Is It Ever Okay to Shoot for Free?

So, a brand-new wedding blog wants to borrow a few of your images for an article -- it’ll be great exposure! Or a local charity wants you to donate a free session for a good cause. Or maybe your friend wants you to photograph her adorable newborn, and it’ll be a perfect chance to practice…

Every photographer feels obligated, inspired, or pressured to shoot for free at some point. And the simple truth is, you have every right to say no (no matter what your friends think) and every right to say yes (no matter what other photographers tell you). But before you decide whether or not you’ll embrace the “opportunity” to give your work away, think about why you’re doing it -- and whether your reasoning holds water.

REASON: “I’ll just email the digitals, so it doesn’t cost me anything.”

It does, though. Every time you press the shutter, it’s like putting miles on your car. You’ve probably also paid for memory cards, a computer, upgraded cloud storage, some editing software, better lenses, a handful of presets, and insurance…but yeah, other than those really expensive things, pixels themselves are basically free.

Ask yourself, “Is this such an amazing subject that I’d literally pay to shoot it?” Because when you factor in all your costs, shooting for free really means paying out of pocket to shoot.

REASON: “I’m still practicing.”

You need to do a bit of soul searching for this one: Do you really need the practice, or are you just postponing that moment of truth when you put a price tag on your work and find out if others value it? It’s scary. We’ve been there. But don’t sell yourself short. If you just pulled your new lights out of the UPS box and need a test subject, sure, shoot that first studio session for free. But if you’ve been “practicing” for the past two years, it’s time to bite the bullet.

REASON: “It’s exposure!”

Getting published is great for bragging rights, but exposure doesn’t pay the bills. It’s unlikely you’ll land a newborn session because the mom-to-be stumbled across your photo credit in a parenting magazine she read in her OB’s waiting room. Still, the right kind of exposure can benefit you. Here are a few ways to gauge whether it’ll be valuable:
  • Will this put your work in front of a targeted audience that’s actively seeking the type of photography you do? For example, you might agree to share some images with a local wedding venue in exchange for a spot on their list of recommended vendors.
  • Is there a way you can use this to build buzz for your business? Can you send the photo feature you did for a local blog to a travel editor at a big-name publication? Can you attract local, high-end brides by promoting your recent feature in a well-known wedding mag? Make sure you have a specific idea in mind, and not just the nebulous promise of “more work down the road.”
  • What’s my annual ad budget? Have a figure in mind, and deduct the cost of a typical session or stock-photo sale whenever you give work away. It’ll force you to really evaluate how valuable a particular opportunity is.

REASON: “It’ll be great for my portfolio.”

If your portfolio is completely empty, or you have absolutely zero experience in a particular market, or you want to try a new style without “experimenting” on a paying client, go for it. But you don’t need to fill your entire portfolio for free. Just one or two stellar sample sessions can be enough to attract paying clients.

And remember: When you shoot for free, shoot on your terms. You pick the location. You set the time. You call the shots on wardrobe and posing and lighting and editing. A portfolio shoot should reflect your vision and your branding 100 percent; otherwise it really doesn’t benefit your portfolio at all.

REASON: “I feel awkward charging people I know.”

So your cat-sitter’s getting married and you feel weird about sending her an invoice. But before you offer your services to friends and family for free, you need to ask yourself two things:
  1. Would this person charge me? Would they offer you their services for free or expect you to pay like everyone else? Be honest with yourself when you answer that question and it could save a lot of hard feelings down the road.
  2. How far does this rabbit hole go? How many cousins/neighbors/Facebook friends do you have? When word gets out that you’re gifting sessions, you could end up filling your entire calendar with freebies. For the sake of your sanity, draw a very clear line as to who gets what discount.

REASON: “It’s for charity!”

Whether it’s a local fundraiser or a broke neighbor, you may feel inspired to offer free services out of sheer goodwill. And that’s totally fine, if it’s a cause close to your heart. There are amazing organizations that can connect you to people in need, like Help Portrait, NILMDTS, Operation Hope, and others. You can also donate gift certificates or auction a session for charity. But it can be easy to let guilt guide your decisions in this area, so before you donate your services, ask yourself: Would I donate $100 to this charity? If the answer is yes, it’s probably a cause you truly care about. If you can spare the time, charity sessions can (cliché alert!) feed your soul and remind you why you do what you do.

REASON: “I just really feel like I want to do this for free.”

Cool. Do it. You’re the boss. You know how much time you have, and how much income you need, better than anyone else. Still on the fence? In an article in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, training coach Amy Ruppert suggested asking one simple question before taking on any new commitment: “If I say yes to this, what am I saying no to?” When you work for free, you’ll have to turn something else down, whether it’s a paid client, family time, or just an evening of binge-watching Orange is the New Black. Only you can decide whether the work you’re giving away will be rewarding enough to justify it.
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