Many young (and not so young) photographers wanting to break into the photography business offer to do ‘free work’ in hopes of establishing a relationship with a potential client for paid services in the future.

The only problem with this is that in this scenario the volunteer photographer is bearing all the burden of this arrangement, with the only benefit being the possibility, but no guarantee, of future work.

That is an unbalanced equation.

However, there is a way to create a ‘win win’ situation in which the client gets to experience working with you at a lower cost, but that you still feel compensated right away, regardless of whether of not the job leads to more work, even if you’re not technically getting paid full market rate for a job.

Instead of working for free, arrange to work for cost.

In the old film days, when photographers worked for free for clients or friends + family they’d offer to shoot for just the cost of rolls of film + developing. An updated version of this is to shoot for the cost of the rental of the gear and time processing the files.

Use free assignments to shoot with better gear.

You can use free assignments to shoot with gear that is better than the equipment than you own. This way you get ‘paid’ in the opportunity to get some experience with a camera or lens that you may not be able to afford yet. For example, if you own a Canon 50D with a kit lens, rent a 5D Mark III and that 85 1.2 lens you’ve been drooling over for the job. This way, the arrangement is a win-win: the client gets professional grade work done at cost and you walk away with brilliant full frame images for your portfolio and a chance to experience using some expensive glass that you haven’t been able to afford yet. You should always have back up equipment on any commercial job anyway, so shoot with the rented gear and have your own camera and kit lens as a back up emergency camera.
Use your local pro photo rental desk or reference a site such as www.BorrowLenses.com.

Also, before you return the gear to the rental desk, be sure to use the rental equipment to do a personal project to build your portfolio (more on shooting personal projects to come in a future post).

Call for Reinforcements

There’s no question that the most onerous part of a shoot for most photographers is not the pushing of the shutter button at the event, it’s processing the pictures afterward. Many a photog would shoot for free gladly, it’s the slaving away for hours in eye-straining worship at the altar of the great god ‘Photoshop’ that is the real work.

There is another way: arrange with the client that you will cover the event but that you will send the files to the outsourcing company and pass the invoice along to the client. (Note: Be sure to arrange this in advance.) You can also use an outsourced photo editing company such as www.evolveedits.com to process the files or if you want to process the files yourself you can refer to this site to at least figure out the cost you should be billing for editing time and see if you can arrange to get paid for that part of the job, while doing the shooting for free.

When it comes to pro bono work, the ‘pros’ choose their ‘bonos’ carefully.

Working for cost instead of ‘for free’ helps you prequalify the clients that you want to be shooting pro bono for. If they are unwilling to even pay for the costs, let alone your fee, it is highly unlikely that they will ever convert to a paying customer, despite promises. They are probably not the sort of client you will want to establish a working relationship with, and will end up being more trouble than they are worth.

Due to a simple, somewhat counterintuitive, law of human nature: most people only value what costs them something. If they pay nothing they will likely value your work at nothing. When a client has chance to ‘buy in’ and invest a little in the process, even if it is just for the rental of equipment on a ‘free’ shoot, that increases the value of the product and process for them. It’s a better ride for all parties involved when everyone has a little ‘skin in the game’.

Conclusion:

The next time you are approached to do work for free, consider offering to volunteer your time and expertise, but arrange (in advance) to bill the client for the rental of the gear that you will use to shoot their job.

This will give you the valuable opportunity to practice shooting in a client situation, build your portfolio with quality shots, and have a little subsidized fun with some sweet glass and gear along the way.

p.s. You’re welcome. -AJ