Most aspiring photographers who take on work for free do so in order to gain professional experience. However, if you’re not careful in that way that you approach pro bono work, working for free can be at odds with the very professionalism you hope to develop. The only way for pro bono projects to be a true preview of what it’s like to work with you is if you treat the job professionally from the beginning all the way through to the end.

Here’s how to do it the right way:

‘Free’ doesn’t mean ‘forever’.

Unpaid work shouldn’t be open ended. Successful probono work projects have a timeline, including a beginning and an end date and a deliverable schedule that defines when completion will have been reached. The dates and times of the session that the photography will take place should be outlined, and the form that the final deliverables will take should also be put in writing. Limitations of usage of the final deliverables can also be itemized in the contract. You may choose to shoot for free but charge for final files or prints. The ‘free’ portion of the arrangement can be as partial or as inclusive as you like. Whatever you decide, just be sure that it is agreed upon in advance and that all parties signify that they are on the same page, before you proceed with the work.

Itemize the value of the work you are donating.

Even if you are not collecting payment, the value of your services should still be defined. An invoice should be drawn up with the dollar value of what you are providing itemized with what your client can expect to receive, and when they can expect to receive it.  All of this negotiation should take place, and be agreed upon by all parties, in writing, before proceeding with the work.

Get feedback

It’s a good idea to have a ‘debrief ‘ at the end of the assignment, to ensure that the client is satisfied and possibly to request their written referral for your work. This clarifies that there are no loose ends that need to be tied up from your or your client’s perspective. It also helps to make clear that the next stage of the project will require a new contract that can be negotiated on independent terms. This establishes from the beginning that you are not the ‘eternally free photographer’, rather you are providing a defined set of services that have a completion point. This allows a time for everyone to reflect on what the experience was like working with you, and gives the opportunity to open up the next assignment, this time at a partial or fully paid rate.


Even when you work for free, before proceeding with the work you should give your client a written estimate of the scope, itemize the cost of equipment, the cost of editing the files, and your usual fee, which you can then mark ‘gratis’ (which means ‘gift’) or otherwise indicate that you are making the shooting fee complementary. This helps them to understand that digital photography is not inherently ‘free’ but that they are getting a one-time gift that has a market value.  This also shows them what it would cost to hire you when you convert to paid work later.  This is important if you are hoping that a free client will turn into a paid client, because knowing what something costs is the first step in getting the budget to pay for it.

Next Friday: Alternatives to Working for Free (or How to Work for Free and Still Get Paid.)