Photo © 2013 Tony Arena & Syl Arena, all rights reserved.

I believe that photographers should work for free. I also believe that photographers should not work for free. Knowing when to work for free and when not to is an important milestone in becoming a pro. Here are the aspects that I consider when deciding to shoot for free.

Commercial Value: photographers should not work for free when there is a significant commercial value to the shoot. If the client is going to make money from the project, then the photographer should too. If your prospective clients do not value your relationship that way, then find new prospects.

Value of Your Skills: Just because your client can buy the same digital camera you shoot, does not mean that he can do the job you do. Remember, it’s the photographer and not the camera that makes the photo. Your expertise and time have value.

Next Time: Anyone who says “do this one for free and you’ll absolutely get paid when the next job comes around” is lying. You should counter with “pay me for this job and I’ll give you a discount on the next one.”

Photo Credits: Anyone who suggests that you’ll benefit from the photo credit has not tried to pay for groceries with photo credits.

Not-for-profit Clients: Photographers should not work for free just because the client is a not-for-profit organization. Non-profits have normal operating expenses just like for-profit enterprises: rent, payroll, utilities, etc. Creative efforts, like photography, web design, copyrighting, etc. can all be considered normal expenses for non-profits.

Who Will Get Paychecks: Ask the folks who are asking you to work for free if they are getting a paycheck. If the answer is yes, then you should too.

For me, the work for free decision happens when several of the following criteria are met:

  • the cause is one that I believe in, meaning I’d write the organization a check
  • my work will help the cause take a big step forward
  • the subjects/situations/locations for the shoot are ones that otherwise I would not have access to
  • the subject is someone/something that I’m truly interested in
  • everyone involved with the project is working for free

I’m looking for worthy projects to shoot for free

For 2013, I’m looking to shoot a couple of worthy projects for free. So, if you’ve read the above and know of a worthy project that could use a photographer, please get in touch with the specifics. I travel a lot, so location might not be an issue. You can reach me at the address you see below.

Bonus info: my comrade-in-arms Zack Arias talked about when and why he worked for free as a commercial shooter in this webcast. If you are a student or an emerging pro, you should give Zack’s insights a listen.


14 Responses to I Want To Work for Free…

  1. Jonathan Thompson says:

    Thanks for this article, more folks need to stick to this. It’s easy to go down the wrong path.

  2. Dan H. Perry says:

    I totally agree about working for free. I shoot free for my church and my boy’s scout troop. Part of the reason is of course personal, I want to document my kids growing up.

    Other free work must be a personal project. For example, tomorrow night I am shooting a local concert free. The musician is a friend from high school who has not performed in his home town in almost 30 yrs. I asked if I could shoot the show and provide him with images.

  3. John Conway says:

    Pretty much how I have approached the “free or fee” shoot, but you have added some really good points. Many thanks

  4. Bob Bruce says:

    I agree with all of the above.

  5. Steve says:

    Great advice. The same can be applied to photo usage. I get lots of requests to use my photos for free. The usual line is that I will get lots of exposure.

  6. Good advice Syl, you can’t pay the rent, taxes and overheads with photo credits, and editors/clients certainly don’t work for free. As videographers we often get asked for stills on the basis that you have a camera so why not just shoot me a few product shots? Which says a lot about the perception of camera types held by clients in general. We make a judgement on whether to charge on the basis of the work required to get something which would be acceptable. This usually involves a white background and studio environment. Which is a considerable amount of extra work for us, and probably takes the work away from a fellow photographer who is a specialist in the field. But if it’s a relatively small job we’ll do it and if we can clearly see that it would benefit our relationship with the client and lead to more paid work, then we offer a freebie on the stills. Like you, we also offer work to one or two good causes for free on the basis that we would have sent a cheque to a worthy cause.

  7. Claude says:

    I shoot for free when I want to shoot a personal project. Something that clients will not hire me for but a project that will make me grow as a photographer. My personal work helps define me as a creative and has attracted paying clients. Free is good but with the right motive.
    I also shoot for charities and the like.

  8. […] * My other buddy, Syl Arena, on why he wants to work for free. […]

  9. Jared says:

    My favorite part of this article:

    Next Time: Anyone who says “do this one for free and you’ll absolutely get paid when the next job comes around” is lying. You should counter with “pay me for this job and I’ll give you a discount on the next one.”

  10. I don’t think i could have said this better myself. I think some people believe they are doing “us” a favor…

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