When to Work for Free

There are a lot of young photographers out there working to figure out how to earn income with their cameras. Making the transition from “shooting for fun” to “shooting for pay” can be challenging, especially when young photographers are so often inundated with generous offers to work for free. Cheapskates offer “exposure” and the promise of future work just to try to persuade an inexperienced photographer to shoot some pictures at no charge. But as everyone who has been burned by these promises knows, you don’t want to work for exposure (“Exposure kills!”) and anyone who can get free work today is never going to choose to pay for it tomorrow. So many photographers have learned to take a hardline stance against these cheapskates that they sometimes get confused about what “working for free” can sometimes mean, and they miss opportunities that might actually have some value. Here’s how to tell the difference.

The “Just Say No” Kind Of Free Request

When a prospective client calls with a request for photographic services but doesn’t want to pay, or if they want such a dramatic discount that you’re practically giving away your work, just say no. There’s no benefit to this kind of job, no matter how the prospect may try to convince you. If you normally charge $500 for a portrait session, but an up-and-coming musician says they’ll give you $50 and tell every one of their friends to hire you, this is the quintessential lose-lose situation. (Maybe it’s for their CD and they agree to put your name on the CD and give you a photography credit, as this sounds like a much better deal. It’s not.) Not only are you working for a tenth of your regular price, but also you’ve established in the mind of that customer that your work is actually only worth $50 and that your stated prices are meaningless. And even if they do tell all of their friends about you, what you’re going to get is a bunch of other calls from people who expect you to work for a fraction of your rate. This type of job has no equal exchange of value—simply a customer in need of photography hoping to take advantage of the world of young photographers who think they need to work for free in order to get work. Run far from this kind of request and don’t think twice about saying no thank you.

The Free Request That Is Worth Considering

Believe it or not, there are times when you should consider taking pictures for a customer who is offering some other equitable exchange in lieu of traditional cash payment. I know, to an audience of photographers who have been burned by free work, this idea is anathema. But the key is in the offer, and ensuring that it amounts to a fair and equitable exchange of value. There are lots of ways to exchange value that don’t involve cash. Traditional bartering, of course, might make sense if, for example, you need a new patio and agree to trade $1,000 worth of photography work for $1,000 worth of concrete work—an ideal equal exchange. That sort of barter is fairly obvious and straightforward, and while you’re free to pass on any job for any reason you like, if it’s equal I see no problem with it.

But what about the requests that aren’t quite so obvious, but which still might present real value? These requests are the biggest challenge for the inexperienced photographer who may not yet know what constitutes an equal exchange of value, or in fact what their work is worth. As a case in point, a young wedding photographer I know, a former assistant, recently told me about a request she’d received from a wedding venue that wanted to use her images in marketing materials in exchange for credit. On the surface it sounds like a standard “no thank you” is appropriate, but is there actual value in this situation? The venue, after all, is in a position of selling its services—and, theoretically, the services of wedding photographers—to brides on a regular basis. If there’s ever an audience who is actively seeking what you do it’s brides in your market shopping for their weddings. Still, I’m not so sure this offer as it is rises to an equal exchange.

I encouraged my young friend to go back to the venue and ask for more details, as well as to inquire about other options that could be worked work out. In the end, the venue and the photographer came up with a deal they were both pleased with. The photographer requested some limitations to how long the images could be used, as well as language outlining how the images must be credited—including the photographer’s URL adjacent to every image online and in print. The venue not only agreed to credit the photographer prominently for her work, as well as to add her name to a very short list of “preferred vendors.” This is where the real value comes in: not only will brides see the photographer’s name, but when they ask the vendor for recommendations her name is among the select few suggestions provided. It’s practically like having a sales force selling her wedding photography services, and it’s certainly an item of value.

To protect herself from the prospect of an unscrupulous client welching on their agreement, I suggested the photographer draw up a contract not only outlining the exchange’s agreed upon details but also the actual dollar amounts that would be paid for non-compliance. For instance, language such as, “For each instance of a photograph reproduced online or in print without an adjacent credit, venue agrees to pay the photographer a fee of $150” is designed to establish that there’s real value being exchanged here and it will help to keep clients honest—or at least ensure that they’re not likely to take their obligation lightly.

Given that she’s trading licensing fees on existing work rather than taking on a new assignment, it’s even easier to see this exchange as a natural fit—and one that could provide real long-term benefit to her business. It’s also one she would have missed out on completely had she taken a hardline stance against any prospective client who didn’t want to pay the old fashioned way, with cash. I don’t suggest that photographers starting out look for opportunities to work for free, but I do suggest that they start to learn the difference between “free” and “non-cash value.” As long as both parties actually get equal value from the transaction, I see no reason to avoid bartering for services beneficial to a growing photography business.

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