Should Photographers Ever Work for Free?

A hot button discussion in the photography industry lately is around providing free work for high profile clients who offer “exposure” as their payment. This can be tempting for a lot of photographers who may think it will get a foot in the door and boost their public profile. Many professional photographers have strong opinions about this. In this video Ted Forbes discusses his opinion on the matter and breaks down why he thinks this way:

Working Pro Bono

This can be a controversial topic because there are strong opinions on either side. A lot of times photographers are approached by large organizations, corporations, and even non-profits to provide free work with the promise of exposure. Forbes’ opinion on this is skeptical. If the client is as high profile as they say, then they likely have a budget for this type of work. If they’re asking for free work, it may indicate that the project isn’t very important to them and they’re just passing it off, perhaps as a favor for a friend.

For comparison, Forbes gives the example of asking your plumber to fix your sink for free or having your accountant do your taxes for free because it will build their portfolio. Both of these scenarios would not work out, and he says this should seem just as ridiculous for photographers. Unfortunately because this is more commonly done in the visual arts community, it has become more acceptable for businesses to ask for free services.

Setting Boundaries

Forbes suggests making a list of boundaries, or things he will not do as a professional. At the top of his list is working for free.

In an example, he details the story of a non-profit organization that used a lot of pro-bono artists and graphic designers over the years. One year the organization was given a grant to completely redesign their branding, and instead of rewarding those artists who worked for free all those years, they took all their grant money and got a less than desirable redesign from a New York company that had higher priorities.

Forbes’ point is that working for free rarely helps you get paid gigs later on down the road. Having a solid set of boundaries can help you navigate these tricky situations.

Making Trades

Instead of working for free, Forbes suggests you trade.

Perhaps a friend of yours is getting married and also happens to be a web designer. Instead of shooting their wedding for free, why not have them in return give you an overhaul on your website? This way you’re still getting something out of the arrangement.

No matter what, you need to figure out what works best for you. Think through the cost benefit of doing a project for free and ask other photographers who may have worked with the client before. How much extra work will be your responsibility for promoting the project and getting it seen?

Have you ever worked pro bono before? Was it worth it in the end?

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3 responses to “Should Photographers Ever Work for Free?”

  1. Boone says:

    Absolutely correct!!!

    I recently lost a “So Called Friend” because he was doing a “FAVOR” for another friend.

    His request was for me to help with a shot of a commercial building.

    I emailed him and said: “My fee for doing this (very simple, about 1/2 hour of work) would be $65.00, and that I DID NOT want my name to appear in any of the credits.(This your client, not mine)

    If you are a pro, (I am) giving your talent…time….and knowledge away for free will hurt you 100% more then it will help you.

    DO NOT SELL YOURSELF CHEAP!! This only hurts other photographers and the industry as well.

    I explained: “Doing a FAVOR FOR A FRIEND is one thing….doing a favor for A FRIEND OF A FRIEND was out of the question.

    He threw a fit!

    Result: I lost a “So Called Friend”….that placed a $65.00 price tag on me. Simply amazing!!!

    Draw a line for what you will do for free….then NEVER CROSS IT!

    Thanks, Boone.

  2. Michael Wade says:

    I tend to have a very strong opinion in the other way. I am a sports photographer. I gladly worked for free, or as a “trade” for experience. Once I built up confidence in a sport, I would gladly charge. 3 years ago, I worked for a top 10 NCAA gymanstics program for free for experience. The next year, they were close for NCAA championships. They did not hire me, but traveled their own photographer. But they did send other schools to me.

    My first image in USA Today was from a job I did for free and I have several successes that built my portfolio like that. Many people I helped out for free and now regular paying clients. Things from as simple to sharing one photo as a favor, or 3-4 volunteer gigs are now regular paying clients.

    Don’t get taken advantage of, but if God has blessed you with this amazing and fun talent, you ought to be willing to give back.

    Bottom line…..Being nice to people pays off in the long run, but I don’t do it for the rewards (but they can be nice!)

  3. I have done 2 weddings for free and I haven’t had any lead for business from the couples that were getting married. So learnt my lesson back then. Now I don’t do anything for my friends.

    Well put Ted

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