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When working for free works

I have a pet hate, a real bug bear. It’s when fledgeling aspiring photographers forget why they picked up a camera in the first place. They’ve bought the gear, practised for a year or two and have now decided that they should be paid for their services on the weekend. What happened to the love of the art itself, of expressing yourself and sharing your work with the world? When did so many people, with even just a passing interest photography, suddenly decide to only ever do it for money? Please don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against people building a photography business whilst still working a day job. It’s what I am doing and it’s what the likes of David DuChemin, Jon Acuff and Chase Jarvis advocate.

What upsets me is when these newly forged photographers publicly moan when someone dares to ask them to work for less than they think they are worth or (brace yourself for the horror) for FREE! Gasp! They complain in forums, and post memes on Facebook and Twitter explaining just what all their gear cost and how much time they spend in Photoshop. Then they throw clumsy metaphors around about how restaurants don’t let you eat for free it you promise to bring lots of friends back next time.

I hate to be blunt but Get Over It!

Here’s the deal: We are new and we are unproven and until we prove our worth in the eyes of prospective clients we don’t have the right to bitch about not being handed huge cheques. It is your job to educate your clients as to the value of you work, not belittle them behind their back.

But, and it’s a big but, not every job has to be a paying job. Getting paid every time you pick up the camera isn’t essential (whether photography is your main source of income or not) but getting something from every job is.

When I get offered a job, or I pitch for one, I ask myself the following four questions:

  1. Is this an interesting/fun job that I have creative control over?
  2. Will the job result in something I want to add to my portfolio (and am I allowed to)?
  3. Will this open doors? Will I get to meet people that can further my career or bring more opportunities?
  4. Does it pay well?

If I can answer ‘yes’ to at least one of the first three, I’m likely to take it, even if there’s no money in it. Does that make me stupid? I think some would argue yes, so I’ll explain.

Let’s look at question 1: If it’s fun and I get to put my creative stamp on the job why wouldn’t I do it? I’d rather be shooting than not. Of course, as with all of these, if there is a budget there I won’t say no, but it’s not essential. I’m trying ideas and learning new things that I wouldn’t have at home. I’d call that a win.

On to the second scenario: Let’s say a local hair salon has asked me to shoot a few portraits to hang on their walls. They are just starting their business and there’s no budget. I could quote a day rate they couldn’t afford and stay sat on the sofa or I could say yes and spend a day shooting 6 models in full hair and makeup using the salon as a studio. I’d not be getting a pay cheque but I’d be coming away with some portfolio quality shots for nothing more than some of my time. I’d get to work with other creatives and make contact with some hair and makeup artists I’d not have met otherwise. Not to mention my name, website and phone number underneath some huge prints hanging on the salon walls. How is that bad business?

Number 3 needs a little qualifying. I am not talking about the type of deal we have all been offered: “If you do this job for free, I’ll send more work your way when we have the budget” Or “If you do a good job I’ll tell all my friends about you”. Never work on that premise. Ever. There will never be budget and you will always be the “free guy”. What I am talking about taking a job in exchange for the opportunity to meet someone you want to meet or gain access to a location.

And then there’s question 4, everyones favourite. How much am I getting paid? Which is great, provided you’ve answered yes to one of the other 3 questions. If not, it’s just a job to pay the bills.

3 Comments

  1. Craig

    Nice post mate. To me, the main issue would be “is photography my main or a substantial part of my income and am I a member of a professional photographers’ organisation, e.g. BIPP?”. If the answer is no, then all the above applies. So long as you get something back, whether it is professional contacts or great photos to promote your work, it is worthwhile. At the end of the day, it is your prerogative to just say “no”.

    Reply
    • simon

      Absolutely Craig. If you are full time you need to take more “Option 4’s” but I still maintain there’s great value in taking interesting opportunities even if they are pro bono.

      Reply
  2. Martin

    I agree. Although, I have to be honest, I did think back to when I started and I dropped into that beginning category of thinking …. what the feck…work for free. But it can have it’s merits. The worst sentence to hear though is “We can’t pay you, but it’ll be great exposure!”

    Reply

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