I recently read a great post over on FStoppers called Stop Charging, Start Shooting For Free. Of course, nothing will start a fire more quickly than saying something like this, as you can see for yourself in the comments of that post.
Arguments fly both ways on this, as you can imagine, and while I’m certainly an advocate of getting what you deserve for your photography, I tend to hold true to this notion. Of course, please note that I would never advocate shooting a professional commercial assignment for free, but there is nothing wrong with shooting for free under certain circumstances, as long as it meets one or more of these criteria. Note that all of these specify that you’re actually getting something in return.
1. Consider it a Trade
Photographers should get compensated for their time and their creative efforts, but there is no written rule that says that viable compensation has to be money. I’ve shot photos in exchange for just about everything- Gear, airplane time, salmon, graphic design services, favors… you name it. Photographers trade for services all the time, and in fact, if you consider that your work has value, then it has also value to the person who’s trading you their own services for it.
By the nature of bartering, if both parties feel that they’re getting reasonable and equal value from the trade, then it’s a good deal. Just be fair to yourself when it comes to how much you’re contributing to the trade. Be careful with this one, and remember, a photo credit in a published work is not a trade because it doesn’t cost the magazine or client anything. A true trade means that both parties are giving up something of real value.
2. Consider it Marketing
I read an article a few years ago called Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business. Basically, the concept of “Freeconomics” works like this: you generate interest with promotional giveaways, and then once you’ve got people hooked, you present a number of paying options in the hopes of converting them into loyal customers.
Sound familiar? Probably because it’s done all the time. Think about all of the companies and websites that offer free reports, eBooks, video clips, key chains, checking accounts, trial periods, toasters, guns, etc… I ‘ll even give you a free download of the first two chapters of my eBook, Making The Image in the hopes that you’ll like it enough to buy the full version.
Offering your customers a limited version of your service can be a great way to gain new customers. You might give them a free sitting, but make them charge for the prints. You might offer to shoot an event in the hopes of generating future sales. Give away prints and note cards to clients. The idea is to create a buzz, and the cost of a few free hours, sessions, or prints can be more than made up if you succeed in generating some true interest in your work.
3. Consider it an Investment
Building up your portfolio is one the biggest investments you can make in your professional photography career, especially when you’re starting out, or when you’re trying to branch into a new market. Shooting for free can provide some great opportunities to flesh out your book or your stock agency files. Maybe you’re shooting a musician, brand, model that you really believe in and are close enough with them to know that if you give them a break now, you’ll be able to profit more as they grow in the future. Again, be careful with this one, but know that it’s a viable type of investment.
Perhaps you want to try and hone certain technical skills or try out some new equipment. You don’t want to do this under the pressure of a paying job, especially if you’re still a little shaky on how to use the new gear; better to try that when you’re not under the gun or the clock. Not only that, you just wouldn’t feel right trying to charge for something when you’re not quite proficient.
Improving your skills is a necessary investment in your career, and there’s nothing wrong with doing some free “practicing” now and then, especially if you can land yourself a few challenging, but low stress situations. Just make sure that everyone involved knows that you’re still learning and that you might not get it perfect.
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4. Consider it a Personal Project
Personal projects are the lifeblood of photography. We do our best work when we’re passionate about our subjects, and let’s face it, paying gigs don’t always offer the most fulfilling photography experiences. Shooting subjects that we truly love is what drive us the most as creative artists, even if they don’t pay.
In addition, clients love hearing about personal projects. They actually like following along and seeing the results of your most closely held photography efforts, because they know that’s when you’ll create your best, most stylistic imagery. They want to see what you’re truly capable of, and if your work makes a big enough impact on them, it’s more likely that they’ll remember you when they’re looking for a new photographer down the road.
Since personal projects are when you’ll likely make your best photographs, these efforts should absolutely be considered investments in your career. After all, what do you think will generate more buzz, the commercial shoot you did last week, or the intense emotional and creative investment that you put into shooting something that truly drives you as a photographer and a person.
And finally, don’t forget to count the times when you shoot for free as a favor to your friends or when offer your photography services as a gift. Absolutely nothing wrong with that.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this matter or hear about an experience where shooting for free actually helped your career in some way.