[Editor’s Note: The following article is an opinion piece. The views expressed here by the writer may not necessarily be the opinion of SLR Lounge as a whole].
I’ve been sitting here for entirely too long trying to come up with an analogy for taking free work. Unfortunately, everything I come up with could be perceived as overly derogatory to one group or another, and my intention is not to alienate anyone. Instead, I want to encourage you to rethink your approach to pro-bono photo sessions because you might just be missing out on an incredible relationship or networking opportunity.
Never shoot for free
It’s the clarion call of the freelancer. Established professionals shout it from the mountaintops of success, and most anyone that’s been around for a while ends up drinking the kool-aid and laying a guilt trip on newcomers to the industry in an effort to keep the cycle going. The motives here are probably pure, but the vision can frequently be short sighted. Before we dig into that, let’s discuss the reasons most give when arguing why someone shouldn’t shoot for free.
First reason, it harms the industry. This is one of the first lines of defense for those preaching the “freelancer’s manifesto.” The idea is that by working for free, photographers are allowing consumers access to cheap creative work and potentially undercutting the business and profits of more established photographers or studios.
Second, you aren’t valuing yourself. By allowing a “client” to get access to your services, equipment, and expertise at no cost, you are setting yourself up for failure and are doing yourself a disservice.
While I don’t disagree with these premises, I feel that scooping them up to throw in the face of new photographers is not the best course of action. Why? Because, just like with diets, cameras, lenses, and countless other decisions we make, it depends on what you are trying to accomplish.
Why work for free?
Ultimately, this is a question only you can answer. However, I will share my thought process behind some of the free work I’ve done and how it’s helped me. Hopefully, you are able to take something away or think about things a bit differently and possibly connect with your next client!
Build your portfolio
This is fairly obvious, and I’m not going to spend a lot of time on it. When you are first starting to build your photography career, people aren’t going to pay you. So, offering to work for free is a great way to practice the basics, try new things, and get some camera time under your belt.
Make networking connections
For me, this is the most beneficial aspect of performing free work. Granted, you absolutely MUST put a good deal of thought into the pro-bono gigs that you take, and obviously there is always the risk that nothing comes of your free work. On the other hand, you never know what might come from a session.
For instance, one free session for a local stylist helped me make a connection with a modeling agency and landed me with multiple shoots that I could use to build my portfolio. Because things worked out so well with our first collaboration, she invited me to help with another at a local boutique. At that shoot, I connected with the marketing director for the boutique. She asked me to be involved in a Model of the Month program with a session once per month that is featured on social media and in print within their store. She also helped me with my first styled shoot that helped me connect with several other local wedding vendors. All traceable back to a single shoot for a budding stylist that I worked on for free.
All of this begs the question, how do you determine if a free session is worth your time?
- Do you need to update your portfolio or have new ideas that you would like to try out?
- Is the point person someone that you would like to connect with?
- Will the work be seen by others that you might want to network with?
All of these factors weigh into whether or not working for free is a good idea. There are certainly other considerations and room for a discussion that might never finish.
How do you feel about working for free? If you do, what factors do you consider?