WEDDING SEASON SALE! 30% Off Training Systems!

Your content will be up shortly. Please allow up to 5 seconds
Tips & Tricks

Path to Pro with AJ | Work for ‘Free’ and Still Get Paid.

By AJ Coots on January 19th 2013

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

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 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’.


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

This site contains affiliate links to products. We may receive a commission for purchases made through these links, however, this does not impact accuracy or integrity of our content.

AJ Coots is a headshot and commercial photographer based in Portland, Oregon. (
In addition to being a regular contributor to SLR Lounge, AJ has been seen on and Kevin Kubota’s Photographer’s Ignite. When she’s not awkwardly composing her bio in the third person, she teaches photography + lighting workshops and speaks publicly (and privately) to emerging photographers about the business of being a creative entrepreneur.

Q&A Discussions

Please or register to post a comment.

  1. Joseph Prusa

    Thanks for posting.

    | |
  2. Mike Moore

    Thank you! I recently took Santa photos for a City event…4 Thursdays between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I did it for free as my way of giving back to the city I love living in…The client received one free digital (4×6) file free with the opportunity to purchase other photos at my online gallery. Although I didn’t get many purchases, I did get free marketing through the city’s website and facebook page. My name is out in the city (as a new businessman) and I’m fine. I like the points that are made in this article. 

    | |
  3. Hyde

    I worked like this before, stopped doing it. The biggest problem is; most companies expect you continue working this way. And they don’t care if it’s shot with a 60D, 5D3, 1Dx or a Nikon as long as they don’t have to pay you for it.

    | |
  4. Jacob DelaRosa

    What’s your take on spec work? Say I worked out a deal with a beauty pageant that I would not charge for the time that I was there but would charge the parents for prints/digital images. Would it be better to hedge my bets and make sure I got paid?

    | |
  5. vicky

    I have been taking photos of our high schools for 2 years now.  Yesterday I just launched my web site so parents and alike can purchase

    | |
  6. Pfqarg

    Mmm interesting point of vew. My only question is if you are planning to charge for cost of the equipment rental. Isn’t that to much to call it for free? To rent that kind of equipment it will cost you $200 to $300 for like 3 days.

    | |
    • Mglinearart

      Don’t forget as well the deposit cost of an item which will be likely the cost of the item.. Which, I figure if you have tht money anyway you’d buy the item..

      | |
    • ajcoots

      It’s good practice to start taking into account your equipment costs. If you don’t, you will never be able to accurately quote any commercial job. $200-$300 may seem intimidating for someone not used to quoting on a job, but the amount it would cost to rent equipment should be accounted for on every job you shoot and then on top of that you should also charge enough to make a wage for your time.
      Otherwise you are not working as a professional but just a hobbyist. Many beginning photographers fool themselves into thinking they are making money at photography when really they aren’t charging enough to even cover their equipment costs.

      | |
  7. margie_visnick

    Awesome idea! Thanks!

    | |
  8. Andrew Sible

    interesting proposition I often forget that I could rent gear, and this could be a good way to test out some new gear I’ve been wanting for free, and easier than booking a normally priced session.

    | |