Should you work for free as a photographer?


There are arguments for and against the idea of working for free as a photographer. The most vocal often tend to come from within the industry itself arguing that pro-bono work only hurts not just you but other photographers as well. We say do what you want, but let's take a look at reasons on both sides of the debate. Let's start with the fact that most of us need to make a living by making money.

should you work for free as a photographer

Let's face it. Most of us have to make a living somehow and have chosen something we (hopefully) love and are good at, photography. Right off, this means that every time you shoot a project for free, you're not earning a living, whether you can afford it or not.

Before you agree to shoot a project for free, consider these questions:

  • How much will you be losing as a result of working on that project?

  • Can you afford to lose that money?

  • Is it for a non-profit charity? (You can likely receive a tax deduction for your donated/in-kind services.)Is it a high-profile project that could lead to paying gigs? (More on this later)

Once you answer all these questions, you'll be in a better position to decide whether or not you should take a non-paying job.

PRO-BONO Projects, a non-paying jobs:

pro-bono projects

Even if it's a non-paying gig, you should ask for as much detail as possible before you agree to take the project. Then price it out just as if it were a paying gig to give you an exact (or close to exact) breakdown of what you would have charged. Why price it out? Two, possibly three, reasons:

  1. Once you know what you might have charged, it can help you weigh if you can afford to pass up a paying job in exchange for this particular free project. Of course, it's not always an even exchange. It's possible that you had time on your work calendar and can squeeze in a pro-bono project. It's also possible that taking a pro-bono project doesn't necessarily mean you'll be missing out on a paying project.

  2. in the United States, if the project is for a non-profit, your work can be considered an in-kind donation for a tax deduction. We always recommend speaking to your tax advisor about in-kind donations. They are better positioned to advise you on what counts as a tax deduction and, potentially, how many of them you might want to do per year.

  3. Doing pro-bono projects can be a great way to give back to the community. Sometimes, no amount of money can make up for that.

Portfolio Work

portfolio works

Before you can charge anyone for your work, you'll need to have a portfolio of work. But how do you build one? In most cases, you shoot for free. It's sometimes possible that someone - likely someone with a lot of faith in you - will be willing to pay you without a portfolio, but that's a rarity, of course!

Start somewhere: A simple way to build a portfolio is to offer your skills in return for portfolio material. While you will want to pick your projects carefully, you won't always have much choice. A big-time client doesn't need to work with a novice photographer, even if they're free. You'll probably have to start small and work your way up as you add more quality material to your growing body of work.

Sell to agencies: An excellent way to make some money while you're building a portfolio is to see your images to picture agency, just make sure you retain all rights to your images. Selling to an agency won't necessarily gain you new clients, but at least can make you a little bit of money. (See our previous blog post on this topic.)

Focus your free work: Picking a genre you're particularly good at shooting - hopefully, one you also love - is an excellent place to shoot for free while building a portfolio in an area you hope to break into. For example, if you enjoy doing portrait work, focus on doing some free portrait work. (Keep in mind that shooting portraits can be one of the most time-consuming in the industry.) As you build your body of work, start knocking on doors, networking, submitting to magazines, and reaching out within the portrait industry in hopes of landing a few paying gigs.

Bartering: A tale as old as time: someone needs pictures, you need practice and possibly whatever services they offer. Bartering your work is a great way to build a portfolio. Know someone who's starting out in the modeling world or needs a professional headshot? Offer to shoot them for free. Know a fledgling professional printer who needs pictures for their first brochure? Offer to shoot photos for them - and maybe ask for some (limited) free printing services.

Practice on new equipment: Another great reason to shoot for free is that you're still learning how to use new equipment or you need extra practice on it. This can mean you want to buy new cameras and until you feel comfortable with it, you want some opportunities to practice. You can't really practice on paying clients, so what better way to practice than to donate your services?

Free Work For Networking

work for networking

Sometimes doing free work not only gets you in the door and allows you to build a portfolio but also allows you to network within a particular industry or group of potential clients. That's when free work can be worth it. Yes, you're using up your valuable time where you might otherwise be paid, but if shooting for free means access to the "right" potential clients, have at it! The opportunities could well be worth a day of free shooting. Here's a good example:

A small, but prominent record label with a limited budget asks you to spend a day doing some promo work for them, including portraits of a few artists. Yes, you've just donated your work, but it's possible that, given the exposure this shoot would bring you, another company could approach you for work. Remember that free doesn't mean anonymous. Insist on attaching your name to your work and getting the correct photo creds every time. You can't build a clientele if no one knows who shot those terrific images!

One smart idea you could try is working out a deal with that small but promising company that while you'll do free work this time, the next time they need photo work, they pay you. It sets up an excellent honor-system relationship with a company that will (hopefully) appreciate your free services when they were first getting started.