Photography Etiquette – Working For Free

While I was browsing through my Facebook feed this morning, I ran across an article about a graphic designer who is getting some attention for his response when asked to work for free. He received an invitation from Showtime to submit an entry into a contest. The work he submitted, if chosen, would be displayed at an upcoming event held at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Here’s a screenshot of his response:

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You can view the full article HERE.

This article, while hilarious, made me think about my creative journey and the choices I’ve made, and continue to make, in the pursuit of being a successful photographer.

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If you were to ask most established artists in any field if they would do a job for free, you would get laughed at and told to buzz off. (Or publicly ridiculed, like the above example.) But then I’ve heard from some photographers that they remember the days when they worked for very little, or nothing, just to get the experience and exposure. So, what’s the right choice? Do you stick to your principles and say no to the jobs that don’t pay what you believe you and your work are worth? Or do you take every job that comes your way, regardless of the pay, and hope it pays off in the end?

I encounter this conundrum every day. In my search for jobs, I regularly come across Craigslist ads offering the amazing opportunity for the “right person” to have the good fortune to do work for an “up and coming” enterprise….for free. They offer the benefit of promoting your (free) work. They “know people” and can get your (free) work into the right hands. Hey, it’s a win-win situation, they insist.

On the other hand, there are people who say, I know this is lame, but I just started my own business and I have no photography skills and no money. Can we work out a way that I can pay you when I start making some money?

I’m much more inclined to work for a person for free, or cheap, when they understand that they are asking for, and receiving, something that is very valuable. I have worked for a couple people at a very discounted rate, not only because I wanted the experience, but also because they asked nicely and were really appreciative of my help. These relationships have turned out to be very beneficial in the long run. I have even gotten some other jobs and referrals out of it.

In addition to Craigslist, I have also used a website called Thumbtack. People who need photographers can request bids. Then photographers in the area¬†receive an email that tells us what they need and how much their budget is. I am constantly astounded and dismayed at some of the unreasonable requests we see come through our inbox. Most of them are weddings with a budget of $200 to $300 dollars. I understand being broke and trying to do things on the cheap. But when you are only willing to pay $300 dollars for a wedding photographer, you might as well ask one of your friends to do it. It’s almost insulting. I don’t, however, think they mean to be insulting. I really do believe that most people have no idea how much work a wedding is. Not only will I spend 6 to 8 hours taking photos of the wedding. I will then spend double that on the editing process. So really, doing a wedding for that little is not worth it for me. (Especially when Thumbtack makes you pay to submit a bid, and you are not guaranteed to get the job.)

In conclusion, I don’t believe that the question of working for free has a clear cut answer. It depends on many different factors. Where are you in your career? What is the job? What are the long-term benefits? How do you feel about the person asking you to work for free? The answer to all of these will change with every new experience, and should be considered carefully before you decide to take the job or assignment. You don’t want to sell yourself short, but you also don’t want to have an empty portfolio and limited experience.

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