This blog post is a guest feature written by the team at The Photographer Mindset.
As a photographer, you may be asked if you would perform work for free or be told there isn’t a budget to accommodate your services. Should you walk away or remain interested and move forward? While it can be difficult or frustrating to accept unpaid jobs, there are certain situations in which working for free makes complete sense for you as a creator. In this blog post, we’ll identify when it’s best to work for free as a photographer and provide some tips on how to make the most of unpaid opportunities.
We’ll discuss the generalized pros and cons of taking on unpaid photography jobs, if your financial situation can afford to handle an unpaid gig, how different genres of photography have unique levels of supply and demand, and how much your current experience level and portfolio play into whether or not you should work for free. Lastly, we’ll get into bartering options if there isn’t money available upfront. Maybe the company you’re working for has a product you could use that isn’t expensive for them to produce but would be expensive for you to purchase.
1. Know the pros and cons of working for free as a photographer
Working free of charge as a photographer can have both positive and negative effects. On the one hand, free work often leads to more experience, which can quickly build your portfolio and reputation. That being said, free work can also undermine your worth, and hurt others in the photography industry by lowering the bar in terms of pricing. Ultimately we want the true worth of our work to be recognized by clients.
How do we know when performing free work IS a smart thing to do?
Working as a photographer for free can have some distinct advantages. If you’re just starting in the industry, you likely don’t have a reputable portfolio with real-world companies or brands. Doing work for free can help you build up a body of work to showcase your talents and level of professionalism. Experience in dealing with clients and executing a gig is unteachable. Experience is gained by doing. If you can work on different types of projects and learn how to build rapport and networking skills with clients, they may be interested in taking your professional relationship to the next level and recommend you to others.
Doing free work for a well-known company also allows you to add them as an accolade to your portfolio. For example in the podcast episode we did with Chris Hau, he talks about doing free work for Mercedes-Benz early in his career. He was legitimately able to say that he had done work for a prestigious company which made pitching his services to other car companies much simpler. Since he had the social proof and certificate of doing work for Mercedes-Benz, other car companies were quick to pay him for their own projects. Those car companies didn’t need to know whether or not he was paid for the Mercedes gig, all they needed to see was the fact he did the work and the images spoke for themselves.
How do we know when performing free work ISN’T a smart thing to do?
There definitely are some things to consider when contemplating doing work for free. Firstly, you have to understand that the company your performing work for is going to make revenue off of your work. If you can’t handle this or know this will upset you then stay clear of free work altogether. It’s business. If companies can get a service for cheap or exploit you they will. It makes sense for their margins. This isn’t always the case but business is business.
Secondly, you must consider the precedent you’re setting for the industry. We’re all trying to get paid fairly and adequately for our skillset and we want businesses to understand that our work is valuable. Many non-photographers don’t understand the level of hard work, time, and cost of gear that goes into this profession. If you charge nothing or very low prices, you are confirming their beliefs that photography isn’t worth very much. This hurts all photographers and we want to avoid a paradigm where a large portion of the industry doesn’t value photography services. The last thing we want is to start undercutting our fellow photographers as we’ll drive the market price for our services into the ground.
Lastly, some business owners may not feel like they want to pay you moving forward after doing a successful job for them on your first free gig. Unlike some businesses that will begin to pay you because you’ve proven you’re trustworthy and can execute, some businesses expect free to now be the standard. It could be useful when agreeing to do a job for a free that you state up front that in the future you’ll want to be paid for additional jobs performed. If they balk at that idea, you know performing free work isn’t going to lead to anything. If they agree with that idea, you can feel that doing free work this first time is more lucrative.
2. Does your financial situation and available time allow you to work for free?
When deciding whether or not it makes sense to work for free, it is helpful to do a self-assessment of your financial situation. If you have some savings or other sources of income, then you may be able to afford to take on free assignments to build an impressive portfolio and potentially gain valuable experience.
However, if you’re relying solely on your photography as income and do not have other sources of income available, it may be less beneficial to sacrifice your valuable time on unpaid jobs. It would make more sense financially to focus on paying jobs. Time is money and you can’t be a successful photographer if you’re burning your time and barely staying afloat financially.
“What if I’m trying to transition from my current job to full-time photographer?”
In general, making that successful transition from part-time photographer to full-time photographer can be nerve racking and you need to be financially prepared. The amount of money needed to comfortably transition varies from person to person but having roughly 3-6 months worth of expenses in savings is a good rule of thumb. (This is not financial advice and your situation may differ) You will need to determine how much money they need to comfortably make the transition from part-time photographers to full-time photographer so that they can focus there attention on building a business, not if they can afford their rent. Added stress is the last thing you need when trying to build a new component into your life.
Don’t forget that you can have an incredibly successful career as a part-time photographer without leaving your full-time job. This idea that you need to be full-time to be taken seriously or successful is absurd. It’s all about your own personal goals. So ask yourself why you want to be a full-time creator before making leaps of faith.
3. Consider the genre of photography and your level of experience
If you’re considering free work as part of your photography business strategy, it is important to consider the genre of photography you’re looking to perform unpaid work in. This is because different genres of photography have different levels of supply and demand. Demand is the need for photography services or content creation, and supply is the number of photographers in that industry that are capable of performing.
If you’re looking to increase the likelihood of finding brands, people or businesses that are more than willing to pay for your services without having an incredibly long list of brand work or references, your best bet is looking in genres that have high demand and low supply. These would be photography genres like wedding & elopement, corporate events, family photos, newborn photography, etc. This is because there will always be a demand to photo-document big and special events.
The supply or competition with other photographers in those genres may be lower than other genres of photography because they aren’t necessarily the most exciting to a lot of photographers. I say some and not all! Maybe the genre of photography you make money in allows you the free time and ability to photograph the genres you really love without the pressure.
Free work will make more sense in photography genres with heavy competition or a large supply of photographers, especially if you’re trying to make a name for yourself. This would be genres like travel, landscape and general product photography. Obviously, photographers get paid all the time for this kind of work, it’s just more difficult and will take longer as someone just starting out. Just remember if there’s an oversaturation of photographers in a genre, even when you do start getting paid there’s a chance the rates are more competitive and the risk of undercutting gets higher.
Just remember even if you are very talented, it is the experience gained from many projects that sells – experienced photographers are renowned for charging higher rates than their less experienced counterparts. If you’re looking to increase reliability among brands, it may benefit you to do some free work within the genre of photography that you would like to get paid in down the road.
However, if you can zero in on a niche within a larger genre where the demand is high but there isn’t too much competition, chances are it will be easier to be able to skip the need to do free work to get your foot in the door. Off the top of my head, an example of this could be Dog Accessories. Animals > Dogs > Unique products like leashes, collars, goggles, and toys. There are plenty of others if you sat down and really thought about it.
4. Learn to barter when there isn’t a budget to pay you in dollars
If there is limited or no budget within a company you really want to shoot for, don’t immediately walk away! In situations where the company you’re photographing for has a product that would be an especially useful item to you or is expensive, trading your services for product can be a great way to acquire what you would have charged in value. If the retail value of their product is equal to or higher than your set rate, then this is an especially wise decision as it ensures that you are receiving fair payment without compromising any cash flow.
Here’s an example…If you love mountain biking and are in need of a new bike, it could be beneficial to shoot without traditional pay for a mountain bike company. Consider that the retail value of the bike or product may be higher than what your services were going to cost, but it only costs the business half of the retail price to produce the item. In this case, it totally makes sense to shoot for free as it would cost you more than you would earn from the shoot to take your money and buy the bike at retail value. In essence, you are creating an arbitrage gap with your skillset and an item you could really benefit from. Working this way may require more negotiation on both sides, but when done shrewdly it can be a financially savvy move.
When it comes to deciding whether or not to work for free as a photographer, several factors should be taken into consideration. It is important to consider your financial situation and the genre of photography you want to do free work in. Additionally, evaluating potential opportunities down the road for taking on an unpaid job can help increase reliability among customers and potentially lead to higher rates of pay. Lastly, bartering services when there isn’t a budget available may provide photographers with valuable products in exchange for their services which could save money in the long run. Ultimately, working for free can be beneficial if done strategically – so use these tips wisely!
If you’d like to hear concepts and ideas like this in audio format check out our 5-star rated photography podcast called “The Photographer Mindset”. Available on all streaming services with weekly episodes launched every Friday!
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