Becoming a Photographer – Working for Free

This is Jack. Check back on Monday to see the full shoot.

Someone left me a comment a while ago in response to another post, asking about working for free and when you should/shouldn’t do it.

There are a million and one articles out there about valuing your work and why you shouldn’t give your work away and I totally agree with the principals behind each and every one of them.I also believe that money is not the only thing of value that you can receive in exchange for your work.

It can be difficult when starting out to build the portfolio you want. The type of work you are making = the type of work people will hire you to make, so your portfolio really needs to include the types of clients you want to attract, in order to book more of that type of client. If you’ve never shot a wedding/gig/editorial/ad campaign etc you will find it hard to book more weddings/gigs/editorials/ad campaigns because of course people want to see that you can deliver.

If you don’t have the kind of work in your portfolio that will lead to the type of work you want, you need to remedy that and a way of doing so is working for nothing or to work at a reduced rate.

I’ve talked about the benefits of collaboration before and a styled photoshoot is a great way of building your portfolio and getting exposure if you can manage to get your work out there.  The best way of achieving this is through networking. Meet people, pitch your ideas to them and if they like them you’ll often find they will donate their time/products/ideas and then you can all promote the result of your hard work.  This is also a great way of doing work that you have complete creative control over too – your only limit is your imagination.

Another way of getting your portfolio to where you want it to be is to work for free on real jobs. I have, in the past, run competitions where I give my wedding photography services away for nothing to a couple whose wedding I picked because it reflected the sort of work I wanted to have in my portfolio.  It worked out well as I was able to get their wedding featured on a wedding blog and that led to other bookings of weddings that were also a bit different from the ones I’ve shot before.  For me, the value was in getting my portfolio to where I want it to be, the exposure I received and the booking that followed.

Of course exposure doesn’t pay the rent, so working in exchange for exposure/portfolio material isn’t something that should be done lightly. There is also the issue that sometimes people who get something for nothing do not appreciate the full value of what you are providing to them.

This post on Photograpers Bling provides an excellent example of this, and the following text is quoted directly from the site:

Here is a story about a student that I mentored a few years back.

When she was starting out she decided to tap into her daughter’s play group by offering all the moms free sessions of their kids and nearly free prints in order to help her build her portfolio and to expand her client base.

Many of the mothers eagerly signed up, feeling like they were getting something great for nothing. My student did many sessions and came to me complaining that she didn’t feel appreciated.

The moms apparently were being very picky about what they would get for prints and were asking her to photograph other family members and making requests like ‘ oh can you just do this one more thing‘.

They were less than appreciative throughout the process and she felt frustrated because she wasn’t being paid anything for her time and she wasn’t getting orders on her sessions in a timely fashion.

In addition friends who were being referred to her business were expecting the same free sessions and nearly free prints that their friends had received.

By placing herself into a position of working for someone because she needed to build her portfolio, she gave away her control. She became the one that ‘needed’ something and she therefore devalued her work, her time, and her talent.

She placed herself into the situation that made her feel under-appreciated and overworked.

The same blog then goes on to give suggestions about how you can work for free in the same scenario without devaluing yourself.

For me, when I have worked for free, I’ve made it conditional. I will work on collaborative shoots if they will fit with my brand and give me an opportunity to stretch myself creatively.  For the competition I ran, I made entrants submit a mood board showing the type of wedding they were planning. This meant they were emotionally invested in the competition and also that I could pick the most appropriate winners based on my own desired outcomes.

Aside from the above circumstances, I would urge caution if you’re asked to work for free. Think about the motivation of the person that’s asking you.  Sadly in the digital age where every one owns an SLR, there is generally always someone that will do something for free, for experience and this does have a knock on effect.   If you are asked by an agency/magazine/publishing company or any other orgainsation that has budgets specifically to pay for art work, think twice before you let them capatilise upon your work.

You might get some exposure from the project but, realistically, will that lead to bookings/commissions?  Probably not.  And one-off exposure won’t have a huge impact on your business in the long run.  People need to be consistantly exposed to your brand a number of times in order to remember you.

I asked some photographers in a group I’m a member of about working for free and the imapct of that on other professionals.

Samantha Jones said “As a full-time professional photographer, I totally understand that we all have to start somewhere. My first wedding, whilst I was still working in a law firm, was shot for free. I realised that my long time passion for photography could send my life in a different direction and so I decided to take voluntary redundancy to follow my new career path.

In my opinion, part timers who are offering their services at a very low level should really reconsider their pricing. You have to value what you offer and your clients will too. But as a part timer, you must also commit time and money to ensure that you are fully insured, that your equipment is up-to-date and well maintained and that you also attend training.

It is all too frustrating to see photographers who use seminar imagery and who give the impression that this was photographed during a wedding. The difference between photographing a real wedding and photographing a set-up scene is huge and shouldn’t ever be taken lightly”

Phil Rees said “I see no issue with people doing a few cheap, or free, while they build up their business (and I did that myself when new), as long as they move quickly to ‘proper’ pricing, though I do sometimes flinch when I see some advertise their offering as being comparable to a full-time established photographer purely on grounds of hours of attendance, number of images etc, if they don’t have insurance, the right lenses, and the other trappings of being properly set-up.

Generally, the market is segmented, and day to day, it doesn’t appear to affect my business – I’ve never found myself ‘head to head’ in competition with those doing it free

That said, there must be an impact, in that it sets the floor for pricing, so those at the cheaper end will reduce their prices to compete, then those a bit higher will reduce a bit to compete with them and so on… that impact is more subtle and very difficult to quantify.

But if you look at any business where entry barriers are low, and it’s easy to set up, returns will be less than in an industry with high entry barriers – and even if the new entrants charge a more realistic price, that would still be true”

Kathy Dunn said ” I agree with the whole ‘you have to value yourself’ thing but I have to say I shot 1 free wedding and 1 cheap wedding after lots of free second shooting to allow me to break in to ‘doing it on my own’. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable charging for this as I felt very green and although I had confidence in my ability I felt I needed to practice with less pressure.

Don’t get me wrong this is someone’s wedding day so of course there is a pressure and a huge need not to mess up BUT if the client is happy for you to be there this is also their risk.

I also have to say that these are the kind of clients who don’t value photography in a way that my clients do now and would NOT have paid a photographer much to be there. This is a shame but I don’t feel that photographers doing this are really jeopardising the market”

Robert Brook said “Like Kathy I’ve done free weddings to get up to speed. I wouldn’t say it’s harmed my business but it also hasn’t brought any business in either. I’ve had zero referrals from brides I’ve shot for free. They seem to hold very little value in what you do. I’ve had similar results from networking. On the other hand people I have charged full price commonly pass my name on.

Alex Smith said “Never free, second shooting fine but a whole wedding it’s just devaluing your effort and time, even being honest about your experience and charging a nominal fee is better than free, people have to place some worth on your skills otherwise they wouldn’t be using you in the first place regardless of whether you’re starting out or not. In the grand scheme of things I’m not sure it really impacts my business as I think my customers value quality and experience”

What do you think about working for free?  Have you done it?  Would you do it?  Do you think it devalues photography?

Laura x

6 thoughts on “Becoming a Photographer – Working for Free

  1. This is an interesting little article! I think it’s a give and take game, one where in the end you have to be the one who takes back otherwise your business would never progress. I think free/promotional shoots are good to a certain extent as it can vary your work when you are just starting out but they have to sit alongside paid work that doesn’t undervalue who you are and your skills. It can be difficult as you don’t want to have potential clients turn away due to pricing however in the great scheme of your business they are probably not going to be the right clients for you anyway! I say be brave and work smart.

  2. Hey Babb!

    Every single free job I’ve done, without exception, has led to paid bookings and I’ve rarely encountered a bad attitude or anyone trying to take advantage. I’m prepared to admit that this might be down to luck.

    I did several full weddings for free last year. It was actually after I’d already been paid for a number of weddings and I had paid bookings ahead, but I was incredibly hungry to shoot more and to have the opportunity to try things and to create a portfolio that would target the clients I wanted to work with in the future. It was hard work and lean times, but I supported it doing other paid photography work to make ends meet. I still have a couple more free weddings in my diary, but as I already mentioned, I’ve also gained lots more bookings and I feel like my business and work is much stronger for it.

    I’m glad I invested my time the way I did but I can see how, with the wrong clients or a different situation it could have been a very different situation. Ace post, lots of food for thought as always.

    H x x x

  3. I just reread that comment I just left and realised most of it was pretty incoherent.

    I especially like the bit where I said a different situation could have been a very different situation. Beautiful.

    Is it too early for gin?

  4. Great blog post Laura! It’s hard working for free but I think you’re so right, if you’re trying to build a great portfolio that you love. Who knows maybe one day I will get paid to produce a styled shoot or style someone’s wedding 🙂 XxX

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