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Insights & Thoughts

Should You Work For Free? | Ted Forbes Addresses This Controversial Issue

By Hanssie on April 20th 2015

Should you work for free? These 5 words have sparked wildfires of debate across photography forums across the vast span of the internet for years. There’s a firm line drawn in the sand and virtual bloodshed on both sides. Every few months, this question makes waves within the community and very recently, this issue was splashed across headlines yet again when Pat Pope, a photographer made a very public and very viral stand against the band, Garbage, when they requested to use some of his images for free.


We have numerous articles with differing opinions from a variety of photographers who have a say on this topic and I’m sure the video below won’t be the last we hear of this controversial, much-debated topic. In the following video, Ted Forbes from ‘The Art of Photography,’ tackles the question, “Should I Work For Free?” In the 8-minute clip, Ted discusses various scenarios where a photographer may be asked to work for free or for “exposure.” Ted gives some very good examples and things you should think about before you agree to work “pro bono.”

For me, I really never had a lot of issues working for free for my friends, and maybe a few select non-profit organizations. When it came to working for “exposure,” I’m afraid I was more of a pushover (like I am in much of life) and have done hours upon hours of work with little to no return.

Watch “Should I Work For Free? | The Art of Photography”

My big takeaway from this video is that, as a business (and in life), you need to make a list of solid boundaries that are written down, that are non-negotiable, and as Ted says, working for free should be on the top of that list.

To see more from Ted Forbes, check out his website:

What do you think? Should you work for free? 

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Hanssie is a Southern California-based writer and sometimes portrait and wedding photographer. In her free time, she homeschools, works out, rescues dogs and works in marketing for SLR Lounge. She also blogs about her adventures and about fitness when she’s not sick of writing so much. Check out her work and her blog at Follow her on Instagram

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Gabriel Rodriguez

    I wonder if I can pay with “Free” for my next car payment? Hmm…

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  2. Ian Moss

    If I like you, I’ll work for free (or more likely expenses). If I don’t like you or your project, I’ll set a fee very high. The thing is those that end up paying the high fee more than offset the free jobs. If it’s a bore to you then charge.

    But then again, not only do I have a proper job, but I have a proper job that drives more photographic jobs towards me than I want to do.

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  3. Jamie Hosmer

    It seems to me that the advice on SLR lounge is intended to elevate the entire photography community. To help photographers at all levels improve their photography, through “free” and paid advice. To give photographers a chance to compete for work on the basis of the quality and creativity of their work and not on price. SLR Lounge does give away plenty of advice, but that advice doesn’t undercut a market, it elevates the quality of the work produced by photographers. In my opinion the comparison of the “free” advice from SLR Lounge to a photographer giving away photos is like that of apples to oranges.

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  4. Rob Harris

    Free seems to be defined as not receiving money. But we often receive something besides money when working for “free.” For instance, if you were just starting in photography, would you work as an apprentice to an experienced photographer where your “income” is his knowledge? Would you shoot a maternity session for a friend because it is the same friend who you would have no trouble buying dinner and drinks for on an evening out? Would you shoot a session for a charity that you would donate money to? Time is valuable, but so is knowledge, friendship, and charity. Not everything is monetary including the advice on SLR Lounge. :)

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  5. robert s

    I liked the video very much. he said it as it is. doing free is just crap. not worth it. I did it when I started because I thought having a few images in my portfolio would be good. no. it doesnt matter. do the job and take a small amount if better than nothing.
    I could add more though to what he said.
    friends family, yea ok. they always appreciate the work.

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  6. Graham Curran

    The crucial part of the question is really how one defines “work”. If you are doing something for charity then you should consider it as a donation of your time; similarly, helping out a friend should be regarded as a favor which may be expected to be returned in some way in the future. Doing a commercial job for someone who can well afford to pay for the service but is seeking to get a freebie undervalues not only your own work but also that of other photographers. If I did a job for exposure in a new arena of photography then it would have to be something that I chose and had full creative control over.

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  7. Lauchlan Toal

    As a food photographer who can’t cook to save his life, I admit that I did a free shoot for a restaurant when I was first getting started. The photos from that gave me a workable portfolio which led to a paid shoot soon after, so it sped things along. But once you do have a portfolio, free work is pretty much a no-no, in my opinion.

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  8. Greg Townsend

    For me – if someone wants my work for nothing then they are basically saying either my work is worthless or their project is worthless or both. In which case why ask me to produce the pictures at all. The reality is that some businesses realise that they might be able to get the work for free and they go down that route first. Chances are they will find someone who will provide very decent pictures for nothing and so they go for it. The pictures have value to them as does their project. They just know their first option is to try to get a freebie. If that doesn’t work they will try again and this time assign a budget.
    Frankly we’re our own worst enemies. If no photographer ever worked for free then the option for prospective clients would be to pay for pictures or go without. People don’t get their car fixed for free as no mechanic will do it for free. We don’t fly for free on airlines as no airline gives away it’s seats for free. But as long as photographers give away stuff for nothing then people will quite understandably keep asking for it.

    Even if you’re starting out you should work on the basis that a you have something your prospective client wants to buy, which is photographs that are of a higher quality than they can produce themselves. Those pictures will add value to their business, so the pictures have value. If you can’t take a photo that is demonstrably better then your client can achieve then you shouldn’t be trying to earn you crust as a ‘tog in the first place. If a car mechanic can’t get paid to fix cars they stop being a car mechanic and start doing something else. If a photographer can’t get paid to take photographs they should stop being a photographer and go do something else.

    Nor is building our portfolio rocket science. There’s a whole world out there to photograph and more than enough subject matter to fill a million portfolios. Every pro photographer had their very first paying client at some point. We don’t need to be inside someones factory or office or home to take photographs that demonstrate our ability. We don’t ‘need’ to take photos for clients in order to build a portfolio. But they ‘need’ us to provide them with photos to drive their business forward.

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  9. Daniel Thullen

    I cannot think of a time I would work for free if it was requested whether it is by family/friends, profits/no-profits. Our time is worth something. I do like Ted’s suggestion about “trading,” especially when a photographer is just starting out. Ted’s suggestion make a lot of sense.

    I do see some value in donating one’s photographic skills to certain projects that may be of importance to a photographer. Sometimes the only payment necessary is the satisfaction of doing a project that brings “spiritual” fulfillment as opposed to financial fulfillment.

    That is the only circumstance where I can see myself working for free.

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  10. Jerry Jackson

    No. When I say that, I’m not talking about photography that you shoot with friends, for charities, or as a personal passion. Many photographers will travel to a location that they want to photograph with no promise of income, or photograph a model for free because they really like his/her look and it’s a unique opportunity. However, it’s a different story when you’re talking about “work” … unless the work provides another benefit that I value more than money (which is rare).

    I’ll stop demanding an income for my “work” as soon as the world turns into a utopian society where money is considered an archaic concept and no one needs to spend money for things like food, clothing, a place to live, transportation, taxes, education, supplies for work or home, or even the luxuries that make daily life a little more enjoyable.

    I once photographed a local band for dirt cheap because I like their music and I knew I could craft some cool images, but I required the band and their management to sign a contract clearly indicating that I am the copyright holder of those images and specifically limiting their use of my photos to promotional images on the band’s website and publication by news agencies for promoting upcoming shows. I make it clear that I own the copyright and if they want to use my images for anything else they will have to compensate me financially.

    Your comment at the end about setting boundaries is 100 percent accurate.

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  11. Thomas Horton

    Of course a photographer should have the option to work for free…. if it is the photographer’s choice.

    And sure clients should be able to ask a photographer to work for free…. if they also accept that the answer may be no.

    And naturally a photographer should not be surprised if a client can go elsewhere and get a picture that is good enough for less/free and be happy with it.

    Quality and value are very subjective concepts. Often what a client is most interested in is a photograph that is good enough, at a price that is good enough, with a delivery that is good enough. It is all about compromises. Trying to convince a client that they should pay more for something “better” than good enough is becoming a harder sell these days.

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