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Tips & Tricks

Shoot For Free? You Might Just Thank Me!

By Michael Henson on March 28th 2016

[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.

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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.

slr lounge Final-Edits-Henson-Creative-Styled-Shoot--9Why 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.

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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.

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All of this begs the question, how do you determine if a free session is worth your time?

  1. Do you need to update your portfolio or have new ideas that you would like to try out?
  2. Is the point person someone that you would like to connect with?
  3. 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?

Michael Henson is a St. Louis based photographer obsessed with everything creative. His photography interests span genres from still life to sports. When he’s not running around with his face to the camera or behind a keyboard writing, you can typically find a guitar in his hands or catch him out enjoying life with his family and friends.

For more from Michael, bebop on over to:

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Q&A Discussions

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  1. Daeshawn Ballard

    From an amateur such as myself, working for free has granted me the opportunity to earn income and actually pay my bills haha.

    I work with cash strapped business for free; learning and building a portfolio and network at the same time. This approach led me to being employed by their circle of friends and peers.

    Again this is just my experience with working for free.

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  2. berto Carr

    This is always a tough questions for me, but I always ask myself why are so many photographers always asked to do free work? There are very few business in the world where people do work for free, even when they are learning they get paid! Work is work and if you do it you should get payed period! When was the last time anyone ever gave you work that you needed for free? Now of course we all run into a projects or a charity that we all want to help and that should be our choice, not a demand from anyone which often seems to happen now a days. For me Free should only be consider in special times when you feel you need to be charitable because others need it family included, or some cool projects come along with some great collaborators and you don’t want to miss a great opportunity that you might not get again! In this situation by all means do what your heart feels is besrt for you, but remember when we give away your work you are silently teaching the world an expectation, and its that expectation that often devalues your work!

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    • Michael Henson

      I’m actually just home from ShutterFest and will be going back tomorrow. The timing of my writing this article is interesting as I just heard two incredible photographers, Sal Cincotta and Moshe Zusman, (both with highly successful photography studios and over 10 years in business) encourage a room full of hundreds of photographers to work for free…when it makes sense. They both gave RECENT examples of free work – one did an editorial for a wedding magazine with travel, food, and support expenses coming out of their pocket. The other did headshots for previous pageant winners. Both ended up realizing ROI from their work. It’s just a matter of recognizing when the opportunity has a potential return, and when it doesn’t.

      Shooting for friends and family is an entirely different proposition than shooting for a small business or group in the area that might have contacts or resources that can potentially help your business.

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    • Justin Haugen

      If anyone can find a way to ROI on free work, it’s Sal.

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    • Michael Henson

      Very true! He’s quite the business mind.

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    • William Irwin

      Yep, this is exactly what I’ve been trying to say. It makes sense to do free when it benefits you in some ways. Expanding your social circle to a different group than you would normally be exposed to and at a higher level would definitely benefit you.

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  3. Dede Vidal

    I never, ever, do a job for free. Business is business. Is either the cash or an exchange, but never for free. My Dad, who was a successful businessman, once said “one hand helps or cuts the other”. Regardless of the experience, you should check a professional photo association and find out the average rates charged according to the type of photography you are going to do. Forget of doing photo work for free.

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  4. Lauchlan Toal

    Good points to consider Michael. I agree that shooting for free can be valuable, provided you NEVER do it with the intention of getting a paid shoot with the same client later. That just never works out – after doing a free shoot that client is almost certainly never going to be a potential paying customer.

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  5. Alex Petrenko

    It was nicely put by someone, if I’m not mistaken, on Creativelive: as a photographer you don’t pay money for several years of education in University to become a pro, but you pay several years of time and practice for that.

    You are not working for free, you are paying with your time for your education.

    Now it sounds even more negative in monetary terms, right? :)

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  6. Justin Haugen

    Working for free has a name. Volunteering.

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    • William Irwin

      Learning, Networking (expanding your known social circle), Bartering, etc.

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    • Justin Haugen

      That’s all relative to your position in your field.

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    • Michael Henson

      I think this nails it. It’s relative. What’s acceptable for a pro in these terms wouldn’t necessarily be for an amateur….

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    • William Irwin

      Op makes it pretty clear he’s talking about established photographers saying these kinds of things to new photographers as absolutes. In his experience and even mine, we can benefit from selective choices about doing some work for free as long as we know we gain some kind of benefit. I’ve already listed a few. Bartering with someone to do their headshots for example, when that same person provides you SEO tuning or website design on your site or some other service is certainly valid and not to be discounted when you don’t have the money yet.

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    • Justin Haugen

      @william Service in exchange for service/goods is not working for free though, so not sure why you are insisting on that. That concept isn’t lost on me. I’m also not knocking the idea of doing work with nothing in return, everything is a learning experience and we stand to gain something from it.

      At some point though, working for free is operating at a loss and it is important to know when you are operating at a loss when you’re running a business.

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    • Andy & Amii Kauth

      We try to do this as much as our schedule allows actually (for a local church that puts on “dream weddings” for deserving couples with no wedding budget, a local charity that gets wedding industry pros together with proceeds going to deserving charities, and [recently] Magic Hour). It’s scored us some great vendor connections as well … :)

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  7. Jon Smallwood

    I totally agree! I am currently at the point in my photo career where I’m doing “almost” free work to build my portfolio. It’s a win win for both parties IMO. Us rookie photogs get practice and experience, and the clients get, hopefully, some decent to good photos. While I have pro gear and believe myself capable of capturing great photos, I wouldn’t feel right charging $2-3k for a wedding. I understand that I’m still learning and have a lot of growth to do, so I feel like compromising somewhere around $1k is fair. The only time I shoot for free is for family, and I have a huge family, so theres no lack of free work there. But when I do friends, I always charge at least something for my time and to help cover the cost of the gear I’ve already purchased.

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    • William Irwin

      “While I have pro gear and believe myself capable of capturing great photos, I wouldn’t feel right charging $2-3k for a wedding.”

      The important question and one only you can answer, when do you consider yourself ready to charge $2-3K for a wedding? For me, the answer is when you are consistent producing images in a variety of situations. For each person, this answer may vary.

      Most photographers I’ve known started charging low and went higher as demand grew. This is true for both portraits and weddings.

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    • Michael Henson

      I agree Irwin. The vast majority of photographers I know have started a the bottom and then worked their way up.

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    • Jon Smallwood

      I don’t have a website yet, don’t have a portfolio with that much content or variety, and I know, based off the work I see others put out, that I am not at their level yet. I would feel comfortable charging 2-3k for a wedding when , like you said, I have been consistently producing great images regardless of what has been thrown at me.

      It’s my personality as well, I’m a perfectionist. If I were to hire someone who was equivalent to my photo skills, I wouldn’t want to pay them a full “pro” fee. I’d say “come back and ask me for that price when you can show me that you actually merit it. Right now I can’t. Which is why I’m totally fine with charging lower prices to gain experience. In a year or so, after a good amount of practice, and perhaps a dedicated assistant, I’ll be up there.

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    • Anders Madsen

      Just a friendly piece of advice: Remember that you are not your customer! Especially as a perfectionist, you’ll always find something at fault with your images and keep making up excuses as to why you are not worthy of asking higher prices, even though your customers loves your images dearly.

      Take a step back now and then, and compare your most recent work with what you created three months ago. Better? – well, then so should the pay be. :)

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    • Jon Smallwood

      Very true…!

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    • Justin Haugen

      Everyone has to start somewhere. If you can parlay a work experience into a learning one, and everyone involved is pleased with the results, good for you.

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