Shooting for Free?

This topic has been brought up numerous times since the moment I picked up my first DSLR and started shooting. I always thought that as an amateur, shooting for free to gain exposure and knowledge was all part and parcel. After attending a couple of workshops and heavily investing in equipment, sometimes the whole idea of shooting for free doesn’t get to me as well to others in the industry.

Then there was last week when Ian had a chat with me online and he gave me this link. It gives a good point of view from a photographer in the US that in times of an economic crisis and how he has thought up of some ideas to combat that.

Maybe you want to shoot conceptual portraiture. But if The Money says that it wants you to shoot little Billy’s bar mitzvah, guess who is gonna win in the absence of that conceptual portrait assignment?

A check is a good thing. It puts food on the table and keeps the business running. But that same check can also keep you from growing in the direction in which you want to grow.

Now this is a very power statement as a good friend of mine told me last week that when you work for someone else, you are working under that person’s vision and not your own. Of course if you vision is aligned with the company’s vision then by all means, you are in the right job. But nevertheless everyone needs their paycheck to survive.

My problem is, right now no one is beating down my door to shoot the kinds of people I want to shoot in the ways that I want to shoot them. I am getting plenty of work, but not the kind that furthers what I want to do. So to get closer to my goal, I have decided to take money out of the equation whenever it makes sense to do so.

So, I am approaching people I want to photograph and offering to do it directly for them, at no charge. And that includes usage, too — no holding back. That is my offer — I photograph you, and in exchange for your time you get what I hope will be high-quality images to use.

Client: Why are you doing this? What is this for? Why free? Do you suck as a photographer or something?

Because I want to grow by photographing extremely interesting people. It is for my portfolio and whatever use you can find for it. Because that is the fastest way to get the photos I want into my portfolio. And you can judge the last question for yourself after seeing my work.

This really opened up my eyes and I even learned a new term from Ian, TFCD (Time for CD) where the CD is actually now a DVD with the high quality images. He summarizes all his thoughts into 4 points which are the following.

  1. Tenet One: Free Buys Access
  2. Tenet Two: Free Removes Boundaries
  3. Tenet Three: Free Buys You Near Total Control
  4. Tenet Four: Free is Powerful Karma

The last point was interesting because he then talked about what can we do with our cameras and how can we make a difference.

How much good could you do with your camera? And for many of you, specifically, how much of a difference could you make for someone with your new-found lighting skills?

How much would your portfolio benefit from regularly shooting exactly what you want to shoot?

If you are an amateur, this just might get you past practicing your light on your cat and your superhero figurines. If you are a pro, it is easy to think of some cool projects that could add a new dimension to your portfolio.

The point is very clear, every athlete practices and every sportsman makes sure that they put in time and effort into training so that when the time comes where it really matters, they can reap the benefits of their training.

His final point was also very clear. He brings up the very obvious perception that others might perceive of you which is “But I Don’t Want to be Branded as a Free Photographer“.

You wouldn’t be. You are not working for free because people asked you to. You are offering to collaborate on a project. And therein lies a huge difference.

When a company or organization asks you to work for free they may be (okay, probably are) taking advantage of you. When you are in control, no one can take advantage of you. You have the ability to offer your work for free, but you retain the ability to decline a request to work for free.

I guess the key word here is being in control of what we do. Chase Jarvis as well has these words to say.

1. FREE already happens all over the place, right now, today, but people rarely talk about it. It’s not always unhealthy nor malicious. Photographers do stuff for free all the time. Good or bad, wrong or right, whatever your opinion. True, people often don’t speak about it publicly or openly, but it does exist on widespread basis. In fact, since my soapbox has long been about removing the black box of photography, I’ll let you in on a little secret…FREE happens at every level of the industry, from simple favors to entire ad agencies doing entire campaigns pro bono, or at a huge loss in the hopes of getting to do something cool, interesting, or something that will ultimately come full circle to help the world, help themselves, or help their business succeed.

2. FREE has a place. Should all assignment photography be free? Of course not. That’s totally absurd. Only a tiny tiny fraction could ever be considered. Should some people give their work away in some cases to meet certain objectives? Sure, under certain circumstances depending very specifically on level, quality, career stage, business cycle, or perhaps a whole host of other considerations. There are a number of dynamic factors that require consideration, and both wisdom and moderation have their places. But don’t bother with the slippery slope argument or the stigma argument. I ain’t buying it. FREE has a place and it has since the beginning of business. It’s certainly not everywhere and it may not even be often, but it has a place. Why? See point one above.

So the question comes back again to us, should we shoot for free? Not all the time, we have to learn to say no to certain projects and when we do shoot for free, its not about shooting an assignment for free, it has to be a collaboration. The benefits has to be mutual. Here is another interesting quote for another article based on the whole category of shooting for free.

No, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

But when it comes to photography, getting a free image has never been easier.
Lots of photographers will work for free – just the opportunity to shoot will be enough for them.
Lots of photographers will publish for free – just the exposure will be enough for them.
Lots of photographers will exhibit for free – just having people see their image is enough them.

Notice that there has to be of some mutual simbiotic synergy between who we shoot and who is shooting. Martin Joergensen has this to say.

Being a pro, standing on the sideline yelling “amateurs stay home!” is going to bring you nothing but a sore throat and frustration. The amateurs are coming. If you are good enough you have nothing to fear. The magazines who want free images and won’t pay for photo gigs will never be your customers. Sell your work to those who pay. When German magazine Bild cooperates with discount grocery Lidl to sell cheap cameras to people and offer to publish their images… well, there’s not much you can do about it. If Bild wants to bring low quality, citizen-shot photographs, it’s their choice. If the readers like it and the magazine sells, complaining will bring you nowhere.

If newspapers publish “promotion” shots taken by amateurs who get free access to concerts in exchange for images… well, forget pursuing the matter and make sure you take better and more relevant images, which the newspaper can’t be without, and will buy from you at the price you charge.

If bride and groom decide to get their DSLR-toting cousin to shoot their wedding in stead of hiring a wedding photographer… well, that’s their choice, and nothing which overpaid wedding shooters can do much about.

Just be better than the free guys and girls. So much better than no one will doubt that you are worth it. Or be cheaper than the best. And if you aren’t good enough for either… be free!

Now that is indeed quite truthful and something for all of us to ponder in any industry that we do. I guess in terms of how it relate to us, its the same when we work overtime for our companies without getting any overtime pay or how we do “favours” for our colleagues or how you see that law firms offer their services “pro-bono” to some charity organisations. Heck, even emails, spreadsheets, web space and blogs are free online!

There will always be free stuff about, it is just how do you position yourself in the midst of all this.


5 thoughts on “Shooting for Free?”

  1. What a coincidence 🙂 I read abt this on strobist too. Few months ago, I already wanted to do something like this. Now, me looking and approaching people 😉

  2. Hey Mark, extremely well written and well structured article! I really enjoyed reading it 🙂

    If I may add, shooting for free was what got people to notice my work. I did everything back then from supplying magazine photos to shooting cars. When I started doing weddings, I only charged them to cover my equipment hire. I spent many hours of unpaid time post processing but that one wedding alone has lead to more referrals and bookings, both from friends of the couple and other people who get to see my work.

    Worth it? Hell yeah! 🙂

    Best regards,


  3. Well, as you said so yourself, its a matter of control. Why do we/I shoot for free? Not because I think my work is worth nothing but I believe the experience justifies my cost.

    Sure enough, there comes a time when I will charge but it has to be a time when people are willing to pay for my kind of shots. Not because they want me to shoot like someone else.

    So, I have been shooting for free and some people have asked why. Well, the real answer is because at this moment, FREE gives me my creative freedom. When my creative freedom is appreciated by someone (which I am sure it will in the future), then my days of shooting free will pay itself back then.

    So, have fun shooting free because it really frees you up at times.

  4. Hi everyone,

    Thanks for the comments and I am glad that the response has been somewhat positive. Now I wonder if I can convince some people to start some new projects with me 😉

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