Today we are going to be discussing, as photographers, should we work for free?
Maxwell sent an email saying, The forums he is a member of have had a lot of talk about working for free and how this can negatively impact you and your business.
The post was directed at new photographers, giving away their services for free just to portfolio build, while making it hard for professional photographers to get work.
Is there ever a good time to work for free as a photographer?
Table of Contents
Should you work for free as a photographer?
Absolutely, there is a good time to work for free.
We all probably have done it and probably still do it to some extent. There’s nothing wrong with giving your time or photography away for free, provided you get some benefit from it.
I know that it sounds selfish, but let’s be honest. Our time is important and should always have a value attached to it. We could be spending time with our families instead. We could also be learning new things, and even making money during the time we give away for free.
Which is why If you’re giving your photography away for free, you should definitely be getting something back in return.
Before I run through some of the places that we could give our photography away for free and how it will benefit us, let’s start with the perspective of how it can negatively impact you and your business.
The consequences of working for free
Think of it this way, If you have a lot of photographers charging $5,000 for their services, they offer premium products and excellent service. When you come in to view your photos, they give you food and drinks, basically they pamper you.
Your products will arrive in beautiful packaging, it’s a full service that they offer.
They also don’t sell anything that’s unframed. If you want to get digital files, it’s at a premium because they’re trying to sell you large wall collections and albums and other products. This is all fine and is a good way to grow your photography business.
Now say a lot of newer photographers start giving away their services for free or for little cost. If it’s only a few people, then it’s not a problem.
But when the ratio of newer, less business savvy photographers outweighs the amount of professional photographers who provide a premium service, it starts to dilute the value of photography.
Therefore, diluting the price and changing people’s perception of the value of needing professional photography.
Here you are giving your digital files away or very cheaply, because it’s a side gig or you don’t have the confidence in your photos yet.
That’s how I can see it affecting the industry as a whole, if we get a lot more people that come in and saturate the market with cheap photography.
Now, if you’re giving your photos away for free because you love photography, that’s one thing.
If everyone is doing that, then that’s a problem for the business that sells premium products and a full service. You are potentially training everyone to no value photography.
Now, say you’re providing good quality photos that are framed, but for next to nothing and then doing it at a cost. There’s no reason for families to go to the more expensive photographers, is there?
If everybody was to charge a similar price, maybe a hundred dollars or so difference, it’s not a big deal. Then it’ll come down to the quality of your work and the service that you’re providing.
That’s what would differentiate you as a quality photographer to someone that’s not.
That’s how we all want business to be, on a level playing field. But when people are giving stuff away for free, it does cause problems at the top end of the market, maybe at the middle end of the market as well.
Then it’s just the fastest to the bottom giving away photos for free or next to nothing and having to work extremely hard to get the same amount of money.
So Yes, it can affect your business in a negative way.
1. Working for free when building a portfolio
I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong with portfolio building and giving away your photos for free.
If you found a willing family member or a new model that you found by putting an ad online and you said;
“people wanted. I’m trying to build my portfolio, you will get digital files In return for your time”
You gotta start somewhere, right?
When I first started, I contacted photographers, and got nothing. Thinking back now, I probably should’ve contacted photographers that were out of my area for obvious reasons.
Who knows they probably thought I would be direct competition down the track or simply didn’t want to deal with a newbie.
So I had to give my photos away for free. I did it about 10 times. I photographed family portraits, engagement sessions and one wedding.
Even though I had event photography experience, I needed to work on my photo editing, posing and my workflow.
That small portfolio gave me confidence and I continued on, and started charging more than rock bottom prices.
I asked for a fee that I felt was in the middle price range in my area, based on the quality compared to other photographers near me.
My editing and products I was offering at the time were nowhere near the top photographers in my area. I of course have gotten better over the years and my prices have also increased to match that quality.
So yes, you should give away your photos to build your portfolio in the beginning.
You need to do it, it’s basically learning on the job with no stress.
Otherwise, you won’t learn,
- How to interact with a customer
- How to edit your photography quickly
- How to deliver your products
If you constantly give your photos away, that’s bad and you’re going to be known as the photographer that will “Work for free”.
Don’t be that person. Limit your free sessions to 10 at most and get them done in the first two months, so you can learn what you need and start charging what you are worth.
2. Working for free to do charity work
Yes, you should help a charity and offer your photography for free.
There’s a reason why charities do auctions. To raise money and get exposure for their charity and the cause they are trying to raise awareness for.
I think that we all should do something like that at least once a year.
Especially if you know someone who is involved with a charity or are closely linked, they may have been directly affected or know someone who has. I would only provide my services for free for that reason alone.
As a bonus, you will get exposure for your photography business and there could be an opportunity for you to up-sell.
so, a free portrait session with a print could be upsold to more prints, albums, wall prints and so on.
I’ve personally done this in the past, put my portrait session up for silent auction. We made $500 each silent auction for the charity. The families that have used me have told their friends which resulted in referrals and they bought a few extra products and that’s how it benefited me.
There is also that warm fuzzy feeling that you get when you’re helping someone and you should do it genuinely, be genuine about the whole thing. Don’t just do it because you need the exposure.
3. Giving away photos for a personal project
If you are lucky you may be able to incorporate your personal projects as part of your paid work. But if not, then offering your photos for free so you can gain access to a subject to complete your project is a good option.
I started a project for a local football club, in a couple weekends I had obtained enough photos to create a photo story, and I added sound bits to make the story. This personal project resulted in me being the team photographer for 9 years.
The fact that it turned into a paying job was unexpected, because all I wanted was access to the team and what I got was unlimited access to the team on and off the field. This taught me a lot about storytelling through my photos and also executing a plan that I had stuck in my head.
The biggest benefit is that it got me thinking differently with my photography. I could see my photos change for the better and my clients we’re making positive comments about the new approach.
So a personal project got me out of the mindset of boring everyday photos that I was accustomed to. I was doing the same type of work day in and day out, and if it wasn’t for giving some photos away for free to gain access I may have not changed.
4. Working for free when trying a new photography style
Lastly, one of the options to work for free is when you’re trying a new style of photography. You will notice that a lot of the above points kind of all lead to one another. This last point of trying a new style of photography is no different.
Say, for instance you are a wedding photographer and you wanted to try headshots or real estate photography to supplement your income.
Working for free and giving some photos away to the people that you photographed, is a great way to trial a new style without any stress of mucking up a paying job.
So the issue is how can you photograph something if you don’t have experience? Sure you can try and give it a good go, but without experience you will come across as a complete novice in front of the client.
Trying out photography by yourself and setting up an environment that best reflects the new style of photography is one way.
But for real world experience, you could give your photos away for free. For instance if you wanted to get into real estate photography, finding somebody online by either putting an ad up or asking a close friend who is going to sell a property, if you could photograph their home and deliver the photos like it was a paying client.
You’re trying out a new style of photography and also the workflow to be able to deliver to a paying client.
If things work out you’ve got a new portfolio. You can work to gain new clients, that all started from you giving some photos away for free.
So many people complain about giving away photos for free and how bad it is for the industry.
There are certainly times when you need to do it to get a head start either, as a professional who wants to get into a different area of photography or if you’re an amateur photographer and you just want to try something different.
I think it’s a good idea. Don’t go overboard and make sure you limit yourself as to how many free photos you are giving away. Always make sure that you’re going to get something in return, otherwise you’re wasting your time and potentially training people to not value photography.
Thanks for your question, Maxwell and I hope that helps.