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Insights & Thoughts

Does Working For Free Ever Pay Off?

By Hanssie on January 10th 2014

How much is a photograph worth? This question has many different answers, and lots of photographers might argue that an image is timeless. It is a tangible piece of a moment frozen forever in time. A photograph is a reflection of what the mind’s eye sees at the moment a shutter clicks. So, how much is a photo, a memory, worth?

According to Fit Pregnancy, a photograph is not worth much. Maybe it’s worth a credit line and the resulting “exposure”, but unfortunately not monetary compensation as photographer Trish Reda found out in the following email:


Of course at first, every photographer would be flattered to be noticed and complimented by a magazine from a fairly large corporation. (Fit Pregnancy is owned by American Media, Inc, which owns a dozen well known magazines)  Even the thought of being published by such a magazine might seem like an incredible opportunity!

To this message, Trish replied:


Trish posted this on her blog, with a long (and self-admittedly) snarky rant with her thoughts on the matter in a letter directed to the assistant editor of Fit Pregnancy Magazine. “You made me an offer of zero dollars for my work.  For my art.   You and your company attempted to use your power and fancy name to take advantage of me.  Do you  know what this officially makes you?  It makes you a step below WalMart.  WalMart at least offers minimum wage or poverty wages overseas.

As well as an open letter to the “other ‘photog’ whom the magazine editor contacted and is excited about her offer.” In it she encourages photographers to not fall for the flattery and give their art away for free, especially not to major corporations who do pay their other contributors. “When a company  like this comes at you with flattery and then asks for you to hand over your beautiful art for free, resist the urge.  It’s tempting, but resist.  For one thing, you are totally worth more.  You truly are.  But you know what?  So am I and so is the next up and coming photographer.  They will never buy our cows, if we keep giving away our awesome,  organic, raw grass-fed milk for free.

You can read the letters in their entirety on Trish’s blog.

Should Photographers Work For Exposure Only?

Sometimes, working for exposure is not necessarily a bad thing. Before you start throwing tomatoes in my direction, hear me out. No, exposure itself doesn’t pay the bills. But there are many cases where exposure is actually well worth it.

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

In Trish’s case, she is an established photographer who probably would not benefit very much from being exposed to viewers who simply aren’t able to ever become her clients.

A company that does indeed have a budget for photography and is already paying a team of photographers for certain images, should probably be expected to pay for the use of Trish’s photos. A byline with credit is simply not beneficial, as Trish points out, and will garner little or no business or exposure for her.

American Media, Inc may have filed for bankruptcy a few years ago, however, I highly doubt that was because they paid a few bucks to credit un-contracted photographers for certain articles here and there.  Either way, I’m sure they’d be able to find some money to pay Trish for her photo out of their multi-million dollar revenue stream.

Really, the problem is not corporate budgeting. It is the simple fact that indeed so many other photographers are jumping at the chance to have their work published for free.

It might have been a different story, if Trish had been looking to promote a personal, charitable project that NEEDED exposure.   Free visibility might be exactly what you want, it just depends on your situation.

The Phenomenon Of “Going Viral”

We can also view the situation from the opposite direction.  If you are a photographer and you do, in fact, want to expose your work to a few million people, what would that cost you?  20 years ago, exposing your work to 1-2 million viewers might have cost, well, an absolute fortune!  To run a print ad in a prestigious nationwide magazine for just a few months or one year could cost tens of thousands of dollars.  (Legend has it that wedding photographer, Mike Colon spent $100,000 on advertising in order to grow his brand!)

Today, however, exposure to a million or more viewers can cost you $0.00 if you want.  And if your artwork is creative and unique enough to “go viral”, it might turn out to be one of the pivotal events of your life as an artist!

For example, timelapse photographer Sean Goebel created the video “Mauna Kea Heavens” which went viral via SLR Lounge.  This exposure generated interest from major companies including Canon, The Discovery Channel, and IMAX.  (Which were in fact interested in contracting (and paying) him to generate additional stock timelapse content for them.)

We’d be willing to bet that TimeScapes creator Tom Lowe has numerous similar tales of how free exposure was highly lucrative!

Of course, Sean Goebel reports that he also regularly receives letters from major publications “demanding” that he allow them to use his work without any pay whatsoever, and even to hand over copyright entirely in some cases!  Naturally, these inquiries are responded to with a politely worded “No way!”  ;-)

Simply put, the “going viral” effect was not even possible just 10-20 years ago, yet now it can be highly beneficial to someone who is playing their cards right.

So, make the decision for yourself.  Do you need the exposure?  What could you actually gain by it?  It’s that simple.  Here at SLR Lounge, we strongly encourage photographers to value themselves and their work. Don’t just agree to something because a publication tells you “Oh, everybody else we contact doesn’t have a problem with it!”

We at SLR Lounge do, in fact, respectfully request permission before featuring any photographers’ work, and we focus primarily on projects and bodies of work that we think would, in fact, benefit from exposure.  We, too, work full-time as photographers, and we certainly value that livelihood!

Your Voice Matters

The most important thing you can do is spread the word and educate your fellow “creatives”.  Stand up for yourselves whenever necessary, and play your cards tactfully if you are an aspiring artist!

As always, we highly value your opinion and would love to hear from you in the comment section below!  Horror stories and/or viral success stories, either way we’d love to hear from you.

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.

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. Carolyn Robinson

    Good for you! You are so right. My husband has his own business, and in the early days he
    used to comply with this type of request for the product he manufactured. IT NEVER

    If you are good enough to use, you are good enough to pay.

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  2. Anne Phillips

    I don’t care how many viewers are out there to view my photos – not one award/magazine ad/magazine articles/published photos/name credits/shooting free for charities have brought in one paid client. Once you give a FREE out – guess what – they all expect FREE services from you! I find those people who approach you to give away YOUR work for free – either don’t respect yourself not talking about themselves. Do you ask plumber to come your home and fix the pipes for free? Do you drive up to a gas station and get a FREE fuel for your car to drive up to your client so you can work for FREE? Do you go to camera store and ask a free camera, because you want to build your portfolio or get a name credit in order to gain one paid client? Do you get a free electricity at your house in order to upload the images to your computer and spend extra time post-editing the images so you can give out your FREE work? Are those people who ask your services for FREE working for FREE at their whatever position? I could go on and on with those questions?

    If you are there to give out your work and name for free for people to see – make sure it is really, really good and it has a true value behind it! But the question is – how much you think your name is worth that companies can’t pay for your time and effort – yet they are there to make money off of your free delivery!?

    Even if you are an amateur photographer and someone is approaching you to get your images for their promotional use – you have earned your dollar figure and you should get paid! Period!

    Respect yourself and your fellow photographers!

    Anne’ P.

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  3. edmond

    I agree a half of it with Duskrider…to “Offer use of the photo in exchange for a free ad”. But when you had only one profession like photographer, (not for passion either for charity) and winning your salary with it, it’s the first thing within what you live day by day, it’s “angry thinking” when somebody take you foolish… I agree also that to be a photographer today its very hard, coz for many people (even like the magazine below) the photography its not art, but from the artist they collect moneys, and acting like naive they selling their products (magazine, newspaper, even some contest exposition…etc). Good luck!

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  4. LBBabb

    You had me up until “one step below Wal-Mart”… Nobody is forced to work at Wal-Mart, nobody is forced to shop at Wal-Mart and Wal-Mart pays it’s employess as well as any other non-skilled labor. Oh and you get benefits. I worked as a cook for 15 years and I got paid like crap and never had any benefits and I don’t recall anybody boycotting any of those places or acting like they were scum. Wal Mart rules and you’re an idiot.

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  5. Sarah

    I love this on so many levels. Thanks Trish!

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  6. Trish Reda

    Hannsie, thank you for sharing my post. I appreciate yourcommentary. I think that there are a couple significant differences about Sean Goebel’s video being used for free. For one, it is a video hosted on his personal and public Vimeo page and then just imbedded onto to the SLRL site. I think this is very different than a photo in a prined magazine with a tiny name credit. Readers have no attention span. They aren’t going to source the photo that way. I also, think that in general video works a little differntly than still images. I could be wrong, but with video, it is easy to see the YouTube or Vimeo link. People are more inclined to click back to the original source. Photos don’t really work like that, even when they are imbedded from somebody’s Flick’r or website. People don’t see there is a source and so they don’t bother with it.

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    • Hanssie

      I agree Trish, and I am with you on not giving your work away to the magazine. And yes, you are correct that video does tend to go viral much more easily than one image.

      There are times when we, as artists, can give our work away based on our discretion on if it would be beneficial to us (or if we choose to donate our talent to, for example, a charity). Again, it is based off of our own goals as photographers and if these opportunities are truly opportunities. Going viral is one of those phenomenons that take good work and lots of luck. It worked out for Sean’s video and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer person, I might add.

      Hopefully, through your experience, other photographers can learn to discern what is an opportunity and what is them being taken advantage of. Again, thank you for sharing your story with us and standing your ground on your beliefs.

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    • Sean Goebel

      I agree with your assessment and support your decision to not permit free usage of your images. The chance of someone seeing a “Photo by _____” tagline under an image in print media and then googling your name to find more material by you is approximately zero. In general, for online material I request that people embed material from my site so that users can click back to the source, and I discourage companies from re-hosting it. The intent of the image/video usage also matters–is the company writing an article about my work? If so, they can use my material for free, and it’s beneficial to both parties. Or are they wanting to use my work to promote themselves? If that’s the case, they’ll need to pay for it.

      The last time a print media company asked me for free images for use in their own promotions was… yesterday. They received an emphatic “Not unless you pay for them!” response. I’m going to start including the phrase “a step below Walmart” in my responses, thank you for that.

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  7. Duskrider

    It’s pretty simple with a magazine like that. Offer use of the photo in exchange for a free ad. That would be tit-for-tat.

    Other than that, as a rule I only do free for charities, which offers you great exposure and no loss of income, with the added bonus of feeling good about what you are doing. It also lets you practice in areas of photography you may not be very experienced at.

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    • Kairu Photography

      Great idea. If I ever get to the level of photography where people are even interested in printing my stuff (free or otherwise), I will add this to options (like for local magazines or newspapers).

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    • Trish Reda

      Duskrider, although everybody’s business is different, I will share my experience. My business is portrait work. I have paid for print ads and I have given away photograhs in exchange for them. Very pricey big ads, quite a few times. Nothing has ever come from it. Sincerely, not one booking. For my buiness, print ads are a huge waste of time and money and one should never be bamboozled by the thought of it.

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    • Hanssie

      Good rule of thumb! Thanks for sharing it!

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  8. Ryan

    Great timing….I am mulling over if giving rights to a surprise proposal photos I took to a huge sandwich shop chain is a good idea or not.

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  9. Paul Monagan

    I had one of my photos go viral, just over 750k views in a day.. settled at just under 1mill in a week. I’ve also had a few other images do pretty well on the net (one which landed me a non exclusive card deal for that image but overall it’t didn’t do anything for me.

    I feel exposure seems over rated and hard work seems to be the only way to go, I hear story’s of how other people went viral and it has worked wonders for them but I think going viral is only a small part of it and a lot of luck is needed too.

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    • Hanssie

      Totally agree. Luck is a big part of everything. It really is up to each person discerning if the opportunity is the right one for them.

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