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First things first, let me go on the record by stating that exposure doesn’t pay the bills. However, if you’re considering whether or not it may be worth your while to work for free as a photographer, let’s discuss both sides of the debate and find some reasons for why you shouldn’t work for free as a photographer and some good reasons for doing it.
You might be a serious photographer looking to turn a hobby into a profitable business or you might already be a working pro and curious about how to get more photography clients. Either way, I think these basic photography business tips might help out your decision making.
The Number 1 False Pretense
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Most of the time when I get asked about whether a person should ever work for free as a photographer, it’s either a newcomer to the photo work-for-pay field or someone who keeps getting told “You should go pro!”
You’re being told that or perhaps you’ve already been paid for a gig or two because you’re a good photographer. So, you definitely have that going for you.
Where it gets sticky is when someone asks you to do a gratis job for them, work for free as a photographer, because it will result in so much exposure for you that you’ll be beating clients away with a Manfrotto monopod.
Sadly, in the modern world of professional photography, it just doesn’t work that way. As I’ve said in some other articles about social media, just because someone sees your photography doesn’t mean you’ll profit from it.
Working for free on a gig like that sounds so enticing but 99.99% percent of the time, the only person benefiting from the free work is the person getting great photography done for free. As I said at the start, exposure doesn’t pay any bills.
So, don’t buy into the false premise that someone’s exposure for you will put you on the map as a desired photographic pro. It doesn’t work that way for a plumber, carpenter, or tax accountant, and it doesn’t work that way for professional photography, no matter what the “exposer” promises.
There IS Beneficial Free Work
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There are two wonderful examples when it does make sense to work for free as a photographer.
One, you’re a serious hobbyist making the jump into pro work and you craft a mutually beneficial deal. Two, you’re a well established pro creating good will in the community as a respected business. Let’s look at these two ideas separately.
Making the Jump
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In order to be able to sell your pics or your services to a prospective client, it really helps to have a portfolio of what you can deliver. But when you’re just starting out, how do you get enough images for a good portfolio?
This is a perfect opportunity to work for free as a photographer. The trick is, you’re not actually working for free.
Here’s How It Works:
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You want to break into wedding photography. In order to show a prospective client that you’re worthy of their shelling out good money for your services and images, they will want to see some proof you can deliver.
So, you book a friend or family member. You will want to deliver the highest quality possible, of course. Consider this a bartering arrangement. For the very real result of having great wedding images to show others, you gave that friend your talent, time, and energy. They gave you permission to use their images.
In any of these trading something for something scenarios, you will want a contract spelling out specifically what you are providing and that they give you release to use the images for business promotion. (As part of my basic photography business tips, always have a contract, even for this “free” work.)
A similar arrangement can be made for portrait photography, boudoir photography, or real estate photography. Many aspiring models are looking for a photographer to help them create their own portfolio, so you don’t even need to hit up any family or friends. Check out local online forums.
Once you get those images and clear permission to use them, stop doing free work. Unless you’re wishing to either pad or update your portfolio. But you can include in your paid contracts what release options you have for using the images you captured of them or their property for your own self promotion.
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As a local businessperson, how many charity events have you been to or been a part of? If you’ve been in business for any length of time, you either have been to or been invited to quite a few I’m sure.
I’m not talking about national or international events, those are incredibly hard to break into as far as being a lead photographer or videographer, but rather those local affairs often produced by the chamber of commerce or some other local organizations. For the religiously inclined, it may include events at churches, temples, or mosques.
Here How It Works:
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When you first see a scheduled event, even a tentative schedule, jump in and ask if they would like a photo or video record of the event.
There are websites like festival.net that list events all over the USA or you can get on the list for local Chamber newsletters. These will have contact information for the showrunners.
Some caution is in order. Check your insurance policies about liabilities for events like this, you don’t want to accidentally lose your business due to injuring someone or destroying something valuable.
And the final piece of the puzzle is to have visible credit somehow. I always say to myself about this, “Don’t get greedy!” A small byline sandwiched in with all the other contributors is enough. I also like to ask permission to hand out business cards to anyone inquiring. Sometimes, these events have name tags for participants, include your business name or logo on yours.
The end result is that you actually do get real exposure, you create goodwill among the other businesses which can lead to continuing business relationships or even partnerships afterwards, and you get to feel good about doing something good. Those are all net profits in my book.
Work For Free as a Photographer?
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So, the bottom line is, if someone contacts you for free work and is promising you exposure as though it were a real commodity that they control, be polite but see it for what it often really is, someone wanting your good work for no compensation.
But if you need to build a portfolio or reputation, or if you wish to create or continue goodwill in your local business community, go for it. Always have a contract or application of some sort, though, it’s for everyone’s protection and best interests.
Also, know for sure what you can and cannot do with your images or videos, having it spelled out in any paperwork concerning the transaction of doing work for free as a photographer.