As creatives and photographers, we are approached fairly often to work for free. A photo shoot here, a collaboration there, the use of your image somewhere else…it’s become the punchline of a bad joke in our industry. Having people offer exposure or a great addition to your portfolio doesn’t pay the rent, but are there ever times you should consider working for free?

Let’s clarify something first. When you work for free, you’re ‘volunteering.’ Volunteering is where you provide services, but there is no financial gain. People volunteer for many different reasons: to develop a skill, to help people or improve something/someone, to feel like they are contributing to society, and living for more than their selfish desires. For the purpose of this article, I will be using the terms ‘work for free’ and ‘volunteer’ interchangeably.

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3 Things to Consider When You Are Offered a Work For Free Opportunity

  1. Your time is valuable, and you’ll never get it back.
  2. People value things more if they have to pay for it.
  3. You may give up a lot of time and not get anything in return

After considering all of above, it doesn’t mean you should necessarily turn your nose up at working for free, as there are times when doing it can be beneficial for you and your business. But how do you determine if when you should accept or when you should pass?

Five Times It’s Okay To Work For Free

As with anything, there are no clear-cut answers when it comes to working for free. You have to evaluate own your business, your goals, and your responsibilities to see if it is worth it for you to give up your time and talent for no paycheck. I’ve volunteered many, many times in my career and some things have paid off, while others haven’t. I’ve given up hundreds of hours towards various projects – some that have led me to greater opportunities and others just offered a wonderful experience.

[Note: All of the images in this post were from shoots I did when I was working for free.]

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1. You Are Working For A Cause You Care About

Donating or volunteering your services to a worthy cause is typically a good reason to consider working for free – It’s important to give back. When you do something for others, especially those that are less fortunate than you, it feels good and there’s a natural sense of accomplishment that comes with helping others and gives you a sense of purpose outside of yourself.

I had the opportunity to travel to Africa to photograph a school a few years ago, and the experience was life changing. In exchange for my time, I was able to meet so many beautiful people living in horrid conditions but still grateful and happy for what they did have. The trip gave me a new appreciation and understanding for my life and put greater importance on using my gifts to serve others. SLR Lounge Writer Tanya Smith shares her experience traveling to Jamaica in this post here and how volunteering changed her life as well.

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2. You Are Learning Something New or Practicing a New Skill

In my career, I’ve donated many hours so I could learn or practice a new skill. When I was thinking about jumping into the photography industry, I emailed 15 friends and asked them if I could photograph their families for free so that I could practice. This gave me important time behind the camera, helped me practice posing, directing, finding light, and getting more familiar with my camera settings. I also received valuable feedback and insight on my shooting style, and as an added bonus, those families raved to other families about my work, posting it all over social media and kickstarted my career; it was great marketing for my new business.

I also contacted my wedding photographer to see if I could tag along with him on a few weddings just so I could learn more about photographing weddings. That led to me learning while second shooting 20+ weddings my first year – all but that first one he paid me for.

If you’re considering doing something new, maybe expanding into workshops or teaching, hosting a few free, small workshops to practice might be a good, no-pressure strategy for you. Whatever it is you want to learn, you could consider your free work, a tuition.

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3. It Will Actually Be ‘Good For Exposure’

‘Working for exposure’ is one of the quickest ways to induce an eye roll from any photographer out there (mine even rolled typing it). But sometimes, shooting for exposure isn’t a bad thing, but there really is a very fine line when it comes to exposure. Most of the time, you are taking a risk that the exposure will be for naught, but there are times when exposure can actually be beneficial, and sometimes exposure will lead to lucrative opportunities, but there are never any guarantees.

I’ve done a few shoots in exchange for a magazine feature – mainly because some of my personal goals were to see my work in print. I’ve done free work in exchange for a feature in an email blast with a substantial list. I’ve said yes to working for free just for the “street cred” of working with a bigger name in the industry. When I was building my wedding portfolio, I wanted to be able to keyword certain venues for SEO purposes on my website, and so I put together different collaborative photo shoots with vendors. I was able to get great images, work with some great people, and get keywords that helped boost the SEO for my website.

[RELATED PRODUCT: PHOTOGRAPHY SEO AND WEB MARKETING EBOOK]

Beware of companies that make lots and lots of money wanting you to “work for exposure.” If they can pay you and won’t, they probably don’t value you. Always evaluate the opportunity with your own goals and see if it can be a mutually beneficial exchange.

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4. It’s a Fair Exchange

Photography can be a commodity, and it is something you can always leverage for trade – especially if it is not essential to you paying the bills. Some people may want to shoot with you and learn a technique or skill from you…what are you getting in exchange? Sure, you could do it out of the goodness of your heart, but again, time is valuable, and you aren’t a charity. Maybe this person has a background in marketing or is a graphic designer, and you could exchange your knowledge/services for theirs.

Other times, maybe their craft can be used in exchange for yours. For example, I got a year of free facials in exchange for a few family portrait sessions when I traded with my friend who was a licensed esthetician. My face looked wonderful, and I was able to provide her and her entire family with new photos for their Christmas cards.

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5. You Are Working For The Experience

Whether it’s the experience of shooting somewhere new, working on a personal project you’ve wanted to tackle, or an opportunity that wouldn’t exist if you charged your typical rates, if the experience is worth it,  consider working for free.

In this article, frequent world traveler Anna Tenne talks about leveraging her work in work-exchange programs so she can visit countries she’s never been to before.

[REWIND: DOES WORKING FOR FREE EVER PAY OFF?]

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Conclusion

Some people may scoff and get angry that working for free is ‘destroying the industry’ and that I’m unprofessional for even considering it, much less write about it. Ultimately, if you choose to work for free, it’s YOUR CHOICE.  If you want to be generous with your time and talent for whatever reason, then do it.  Don’t let anyone shame you for your decision to do it or not to do it.

Have you ever worked for free? Comment below with your experience.