To work for free or not to work for free? That is the question.


A couple of blog posts ago, when discussing the business of photography,  I touched on the rather thorny topic of working for free. In that blog post I asked if you would be interested in a further exploration on the subject and some of you reached out on social media saying that you would. I wish this wasn’t an issue for debate. Working for free is idiosyncratic to creative industries like fashion, journalism and photography where the positions are few and highly coveted. From a purely anecdotal perspective, I don’t know anyone in these fields who hasn’t started out providing their service for free to help establish themselves, be that through internships, freelance jobs or shoots. However, this is the reality of the situation so you might as well confront it and make it work in the best way possible for you. 

In essence, I believe it’s a simple issue and hopefully you will only have to face it intermittently at the beginning of your career. What it boils down to is the ratio of assets to value. When you will not be financially compensated for your skills/time/equipment you need to look at what assets you will get out of doing the shoot. Once you have established this, decide if those assets are valuable to you and how valuable they are. If the assets are not valuable to you, walk away. If they are valuable to you however, you might want to consider undertaking the work.     

Really? Must I work for free?

One very important point I feel obliged to make clear from the beginning is that if a client will be profiting from your work or is paying everyone else involved in the shoot then it is not moral, ethical or professional to ask you to work for free and I would not advise that you do so. The more people who take this stance, the better, as industries will learn that it is unacceptable to ask. I urge you to ignore the voice in your head that says ‘they’ll just give this job to someone else if I say no’. Yes, they probably will. And that person is being exploited if they say yes. You are not here to be exploited (unless you’re into that thing), you are better off as far away as possible from that attitude.

Let’s return to assets and value though. If someone wants you to work for free they will try and sell you that idea through what they perceive as alternative compensation. ‘It will be great for your portfolio’ is a line that gets thrown around a lot as well as ‘it will be great exposure for you’. Only you can be the judge of those statements and it’s patronising for anyone to make those assertions for you. So don’t accept the statements as fact. WILL it be good for your portfolio? Will the production side of the shoot be organised by the client, freeing you up to focus on the creative? How much creative freedom will you have? Is a professional model booked and has a professional creative team been put together? Has the client booked a location or studio you’ve always wanted to shoot in? Is the concept something you’ve always wanted to explore? Does the studio have a lighting kit you’ve always wanted to try out? Figure out the assets from undertaking this shoot and decide if those assets are of enough value to make it worth *your* while. Maybe you haven’t had the opportunity to take the lead on a big shoot before because you haven’t had the resources. If the client can provide you with those resources and this experience will take you to the next level, then it might be worthwhile. It’s *your* decision. 

When someone gives you the ‘great exposure’ line, don’t be afraid to ask for the cold, hard numbers on this. Where will it be seen? By which demographic? Is that demographic relevant to you? Will you definitely be credited? What is the traffic/circulation? Will there be a social media campaign to promote the photos? Will you be tagged on social media? What’s the social media following? Never shy away from asking these questions, you have every right to ask for all the information to help you make an informed decision. And frankly, the client has a lot more brass neck asking you to work for free than you asking for some clarification on what they are offering. If increasing your visibility on social media is one of your goals, or magazine tear sheets is something your portfolio is lacking then maybe it is worth doing. It all depends on the asset and the value you place on it.

If you can’t see the value, then politely decline. By all means, make your point and explain your rationale but make sure you stay polite. Your reputation is everything and nothing will tarnish it quicker than bad manners. It can be scary turning down opportunities and I have spoken before about the importance of saying yes, but this is only relevant if you’re getting something out of it. You won’t get anywhere by just doing favours that advance the careers of other people and not your own.

A few other pieces of information might help you make your decision. Magazines tend to have much smaller budgets than brands, especially if they are not part of a publishing house. Some small, independent magazines barely break even from their advertising revenue so often the exposure and creative freedom will be the assets they can offer. I find it harder to believe a brand ‘doesn’t have the budget’, unless they’re small or a start-up. Sometimes brands will use imagery editorially rather than for advertising, which will have a smaller budget, but at the end of the day they are still profiting from the imagery and you should be compensated. Blogging is a massive industry. Bloggers are paid well for collaborative posts, for photos posted to Instagram and earn money from affiliate marketing. And more power to them, it’s a lot of work. But if your photography is contributing to their profits, then you should be compensated.

Ask to have your expenses covered. You should not be going into debt for someone else’s gain and maintaining professional photography equipment is an expensive business. It’s a different story if you’re creating work for yourself or collaborating with a creative partner, of course. Most photographers will invest their own money in personal and passion projects. But if someone else wants you to work for free, you shouldn’t be losing money.

Lastly, never give away the copyright to your imagery and ensure you set out clear terms of where the imagery will be used before you agree to a job. Image usage and licensing is an altogether murkier issue and one I’ve already been asked on Facebook to cover in a separate blog post. So stay tuned folks!