start my own photography business. I soft-launched “Hot Shoe Digital Photography.”

Researching the Market

It was the proverbial toe in the water. Since I was something of a public figure in my hometown, I didn’t attach my name to it. I wanted a little separation.

I didn’t hide that I had started a photography business, but I didn’t advertise it, either.

I researched the going rates for portrait work. It was eye-opening. I found highly talented photographers charging a grand for a portrait, and the results showed they were worth every penny.

But I also found photographers charging hundreds of dollars for hack work. Limbs oddly cropped off, trees growing from heads, blown-out backgrounds, soft and murky images poorly composed and devoid of contrast.

I found out what talented professional photographers already know: There are too many “semi-pros” out there who switch the dial to auto, click away, and still get paid.

It’s difficult to break through that clutter, for photographers and customers alike.

Paying It Forward

Ultimately, I stayed with my TV job, and I’m thankful for it. I decided to keep Hot Shoe going as a side gig, which enabled me to continue doing something I enjoy without the financial pressures.

Of course, that still left me with the dilemma over friends and family. And so I decided to launch the “Pay It Forward Photography Project.”

It’s as simple as it sounds. For friends and family, for starving college students, for people who need a headshot but can’t afford $200, I shoot them and require them to pay it forward. They reveal their good deed to me, and I post the details on my blog.

It’s just getting going, but so far the good deeds have included spending a day at an animal shelter (which the child model so enjoyed that he signed up as a regular volunteer), school-supply donations, and contributions to a charity for children with cancer.

What About You?

I understand I am lucky enough to have a day job that lets me do this on the side. I understand that many professional photographers are struggling to make ends meet today, particularly in the current economy.

But I also think the “pay it forward” concept is worth exploring, at least for those photographers who have the financial wherewithal to do so.

Could you do it once a year? Once a month? Once a week?

Maybe this year, during the holidays?

Lawyers take pro bono work. Doctors embark on medical missions. Corporations run philanthropic foundations. And tens of thousands of charity workers lend their talents to help others.

For me, hearing that a teenage boy wanted to turn his “pay it forward” day into a summer volunteer job — well, that was worth far more to me than I would’ve ever charged for the portrait.

What about you?

16 Responses to “When Friends Ask You to Take Their Picture, Ask Them to Pay It Forward”

  1. Wow! Such a brilliant idea and thing to do! I'm planning to grab a dslr and start practicing my skills. 🙂 I love your blogs! 🙂 God bless! 🙂

  2. I love this idea.

    I too have a day job where photography is part of my job description. I am not comfortable at all charging friends and family for something I love. However, I could do "Pay it forward" in a heartbeat.

    Thanks for the inspiration.

  3. I LOVE this idea! I have been planning a charitable side to my business as well; mainly partnering with other organizations around town to offer specials. I am also starting a promotion for my fine art prints where a percentage goes towards charity. Great post!

  4. This is a great idea. I want to try it out. I'll let you know how it goes.


  5. I'd support Mike's suggestion re volunteering services. I offered to photograph pro bono for a local hospice several years ago, before I set up my business properly. I heard about the amazing things they do from a friend with 1st hand experience, and looking at their website, the pictures showed little of it. She introduced me and we took it from there.

    Our relationship has grown and strengthened over the years; there was obviously a need to develop understanding and a high degree of trust, not least given the need for sensitivity and a high degree of care in respect of patient circumstances.

    While I'm now a full-time professional photographer, I continue to volunteer my "time and talent" to the hospice, contributing to and maintaining a solid and effective picture library that really does help to tell the true story of a place and team that does incredible work over three sites in my city.

    My pictures have been used on the revamped website, in reports and on fundraising material, and in news stories. I do portrait sessions for patients and their families; cover special occasion such as birthdays in day care or on the wards, or the visits of supportive celebrities. Some of my other work is on big bright canvasses on the walls of the lounges and corridors to lift spirits, raise a smile and generally brighten up the place - NOT autumn leaves and sunsets!!! Just visiting day care with a camera starts conversations that aren't about illness, which can make a difference to someone's day - including mine.

    I've found it challenging as well as rewarding, and have learned a huge amount in the process -needless to say, not just about photography - and have met some wonderful and fascinating people. Maybe a hospice environment isn't for everyone - there sure have been some tough moments - but I really do commend the concept that Mike Mather suggests, whatever the community endeavour supported.

  6. Good in theory, but not so great for results. When people refer you, its usually along the lines "AND HE SHOOTS FOR FREE!". Keep your day job.

  7. I'm in the same position. I have a well payed job as an it consultant, coding webpages. But, I still charge everyone for a session unless It is a mutual exchange of value.


    I know several struggling photographers without a well paying job on the side. I would not help them by taking their jobs for "free". I think that I will be hurting myself to in the long run.

    And I do agree with Calvin. Its much harder to push the prices up, when you have shot for "free" for a long time. "He has started keeping the money for himself, not letting me pay it forward anymore."

  8. The problem with this once again, is that yet again, the profession is being undermined. As a professional my own friends show me respect and wouldn't dream of asking me to work for free, no more than you would work for your TV company for free. In fact I'd go as far as to say that the sort of friends who think think a professional person (of any field) should work for free are not good friends at all but users.

    I have friends who are builders and have helped us with our renovations, we paid them well, they offered us a slightly cheaper price than normal but we RESPECTED their livelihoods and profession and would have seen it as a huge insult to think they'd work for free. I have friends who are mechanics in garages, I PAY them for servicing my van. I have other friends who own charter yachts, we PAY them if we want them to sail around for a day.

    All my truest friends are happy to pay me, why ? Because they love my work and they want me to be able to pay my corporation bills, my wages, my overheads and my costs. They want me to be able to feed and clothe my kids and Heaven's alive, maybe take a holiday once in a while.

    I'm sorry, but whilst your idea may work for very close immediate family of professionals, and is ethical in idea, it is entirely ridiculous for those of us who actually have to make a living doing what you have as a hobby. Your suggestion is only relevant to amateur photographers or wannabes, with part time or full time day jobs.

    Unfortunately, until we get a Zeitgeist world, where we don't all live in a debt ridden economic system, then your idea does is of more harm to professionals in business than help. Sorry, but I say that as a pro of 30 years who regularly does work for friends and family but who works in an environment of mutual respect.

    Kind regards, Glyn

  9. Beautiful idea, Mike. Thanks for the inspiration!

  10. Fantastic idea; I'm going to have to give this a shot. Thanks for sharing Mike.

  11. Glyn, you are spot on 100%

    Steve, if you do not value your own work or worth, why should anyone else?

    For those of us that have been professional photographers all our lives, even your 'ethical' compromise benefits everyone except us professional photographers unless you want to lug my equipment around for a week or two as I can no longer afford to take on a full time apprentice due to people shooting for cheap and free - which means that another generation of photographers will lose out on learning the dark art of professional photography and business....!

  12. Wow. I really love the idea of actually making this a program. Something that is scheduled and has a continual showing in your website and in the conversations of the community.

    Awesome. Inspiring.

  13. While the idea of this is attractive and good in the sense of good deeds, and allowing people to partially see the volunteering process it takes for a photographer to do such, I feel that it only allows people to assume photography to be a free occupation, that includes just shooting a bunch of pictures, with your $5000 camera (not to include all the other of thousands of dollars invested in equipment, and monthly bills that must be paid to keep your business going).

    While a photographer may go between 2 jobs, one supporting our "photography hobby" while the other, is a "feel good business", it's only supporting the idea that it's not a serious business. This is the perfect example of causing your photography business to fail, in creating a ministry out of your business. Business is created for
    profit. Just because you already have the equipment, education and experience (that you've invested both your time and money into), gives no merit to give things out for free, unless you're a non-profit business out for a better cause.

    Though this may work for Mike Mather, in promoting the better cause of pay-it-forward, it's in no way a business move for promoting yourself. The only promotion it gives is "I want to be a pay-it-forward client."

    Like anything in life. If something is free, it's valued as such.
    For those that you do chose (very close friends and relatives), I'd assume you're relationship with them has already been a sense of pay-it-forward, and that's why you wouldn't choose to charge them.

    Glyn, I highly agree.

    Jennifer Mooney

  14. Unfortunately Glyn and Jennifer are right. Those who believe you should work for free will only believe it more if you undermine your status as a photographer, either as a professional (full-time) or semi-professional (part time).

    Even though I am an amateur photographer in the experience sense of things, I charge as a semi-professional as it tells the client I am serious. I have no qualms with offering to take someone's photos for free for my own benefit, whether it be my portfolio or just to learn, but not charging when people come to *you* will only serve to undermine the chance of future success.

    Photography is a profession like any other. Don't let yourself believe otherwise.

    Regards, Nick.

  15. I stand corrected. Nick, Glyn and Jennifer thanks for the sobering comments.

  16. Re: Roman: I'm sorry, but "Nick, Glyn, and Jennifer" are not "correct" with their "sobering comments."

    Mr. Mather, who posted this article, shared a wonderful idea - that he donates his skill and time for free, asking only for that person to Pay It Forward.

    Leslie followed up with a reply in these comments about her wonderful work with cancer patients. She also shares her time and passion for free. A beautiful gesture that touches me deeply (I'll get to that in a second).

    Yes, it is hard for photographers to make a living, especially when affordable and excellent cameras makes above average pictures accessible to non-photographers. But instead of discouraging good people like Mr. Mather and Leslie, "Nick, Glyn and Jennifer" should accept reality. Technology advances. Industries evolve. We all must evolve.

    My wife was diagnosed with cancer 5 years ago. A local "professional" photographer offered to do a studio session for free. She got some technically wonderful shots - the love and affection showed through in those shots with my 3 and 5 year old kids. But my wife was bloated from chemo, and she didn't want the images around to remind her of her cancer, so we didn't bother to get prints.

    After a 2-year battle with cancer, my wife died. The images were the last ones taken of her and the kids before she lost her hair, and I thought my kids would appreciate them. When I called the photographer she tried to charge me $90-$900 PER PRINT.

    I guess "Nick, Glyn, and Jennifer" would say this professional was "right."

    I have a day job: I'm the CEO of a software company. I have a passion for photography. I have the best Canon L lenses, and profoto lights. I study photography when I'm not working. And yes, I take some amazing shots.

    And losing my wife ignited a passion in me to take portraits for friends, for family, and especially for people who are sick. I know first hand how much an amazing image can mean to a boy who lost his mom - that's why I do it. But not everyone can afford $90-$900 for one image; not everyone has the time or confidence to sit with a "professional." So I take pictures for these people, and here's what I charge: $0.

    Roman, please don't "sober up" by being "corrected" by "Nick, Glyn and Jennifer." Accept that times have changed, and do not begrudge those who have a passion and skill who simply want to do something nice for others.

    - Mark Palmer

Leave a Reply