Four Reasons to Consider Working for Free

The U.S. stock market has been cut in half. And some countries have it worse than we do. Companies are shedding jobs like there is no tomorrow. And heaven help you if you work for a newspaper or a magazine.

The US auto industry is on the verge of imploding. People are losing their homes to foreclosure. And, on the off chance that you had the nerve to try to buy something, credit is almost impossible to come by.

It is against that backdrop that I would like to talk about working for free.

Why? Because I think it is one of the fastest ways to make yourself a better photographer, whether you are a pro or an amateur. If you are wondering if I have completely lost my mind, make the jump to judge for yourself.

A Little Framework

I want to put the flashes down today and talk about something that I hope can help you grow as a photographer. I know it is helping me, and I suspect that some people could use a little professional bright spot right now.

For the purposes of this post, we are talking about photography. But there is no reason that this discussion cannot morph into other areas. If you are a blogger and riff on this in another direction, please leave a linkback in the comments. I really want to see where this goes.

As a point of reference, I am going to broadly assume that many of you fall at least loosely into one of the following areas:

One, if you are a pro, you are probably not being hired to shoot full-time, wall-to-wall. You might have some down time right about now. Maybe even a little too much.

Two, if you are an amateur, you probably spend some time on a regular basis shooting for yourself when you are not working the soul-sucking day job.

After 20 years as a pro, I find myself with a foot in both ponds. I still thnk of myself as a professional shooter -- and I am shooting assignments, after all. But I also have a non-shooting "day job," which you are reading right now.

As such, over the last few months I have been thinking about my shooting in a different different way. I have had long conversations with other photographers about it, too. Some were rank amateurs, some are big-shot pros, and some in the muddy middle.

Money Equals Control

Well, duh. But maybe not in the way that you think. If you are a professional, it is the client with the check who determines what you shoot and how you do it.

Maybe you want to shoot conceptual portraiture. But if The Money says that it wants you to shoot little Billy's bar mitzvah, guess who is gonna win in the absence of that conceptual portrait assignment?

A check is a good thing. It puts food on the table and keeps the business running. But that same check can also keep you from growing in the direction in which you want to grow.

The trick is getting from what you are now shooting (and how) to what you want to be shooting (and how). And the fastest way to do that is to forego some money.

Tenet One: Free Buys Access

I will start out by saying that I want to be a location people shooter. More specifically, I want to make engaged and technically sophisticated portraits of people who excel at what they do. I want to benefit from both the photos and the experiences of meeting my subjects.

That is my personal photographic compass point. Where the photos get used is secondary. As is how much -- or even if -- I get paid for them. For now, anyway.

That's my mission. If you have not defined your mission as a photographer, I would highly suggest doing so. The simpler, the better. It adds clarity to every decision you make downstream.

My problem is, right now no one is beating down my door to shoot the kinds of people I want to shoot in the ways that I want to shoot them. I am getting plenty of work, but not the kind that furthers what I want to do. So to get closer to my goal, I have decided to take money out of the equation whenever it makes sense to do so.

I do not know how much "free" time I can devote to it yet, but that doesn't matter. What matters is that I will devote whatever free time I can to making those kinds of photos.

So, I am approaching people I want to photograph and offering to do it directly for them, at no charge. And that includes usage, too -- no holding back. That is my offer -- I photograph you, and in exchange for your time you get what I hope will be high-quality images to use.

Now, that usage does not extend to a third party -- for example, the subject's publisher, an advertising campaign, etc. In that case, there would have to be payment involved. And the types of photos (and, to date, subjects) that I am doing would not normally be shot with enough specificity to be useful in those ways. But it is important to take into account to keep yourself from being taken advantage of.

The usual reaction is a mixture of equal parts confusion and suspicion:

Why are you doing this? What is this for? Why free? Do you suck as a photographer or something?

Because I want to grow by photographing extremely interesting people. It is for my portfolio and whatever use you can find for it. Because that is the fastest way to get the photos I want into my portfolio. And you can judge the last question for yourself after seeing my work.

At that point, they are usually interested. And how can they not be, unless they are insanely busy? It is a flattering thing to be chosen on those merits. And what do they have to lose, except for maybe a half hour?

As for me, what am I really giving up? Not money, unless someone would have hired me that day to do something equally interesting. I am giving up time I would have spent shooting something less useful for me.

And hopefully, I am circumventing the photographer's Catch-22 -- that you won't be hired to shoot subject matter that you can't already show in your portfolio.

Tenet Two: Free Removes Boundaries

Assuming they go for the idea, now is where it starts to get interesting. And if they don't, no big deal. I move on to the next person on my hit list.

But if they do, we have everything we need to make a photograph -- a photographer and a subject. No one else to steer things.

The art direction is courtesy the collaboration between you and your subject. The budget is whatever you can scrape together. And I particularly enjoy bootstrapping something from nothing.

Foregoing money buys you that control. Not total control, mind you. You have to work within the framework of what is true to your subject. But all good portraiture has that restraint.

The important thing is that there is no one telling you to shoot color or B&W, no shape to match, no limitation on post processing, no nothing. It is a wide open collaboration.

If you are a corporate shooter, maybe that means you go from guys in ties to shooting artists. Or inventors. Whatever.

If you normally shoot social events, maybe it means you get to shoot what you really want -- architecture. Or beauty.

Tenet Three: Free Buys You Near Total Control

It is your project. You are offering photography for time. You are driving. You decide what you are going to shoot.

You can say no at any point, but you can greenlight anything. You can shoot beneath your normal radar screen. You can stretch to shoot a subject you would never have been hired to shoot.

You may as well be Annie Leibovitz, as far as you're concerned. You answer to no one but yourself. If that is not an ideal shooting environment, I do not know what is.

Tenet Four: Free is Powerful Karma

Big deal, you say. That's just personal work. Everyone does that.

Sort of, but not really. Personal work is shooting ninjas in a warehouse on your own dime to stretch yourself and grow your book and get better jobs. (That one worked in spades, BTW.)

But pure collaboration also takes into account the subject. Who can best use the kinds of photos I want to take? What can I accomplish? How can they use the photos? How much good can I do?

This is where it gets goose pimply. How much good could you do?

What will you do with your total control? Do you love kids? Will you shoot portraits of young burn victims at a burn camp next summer like my friend Ed Bunyan did for so many years?

Do you love animals? Will you practice your lighting skills on dogs and cats at the animal shelter? Do you really think they would refuse a serious commitment on your part to photograph animals each week for a few months and let them do whatever they could think to do with your photos?

Very early in my career, a photographer/friend/mentor of mine, John Ashley, did just that. And the photos ran big in our paper, the Leesburg (FL) Commercial. Because John convinced them to do that each Thursday by his sheer commitment and force of will.

For several years, John had a perfect batting average -- every animal he photographed got adopted. Except one. And then John adopted it.

How much good could you do with your camera? And for many of you, specifically, how much of a difference could you make for someone with your new-found lighting skills?

How much would your portfolio benefit from regularly shooting exactly what you want to shoot?

If you are an amateur, this just might get you past practicing your light on your cat and your superhero figurines. If you are a pro, it is easy to think of some cool projects that could add a new dimension to your portfolio.

For Example:

I recently found a great little foodie blog in my county. I can't tell you how many neat little out-if-the-way ethnic joints I have found because of this guy. But as good as his blog is, his photography is very, uh, McDonald's, if you get my drift.

Why couldn't I hook up with him and create a series of portraits of chefs at some of these places? Make his blog look as good as a decent food magazine, create a nice project in my portfolio and hook up more people with great local food?

Answer: There is no reason why I couldn't, if I take money out of the equation. If I wait for money, this little project will never happen. But take the money out, and it could happen in a heartbeat -- and on my schedule.

As I type, I am fleshing a thread for the series out in my head -- why not a portrait of a chef, a nice photo of a typical dish, and the recipe for it? I get a great project, the blog gets moved up three or four visual notches, the restaurants get exposed to many more people and my portfolio gets a new capability to display.

Make it locally-owned only. Chipotle need not apply. Now the county development office and/or the Chamber of Commerce start to get interested. Which might get the project some space in a local venue.

Now, you have just parlayed the project into a potential exhibit in a high-traffic area. People learn about my photography, the HowChow blog, lots of local restaurants, how to cook some killer dishes -- not a bad day's work. And it all works only because it was conceived outside of the framework of shooting for money.

But I Don't Want to be Branded as a Free Photographer.

You wouldn't be. You are not working for free because people asked you to. You are offering to collaborate on a project. And therein lies a huge difference.

When a company or organization asks you to work for free they may be (okay, probably are) taking advantage of you. When you are in control, no one can take advantage of you. You have the ability to offer your work for free, but you retain the ability to decline a request to work for free.

And to be clear, I am not talking about merely showing up at some company with a blanket offering to work for free. That's insane. I am talking about having a photo in your mind that you want to make and pulling together the resources to make it happen. You are the prime beneficiary, but there is gain in it for your subject, too -- which is what makes it very likely to happen.

You may think there is opportunity cost in putting in a shoot for no money. But the cost is much greater, in the long term, if you have a portfolio that was defined only by what people were willing to pay you to create.

Why Now? Isn't the Whole World Caving In?

This makes the most sense right now, for so many reasons. How many people or organizations could use photos -- but have no budget? How many days do you sit waiting for the phone to ring with an assignment?

How often have you looked at your home loan / stock portfolio / shrinking newsroom / etc., and just wanted to feel good about something, personally and/or professionally?

You may not have piles of excess cash to donate, but you have skills. You can leverage your value to someone through your pictures -- and grow as a photographer at the same time.

Are You Still Here?

If you have made it this far, you probably either think I am totally full of it, or are already starting to get ideas of your own.

I know I am not the only photographer for whom this idea is resonating. I have been in too many conversations about this recently and heard too many other photographers' thoughts.

This is a lighting blog, but this approach can be applied to almost anything. Do you cut hair? Are you in IT support? Are you a good cook? What could you do?

And assuming a worst-case scenario, what if money gets incredibly tight for the next few years. How much difference could you make, for yourself and for others, growing yourself by donating a valuable skill?


Other Perspectives

Chase Jarvis puts his money where his mouth is.
Doug Menuez, on turning down the bad jobs and shooting what you love.
Vincent Laforet: Yeah, but don't go crazy with it. Mebbe once a year. But 'Reverie' worked out pretty well for me...
Kenneth Jarecke: It has always been thus.
• I suspected this post would give John Harrington an aneurysm. But you still have to give him style points for lining up the commenters to be machine gunned...


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Blogger christopherbautista said...

thats exactly how i see things

December 05, 2008 12:11 AM  
Blogger xgrewellx said...

The craziest thing is that today my assistant called me because 4 or 5 bands have called and asked for pricing and she had no idea what to tell them (she knew the standard rates would have them running away) and I said "tell them its on me", she replied "What?!?!" I explained it would be a great way to get a couple done to get into that market....

Pure coincidence that you would post this today...

December 05, 2008 12:12 AM  
Anonymous Andy Colwell said...

I sat in photo theory class today, pondering up my future in the class, as final project time draws near, and let my mind wander to how I definitely need to expand myself and stop worrying quite so much about the $. And before shutting off the computer for the night, I stopped by here out of habit, and found the anagnorisis: the "aha!" moment, in this post. Most excellent - I have the justification, from a very reliable source (this blog and its esteemed creator), to follow through with what plans I already had.
Things come in circles, just like this. I got back from my dad's workshop after working on said theory project, and listened to him talk about the auto market downturn/turndown - he's a Saturn dealership GM, and has been in the business for nearly 40 years through several brand collapses - and how money is a problem everywhere, and how he wishes more people would give of themselves and stop pointing fingers. This blog has done a lot for my abilities, and although this is my first post stating as such, I hope I can get across just how great of an impact has been made by it just now. I'll enjoy any other answers too.

December 05, 2008 12:32 AM  
Anonymous d_hyravy said...

I really like the thoughts you brought out here. I have had an idea for this type of project for a while now and this makes me want to get out and just do it. Thanks David!

December 05, 2008 12:33 AM  
Anonymous ale said...

step 1: work for free
step 2: ???
step 3: profit!

December 05, 2008 12:36 AM  
Anonymous David difuntorum said...

I was a commercial photographer back in Chicago and by a weird series of events I find myself in Philadelphia raising a 3 year old and a 10 month old while my wife works.

But I missed the pro challenges so I make myself shoot something every weekend. Anybody. Anything. Whatever.

While I do care that people would like the work it isn't necessary. I just have to shoot. Food. People. Stuff. Whatever.

I just have to shoot.

A freebie gig I did for someone that took 4 minutes turned into a paying gig recently. I struck up a conversation with a woman I hadn't seen in a year and her family outside of restaurant and talked them into letting me shoot them and emailed them the shots.

They loved them and were astonished at how good the shots were given the 4 minutes I had with them. So now I'm shooting their family portrait at the Smith Playhouse. For money.

BTW I'm not good because I'm a preternaturally gifted artiste. I'm not. I've just been doing it for an embarrassing amount of years and shot hundreds of thousands of images. You screw up enough you learn a few things. Lastly, I just like doing this.

Another time: a test shoot of a bunch of firefighters turned to being hired to shoot one guy's family photos. The firefighter was amazed that anybody could be geeked about shooting. Well I was. I was geeked just to shoot and I delighted in it and it was apparent.

Be geeked. Be good. Word gets around.

I'm not worried too much about paying gigs. They're coming. But my best marketing is being geeked while shoot darned good images.

Yeah, man. You're right. I do this. It works.

December 05, 2008 12:36 AM  
Blogger seenew said...

Dave, I think it's a great idea. I just know it will be hard to push myself to work on something extensive for free... As you said, money is tight for everyone right now, and even though these projects would technically be an investment, it's just hard to see the payoff any time soon. And soon for me is probably a lot different than soon for you, given the age (sorry!) difference as well as lifestyle difference of a student and pro. I don't know where I'm going with this.
Haha. I guess I just wanted to throw in my support for a great idea, and I'm hoping I can push myself into it as well.

Keep up the great work!

December 05, 2008 12:38 AM  
Blogger Photographer : Mike Rice said...

I used to volunteer at an animal shelter - and for awhile, I would bring my camera with me. I let the shelter use the images for a fund raising banquet. It also ended up being a mini photo showing - with a couple hundred people donating a whole lot more money to the shelter. I also had at least half the people there, asking for my contact info. One of the best things I've done and for such a great cause.

December 05, 2008 12:41 AM  
Blogger JT said...

Hi DH,

I read the _whole_ thing(!) and I think you raise a very interesting concept (as usual).

I'm sure you've read Matt Brown's scathing SportsShooter article, "Free is Killing Me!" (Those who haven't:

I understand your point of *offering* free is different than being *requested* to shoot for free... but I can't shake Matt Brown's frustrated words out of my head when I read this concept you've brought up. That work for free will devalue the paid work that is needed by photogs at this bad economic time.


December 05, 2008 12:41 AM  
Blogger kameraguy said...

Hi David, I must admit that at first I was like "this is kind of nutty", but your reasons soon made me think otherwise. I find a lot of what you said applicable and this has given me a new perspective on things. Thanks for posting this.


December 05, 2008 12:43 AM  
Blogger wayne said...

Free is good (for now)! I just did a free shot for a young actress who is trying to make ends meet as many starving artists do.

It was great to practice my Strobist techniques and not feel super pressured. It was a valuable experience for for me because the lighting was challenging.

She's going to get some great photos. And it feels really good to help out and give back a little.


December 05, 2008 12:46 AM  
Blogger J. Beckley said...

Before reading this, I had actually thought of the idea of shooting portraits for my neighbors for some Christmas portraits on my time. I totally agree with creating your own project of what you would like to shoot for free if plan to one day do that particular type of photography.

December 05, 2008 12:51 AM  
Anonymous Tyler L. said...

I think this is great, it's like a potential investment that can help others as well.

This morning I got in touch with an an organization at my school that loans bikes to students for free called Aggie Blue Bikes. They're a great asset for anyone on the campus to cycles.

For the past few years they've been trying to get funding from the school, but each year the students vote it down because they don't know much about them.

Now we're going to start working out a plan to make some advertising photos help get the word out.

I want to start building a new type of portfolio and no one is going to give a job so someone without the experience.

I don't know if we'll get anything out of it, but might as well see what happens. Besides, I really would like to see these guys make it.

I think photographers need to go out and show what good they can do.

December 05, 2008 12:53 AM  
Anonymous Kerry S. said...

David, Great and gutsy post! I am a graphic designer who gets photo assignments from time to time in connection with my design work. My Wife and I are trying to further expand the photography end of our business. This is exactly the push I need to go ahead and do something I've been thinking about doing, but was worried about the hit my perceived value as a photographer would take. I'm sure there will be some who read and pish posh this idea, but honestly, as talented as so many in the Strobist photo pool obviously are (talent I hope to eventually approach), what percentage are actually making a full time living at it?
This is a great back door business plan that I for one plan on implementing. I had also thought of approaching the local humane society not too long ago (have you seen most of the pics on ...taking photos of dogs and cats that nobody owns -- man, talk about NO pressure!

Great read David, keep up th great work!

December 05, 2008 12:56 AM  
Anonymous Spencer Herford said...

Wow David, after over a year reading your blog, i think this is the most meaningful post right now for me. Im right in the middle of photo school, frustrated beyond belief. Our professors refuse to acknowledge the fact that the medium is changing so fast that we need to adapt. The same things that worked even five years ago are irrelevant now. How likely is it that i will be able to go into a large magazine with a portfolio and walk out with a job?

Your post made me realize that while the big money may not be there, there is always something out there no matter what. My gears are turning now.

Thanks so much!

December 05, 2008 12:57 AM  
Anonymous Eric said...

Personally, I think this is a great idea. I'm not a pro, but I want to get improve just the same, so this is something I do myself with no qualms whatsoever. Recently, I offered to shoot one of my company's employee celebrations for fun, and the results were very rewarding -- I got access to shoot a major corporate event (300+ people) for a Fortune 500 company, got recognized for my photos on a national level throughout the company w/ over 25k hits on the site the pictures were hosted on, and even got an award and free photo printer for my effort. All for only wanting some event-shoot practice. Not bad, considering I could have just gone and shmoozed instead like everyone else (I hate shmoozing.).

December 05, 2008 12:58 AM  
Anonymous Maurice Ramirez said...

David, I think this would be fine in a room full of ethical business-oriented pro photographers.

But with all due respect, you know who this blog is primarily read by.

The industry is going through enough turmoil, and photography is looking cheap enough already, without every so-called strobist calling up all the PE
s at magazines, modeling agencies, corporate pr firms, industry websites, music labels, and advertising firms, offering freebie shoots.

I know that every magazine, especially the big ones, have name photographers shooting just for exposure. But how did it get to this point? And those guys are only doing it because it gets their name out to the clients that DO pay. What happens when THOSE clients stop paying? What's the point then?

And why is it that newspapers are dying, but letting go of their photographers first? Even though its the photos that make the stories real.

And yet why do writers, actors, director--and just about every other creative group that hasn't yet been reduced to hobby status--have their industry standards dictated by professional guilds?

I think it because photographers as a group are already cheapening themselves. And now your idea is for everyone to go out there and offer shoots in exchange for portfolio material?

I'm all for dramatic altruistic gestures, but an open letter-to-the-industry one coming from a flash-inspired lighting blog? A call to arms to whom then, flash photographers?

I don't know, but I don't think this will be good in the long run.

I'm really curious what Harrington would say about this.

December 05, 2008 1:02 AM  
Blogger Hipporage said...

This is really cool! As a student I'm having to do this kind of thing anyways, but i never thought about using it to help others. I think many within my immediate community would benefit a lot from me practicing on them. Maybe it can give me a foot or too in the door. Its key that you bring up how empowering it is to work for free out of your own free will. This may be the kind of charity that actually makes a difference.

December 05, 2008 1:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After running a commercial studio for 20 some years I dropped out for about ten when the bug hit me hard to get back to it. My interest, like you, is doing location people photos. I do the work that comes my way but by far my fav is doing exactly what your talking about. My most recent is giving away one portrait session a month to a listener on a radion show about motorbikes to hotrods (my passion). And I do these the way I want to. I've also started shooting for a calender(with total control)for this radio show to raise money for different charities. My portfolio is looking good.

December 05, 2008 1:05 AM  
Anonymous Bill Rogers said...

David, I agree wholeheartedly, because it's been working for me!

Because I have Parkinson's disease, I receive disability income, so I don't have to earn a daily living. This gives me the freedom to either sit at home and feel sorry for myself, or go out and shoot photos. (Given the tradeoff, I'd prefer not to have PD ... but we have to play the cards we're dealt.)

Taking photos for free has brought me many new friends and opened up dozens of opportunities to serve my community. And taking photos of musicians has been the equivalent of a free backstage pass!

Through photography, I've been able to stay engaged with the world and slow the progression of the disease. Free photography? In my case, it's been priceless.

Thanks for putting this on Strobist.

December 05, 2008 1:05 AM  
Blogger Jonathan Lehman said...

This is terribly inspiring... We always hear that working for free is damaging to the photographer and the industry...but as you say, in these times why hold back a helping hand for a dollar. Plus, who really grows by trying to take the greatest baby picture to end all baby pictures. Thanks for the 'permission' to go out and really do something.

December 05, 2008 1:05 AM  
Anonymous Nick said...

I'm hearing ya David! Even if it's just so you can control the situation, collaborating for free on projects is very beneficial. Some might say 'you can't eat exposure', but meh, who cares, the people you stoke will feed you if you ask! Epic blog, rock on.

December 05, 2008 1:05 AM  
Blogger worldwideweems said...

If I'm reading you right you are saying to be creative. Make something out of nothing. I think it has merit so long as you are careful not to undercut yourself or another guy who has the paying gig. Don't just go out there and offer to do the same old job for free but be willing to invest your time and effort into creating work that means something to you.

If you create something that has never been done you can really shake things up and open up a whole new area of work.

I have, and I know others who have, done exactly what you suggest in order to take ideas and put them into practice. Done right it can produce a great return.

December 05, 2008 1:11 AM  
OpenID doug said...

Exactly what I've been doing. I have a lucrative day job but I can't do it forever.

So I've been picking and choosing photography projects that turn my crank and get me some much needed experience in the hopes that in 10+ years or so I'll be able to transfer from my current career.

And I've been doing them for free.

And loving every minute of it!

December 05, 2008 1:15 AM  
Blogger Stephen said...

I wholeheartedly agree with this entire entry. Every job I've ever gotten through photography has been through word of mouth or from someone seeing my work personally... and all because I usually did something for free.

People often will not let you experiment and try new ideas on thier own dime. They pay you to fulfill their pre-conceived vision more ofen than not. But when I'm allowed to just "do them a favor" cause I see a potential for helping them out, it always turns into cash later on. Usually it's because I was allowed carte blanche and my idea was given a greater chance to come to fruition.

Just my two-cents, but again, I think this is dead on.

December 05, 2008 1:15 AM  
Anonymous Ariel said...

Sounds like an awesome idea.

I've been doing some portraits for friends for fun, helping people get new facebook pictures and getting to experiment with lighting, new techniques, new gear, and so on.

It's great because it offers such an opportunity to learn and even if the photos don't turn into magic by my standards, they're usually still pretty awesome by other people's standards. Certainly beats the shoot-your-reflection-in-a-mirror-with-a-cameraphone self-portraits so many people have. :)

Plus when you start putting up shots on facebook, you start workin' the connections and offers may start coming in, friends of friends wanting shots done too, but like you said, that's just gravy.

December 05, 2008 1:22 AM  
Anonymous Jeff Geerling said...

Great post! I've been thinking (as a web developer) how often little websites (especially for NPOs) have either no, or very few pictures on them to draw the reader's interest, and almost always would LOVE to get some nice images to use free of royalties/charges.

Why not offer to take a few pictures of their building, of some of their ministries, of their staff. Of anyone? I did some church photography for a new site I'm designing for a local Church, because I love photographing Church interiors. (link).

I wish more people did this kind of thing. In fact, I know a couple people who *do*, but don't ever put the pictures to any use at all. Maybe the power of suggestion will remedy that.

December 05, 2008 1:23 AM  
Anonymous moritz said...

As a total amateur (in the original sense of the word, doing it for the love of it), I have no reason to be afraid of doing something for free I would normally be paid for. I don't have to live on taking photos and can finance my hobby out of my "real" work. So that thought of yours is not new for me. What's more, where I live it's not so easy to get money you earned next to your day job past the tax office: a lot of paperwork and then 40% of the cash directly goes up in smoke.
But I was stoked by the idea of combining ones photo ambitions/skills with others' skills/ambitions in non-profit work. It might give you actual subjects and themes and something that might be a little more than just burning money for fun. Well, basically you still burn money for fun, but with a good reason.

December 05, 2008 1:24 AM  
Blogger Per said...

David, your thinking resonates a lot with mine -- glad to have found someone that is bold enough to state it as loud as you do ;-)
I am lucky enough to have a paid job in the high tech industry that objectively more than funds my family and the gear needed, so I have been able to afford to shoot quite many jobs for free.
This has caused me to take up many challenges that I believe has developed my skills and abilities as a photographer, exactly as you point out.
Sometimes I seek or accept an assignment because I'd like to develop a specific area. The fact that I need to deliver a finished high-quality (hopefully) product means I get to a level of completion I don't always achieve when I take up a self-assignment.
At other times I take "pro bona" assignments if I feel that I can support a cause that way, even if it means doing "mundane" things. But because I do it this way, I almost always end up finding it creatively stimulating, usually try to add my own "twist", and thereby stretching the envelope.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this too!

December 05, 2008 1:25 AM  
Anonymous Jeremy said...

I have been reading your blog for a good 18 months now and this post just turned on a light in my head - you have helped me realize what I should really be doing. Thank you!

The line "When a company or organization asks you to work for free they may be (okay, probably are) taking advantage of you. When you are in control, no one can take advantage of you."
Is sooo important. I'm a student photographer whose work is all photography based - but what I really want to be shooting isn't what I am shooting.

The whole direction you are approaching this issue from is so useful for photographers just like myself. I hope other readers 'see the light'.


December 05, 2008 1:29 AM  
Anonymous TypeMRT said...

Best post to date. So many folks put so much effort into finding the right opportunities, when putting that effort into making the right opportunities can be much more rewarding personally and professionally.

December 05, 2008 1:35 AM  
Blogger Robert Paetz said...

I have already been thinking about taking on projects like this already, but I think you just pushed me over the edge.


December 05, 2008 1:35 AM  
Blogger Elysian Photography said...

David, great post, and definitely one that got me thinking very seriously about my current stagnation. It is very true that one of the first things that goes when people stop having disposable income is the niceties and luxuries of things like having a professional photographer at your wedding as opposed to Uncle Bob, or shelling out the bucks (however affordable and competitive the price) for a glamour portrait session, etc. But all these ideas now going off in my head are finally validated by someone else. I no longer think I'm crazy because I'm offering my services and collaboration for free, even if only to busy myself with something enjoyable or add something interesting to my portfolio. No, I'm not insane. Someone else has thought this through as well.

Excellent post, great insight. I really hope this much needed insight keeps most of us photographers working, even if it's "busy work," and not paid work. Someday, hopefully, we as a country will pull out of this funk and people will start to not only afford but desire the niceties in life like having your picture taken. Until then, I'm off to do some free remote event photos for my local radio station.

December 05, 2008 1:40 AM  
Blogger phatphotographer said...

I always cringe a bit when I hear the notion of doing solid work for free because, if done in mass, the law of supply and demand indicates that number of paid gigs will be suppressed and exacerbate the current recession. However, this is an exceptional article in distinguishing between being pressured to do free work by a client and making one's own creative projects ideally for a market who never would have paid a professional anyway. For the record, I do free or discounted work for those who can't afford a professional photographer. Everyone deserves professional baby photographs or family portraits.

December 05, 2008 1:49 AM  
Anonymous Mike said...

This type of thinking got me my first "real" photoshoot, headshots for the largest musical production at my college last week. They were looking for a photographer, and I thought, well, I have free time. I'll get to practice lighting and interacting with subjects, and even though the art director wanted b&w, I still took the opportunity to make a number images that I wanted to make.

Similarly, my brother is a trained chef, back at school for business, but he just recently volunteered to cook at Sick Kids hospital for free, because it will help him grow as a chef, but also just because it's a good thing to do.

Great post.

December 05, 2008 1:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To the people who are strongly opposed to this approach, I think it may be interesting to compare it to open source software and the way it works for the people producing it. Open source and closed source software coexist in the IT ecosystem. Roughly, open source aim for selling service, and closed source aim more for selling products. Both ways works and you can mix them.

December 05, 2008 2:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Most of the comments I have read seem to be in support of your idea. There is one specifically that targets the cheapening of the craft and suggests a 'call to arms' instead. I understand both of these takes and think the key to successfully building our portfolios, while still maintaining our craft, is to selectively chose who we offer this work too.

I think a key point that was omitted from this post is that services should be offered to those who cannot afford it. Offering a fortune 500 company free photos cheapens the worth of the craft, while free photos for a local upcoming cheif,band or charity can improve your portfolio without damaging the livelihood of full-time photographers.

Just a thought,

December 05, 2008 2:38 AM  
Blogger Robert said...

I have worked as a product photographer, web designer and layout artist for the last 9 years. I have always charged a flat fee for my images, with all rights going to my clients, and retaining only the right to use the images in my own self promotion. I am by no means a great photographer, although I can create images that help sell my clients goods. One of the reasons that I was able to build up a client base was my own feeling around the essence of the work, that I was being hired to perform a service and not creating "art". My intuition in this has built my business, as keeping the costs low for my clients has enabled them to increase their advertising placements, as the per ad cost was lower, which in turn has led to more work for me.

I have cut corners every way possible to keep the money I generate in my own pocket, first by using the least expensive equipment I could find for the job (cameras and computers) and by getting imaginative with my process.

I had found myself feeling very "stuck" starting about a year ago until I stumbled on your site, and since then I have spent my time and money changing the way I approach this medium - spending as much this last five months on equipment as I have since I started, and immersing myself in learning a different approach to light and composition. This has actually lowered my profits (through greater expenses), but the surprising thing is that I am actually earning more money - primarily because I am excited again, and that has made all of my work better.

So to sum it up, doing the thing that may seem to be counterintuitive sometimes gives the greatest results - and I think that you hit the nail on the head with this post. The thing that drives us is not how many dollars we get per image - it is the joy we get from stretching ourselves in pushing beyond our comfort zone, and that joy is evident in the works we create.

Thank you, David!

December 05, 2008 2:41 AM  
Blogger Israel Shirk said...

I have to say that while you're probably getting eaten alive for posting this, you do have a really darn good point. Often I work in a way similar to this with clients who are unable to afford to hire me (usually friends who are missionaries, etc) - they can't hire me anyway, so I'm not eliminating any potential business.

The important thing I try to do is keep the ball in my court - I am very picky about who I will work with for free, and if someone asks me to work for free, I will turn it down without taking a breath, simply because they asked. If someone wants/needs photos but can't afford to, and it's important to them, they consistently try to offer something that's of great value to them in return - whether it's what money they have or their time/effort on something thay can offer, it's always obvious which ones to say yes to.

From a business perspective, I look at it from the point of view of getting to try something I've been wanting to - since I control everything, I can do what shots I want, emphasize what I want, etc. And then when I use those for my portfolio, I get clients in the mindset that I'm interested in. I do spend money on it through equipment, insurance, batteries, fuel, etc.

It's part of an effective marketing strategy to work in situations controlled by you - and helps for training yourself and experimenting with unfamiliar techniques as well.

The best thing about a free shoot is that I can take risks I wouldn't do normally - and not feel bad at all if it doesn't work. I'm very clear that I'm trying new things and they may or may not work, and so no one is surprised if it doesn't work all of the time.

December 05, 2008 2:42 AM  
Blogger kcole photography said...

thank you for posting this.

December 05, 2008 2:55 AM  
Anonymous Ricky Cabalza said...

Perfect timing for an inspiring blog - my down-time had just recently arrived.

I'm starting a series of shoots with a number of models in my area to make a personal portfolio of artsy photos that won't exactly fall into my wedding photography world. The models are very excited since I'm offering my services for free. I'm very excited because I get to do what I want to do, and they get to show everyone my work. I'm not really working for free, the models are actually marketing my business for me for free. It's quite a good deal considering that I'll be doing the "hobby" part of my photography.

I'm also volunteering my services for my church. Easy stuff - little events, staff photos, etc - but with a 1000+ member church, somebody's bound to ask somebody for a photographer sometime, and I'm hoping somebody remembers my name.

It's all about marketing. You're investing a little bit of sweat and and few hours of Photoshop time for more people to know your name. In an economy like this, I'd rather spend some sweat.

You'll see the effects of all this sooner or later, either in the increase in business or better photographs. Again, not a bad deal.

Thanks, Dave.

December 05, 2008 3:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where's the Orbis Flash review? Great site, slow updates ...

December 05, 2008 3:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with Peter. It's important to, especially when it comes to big business, be able to differentiate between those who can afford to pay for photography and those who cannot.
I'm afraid sending out the message of 'work for free' won't have a good effect on the industry in the long run.
Perhaps this article could be followed up with a how-to-price article, to balance things out.

December 05, 2008 3:29 AM  
Anonymous steven noreyko said...

I think you're making a lot of sense in most of your post EXCEPT for the part where you say you will give the subject "images to use in any way they want."

This is usually not a problem, until a subject exploits the images for financial gain - or uses the images in such a way that you lose out on potential licensing down the road.

I'd suggest anyone doing this type of "freebie" should be a little more limited in terms of rights granted. Sure - let the subject use the images for any personal use and maybe even some small commercial uses if it's appropriate - but it would be prudent to disallow advertising and third-party uses.

An example of this might be a person being featured in a magazine story sometime after you photograph them. The subject mentions they have this cool photo and offers it to the magazine for free - and does not contact you. The magazine - fully able to pay for the use such a photo - is happy to get it for free. Maybe you get a photo credit, maybe not. You in turn miss out on a licensing opportunity and the chance to talk with the magazine editor and a chance to develop a new client.

December 05, 2008 3:31 AM  
Blogger The Apathetic Apothecary said...

Funny that you posted this today. I really have just gotten serious about my photography again, and I was trying to think of a way to get some experience and grow my portfolio. (I am a pharmacist by trade, and am not considering becoming a professional photographer.) I had two ideas. Firstly, my next door neigbor is president of the local seniors group. I noticed that while they seem to be in the paper for one thing or another every week, the photos really sucked and were poorly lit. So I volunteered to attend some of their events and photograph them. I can't do any worse.
My second idea, i just discussed with my wife yesterday. She is a social worker for hospice, and has many very interesting patients. i thought I would volunteer to do do portraits for the ones that felt up to it, so that they would have a nice portrait to leave their family, and I will have nice portraits of interesting people for my portfolio.

December 05, 2008 3:48 AM  
Blogger Matt Hunt said...

Really interesting post and for me, one at the right time. I am an amateur who is now the company’s in house photographer. I charge rate in the mid-range of quotes from external photographers and produce work for my company which will not blow socks off anyone here, but which is better than that my company has often received before.

I got this because I shoot some corporate-charity work for fun, the company and charity liked the pictures, then I was asked to photograph a Director (which I decided to do for free), and on the back of that I became our in-house photographer. Financially this is great but I am now having to spend more time in front of the PC processing ‘head and shoulder’ stuff and am not getting so much time to explore.

So I am not getting out and taking pictures like the one of the homeless woman on London Bridge. Several friends say this picture has made them think again. I think I ought to donate it to the charity but until now have wondered ‘what next’? Maybe now I’ve a better idea.

Thanks David.

(More thoughts after some caffeine on the blog.)

And @ Maurice 1.02 am: I suspect many people could blow me out of the water photographically, but the guys I beat off the role for the company pictures might have been ‘pros’ but they were also ‘poor’. Yes, the generosity of people like David has left the amateurs better armed, but the information was there for these guys too and they blew it.

December 05, 2008 3:50 AM  
Anonymous Ami said...

I've been recently thinking along the same lines. The world is changing in almost every way and this is a great way to move *with* the flow and to the benefit of everyone involved.

thank you.

December 05, 2008 3:55 AM  
Blogger said...

This post helps make apparent how innovators of the creative arts now and historically were just that: innovators. They figured out a way translate talent into a lucrative endeavor. Nowadays, many photographers have been too spoiled by their padded upbringings (your parents had money, or times weren't hard) to realize that their images aren't actually valuable to others unless they become innovators themselves and can market their images - either by being extremely artistic or simply being able to sell their product. Everyone assumes their images are valuable - copyright, royalties, photo credits are all examples of this assumption. Through this post David Hobby is expressing an excellent idea for this period of time in which the photographic industry is experiencing growing pains in which copyright+ownership+value of photography are all being challenged. This all means disillusionment for all of those who are clinging to "the good ol' days" of newspapers and other steady work.
It would seem a newer successful model of creative professional is one that is less capitalist and more socialist in conception - the photographer who blogs and SHARES his/her ideas/images: Chase Jarvis, Joe McNally, Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir, our good friend David. There is also a sense of defining success with money. I think shooting the images you want to shoot is the greatest success of all, paid or unpaid. Give and you are more likely to receive.
All this said, I think making money is great and as a community of photographers we should put our heads together and figure out the best way empower each other to not only make that money but live the dream of photographing what we would like. Thanks again David, you've given us one means of becoming simultaneously selfless and possibly successful.

December 05, 2008 3:56 AM  
Anonymous Gordon said...


Great post. Something that I have been contemplating myself. I actually introduced one of my amatuer photo friends to your site and to off camera flash. He saw your shoot of the police chopper and thought it was cool. So he approached a local helicopter hire company, purely because he wanted to try to take some cool in flight shots with off camrea flash to build his protfolio and push his technical capabilities. He offered to do a whole raft of images for their website and for marketing for free. It paid off. The owner said yes and together we did that shoot. Both of us have now got some cracking helicopter shots in our portfolios, the company has some excellent shots for postcards and their website and I think they are planning on buying a very large laminated print for their office .win win win

One if his images is in the Strobist pool

My own is not an off camera flash one....but its kinda cool anyway

December 05, 2008 4:02 AM  
Blogger Karina said...

I totally agree. Today, I was "hired" by two up and coming artists. We're trading art for art. Establishing relationships with people like these is worthwhile...and maybe paid stuff in the future.

December 05, 2008 4:05 AM  
Anonymous John said...

I am 18 months into a two year project with a large community based sports club. The club itself was struggling financially so there was no chance of getting paid but I felt there was something there that would reward both themselves and myself. About 30 000 images later and a lot of hours I have created something that would not have been done otherwise. I get some paying work from the contacts made (which helps) and I have developed as a photographer further than I ever could have if I had not made this opportunity.

I think the key is to do this for yourself and your own sense of 'putting something back'. Don't shoot for a corporate who would have paid someone for the same work. Shoot for the little guy who would never have been able to pay anyway. This way you don't harm the industry but actually make more people aware of the value of good photography.

December 05, 2008 4:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

sorry to be anon but i dont have time to register this morning

love the site the pics and the enthusiasm, but...all this does is plays into the hands of people who seek to devalue photography and turn it from the art/craft that it is into just another tion of baked beans
ive been a pro for almost 10 years in scotland times are tough and will prob get worse but work for nowt? no way

December 05, 2008 4:29 AM  
Anonymous Odysseas Lekkas said...

Far away so close… this is the phrase that came up when I started reading this post, urging me to share this with you.

Long story short… Two days ago I made the same deal, since I love having my day job (IT freak) and my night work (Photo freak).

I am passionate with photography and I prefer working without constraints (meaning that 99,9% of my projects are self funded) , this attitude gave me the opportunity to gain "access all areas" and make backstage photos, plus quite a few alternative portraits at the annual VOGUE beauty night in Greece…

just by leaving money out of the equation I earned much much more.

December 05, 2008 4:35 AM  
Anonymous Joe Moffett said...

An excellent article! Thanks David.

And not only from the photography side (as you mention yourself).

I wanted to just add a little of my experience (I do IT and shoot as a hobby, and this worked amazingly well in good times and bad).

The thing about this is that you also turn around your reliance on "advertising". By that I mean the following: in an advertising driven business model, you are trying to sell something to people who haven't really decided to do what you propose or offer.

By getting your name out there in the "free" way, you are saying in a way: Don't let me call you, I'll wait for your call. And that means the jobs you get are jobs that the client perceives as needed and not "if we've got the budget for it".

That means that you build up a client base of people who NEED your services/products and who will pass your name on to other clients who will NEED your services/products.

In a failing economy, that's a really cool position to be in. Because if money's tight the "nice to do project" is the first thing to go; but the "this is vitally important to the functioning of my life project" gets the green light (usually by shelving a few other "nice to do projects" in order to pay for it).

Just a thought! ;-)


December 05, 2008 4:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It may be semantics but this is not shooting for free. Its trade work. Portfolio building is valuable to photographers.

I will be the first to argue against shooting for free, and I really believe that it devalues the profession as a whole. If a photographer agrees to work for free for someone who can clearly afford to pay just because they enjoy shooting I get angry. But I have not been paid for photography in 2 years. I am constantly reassessing who/what will benefit me and turning down shoots I would have done even just a few months ago.

(also, mmm howchow)

December 05, 2008 4:36 AM  
Anonymous Roeland de Bruijn said...

I am a part-time photographer doing weddings in the Netherlands. Last month I gave a new neighbour of mine a free shoot for his apartment (when it is finished). I am doing this for all my neighbours, they are all architects or designers. I did this not as a step up for paid work, but having read this, it can be. Thanks for the post, I will be doing this more often.

December 05, 2008 4:42 AM  
Anonymous Peder K. said...

I'm a young amateur photographer, still in school, and I'm just about to start doing this: take photos of the people I want to for free to have fun and build a portfolio I can be proud of. Money? Later.

Reading your writing made me more secure about what I'm about todo. Wonderful writing, as always! Thank you!

December 05, 2008 5:03 AM  
Anonymous Amnon said...

i love your writings. i think the idea is great. thanks for your blog. it's very inspirational

December 05, 2008 5:26 AM  
Blogger Borja said...

You've described exactly what I am doing at the moment.

I'm not a pro, and I have not even thought about becoming pro because in Spain is a very hard thing to do but I take each shoot as seriously as if someone paid me for it. Working on a TFCD basis has helped me to build a decent portfolio and trying diferent things to see which one was the one I liked the most. Now in december I have 4 shootings and none of them will make me earn a penny, but I will shoot a couple of "safe" images just to cover myself and have the models satisfyied and then will start the fun for me.

I've done a couple of books for models, and I know I have the abilities and tecniques to keep in that way, and that's what I'll do if it helps me to earn a little extra money, however when I shoot for myself I prefer other things.

December 05, 2008 5:41 AM  
Blogger Chase Jarvis said...

Hey David. You asked for thoughts and trackbacks... So to underscore your point, I'll back you on this one with my post here. I'll work for free too.

December 05, 2008 5:41 AM  
Anonymous Erik Olesund said...

I'm delighted to see those thoughts among so many professionals.

I still see myself as an upcoming web developer, even since I'd worked with it professionally (for money) for more than two years now. But, knowing what I do and how much my work is worth depending on the client helps me when estimating costs.

This summer I did a large production for a Christian music festival, that included to set up an online photo album, automate the upload for the festival's photographers, organize the published photos, organize the photographers, provide press on location with proper photos, and of course - to shoot a lot!

The festival is mainly driven by volunteers, and I decided to give away all my work too. It made my stay at this fun event much more meaningful and the people responsible for the festival was very thankful. A month later they offered me a job, and I'm now hired as their web developer.

This works everywhere.
Erik Olesund
Web developer and Photographer

December 05, 2008 5:42 AM  
Anonymous Jon Brooke said...

Been reading this blog for a year or so and this is the most interesting piece I've read. I've been developing (and getting towards making a living) as an event photographer for the last 4 years since I got started by accident (long story). My wife has a good steady job, and my main job is looking after the kids, so I have a pretty good security blanket under me and when I started anything that paid was a bonus. On the other hand I'm now busy enough (on summer weekends) to have to turn some jobs down - so I know that the idea of doing jobs for very little can lead to bigger things.

However, I already had a similar idea to you David in that I'm going to spend some time during my winter off-season documenting local food producers (which is an interest of mine), and was already planning on allowing them to use the pics. Primarily I'm going to be doing this to broaden my skill base, build my portfolio, and hopefully, maybe, eventually, monetise the deal by gaining clients and turning the whole thing into a local food directory, though this might be a few years away.

I know there are a load of pros out there who frankly resent the amateurs who are prepared to do the job for free (or very cheaply), but really, I think we all know that being a pro isn't just about taking great pictures and if you can't do the marketing, customer service etc and make yourself worth the extra, then it's time to do something else.

December 05, 2008 5:47 AM  
Blogger Swa said...

Ten years ago I was a manager and decided I wanted to become a free-lance garden photographer. I started more or less the way you discribe : I asked whether I could photograph peoples garden... just to learn and to build a portfolio. Selling pictures came only later. My garden pictures are now published worldwide in magazines and books.
And now I want to become a good portrait photographer. So I do the same thing. I make pictures, for free, of neighbours (some I know, some who are complete strangers to me) in my multicultural community. I build my skills and my portfolio. And bit by bit I try to get in the magazine portrait market.
If you want to have a look : (don't be scared by the Dutch text, a lot of the posts are in English).

December 05, 2008 5:48 AM  
Anonymous Jacob Gibbins said...

this is such an interesting article and read and has given me the pro ok do do just that , shoot areas i want to get in to but dont have the portfolio to get work in.

great read.

December 05, 2008 5:50 AM  
Anonymous PMLPhoto said...

David, You've just done something good for me today - you've made me start to think! I am now going to take some time to consider what my next steps are going to be. Many thanks.

December 05, 2008 5:52 AM  
Anonymous Primoz said...

I surely like idea, but there's one "little" problem for those, who don't have non-shooting day job ;)
Things costs. Coming to location, using your equipment, spending your time etc. all this costs. Without someone covering those expenses, you are not being on zero at the end of the day, but you are actually going into minus.
And without non-shooting day job, it's kinda hard to go on the end of the day to store to buy bread and milk, especially knowing those people, who got your work for free, will not come to you to get paid photos.
Afterall... they would need their photos, and without someone working for free, they would be forced to pay.
But obviously it's just me, who doesn't see point in giving your work away for free.

December 05, 2008 5:54 AM  
Anonymous offcameraflash said...

Now if only prostitutes got on-board, I'd be a happy camper. They could think of me as their "project" anytime.

December 05, 2008 5:58 AM  
Blogger Alexander Jordan said...

as a photography student i often work for free, doing shoots for fashion students or fashion promotion students. i used it at first to learn how to sort out a photo shoot , what i would need, locations, nailing down my own style and learning lighting techniques (which brought me here). i was recently contacted by a professional stylist who was recommended me by one of the fashion students i helped...for free. she said she liked my images and my style and may want to use me for some stuff. so i may be getting some professional work , or a foot in the door of the field i wish to work in by helping people out for free.

December 05, 2008 6:00 AM  
Blogger Julian Ward said...

If it's on your agenda, working for free is hugely beneficial - and not just photography. I do photography, website design, audio engineering - lots of stuff that I've developed my skills in by working for free - on my agenda. When it's on your call, you can make sure you're getting something out of it and everyone wins - the other party gets a great product, you get to develop skills that you can use later to charge for.

My example - a free shoot I did with a musician, my first 'proper' portrait shoot with proper lighting, pressure and a brief (all self-imposed though!). The shoot was for ex-Selecter guitarist and frontman Neol Davies for shots that he could use to promote his new project.
Good result, he was pleased with the shots and has used them for a number of things - they sit in my portfolio (I think) looking cool and, using some of the stuff I practised then, this summer and fall shot Metallica, Mastodon and Status Quo amongst others. Still free (well kind of, free for myself as my day job would have been the client), but now I'm published in major magazines with a credit for shooting Metallica. Worth doing that free shoot in February with my friend Neol? You bet.

Don't work for free. But money isn't the only way you can be paid.

December 05, 2008 6:01 AM  
Anonymous Pat said...

A very inspiring article David.

I guess I'm in what you'd term the muddy area being a semi-pro photographer. This year I have greatly improved my wedding portfolio through training and sheer determination. After re-assessing my pricing I have had to put prices up to a level where I could live from the income as going full time is the ultimate goal, although not necessarily weddings or at least entirely weddings.

Since putting up my prices my bookings dropped and I currently have no booking for next year. This has made me think about advertising on eBay again and perhaps do some very cheap weddings again just to keep practising and build upon existing skills.

Your article has made me think that actually offering to do a free wedding could be the way to go. However it would need to be for my benefit such as a grander location or very photogenic couple who are keen to take time out for their pictures to be taken. I'm very inspired by wedding photography from the US and Australia BTW :-)

I have been doing free shoots with models for quite a while now for mutual benefit. This has worked well enabling me to try out ideas and greatly improve my lighting and posing skills, which also feed back into my wedding photography.

Given the current climate doing more work for free and mutual benefit may be the best way to keep things ticking over.

This article also makes be think there may be other free work I could do to develop myself further - perhaps commercial and maybe a local charitable cause.

Umm definitely food for thought. And helps keep the mind focused on the positive with being creative and growing.

December 05, 2008 6:03 AM  
Anonymous Ian Holmes said...

Great post David. And I agree with what you say. I'm recently graduated from a photography school here in Paris and since graduating have been shooting like crazy, mostly for free. What do I get from it? Experience. I'm still learning, every single shoot without fail I do I come away with some lesson learnt. My book improves on an almost monthly basis, I'm making contacts, working on an exhibition series and know that once the economy turns around I'll be in a much better place than had I sat on my ass waiting for the phone to ring with paid assignments.

December 05, 2008 6:10 AM  
Blogger Julian Love said...

Thanks for the great post David.

However I'm a bit surprised why this is causing so many waves with people.

This is simply what doing personal work to expand your portfolio is all about.

I was an amateur for years before turning pro 3 years ago. While I know get a decent amount of well paid gigs, I still shoot new stuff for my portfolio by volunteering my time and working with others (models, stylists etc) who are volunteering their time - we all get good shots for our portfolios out of it.

And for the naysayers - it's not doing a job for free - because there wasn't a job there until you dreamed it up. There is no client who is getting something for nothing, because there is no client.

It's not big news though - people have been doing this forever. It's how you get into a career in photography, and how you grow it once you get there.


December 05, 2008 6:31 AM  
Anonymous Steve said...

This is a timely post as I'm doing the same thing. However on the for "free" issue I have also used a "try before you buy" with new clients who are reluctant to jump. It gives them the security of a let out and if they did decide not to pay then you've still got the experience and images from the job.
For inspiration I'm finding kenneth Kobre's Photo Journalism the Professionals' Approach brilliant - just got the latest edition. And for those reluctant sales people get Geoff King's The Secrets of Selling How to Win in Any Sales Situation. This has helped me when doing the sales pitch - great book.

And finally - really looking forward to seeing DH in action on Saturday - am charging up my SB800 as I type.


December 05, 2008 6:34 AM  
Blogger said...


I'm an amateur photographer and as such see that I have no choice but to work for free if I am to progress in photography. To hear that you as a pro feel it beneficial is refreshing.

I recently posted a thread in the stobist forum asking for advice on lighting a charity dinner dance I had been asked to shoot for free. One of the replies I got was from a pro saying that by shooing fro free I was diluting the value placed on pro photographers. Personally I felt that was ridiculous.

I think amateurs are more used to the concept of working for free. I started photographing people by simply approaching them on the street and asking if I could take their portrait there and then. The target was to get to 100 Strangers. Thanks to this blog and the influence that it has had on my photography the finale of my project saw me taking out light stands and umbrellas in an attempt to take fashion photos on the street.

Like many other amateurs I have now progressed onto shooting models found on sites like Model Mayhem. Again all on a time for photos basis.

I think I'm now at a level where someone might pay me to take their picture but actually worry this would limit me creatively.

One project I have been considering for a while is approaching shops that might want the kind of shots I'd like to produce and doing a collaboration. Small fashion boutiques or independent hair dressers. Like you say if there's no money involved then you are free to explore new directions and techniques and whilst it's probably worth throwing some safe shots into the shoot to make sure you get something worthwhile you can pretty much experiment.

Personally I feel no matter whether you've reached the level of earning a living from photography, and therefore being deemed a pro, or not you should never stop growing. Growing means you have to take risks and by eliminating money the size of that risk is reduced.

On a seperate note, how are you finding the cold here in the UK? Hope to see you at TFC on Monday.

December 05, 2008 6:36 AM  
Anonymous David G. said...

ok. I just wanted to say as a new professional that the one person who stated that this thread was wack and its downgrading photogs pricing has totally misunderstood what this all about. free work is the only reason I am a proffesional. if it wasn't for free work I wouldn't get the word of mouth advertising that is necessary to be successful as aphotographer. I wouldn't have a portfolio. I wouldn't have any clients. I still do free work and discounted shoots for first time customers. some don't come back and some do. its a risk yes but well worth it. plus you also have to think about all those photogs out there like ansel adams and that other real famous dude albee or something. they took pictures of what they wanted and eventually it paid off in the end. i'm not saying do everything for free. do the things that you want when you want to do them. yet' still take on paying jobs and do the free stuff during your spare time. if your schedule is booked solid and you are doing the same old thing over and over then schedule in some things that you want to do even if you don't get paid for it. Complacency is the worst things that can happen to a photog. it can cause u to burn out. so dude just needs to remember that free work is why we are all photogs in the first place. we love it and most of the time we get paid to do the thing we love. don't sacrifice your dreams for a paycheck. keep shooting what you want and be happy.I apologize for the typos. this is coming from my cell.

December 05, 2008 6:43 AM  
Anonymous Quoc Huy said...

I'm glad you've posted this article. It was something I've been thinking those last days with some questions to myself that got answered here.

Being a full time web developer I'm not running after the money with photography and most of the time my work is for free. But not on request of the customer though, I'm not letting people abuse and take advantage. I like the concept of giving free work to get something else than money or get money not from the work itself but indirectly (like Google give freebies and get money from advertising).

I think I would be happier to offer my skills for good things I can make with it than for the money. But of course in the limit of being able to support myself and my family. I will not be a full time free photographer...

But the idea of offering your skills to people that cannot afford them and make them happier even for a short moment in their life is cool. By this I'm thinking of some kind of charity: children in hospital, those home for elderly people etc...

And having a project is so better then just going to shoot by improvising!


December 05, 2008 6:51 AM  
Blogger Jason Bell said...


I agree with what you are saying and am glad to see that you have taken the time to seriously think about the concept. May I chip in...

1. Be careful who you offer to free to. Some may see it as a perfect opportunity to take advantage. Once the precedence has been set to work for free then it can be difficult to break out of. No sooner money is mentioned and the phrase, "but you did it for free the last time", comes out.
Choose wisely and choose carefully.

2. Not everyone can afford to shoot for free. As yourself, I'm no longer doing newspaper work. Your income is supplimented (now I'm assuming here) advertising on the blog, merchandise (the DVD) and the seminars that you are doing. I'm not saying that you have so much money that you can always shoot for free, but at the end of the day everyone has bills to pay and the ethos of photogs for free may not suit all. I'm all on for "multiple revenue streams" as we used to call it in the dotcom days but not everyone can do that.

3. I did a shoot with the local primary school this morning. Nativity play rehearsal, even better that I got to see my daughter smiling big with her mates that her dad photog was taking all the pictures. That was payment enough. :)

December 05, 2008 6:51 AM  
Blogger paggre said...

Leesburg? Wow. That's where I grew up. Sorry I won't hijack this discussion. Maybe I'll drop you an email.

Great post here. Maybe this is a great way for me, as an amateur, to do some fun work since I have a great day job. I don't need the money.

Thanks for all the work.

December 05, 2008 6:54 AM  
Anonymous Matt said...

Welcome to the free and poor nation of Utopia.

Money equals value. More importantly, Money equals commitment.

Sure, it's nice to think that the world could get along without it - that each of us would see what the other does as being of some inherent and non-specific value, but unfortunately a a little thing called "human nature" gets in the way.

I'm sorry David, I just don't see it.

Every way you look at it, you lose by giving things away like this, unless there's an underlying benefit to be had that is non-monetary ... and I'm not talking about your portfolio.

In my world for example, the idea of TFP (Time for Photos) is a joke. "Models" don't value your skill and think the equation is stacked in their favour. Photographers don't grow in the one area that matters most - the confidence of knowing what they do is inherently valuable.

I know so many talented photographers who haven't made the connection with the commerciality of what they are doing. Are they good photographers? Sure. Will they EVER make a living from it? Probably not.

It's sad, I know, but it's true.

Of course, that doesn't rule out doing "pro-bono" work for worthy causes or things you're passionate about that benefit someone other than yourself - as altruistic as that may be. But for goodness sake - put a VALUE on it, if not a PRICE.

But when it comes to your photography, charge what you can get. Negotiate price, but never value.

December 05, 2008 6:59 AM  
Blogger Jacek Pospychala said...

someone already commented about open source. I'm as well coming from IT world, and an amator shooter. So in IT we have huge market of very different quality software, all available for free (e.g. linux, java). Sometimes it's top technology, created by real experts, in their free time or for their companies. That people or their companies find, it's worth to produce something and give out for free, because it attracts customers to look at that company's paid services or software.

I think in photography it's all the same. You have a wonderful blog, freely accessible, but it pays off in different ways - e.g. by new connections, exclusive questions, great advertising of your work and knowledge.

Some people think that giving something for free (e.g. blogging) is dangerous, because others may learn and start selling it. There's still the experience you have, that others don't, which makes you right person to write about particular topic.

December 05, 2008 7:04 AM  
Blogger Don Sweener said...

PIXELS are FREE!!!!!!!
I just shot 13 guys from High School , all for FREE to help them out in a "Man Pageant" . The Pageant is to help raise money for a high school junior with Lukiemia. I did all their individual portraits in a tuxedo , shot on black. Then I designed the poster for the show. I had my printer donate them for FREE. They are selling them to raise more money. Tonight is the show and yes I'm shooting it like a fashion show.
I will post the poster on flicker for everyone to see.


December 05, 2008 7:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, I'm not buying it.

Instead of using down or freetime to work for free, why not use it to market yourself to potential clients, convincing them that you're worth more than the other guy?


By working for free to gain access or experience, you immediately undervalue yourself to those clients FOREVER.

Some of us don't play photographer. We are one - and we feed our family and pay our mortgage with our skills.

This type of advice and attitude is what's KILLING OUR INDUSTRY.

Ever hear a bunch of doctors sitting around the cafeteria talking about the free surgeries they do, just to practice their craft?

Don't be fooled by the author or his colleague. They either have jobs that pay the bills and benefits or at a point where their paid gigs (100k+ for the year) allow for this type of practice.

December 05, 2008 7:50 AM  
Blogger Tony said...

Thought provoking post to say the least.

However, I have a few issues with it.
I like you have my feet firmly entrenched in two, different but similar ponds.
I work 50-65% of my time as a professional photographer, and I spend the rest of my time running my own digital photofinishing business. You can say that I work both sides of the counter.

In the past year i've lost a couple of what would have been very good paying jobs, to "Free" shooters. I'm a good photographer, and know and understand that there are more talented photographers out there, I wouldn't mind had I lost the job to one of them, or if I my initial quote was undercut, i'll take full responsibility for pricing myself out of the market. In fact as professional courtesy between photographers, i've passed along some jobs to other photographers for various reasons.

However, this time I lost the job to a rank amateur, with very little experience, low quality work, and the only reason was he worked for free to gain access. He promised he could deliver the free work in hopes of future consideration. He produced mediocre work, leaving his "client" with a bad taste, but more importantly, he took money, and more importantly food off the table for my family. Also, that client has decided to cut their advertising budget, which pretty much means no other photographer will get a shot at trying to rectify the situation, unless it's done for free.

For you to insinuate work for free is the most incorrect thing to consider in these times. The current economic state that we're living in, which you eloquently described in the lead of your column.

Companies are cutting costs, in big and unimaginable ways. They're trying to save money in every way possible. So why would you consider paying for something that apparently almost every reader of your blog is willing to do for free?

For us as photographers to approach these companies and offer free work in hopes to gain further access, to hopefully open the doors a little further in order for us to wedge our foot in, is absolutely ludicrous.

Once budgets are cut, they're not coming back, once you give them free work, the expectation of free work is out there, good luck trying to collect a fee after that. No matter what kind of amazing work you're going to produce as a photographer, once you work for free, it's nearly impossible begin charging.

Free work is good Karma?
Just to say, what Chase Jarvis did with the Ninjas was amazing, he's a very talented photographer. But I believe that wasn't free work, as much as marketing himself, with the help of Hasselblad. I can understand how that could be worth more.

You raise some interesting questions, and a thought provoking column. However, I think you're a little off target with your intentions.

December 05, 2008 7:54 AM  
Anonymous Ramón said...

Hi Dave! I Leave in Brazil and now Im trying to get into professinal photography (aka getting paid). I´m acctually an architect and still work with this, so know it´s hard to cope my little time with all this. Anyway, your idea of "free work" is great, mainly considering the basis you stablished for this: help others. You have your own benefitts trough helping others and this is great, since it´s sincere and not with other (evil) meaning. I did this sometimes (w architecture and photo) and it´s great. Now you gave me a new boost on this. Thank you and congratulations.

December 05, 2008 7:56 AM  
Blogger john said...

this is a great post and more than a wee-bit inspiring in times like this. thanks for mental "goose". it was better than my daily cup of joe.


December 05, 2008 7:58 AM  
Anonymous Michael H said...

You've been an inspiration for a long time and I thank you for all you've done. I just can't get behind such thinking.

It's one thing to volunteer for a cause you believe in, but in situations where a pro might otherwise be hired, I've got to maintain that those gigs should have some monetary value.

It's tough enough to compete with the free or nearly free shooters on CraigsList and elsewhere as it is. Now you're encouraging your army of Strobists to further reduce my opportunities for paying work?

I'm no Grinch, and have volunteered my services many times, but Jeez, man, I gotta make a living, too.

I guess I'll have to go get a McJob somewhere so I can afford to cut my prices to the bone like everybody else?

December 05, 2008 8:02 AM  
Anonymous Geoffrey Baker said...


Spot on post. I've been doing this for the last year and have reaped the rewards both personally and financially. It absolutely comes back around to you in paying gigs.

For those who have trouble with the term "working for free" try to rephrase it as "hiring yourself." That is what you are doing. You are the boss, it's your shoot. What the subject gets are prints. You get, hopefully, a portfolio piece, and a stock piece. It's a barter.

One final note, get that model release, that's always part of my deal.

Geoffrey S. Baker

December 05, 2008 8:06 AM  
Blogger Michael Carney said...

As a student who plans on entering the business in the next couple of years, I Find your post to be very inspirational. I decided to read the Sports Shooter article linked by JT.

I do find both points of view valid, however I feel that yours is much more thought out and calculated versus the emotional rant of a guy who got screwed by a few schools. (How much does he still make even though a few games got shot for cheap?)

I feel that offering free work is a great way to get noticed (as you mentioned), however I also feel that it is not right to take jobs that are offered to you for free.

I hope to avoid going 9-5 out of college while I build a client base. After doing some homework I think I have found a way to do this: Wildland Fire Fighting. 6 months on the job pays out around $35k plus no expense while on the job. Then I get 6 months to devote entirely to my art!

This post has been another nudge in the right direction, and personally I give much more weight to what I read on this blog and Chase's as well than I do to an irate and jaded sports photog.

December 05, 2008 8:20 AM  
Blogger Paul Baarn said...

When I can do something to help people with my (relative) talent, then seeing their response is rewarding enough. I did a series on a father and son who only see eachother every other weekend. The father cried when he saw the shots. I made no money, but the feeling was priceless.
I've actually been thinking about a new business model to get started with little experience. I'm going to a rate that has a fixed part and a variable part. The variable part is up to the discretion of the client and depends on their satisfaction. If they don't like it, I'll earn less. If it's above expectation, I'll earn more. The only condition is an honest and specific critique, so I can learn from it. I know I'll work hard to satisfy the client, not only with the quality of my images but also with the way I conduct the whole process. I'm setting this up for January 2009 and I'm just gonna see where it takes me.

December 05, 2008 8:20 AM  
Anonymous Benjamin Wong said...

Fantastic post. Between your comments and chase's about really shooting WHAT you want and worrying about the immediate cash payback later on is very inspirational.

Cheers and thanks for the post.

Personally, since I'm just a beginner, I NEED the cash, but it's always important to not forget why we take photos: cuz we love it.

December 05, 2008 8:36 AM  
Anonymous noelet said...

i am a hobbyist, with a day job. to a hobbyist like me, a standard photoshoot is doing xdeals with amateur models. but after a couple of these fashion shoots, its now growing old and loosing its meaning. this is not my photography.

and its totally not for the money even as i doesn't get paid.

i was tinkering of the same direction as your post. real portraiture. an assignment. a personal project and hope i can put my passion there.

glad you've shared this as i am being encouraged a new.

December 05, 2008 8:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for suggesting this. when I have to pay my real estate taxes I'll suggest that the tax collector read this column and then I'll explain to him that I've been working for free. I have never done a job (and I've done many) either by being asked to do it, or volunteering my time to do it, that has led to a paying gig.

People in our great Christian society are basically GREEDY, corporations are run by people that are GREEDY therefore corporations are GREEDY - except of course on Sunday and Christmas.

I'm not suggesting we all forego your idea, I live by it every day, and as a result have had some very successful projects pan out - but they've been personal projects that I have initiated and seen thru to completion by dint of my own initiative. And when I've been asked to contribute some of that work or effort for the 'general good' my answer has always been the same: 'I did the work on a chance, and it panned out for me. It doesn't happen like that more often than not. I buys my ticket and takes my chances, and I'm not giving it away any more than Detroit car makers or pharmacutical companies give their products away.'

End of story for me.

December 05, 2008 8:46 AM  
Anonymous nika said...

I was just laid off from a job that I have had for the past year. This job had nothing to do with what I Love (esp photog) and my photography had been pretty much set aside this past year.
Gotta pay the bills.
Now my job is to try to find a NEW job just as all companies are shedding jobs to make their financials look better - there is no way to fight against that tide.
I have to find a way to feed my 3 kids and pay the mortgage and insurance and feed the animals ......
But I am ALSO finding the time to go do a free shoot this evening at the “Dining for Design” event in Boston (my thing is food photography so this makes sense for me)
This will be about getting some interesting shots, being with a good friend,and also about NETWORKING with people I would not have access to usually.
I do not do this guerilla shoot to “get a job” because that would just mess with my mind (cant have any more of that than I have to endure usually)
I have learned that the world of photography is one filled of unpredictable outcomes and that it can be very “profitable” to put yourself out there and meet new people and new opportunities THROUGH photography.


December 05, 2008 8:53 AM  
Blogger יוסי קולסניקוב said...

Hi David,

I'm a professional photographer three years out of photo-school (In Jerusalem, Israel). Somehow, things went in a different direction than I originally intended, and now I spent the majority of my time doing things other than photography. I think that your idea is a great way to get back on the right track. Money is always an issue, but since I started working solely as a freelance, I got used to it, that nagging feeling that I'm not doing enough, not earning enough and not begin business-oriented enough.

Initiating a pro-bono project might be exactly what the mind needs. Doing something that has been defined as not-about-the-$$ (or the shekels!). The knowledge that it helps someone else makes me feel even better than earning money.

So yeah, thanks for this wonderful post (and all the others!). I'll get involved, who knows, maybe the professional life will improve.

December 05, 2008 8:56 AM  
Anonymous David Buge said...

David, wisely spoken. I started volunteering my services at our local carousel almost 2 years ago. I've done Easter Bunny photos (with off camera flash), covered events (pancake breakfasts, birthday parties, group visits), contributed photos for 1 and wrote and contributed photos another published article, shot and donated photos for refrigerator magnets, tee shirts, and prints to raise money. Two days ago, I worked with our gifted restoration artist (whose work I'm documenting) setting up a "Photos with Santa" set on the carousel. Move furniture, snap a test, move trees, snap a test, put down fake snow, snap a test -- just like Annie L. except I get to do it all myself. Given the economy, there will be more and more charities in need of help.
Please volunteer!

December 05, 2008 9:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not to bring money back into this, but speaking of money...

If you do a free shoot for an organization such as a homeless shelter or burn ward, is there a way to deduct your time as a charitable donation? That is, if I donate a $500 photoshoot to a charitable cause, can I turn that into a $500 tax deduction?

December 05, 2008 9:09 AM  
Anonymous Walter said...

Editorial Photographers has a great article that ties into your thread. Doug Menuez discusses how to get to the point that you are earning your living shooting what you want to shoot. He doesn't discuss shooting for free, but mentioned shooting what you want vs having someone else in control of what and how you shoot.

December 05, 2008 9:10 AM  
Anonymous Harry said...

I've been thinking about this more and more recently. Part of me thinks it's a great idea, part of me thinks it's a bad idea. But, I've tried many other things most of which haven't worked. This'll at least give me a bigger portfolio, and some notice. I'm in.

December 05, 2008 9:10 AM  
Blogger Brad Smith said...

Bravo, David!

This post is inspiring in many ways. Just last week I offered my time to a small start up farming co-op in the area. They are just getting off the ground and their materials are in dire need of some decent photography to appear on their blog, website, and printed materials. I offered my time because it's something that interests me (the continuation of farming in our area [new england] and country) and because it opens up a range of shooting opportunities: portraits, editorial, event, etc to stretch my OWN work and further my OWN portfolio. Collaborating is great, and I second David's notion to dive in head first.

Happy weekend everyone.

December 05, 2008 9:11 AM  
Blogger Bruko said...

I've always done that, since I started working with photography.
There is stuff I really want to do, and I do it for free.
The nice thing is that usually those photos Ive done for free are those that people with money and a job hire me for.

December 05, 2008 9:14 AM  
Blogger Andy said...

I am learning so much through my 52 portraits project. I am doing it for free which gives me control, removes some (certainly not all) of the stress. I honestly don't beleive I would have done the volume of shooting and learnt so much without doing it for free. It should mean that when I start charging I can start at a decent level with teh confidence and experience to provide a quality product.

December 05, 2008 9:31 AM  
Blogger JS said...

After volunteering to shoot for a local hospice last year, I ended up doing a lot of shooting that I wouldn't have otherwise initiated.

I tested out new techniques and improved old ones.
More importantly, I met future clients - who paid! - just by "being there".

Getting off your butt - even for no money - always beats feeling sorry for yourself and stagnating at home, waiting for the phone to ring.

December 05, 2008 9:34 AM  
OpenID kblawson said...

I don't post much here, but a great idea for a guy who is stuck in the middle.

I think If I "package" the free thing, In time I will do well

Ken in KY

December 05, 2008 9:37 AM  
Blogger Kevin Creighton said...

I'll gladly work for free for non-profits or for close friends, but businesses are in business to make money, and so am I.

Now, that being said, some of my best work came from when I volunteered my time and skills to non-profits. Not having to keep the AD or editor's wishes running in the back of your mind as you shoot is a freeing and liberating experience, and one that happens all too infrequently.

And in today's digital world, your up-front costs are close to nothing. 10 years ago, shooting for free meant eating the cost of film, processing and maybe 'Roids unless the client paid your costs. Today, all a free shoot costs you is your time. And really, what would you rather be doing, watching TV or shooting?

December 05, 2008 9:37 AM  
OpenID kblawson said...

Good Idea David.

I do not post here often, but this plan has merit for a guy like me who is in the middle.

The ideas you post will work for when I package "free" in a way that leaves me with options.

Ken in KY

December 05, 2008 9:40 AM  
Blogger Tom Legrady said...

The company here I work had it's Christmas party last weekend. I've noticed mothers dress up their llittle kids in their finery, and figured they would appreciate having a good photo to remember the event, so I set up a "photo booth". Brought in a softbox on the right, umbrella fill on the left, SB-28 rim light far back left, and shot 20 families.

I got corporate karma points with the company, for doing soemthing supportive, got a chance to try formal portraits, which I've only done once or twice, and got some photos for my portfolio.

December 05, 2008 9:47 AM  
Anonymous Eric Doggett said...

David -

You and Chase have discussed some excellent points, and it was a process that I've been going through very specifically for the last 3 months.

While I cut my teeth on weddings and portraits, I've been wanting to do more stylized portraiture. Of course, I couldn't show people wedding work and get that kind of assignment.

So, I created the 'No Budget Shoot'. It was a way for me to shoot what I wanted in the way/time I chose. The blog post was humorous ('you have to have a budget of at least $0', etc). My plan was to shoot dynamic, multiple light images with some special photoshop processing. I sent out facebook/twitter messages, and found 10 volunteers for this.

The shoots went great, everyone is happy, and now the images are part of my new portfolio. In addition, some paying work has already come about from the sessions!

You can view the new images at:

Thanks for the article,

December 05, 2008 9:52 AM  
Blogger John said...

Great article David! I fall into the category of "somewhere in the middle". I'm not a full-time pro, although I would like to be, but I do make nice money on the side throughout the year, and have a regular day-to-day job.

I have, on several occasions, done shoots for free; to help family or friends, or simply because I wanted to do the shoot. I think because of doing this, my skills have improved immensely. However I never thought of targeting what I like to shoot most, and seeing if I can put it to good use. This is a great idea and is something I will definitely be pursuing in the very near future.

Also, I am a very firm believe in "what goes around, comes around". There have been many photographers, including you--thank you very much, who have helped me to hone my skills at something I love to do. So I have no problems at all helping others, be it another photographer who's trying to learn, or someone who could use some 'better than average' photos of themselves or their business.

Thanks again for the insight and idea!

December 05, 2008 9:55 AM  
Blogger Sean said...

Dude, that is the worst idea I've seen in a while. If you are doing something for free, it is a hobby. This is fine, but don't hurt the industry by giving others free images. Take photos for yourself. There are plenty of awesome photo opportunities to access without giving up your work. Then save these photos. Make a show. Promote yourself. These are much more successful ways to get back in the business. Don't work for free.

December 05, 2008 9:55 AM  
Blogger David said...

Thanks for the Menuez find, Walter. Excellent piece. I referenced it in the post.

December 05, 2008 10:02 AM  
Anonymous Jonathan said...

There is a very fine line between doing something for free because you really want to do it, and it could further your career, or, being exploited and ruining the professional prospects for yourself and everybody else.

Working for free is only OK if:

-You are not approached by a commercial organization which expects you to do the work for nothing.

-It is something you really want to do, and you are in full creative control.

-It is a dream assignment.

-It is for an organization or individual who wouldn't be paying someone to do the job, or a similar job, if you weren't doing it.

-You keep full copyright and ownership of the pictures.

-A commercial organization does not make money from those pictures.

-You are not in any way taking away paid work from another photographer.

If you are sure that you will be given the chance to take some excellent pictures, will do well out of the experience and wont cause any damage to the industry, or pros, go for it!

December 05, 2008 10:03 AM  
Blogger RichardJ said...

Everytime I read or hear of giving free photography out, it usually comes from professionals who are making tons of money in paying jobs, thus can afford doing personal projects on off days. Or, it comes from photographers who have a day job, and don't need photography revenues to pay their living expenses. Or, a working spouse allows for the passionate photographer be the "artiste" he or she always wanted to be.
If you do live from photography and have to scrape to get by, I'm wondering if you should not be marketing, and promoting yourself on you off-days, instead of doing non-paying personal projects.
Rich people give a lot of their time, and money to charities...because they can.

December 05, 2008 10:05 AM  
Anonymous Lars Tretau said...

I do really like those thoughts of you. Up to my first "for free"project I thought it's plain crazy and stupid to offer your work for free. Well, I figured out it is a great chance and I am still with it.

Thanks for your support on this Idea! Great to read it all.

Take care.
Lars (Germany)

December 05, 2008 10:06 AM  
Blogger Bob said...

Excellent blog which touches upon something very powerful and greater than photography itself. Imagine if the concept of money didn't exist. How much more advanced would society be? How many great ideas have been thrown in the trash because someone couldn't see an immediate financial benefit or gain? While money helps society it also holds it back.

December 05, 2008 10:10 AM  
Blogger alan said...

David, as usual, you are right on the money. I can't begin to tell you how much attending your session at the NPPA Northern Short Course in '07 and reading strobist every day has impacted my photography. You clearly are a visionary and a huge inspiration to us all. Thank you for continuing to "pay it forward", a practice that I have been doing for just over a year now.

December 05, 2008 10:16 AM  
Blogger mendittophoto said...

I teamed up with another photographer to shoot personal work at Ellis Island South. The location was intriguing for its emotional value and personal connection for many families. We opted to do the whole thing in High Dynamic Range (HDR). The project was self-funded, not cheap and took much negotiation. The location is under lots of construction for their stabilization efforts, and we wanted to get in there to capture the stage between pristine un-touched and their final vision for the park. Also, it looks like the National Park Service is declining new access so they can concentrate on stabilization.

The intangible benefits are that we've got a body of work that you won't see many other places. A self-published book is just a first step. Coincidentally, I used it as a basis for an HDR blog post, and a couple of months ago in a local radio interview (WDRV-FM NJ).

My fellow photographer Tony Sweet has already used it as a basis for his own blog posts and material for upcoming published book.

Down the road, we hope that down the road, the images can help the park. I don’t think we would’ve gotten the same mileage out of it without the latitude of it being personal work.

Thanks for the post, David.
mark menditto

December 05, 2008 10:29 AM  
Anonymous MIG said...

I let my "working days" habits get in the way with a mission statement. You can see it here.
When I become too focused on one sport or school I go back and review it and make a quick balance sheet to see if I am staying true to it.

Enough food, shelter, clothing and gas money come from my "real" working days so I can have fun and gain skills at my own pace doing what I want. And I don't have to keep track of the expenses or the money coming and going for tax reporting. THAT would make it a job I don't want or need.

My pixs are for the frig at grandmas house and scrapbook that will end up in the basement for 40 years before being opened and shared with a grandchild who is playing sports.

I didn't want to be a hamburger flipper at the high school stadium concessions so I give back with my free pixs.

It works for me, probably not for you.

December 05, 2008 10:31 AM  
Blogger KerryG said...

I couldn't agree more:

December 05, 2008 10:46 AM  
Blogger Tim Beynart said...

I am a professional Adobe Flash developer, and you describe the core approach myself and many of my colleagues took over the past 10 years. Web development is a competitive market with many players of all skill levels (sound familiar?). The only way to stay fresh, focused, and successful is to balance passion with pragmatism. Thanks for pointing out that working for free is not just for kids at the dawn of their career, it can offer a creative boost and remind us why we chose our careers.
And yes, programmers have passion, too!

December 05, 2008 10:47 AM  
Blogger Andrew Welsh said...

I'm all for doing free projects a couple times a year for personal growth or unique portfolio food (esp. if you're in a creative rut or your work for 'the man' is pigeonholing your style). However, this has to be balanced carefully. The sports shooter article is a perfect example of desperate amateurs looking for a feeling of relevance, importance and/or acceptance in the professional world.

Let's face it, what drives many photographers are the feelings-- feelings of importance ("I'm important enough to shoot [NFL game, concert, news item] exclusive thing"), relevance / involvement (making the bride's mom cry), pride and being wanted ("someday Vogue will call me up to do a shoot!"). Some 'togs do photography for the technical (typically engineers by day), some do it for their egos-- they see a great photo and think "I can do that too", and a few do it for the "art" or for really recording their impression of a beautiful scene (landscapes primarily). That is often enough of a paycheck, especially for weekend warriors or amateurs. For professionals, freebies should be a 'sometimes' thing.

OT P.S> I disagree with some of your economy assertions.. my credit card works just fine, and no one has reported difficulty getting an auto loan. People are buying houses too (I've had 2 friends buy their first house in the last 2 years), with no more or less difficulty than 15-20 years ago (banks requiring a down payment of 10-20% like they did in the past). We're just subject to swaying from the doomsday reporting... because it's the message that sells the newspapers and gets you to watch their news shows on TV. This is turning out to be more of a self-fulfilling prophecy than based on reality. Layoffs are happening because of anticipated slowing sales, not actual slowing sales...which then causing slowing sales, since those people aren't working! /soapbox

December 05, 2008 10:49 AM  
Anonymous cstephens said...

Great post - as a new part-time photographer (yes, I have the soul-sucking day job), this is really encouraging. This weekend I'm doing a fund-raiser shoot for an animal shelter - Santa pics. Are Santa pics on my list of things I'd love to do - nope - but this is for a good cause and it's a great learning experience for me. I faithfully read your blog, but haven't had many opportunities to work with lighting for clients. This is a real deal - a windowless room w/ overhead fluorescents. So I'm getting to design the "set", if you will, figure out lighting, deal with a bunch of clients, proof my workflow, etc. Even if I don't get a single paying client from this gig, it's education in a big way. But more importantly - if we don't use our God-given gifts and talents to benefit others, what's the point? IMHO, a life lived just for ourselves is not much of a life.

Your post (and the comments) have inspired me to seek out other "projects"!

December 05, 2008 10:50 AM  
Anonymous Arpad said...

I agree that there is a difference between being "hired" to work for free and create projects where you do not charge. For me personally, offering to do a project free allowed me to launch my business professionally and do the work without the anxiety of having to perform or follow other professional's work. Ultimately I could create my own method and style of work and it helped me to define a niche within the competition.

On my blog I posted couple examples and the full story. Maybe you could share it with others.

Thank you for this inspiring post. Apparent from the flood of posts many of us had similar experiences or thoughts. You have so many fresh ideas and a good suggestion of how to approach pro bono work. By giving you receive.


December 05, 2008 11:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i'll admit i haven't read every comment up so sorry if im repeating sombodys comments.

I just want to try and add two caveats:

please "only work for free if there would be no money in it otherwise"

to avoid taking a job from someone else even if you really want it otherwise we are stealing from our own industry not just eachother.


please "don't make a habbit of it"

what i mean by this is if you have a good new idea and want to try it out free is fine, convince a band or whomever to do it with you so long as your working on expanding your capabilities and getting something from it. "good on ya". by all means accept the learning experience as payment. but if every band in the Bronx wants the same stlye shot sans $$$ your bleeping kidding yourself if you do theirs free too. make it into a job or don't do it your not learning and they are using you and ******* the industry, if they can't afford it NOW my sympathies but we all save up for the things that are worth something to us. i think good photos are worth saving for.
i also think a good learning experience is worth paying for with time and effort (if not money)

hope i made a point

hope it's understood

happy shooting


December 05, 2008 11:04 AM  
Blogger Shawn Rundblade said...

I just recently asked a local Congressman if I could do some free potraits. I don't have a lot in my portfolio, and would like to do something like that. I just have to wait for him to get out of session in DC. Then, everything is a GO, they loved the idea.


December 05, 2008 11:09 AM  
Blogger Central Virginia YW said...

Another Idea is to help out a non-profit in your community. Non-Profits are taking a hit; they are loosing money and will be making cuts to staff or services.

Pick a small or medium size non-profit that has a good mission that you like. Talk to their Executive Director or CEO.

Most of you that come from the newspaper background can offer up multimedia services for their website. You can check them out on

All non-profits have board members; this is another way of putting your images and creative ideas in front of community business leaders in town.

I came from the newspaper background working as a photojournalist for 13 years before I left to run a corporate photography and multimedia video studio in town. I have partnered up for the past two years shooting new photography, multimedia and now video content for them.

I was able to set up a deal with them since I approached them first. We now produce all their content pro-bono, and only they, their local chapter can use the content to bring awareness to their mission.

We get credit for our work and keep control of our copyrights.

It is a win, win for everyone.

December 05, 2008 11:10 AM  
Blogger Jason said...

I'm still on the steep part of the learning curve. I approached the local humane society a few weeks ago about animal portraits. I've now done everything from a 'take a picture with Santa and your pet' fundraiser, to animal portraits that have gone into the local paper. I've not been paid a dime, and I've enjoy every second of it. My goal was to take the best portraits possible of these animals, and every time I go in there, I'm seeing my improvements.

December 05, 2008 11:24 AM  
Anonymous Michael Reynolds said...

Thanks for the spine tingling inspiration. I believe all your points apply equally well to the web development world. I'm urging my readers to apply your concepts to our industry as well.

December 05, 2008 11:26 AM  
Blogger bruggles said...


I like your sentiment, but I will have to agree with the folks that say this idea is hurting the photography industry. This is certainly not a black-and-white topic, and there are many angles that people's opinions are coming from. You and Chase, for example, can afford to "give away" some of your work because you are established photographers who make a very good living. Giving away your services to people who could/should otherwise pay for it is definitely devaluing the work. You may not feel this market shift as much as others because of your stature in the industry and the fact that the market won't change overnight. However, there is no doubt in my mind that there will be calls that you will NOT get because someone else is going to do the job for free. You just won't realize it because the person is not going to call you and say "hey, David - I was going to call you for a paid shoot but this other guy is going to do it for free. Sorry!"

I like the idea of limiting this work to charities and other good causes (see what Sandy Puc does with Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep). When you do that, you've drawn a pretty distinct line between what you would offer for free and what you should be paid for. The value is still there. Everyone should know that the service you just gave away to that charity is work a certain amount of money, but you "donated" it. Just as businesses donate cash to the United Way.

As to the many readers that are advocating your ideas, I think that most of them (Which would include me) are amateurs or part-time professionals. And I would bet good money that most will never become full-time professionals, in part because of the proliferation of hobbiests who (a) have good equipment (b) have some skill thanks to blogs like yours, and (c) will work for free. If you look at the Strobist Flickr pool, there are a lot of good photographers out there, many of whom will never make a living from photography because of the way the market has shifted.

Personally, I'm pretty happy just improving as a photographer and taking the best images I can of things that interest me. From that point of view, I think this is a GREAT post. But if I was a professional, I would have a lump in my stomach after reading this. From most of their perspectives, the market is moving in a bad direction fast enough without having fellow professionals helping it out.

December 05, 2008 11:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is the exact same approach that has been used successfully for decades by musicians/bands that are trying to get out from under a day job-sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't-but that never kept us from trying. Good post.

December 05, 2008 11:34 AM  
Blogger StephenElliot said...

Right on! I wrote the following thoughts in my moleskine yesterday after reading some recent posts here.

"The only way I will get out of the rut of shooting the same things I always shoot is to start doing something different as a personal project. ... I need to spend my own time and money to make that happen. Nobody will pay me to shoot something I've never shot before."

Your post, backed by your experience as a professional, completely affirms my thoughts. Many thanks!

December 05, 2008 11:37 AM  
Blogger Josh said...

This is a great idea and one that I am already trying to put into practice. I've recently done PJ work for a few weddings and in order to accelerate my learning curve, I've starting offering portraits to friends and family for special occasions. My cousin got engaged two months ago, they got a full set of engagement photos from me. My friends celebrated their one year anniversary last month, they are getting one year anniversary photos. I took portraits of my sister and nephew as a surprise for her husband for Christmas.

My father works for a non-profit and I've already offered my services should their main photog be unavailable.

More than anything, though, is that your post makes me excited to figure out new ways to offer my services and get my work out there.

December 05, 2008 11:40 AM  
Blogger David said...

WOW. Quite a bit of feedback -- I am under the weather in a hotel room in London and have been reading the comments and pingbacks with interest.

To those who worry this is taking food out of other photographers' mouths (or your own) I would note that the kinds of shoots I am talking about would not have happened but for the photographer's initiative.

I have a couple of On (Self) Assignments coming soon which I hope will add more detail to the thought process.

Pretty sure we are gonna break the comments machine on this, IIRC, it borks when you get to 200 comments. But I am sure the discussion will be ongoing anyway.


December 05, 2008 11:42 AM  
Blogger Jay said...

Very well-written post as always. I have been a free photographer for some time now. There are economic and income issues if I should earn much money at this amateur hobby of mine but I did try for some time. During that time when I was trying to earn income I found myself feeling too much pressure and restraint to pander to what people wanted and were paying me for. It was honestly almost a bit depressing and made me less interested in photography.

As soon as I quit trying to earn money I had offers and requests coming at me from all directions. It has always been my intent to use my abilities to bless others and help those who could use my photographs to benefit the world or their business. Now that I have stopped trying to earn money I have been able to experiment with what I have learned on this site and the freedom is well, freeing. I want to take photographs that will please them and benefit them but, after the boring soft light portraits are finished I am given the opportunity to apply my own style. I will admit that for certain applications they choose the safe, softly lit photos but more often than not the unique shots that stand out from the norm are what gets people talking.
Weeks later I hear back about the positive impact a photo that stood out from the competitors or made someone choose their services over other options.

Reading this post I have thought of three organizations that would greatly benefit from improved portraiture and location photographs on their website. And I plan to contact them to see if they would be interested in having something done in the new year.

Where I struggle is that I have always wanted to take photographs of unique, inanimate things; not particularly people. What has resulted though, is that most people have a far greater use for portraiture. I guess I will need to develop my skills of working with people and keeping them interested while I am snapping away. The primary purpose of my website and my photography was to benefit those in the same position as me with similar disabilities and, aside from adaptive equipment, photographs of people are typically the most useful to others who might benefit from my efforts.

Still, I am pleased to see this post and the way it reinforces the direction I was trying to go and at the same time pushes me away from the desire for money. So often money is the measure of success and I really need to to work on getting my thinking away from that.

December 05, 2008 11:43 AM  
Blogger AaronVan said...

I loved the post and the comments are great! This is something that is always on my mind and as someone working towards going pro it is one of those things I just wish I could sit down and talk to a professional shooter about at length over coffee. This post has given me that opportunity so I thank you deeply for sharing it!

Over the years I have made myself an apprentice to all the professionals who take the time to share their thoughts with the world. And you have no idea how glad I am that there are people willing to put thoughts like this out there for discussion.

I have posted a little something on my Blog about the article in hopes to spread the word and offer a budding professionals perspective on the concept. If you'd like to take a read you will find it at

Thanks again for being that guy and making a difference!

December 05, 2008 11:44 AM  
Anonymous Bruce Philpott said...

Everything I've ever done for money I've done for free (or my cost) first. While working my "day job," to get into free lance graphics I provided a free logo & business stationery (including business card and tri-fold brochure) for start up businesses.

Without being asked, I designed a point of purchase display for a local manufacturer. They said "thanks," but never used it. When it came time for them to release their new product, though, they hired me. I explained that I was building portfolio and would only charge $30/hr but I wanted a huge amount of creative control. The package design I did for that product (TopSaver - was a real asset in my portfolio when I applied for my current job.

December 05, 2008 11:56 AM  
Anonymous Tim said...

This isn't working for free, it's following your passion. In addition, it's marketing and self-promotion. That's something that we all were glad to do while building our college portfolios trying to land that first internship or job. It never ends.

There's also another element to this approach; karma. When you give something back, it always returns to you.

Try it.

December 05, 2008 12:09 PM  
Blogger Alex Araujo said...

Good luck!

December 05, 2008 12:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I started out doing this exact thing. Only after a year do I now have people asking how much I charge. I've gone from portfolio building (free) weddings to $1000 jobs and I'm ready to branch out and do children's photography doing some more portfolio building (free again) shots.

December 05, 2008 12:13 PM  
Blogger D said...

This was a great post David. As a owner of 4 dogs, all from animal shelters; I have often thought about volunteering with my camera to photograph their animals.

Don Giannatti (WizWow on flickr and of gave me a similar idea after attending his workshop last year.

I enjoyed your insight and reasoning in this article; thanks and continue to bring us more!

December 05, 2008 12:15 PM  
Blogger Kathryn Lymburner said...

Thank you David for posting and fleshing out for me what I've been planning on doing for my "personal growth" project for the coming year.

You see, it's my birthday next week, and I had been trying to figure out a way to mark another year. I could do the photo-a-day thing that's been over done to death now, but decided last week that I would do a FREE photoshoot-a-month. With the concept, prepration and what not coming directly from me.

In the last week of thinking about this and planning it amazing things have already happened. Also for FREE.

Got my haircut the other day, and talked about a shoot I was doing last night and another planned for next week, and my stylist and part-owner of the hair studio offered me the hair and makeup expertise of his studio for FREE! I was gobsmacked.

Now I can not only have amazingly lit shoots that stem from my own creativity to fill my portfolio, but I can also have amazingly STYLED shoots to fill my portfolio. Plus my hair stylist can also have some awesome creative shots of their work to help them win MORE national awards. Seems like a win-win all around.

Plus as you said, it helps the 9-5 drudgery go better when you know something amazing is waiting for you at the end of the day.

Thanks again for the encouragement and validation this post gave me.


December 05, 2008 12:20 PM  
Anonymous Ashley said...

I've learned from experience and from other's experience (not to say that experience is always the rule), that sometimes when you give something to someone for free, they value it less than if they had to pay for it themselves. Take for example a class that you might be teaching on studio lighting. Say you open it up as a free class to the first 30 people who sign up. You will definitely get people to sign up, but unless they are 100% interested, they might not show up. If they don't show up, it's not like they lost out on any money. If something more important to them comes up, your class gets bumped off their schedule. Now, lets say you were going to teach a class and you priced it at $100 (making up numbers here), but if they sign up and pay by December 15th, they get $20 off. The people who sign up will be more motivated to attend the class if they have something (in this case their money) tied to it. If they didn't show up, they would have blown $80.

When people find something that they value, they will usually be willing to pay money for it. That's not to say that there aren't people who just simply don't have the funds, but would spend it on your product, services, etc. if they could. But they are generally the exception. I've seen people try model searches where the client gets a free photo session, and either free prints or the photos on CD or whatever, and few if any people take them up on the offer. Usually b/c they do not place any value on what the photographer has to offer. If they did, they probably would have sought out one and payed them to begin with.

There was an article in PPMag a few months ago about a couple who decided to raise their prices on their wedding packages. They were tired of dealing with problem clients who didn't value their portrait time. They increased their prices significantly which attracted a different type of client. If a bride is paying thousands and thousands of dollars for her wedding photos, she's going to make sure the wedding party is cooperating and not hanging out somewhere sippin' on their free beers.

I think the idea in general is great. But I wonder how hard it would be to find quality clients that are going to give you their valuable time AND consider what you are giving them to be valuable too.

December 05, 2008 12:22 PM  
Blogger J.R. said...

I'm in. I say be patient.

I've had the idea to do assignment shoots for nonprofits I beleive in for a while. I posted a craig's list ad offering to shoot free and only got one response that did not fit my purpose (or even repeating here).

Word of mouth came through and I have an assignment (free) for a local food bank I believe in.

I don't know how it will go, but I'm taking off work to go do it.

I call it my karma portfolio.

December 05, 2008 12:26 PM  
Blogger Gregoire said...

I'm an amateur photographer that has been so for over 30 years. At one point I had started as a photojournalism student in college, but didn't get a degree for that.

For the past five years, I've worked with local beginning models or model hopefuls on a TFP/CD (time for prints or CD) basis. In exchange for their time, I provide either some prints or images on a CD for their portfolio. It's a winner for both of us as we both get pictures for our respective portfolios.

Do I take business away from local professionals? Maybe a little, but I also provide referrals to local photographers I know who are equipped to do things I can't (like studio shoots and more elaborate set ups).

I get to do what I love to do, which is shoot pictures, and I think that's important... And maybe it will lead to some paying shoots too!

December 05, 2008 12:36 PM  
Blogger Robert said...

Is there something I'm missing here? Why has so little been said about the stock photo potential in shooting for "free"? Think of the stock possibilities of, say, a model released shot of a chef in his white jacket and white chef's hat! Or of a model released doctor in his scrubs, a car mechanic in his garage, an aspiring model against white seamless. No doubt stock photos have their own stylistic contraints, but they're not nearly as restrictive as assignments. From this perspective, maybe it would be better to think of this as spec work, rather than free work.

December 05, 2008 12:37 PM  
Blogger brian said...

Great post, David, and I think I agree. There is a value to your product, be it money, experience, book-building, karma, warm-fuzzy feelings, etc. I think what you're saying is less about working for free than re-evaluating the value of non-monetary compensation. Very thought provoking.

Brian in LA

December 05, 2008 12:39 PM  
Anonymous Kenneth Jarecke said...

Yep, that's the recipe.

Here's what I'd add to the mix.


December 05, 2008 12:40 PM  
Blogger Shane said...


I'm sure you knew there would be fur flying with this post. I for one, agree with you for the most part. Many moons ago, I had a customer come into my other business (an embroidery shop, I wear a few hats) and we got to talking. She is a very attractive girl, so modeling came up pretty quickly. She said that her mom had hired a photog from out of state to come and take photos for her portfolio. After seeing the shots, I was sure I could do a better job. I offered to take more photos at no charge, for her portfolio, and mine. I really just wanted to see if I could do a better job (relatively speaking of course) with the same model. The next weekend we did the shoot. Two days after, I gave her a DVD with the images. I placed full sized images in one folder, and resized photos, with my watermark on them and asked that anything that was put online retain the watermark. The next day, I got three paid bookings. When I asked how these wonderful paying clients found me... "I saw the photos you took of ______ and I want something very much like them!" Now during any downtime I have, I try to fill it with free portfolio shoots (of course I choose who or what) to a) drum up more business, and b) practice.

Thanks for sharing your brain power... for FREE!

December 05, 2008 12:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Agree with Steve Noreyko. People already don't understand the first thing about copyrights, and giving away your work I can't think would encourage them to think any harder about the value of your intellectual property...

December 05, 2008 12:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you work for free, you're making it even harder for other photographers who NEED to pay bills and make a living. You're destroying the industry and devaluing photography if you shoot for free. There are other options of payment or delaying payment to satisfy a photographers cost of business and the customers needs.

December 05, 2008 12:54 PM  
Blogger MacLeod said...

I'm still hanging on at a newspaper, but decided to shoot artist's stuff for free. Well, for beer anyway. If you want to talk about hurting right now, it's fine artists... Ouch.

December 05, 2008 12:57 PM  
Blogger Aaron said...

In the open source community there's a distinction between two interpretations of the word "free". There's free (as in free speech), and free (as in free beer). The former deals with control, and the latter deals with value.

When you have a creative vision of your own, you can approach someone and offer to turn it into reality for "free". This is the "free speech" type of freedom, since you're establishing as much control as you can by eliminating money and giving the client a product they could not have afforded anyway. The question of value doesn't apply, since you've already established the value-point of what this shoot will mean to your portfolio. The client can't change that.

Now when that client comes back to you and says "Hey, can you do X? Oh, and for free since, y'know, you did that the last time!", then that's free as in "free beer", since they're arbitrarily assigning a value (zero) to your work, whether it's creatively meaningful to you or not.

The article makes a great point that we as photographers can turn "free" (as in beer), to "free" (as in speech) when we assume the responsibility for making sure we have that clarity of creative vision before offering our services for zero cost.

December 05, 2008 1:04 PM  
Anonymous Amanda Koster said...

GREAT post!!! Thank you! It got me thinking. I have created a career that allows me to stay in photography where I do 'commercial' work and ‘free’ work. Though I see all of it it as 'my work.' I have been able to sell my ‘free' work as framed prints, raise $ to go on trips, have exhibitions, get paid to speak, publish books, sell stock images from my 'free' projects... etc. There is more than one way to get paid than: ‘Give me a check and I’ll move/work (go do something).’

Though- unfortunately many people aren't free of that structure, that way of thinking. And, the irony is that most wealthy people + most super successful creative types create their jobs/work/career, vs. apply for one.

I think seeing it as ‘free’ is limiting. If one truly believes in themselves, their work, and vision, they will be ‘compensated’ though most can’t get out of this ‘for free or for money’ mind set.

Either/or is not the way I choose to see it. There is a or b, and then there is c through z, and beyond.

December 05, 2008 1:07 PM  
Blogger Quin said...

I don't get it.

Okay, I do get the working for free part. Put together a project that you want to shoot, and go for it.

What I don't get is why this is a bad thing.

I'm a computer programmer by day, photography is a hobby. When I'm working, I'm writing code. It gets the bills paid, and it's fun. When I get home and don't feel like going out with a camera, I write more code. Not stuff for work, but projects that I love. Projects that I feel need to get done, talked about, and then put away till someone wants them. If someone wants to use one of the projects that I built for free, then the discussion can start about how much it will cost. Some are free, GPL/BSD, others I expect to be paid for. It works out nicely.

So, I don't get why this is a tough concept. You have some free time, you love photography, and you have a project in mind that may take a little investment to make work. Why is it hard to say 'Go do it'? Chances are, it's a project that no one is going to approach you with an offer to do.

December 05, 2008 1:08 PM  
Blogger Jon said...

David, I couldn't agree with you more. In fact, this is what I've been doing for the last 3 months to get my photography business of the ground. It's been surprisingly successful and the "free" work has actually resulted in some cash and excellent contacts!

I posted about this on my blog this morning, and my entire blog right now is a collection of the "free" work I've been doing:

Thanks for the work you do here. I would have eventually figured all this stuff out, but you seriously saved me years of time.

December 05, 2008 1:09 PM  
Blogger mikedhoward said...

Dave - you've just hit so many nails on the head I don't know where to begin. I've been struggling with many of the challenges you bring up and am elated to find a possible solution to so many of them (if not all!) My mind is running at 100mph with ideas. Thanks!!

December 05, 2008 1:19 PM  
Blogger mikenfer said...

Makes total sense to me. I've been doing this (and free design work) on a volunteer basis for over a year. It's quite gratifying and does open you to more risk and more ideas.

December 05, 2008 1:29 PM  
Blogger Better Husband, Better Dad said...

I wanted to comment on the sports shooter forum, but you have to pay for the privilege, which may color their ideas - here is my original post for that - I hope it still makes sense here. I loved this post. AND what difuntorum says, as that is exactly my case as well. Unemployed Graphics guy, photographer on the side (and getting paid to do that as well), taking care of the kids while wife works. a Fabulous book by W. Dale Cramer called Summer of Light is about this very same thing.

I think that MOST people {on the Shooter Forum} seemed to be looking through a clouded lens at this article. If you think that what Mr. Hobby is saying is "give away your income", you are not thinking this through. What he is saying is "give away your time".

I wonder about the artist in each of the people who disparage this idea. Have you become so jaded by money that you can't see the benefit of offering your time and experience (even some of your product?) free of charge? Can you not see the benefit, if not directly to your bottom line, to your artistic eye?

What is important here is building your project, but maybe using (exploiting?) another model/venue that could also see some benefit. This is NOT taking out a craigslist ad and stating "Will Work For Free - Call Me About Your Project!!" It would be akin to crafting in your head an editorial piece, or a series of them, and then approaching those places that you see benefitting them, as David does with his illustration of the Foodie blog. Then extrapolating that project into something else, and then into something else. The key is, it is your project, YOU are the creative force behind it, AND YOU are the main beneficiary, be it just by thinking through a new lighting scheme for a series of portraits, OR by thinking about how to do a set piece for something more difficult than you have done before. Win Win. Maybe this is where David has the idea part - He has been given this type of thing as an assignment for 20 years, Maybe that much time in the arena has given him ideas about what he wants to shoot, too. This is where I am finding myself a bit limited. I don't know that I have the vision necessary to offer my time and experience for free."

When he says give away usage, he also limits it in this way - not for third parties. Now it seems more like TFP to me. However, you can give away what you feel good about giving away.

I am okay with giving away my time and my experience, especially if I get better as a photographer. Is that the point behind most of the negative posts? All of you don't need to learn anything new? What is it that you want to shoot that you never have? Wait, that isn't quite right. HOW is it that you want to shoot but have never been hired to? Make the offer, (THAT IS THE KEY - YOU ARE THEN IN CONTROL!) then shoot the shot.

Good post, David. Thanks. Now, can you help with the vision part?

(by the way, I haven't blogged in a long while - maybe I should update that?)

December 05, 2008 1:44 PM  
Anonymous Scott Fischbein - Sacramento Wedding Photographer said...

What a fascinating post and discussion!

I spent the other night sitting around with my good pal Ron Nabity (who I met because of Strobist, when we started organizing the Sacramento Strobist meetups a couple of years ago). We were brainstorming projects that we could team up on that would serve to expand our artistic horizons, build experience and portfolios and, ideally, do some good. So this is a very timely post. Ron and I are both working professional photographers, but we don't always get paid to shoot what we want, so we're all for going out and making opportunities. If someone else besides us can benefit from those opportunities, all the better.

Thanks a lot for bringing some clarity to this idea.

December 05, 2008 1:52 PM  
Anonymous Adam Wisneski said...

I'm not sure I agree completely. I believe in your principles, David, but I have a hard time condoning shooting for free when all that I learned so far about the industry says "Shooting for free is killing your future."

I read this post from a successful commercial photographer friend of mine in Portland, OR that talks about this idea. I'd be interested in hearing what people have to say about it, or what you think about it, David.



December 05, 2008 1:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This has been discussed before and it isn't as easy as many think, and I have to disagree with you, in times of economic crisis what you need to do is to push your marketing harder and re-evaluate your pricing, but giving your work for free? nop...

It is sad that people think their time isn't worth a dime, and think that they will be called with the premise of "do this one free and the next one will be paid"... yeah right, I recommend you don't wait the call to much. Yes there will be chances of getting a paid job from a free gig, but what are you offering as an advice to recognize crooks from people wanting to give you exposure from real? sorry but this post is like a blanket statement on your part.

If you want to go pro, you have to learn how to market yourself, how to present your work and get clients, getting free gigs for much is the "easy" way but once word has spread that you work for free believe me, you will have a hard time getting paid gigs, I have met lot of people who started like that and never received anything that seemed a paid gig in years.

In this time of crisis you could DONATE your time to a charitable NGO, it would be 10x beneficial for your portfolio and to a cause you believe in be it the red cross, the salvation army, the peace corps, habitat for humanity, your church recollecting food and clothes for poor people... etc. The key is that you TRADE your work.

December 05, 2008 1:56 PM  
Blogger Jamie M. said...

Come to think of it, my unpaid work has reaped much more benefit and joy than my paid work ... Thank you for posting this, it's incredibly motivating!

December 05, 2008 2:02 PM  
Anonymous Mike in Venice, CA said...

Wow, so many comments, I read a lot of them but not all, sorry. All the ones that I read were positive though and that makes me feel really good, that there are people other there who are doing this for the love and not the money.

Great, thought provoking post David, you can expect a similar blog entry and trackback from my blog. :)

December 05, 2008 2:03 PM  
Blogger Sean said...

I put my full thoughts in a blog entry but here's my basic idea:

David has a great idea (do personal projects if you can't bill for them) but that only works if the opportunity cost of doing a side project isn't too great. In other words, if the economics work out, why not do speculative free projects in the hope it gives you something later on?

As an amateur, I see why pros are railing against these types of ideas, but it is silly. Pros need to focus on adapting, not getting mad at us amateurs. The photography business is evolving and it isn't the fault of the amateurs or the recession.

December 05, 2008 2:12 PM  
Anonymous Sean Fenzl said...

Nothing is FREE.

If I choose to shoot a creative portrait for "Free" it is actually at *my* expense. (time/gear/travel/etc.)

I like taking this perspective, that it is at my expense, therefore I am 'investing' in my portfolio.

The economy this and the economy that, it is only 20 days until Christmas.. and it's a great time to be giving.

December 05, 2008 2:15 PM  
Anonymous adam elmakias said...

Good point dave. Good point.

December 05, 2008 2:16 PM  
Blogger MG said...

Very interesting post which I have linked from my own blog (couldn't find the "linkback" on your page, so am just posting this here)

December 05, 2008 2:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Isn't this just TFP/CD?

December 05, 2008 2:20 PM  
Anonymous Damon said...

With so many posts warning against "shooting for a Fortune500 company for free," you need to re-read the post. This is about shooting for yourself-- to get access, for fun, for charity, experience, etc.

Then there's the question, "what does more damage, shooting for free or charging to do work you've never done before?" On-the-job-training at pro rates is unacceptable in my book.

Finally, there's the vast majority of people who could be educated on what good photography looks like. Giving photos to these people to use on their blog or an advertisement adds value to our work. Next time they need photos done, they will have your benchmark photos against which to measure the talent of a good photographer as opposed to Uncle Bob.

December 05, 2008 2:27 PM  
Blogger Chase Jarvis said...

Fun and spirited discussion. But what's funny is that my blog post from last night is not making any "big" claims. Every single photographer in the world has worked for free before, at some point, without exception. Period. Most pros understand this (they've had to make a living and only free doesn't do that...). Some readers get it too (although a good chunk of the discussion online today misses the point). The simple concept really hinges on the word "work". For example one could think of it in terms of "personal work" or "giving back" or "hunting for something interesting". Do those labels change reality or simply perception? Sure prudence here is prudent, of course. Underscore that. I know the value of my work and can navigate those waters comfortably. So can lots of people. It's been happening since the beginning of photography, since the beginning of business, and the beginning of time. My pal Vince's movie Reverie is a great example and there's thousands of other examples just like it.

I'm interested in fueling the discussion in part as an awareness builder and as someone who's trying to call it what it is: nothing new. Certainly interesting, but nothing new. And my blog post yesterday was aimed at punctuating that, albeit more publicly, from the perspective of a busy pro as differentiated from an aspiring strobist, a struggling pro, a college student, or anyone else.

More than anything its cool that we can share in this discussion in real-time from around the world.

No need for hackle raising, this is not overly complex stuff. If we don't have the discussion, and let photographers of all levels of experience learn and think about what such work can and cannot accomplish, then how will things ever be better understood?

December 05, 2008 2:29 PM  
Anonymous pthomaslambert said...

To one degree or another, we at one time or other can call our self Starving Artists.
But every time we pick up the Camera and Click the shutter, It will end up costing us something. As I said in my own blog Post, Nothing is Free. For it to be Free, it will
cost something.

December 05, 2008 2:36 PM  
Anonymous Derek Horton said...

wow! great post, its cool to see so many people here agree. Im far from anything professional, ive only been seriously taking pictures since august but i recently decided to try this out. ive been practicing the strobist thing for about a month, just shooting things in my dorm room, maybe my girlfriend if she let me haha, but i wanted to get out there and try something else. i have a few friends who are in bands so i thought itd be cool to shoot them. i messaged them and asked if itd be cool, i said i couldnt charge them, i just want experience. so i did my first impromptu band shoot when i went to one of thier practices, it was a blast, i didnt know exaclty what i was doing but i just had fun, grooved to the music and took some photos, which ended up coming out pretty good, the band was happy, i was happy, they got photos they despiratley needed, i got some cool photos under my belt and maybe an outlet to get my name out there. its a win win, they liked them so much they asked me to do thier album work too. now peronally i dont think im close to qualified haha or experienced enough, but i think itd be awesome to jump into a hole and dig myself out of, learn as a photographer and have a band to add to my portfolio and generate interest in my work

December 05, 2008 2:41 PM  
Blogger TBG said...

This is a brilliant idea if you stress a few points:

you do something you want to do, and not "working for free" for someone who is unwilling to pay a photographer his rate

keeping it local and homegrown

all the better if your photo can help a charity or someone in need

i would like to see a post about giving yourself a mission statement too.

working for free to build your port the way you want to is essentially how i began. i even paid models for their time so i could do it my way 100%.

December 05, 2008 2:42 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

The Artist Way.

Really, isn't that what this is. A photographer seeking their own path in photography. Wouldn't this be the difference between an artist and a professional. A one does what he/she wants and one is controlled by the client.

Maybe artist is a bad word for photographers. Maybe it should be called photographer's personal project.

I think "work for free" is shock value, Mr. Strobist. As working for free is the wrong way to sell this. As you stated that you don't want companies telling to shoot stuff for them for free.

I would also say that to do this type of work, you need an end goal. As you say, add these images to your portfolio. That is a goal. Why not make a community book out of all the shots you take and stories you here. Why not make each shoot an entry in your blog. If you don't have an end goal. The photos will never have use. The work ethic will disappear.

I always saw this as the artist way. As the artist will do and create what they want. As more people see their work, some will want to buy it, some will something created for them. Then you have to walk the line as do I create something I have done before or do I create something new.

December 05, 2008 2:42 PM  
Blogger Michelle said...

I know that this comment won't get read by anyone other than you, David, (who's going to go through 160 of them!) but here is my ten cents...

Payment can come in things other than hard cash. At some times in my life, "favours," that I've sown have literally put food in my mouth when I later haven't had the cash to pay for it.

Next Tuesday, I'll be doing some shots for a Union colleague. As it happens, I was told this week that my own job might be at risk ... I can think of no one else I'd rather have in my corner than him.

Some time early next year I'll be shooting someones portrait to be used in their portfolio to go to agents. I know the family has trouble making ends meet and couldn't afford a studio shoot, so I'll take my portable studio to them ... if I can shoot her the portfolio that helps to launch her, and her fortunes turn the families fortunes around, I know I won't be forgotten.

If a neighbour pops in and has run out of sugar, who am I to deny their empty bowl? I might run out of milk tomorrow.

December 05, 2008 2:47 PM  
Anonymous Ken Cavanagh said...

We often get hung up on the word "free" as it pertains to working. But there is a small percentage of photographers getting paid to shoot what they enjoy most.

This approach gives you the opportunity to get the images in your book that you want to be shooting. You get what you show as they say.

As mentioned...other ideas and approaches to working for free is offering your skills or giving back to organizations you care about. Here are just a few organizations that are always in need of talent...writers, designers, photographers etc:

I recently worked with Taproot. I shot an annual report for a non-profit women’s shelter. Work I would like to get, but don’t have in my book. And I didn’t take the job from anyone else...their reports in the past were all done in house with staff photos. They received a grant from Taproot to produce the report...all pro-bono.

December 05, 2008 2:48 PM  
Blogger i.n.galbraith said...

i've been working for David Tejada for free for a little over a year now. it's the best decision i could have made as my photography has improved leaps and bounds over the last 13 months as well as allowing me to come into my own as a photographer from a viewpoint perspective. i recommend to anyone, leave below your means, be a sponge, and learn. it's a craft and the only way to truly hone your skills is to be on the job...and working for free with a servants spirits is one way to open doors.

December 05, 2008 2:48 PM  
Blogger Rafael said...

definately changed my mind
got some ideas already poppin through my head

December 05, 2008 3:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Skills are the driving force behind the economy... NOT MONEY...

December 05, 2008 3:09 PM  
Blogger Scott D. Coulter said...

Right on the heels of your post, here's a real-life experience reported on another blog I read:

He set off to do a "free" gig and had booked three paying jobs before the free one was even finished!

December 05, 2008 3:18 PM  
Blogger Eric said...

I agree 100% ... although I do shoot for the local newspaper occasionally my primary focus and love is Motorsports. The past 4 racing seasons I have shot for several drivers and race teams and my work has been used in South Africa and Chile (press). I also shoot for several drivers websites and do most of it for free so to speak. I get credentials for all of the races and occasionally a team will pick up my hotel for the weekend. I arrived at a track this past season and a PR rep for a driver grabbed me and said, "We want to hire you for the weekend"

I shot for them which I was paid for and then ended up Printing the Drivers Hero Cards for autograph sessions so I did make some money.

I figure anytime I have the camera in my hand there is a potential for business.

BTW, just got an email from an aspiring model as I was typing this and wanted to know if I would do a TFCD shoot for her .... OF COURSE I WILL, never know where it might lead.

December 05, 2008 3:18 PM  
Blogger Jennifer Fink, CPP said...

Just as you said, your article got me to thinking. I am a full time profession portrait photographer and after 6 months of more sessions and higher sales BAM, the financial crisis made my phone stop ringing.

Things have been better in the last 3 weeks, but I'd love to find ways of doing more of what I like and want while providing something of value to those who need it.

As soon as my head cold goes away, I'll probably have more ideas than I know what to do with.

Thanks for the inspiration!


December 05, 2008 3:22 PM  
Anonymous Stephen Power said...

You might want to check out my own report on working for free - something that I did this week, with great results.

December 05, 2008 3:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What an excellent and timely post!

I've donated my photography to various high profile charity events for the past two decades.

Yesterday I posted on our local Craig's List:

$1 Commercial Photography - 1 per month for 2009 (Butte County Only)

December 05, 2008 3:23 PM  
Blogger Hannah said...

I've been dealing with the issue of fewer bookings, so I definitely have had more time in the work week. We've talked a little about some self-commissioning for competition prints, but I especially like the ideas you've brought up about alleviating others' experiences of the bad economy by letting them share the talent and services of professionals as we have time. I understand that there may (or may not) be a danger of lowering our own value as photographers (and hopefully other professionals) donate time and talent, but I'm not sure how to view that. I'm sure that having a vision for a great photograph that happens to help out someone else is cool, and I want to do it. Whether it'll affect everyone's rates is almost secondary to me ... for that matter, if many industry professionals adopted a similar ethic in hard times (at a minimum), then we certainly couldn't all lower in value - if everything lowers in value, then we've just reduced inflation... :)

December 05, 2008 3:26 PM  
Anonymous Enio Tavares said...

I David,
it was a very interesting post for me because I just gone through this last month. I’ve spent some time shooting images that I would like to be hired for. All images in this portfolio: was made for free, I didn’t pay a single buck (to be honest, I had to pay a snack for one of them, not joking). In exchange I gave the models and athletes a CD with the images from the shoots.
I live in Goiania, in the middle of Brazil, great city but a really small market. Until now, I’ve been shooting jobs of all kinds but decided to go to the sports territory. FYI, I haven’t done a single sport photo for a client yet.
But because of this initiative, I’ve scheduled some appointments next week with art buyers from major agencies, with sports clients, in my country (they are all located in Sao Paulo, the biggest brazillian city).
I’m not sure the photos will be good enough for the art buyers, but at least is a beginning in the right direction.
At least I hope so.
Any comments, please, reach me at:
Best regards,
Enio Tavares.

December 05, 2008 3:38 PM  
Anonymous Franz said...

I have always done free design work, especially for friends or projects I believe in. Free gigs ALWAYS pay me back because of referrals or visibility (If I do a good job, of course. I never even have to ask for referrals. They just come.

Even right now, I'm overwhelmed with paying projects but I still do free work.It's just so much more fun when you call the shots.

I'm just beginning to take photography more seriously and try to talk anybody into letting me take their picture. Now I get asked to take pictures for pay all time, which I mostly turn down because of lack of experience/equipment. But wait until I get a camera that doesn't shut down all the time!!

December 05, 2008 3:56 PM  
Blogger Brian Kolstad said...

I'm a part time (very part time) freelance photographer. My wife works at the local newspaper, and they occasionally ask me to shoot an event when the full time photogs are busy. With the most recent round of layoffs at the paper - I've decided to cover these events for free (when my schedule allows). I enjoy the opportunity more than I do the potential compensation, and it feels good known that I'm helping out.
Thanks for the great ideas!

December 05, 2008 3:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Back in the day it certainly wasn't unheard of--if not common--for professionals to have, in addition to their Commercial work to pay the bills, Personal work to test new ideas and build their skills. My hunch is those are the photographers who have become today's big-name pros. Your idea of doing a little pro bono work seems even better, since it will actually get used and be seen. And especially in this post- film-and-processing era, when your variable costs are next to non-existant, why not do it?

December 05, 2008 4:02 PM  
Anonymous Bill Wadman said...

Nicely put.

This is precisely why I did last year.

I met and shot people I would never have had the chance to otherwise.

December 05, 2008 4:05 PM  
Blogger You TOOL said...


I'm truly amazed that so many are willing to work for free.

No wonder so many people treat photographers like we're clowns. Doing a pro-bono gig here or there is fine; but just water down the business more why don't you.

It's funny that the majority of the folks who want to do free work are those that are part-time freelancers who have jobs and benefits and/or are stay-at-homers that enjoy their partner's salary and benefits. And I truly love the brazen "has your soul been ruined by money" lines that these very people brush around to make us commercial photographers "feel like we owe it to the profession" to do free work.

Easy for you to say when you need to go to the doctor and the insurance takes care of the bill.

What about the fill-time photographer who has a mortgage payment, car payment, and is single that has to pay for all the benefits, save for a retirement account, and stash some emergency money? What do you profess we do? Let me free work or leave the business.

The business climate is not great but for goodness sake let's not give away the ship.

December 05, 2008 4:07 PM  
Blogger Rene said...

Wow! Great blog post Dave. Thanks for taking the time to write it. My wheels are spinning.

December 05, 2008 4:21 PM  
Blogger steveremich said...

Do you really have to inspire your legions of readers to pee in my Corn Flakes if I choose not to?

Encourage people to take on a personal project in order to expand their creativity, portfolio and marketability, sure, definitely, but the way you brought up this idea...your message will be missed.

I am a photo student and we get the "this would be a great experience for you and will help you build your portfolio...and we will even...(just wait for it)...give you a photo credit," offers all the time. We get them from people who can and should pay, but someone usually takes it for free.

Why wouldn't people/companies/any potential client ask for it for free if they think they can. It's basic economics. Intellectual property rights/copyrights/markets/etc. have to be fought for and protected. They don't just happen.

I would like to work and pay the bills as a photographer, not just glow. Do you have to go out of your way in such a popular forum to make my basic survival that much more difficult than it is already going to be?

Please inspire people to push their creative limits, but you really could have approached that idea in a less destructive manner without emphasizing the "Work For Free" aspect that often entails. (I believe) the crucial caveats of not doing free work regularly will be ignored or misunderstood.

December 05, 2008 4:24 PM  
Anonymous Martin Kimeldorf said...

This is God damn insightful.!!!

I used to write books about job finding. And in tough times (30s, 80s, and today-tomorrow) an old trick was to walk up to an employer you wanted to work at and say, let me work a few days a week to get experience and show you what I got. No obligation and it will be good for me...and you" Even when they say they are not hiring, people got their foot in the door. And the link between volunteering and getting hired is well documented.

On the grander level, no one ever cheapened their talent nor their reputation by being generous.

You've laid out a very good case, covered all the points about creating opportunities to shoot the kind of images or "stories" you want to do, to grow into, to gain experience about. Hell, this will work for us amateurs very nicely..and if I were a Pro, I adopt this immediately.

Nope, sorry, can't disagree. This is freaking brilliant. But I've always thought David Hobby to be a tad bit of a teacher-genius. I'm glad to see this concept has crossed-over from job hunting to photo-opportunity hunting.

(written in heat of the moment...please excuse writing errors)

December 05, 2008 4:42 PM  
Blogger Matthew Walton said...

This idea is the backbone of innovation that has been with us for centuries. It is how we push ourselves into efforts and arenas that would normally be unattainable.

If I understand correctly, David is not urging us to steal a job from a professional by offering free services to those looking for a professional photographer. On the contrary, he is saying - initiate projects without the specific goal of getting paid, but with the goal of growth as a photographer. These projects would not exist without the initiation.

I am looking into offering photography to a local catering service. They do not have a lot of money as this is not their full time job. I have been wanting to "experiment" with food photography even in a casual way, but I'm not skilled in the kitchen enough to produce photo-worthy food. So...I approach them with this idea - if they agree, then they get pictures to use for their benefit and I get experience and possibly portfolio pictures that could allow me to take a PAID job in the future.

It is simple and effective - a win-win - and a great way to try to something new.

Thanks David,

Matthew Walton

December 05, 2008 4:46 PM  
Blogger The Guy Behind the Lens said...

I couldn't agree more but I took the approach of offering services to non profits for their use. I am now setting up some unique strobist shots of peoples pets and Santa Paws at Petsmart for a local animal rights group. Hey, I look at it this way, I have access to businesses that may need my services, I get to play with the setting as I want it lit and set up and if I can help bring awareness to a good cause, all the better.

December 05, 2008 5:15 PM  
OpenID sergiokanazawa said...

About 2 years ago I was earning quite a lot of money by doing some boring tabletop photography, but then, that one client moved to another city...nowadays I´m broke, but couldn´t be happier, photographically speaking...

December 05, 2008 5:16 PM  
Blogger mposeyphoto said...

Thank You! I already have in my head what I want to do: Portraiture and documentary photos for a local organization that has helped me beyond what I could ever pay for. I believe in their cause and oh, by the way, I stand to get some killer photos out of the deal. There's no way this group could ever afford to hire a pro to do all this work, and if they had all that money, I would want them to start thinking about new facilities or something.

But there are so many people out there berating those who shoot for free.

The best photos I ever took -- everyone tells me this -- were when I went to Uganda and photographed for small NGOs (and one larger one), for free. I did get a small payment for photos that ran in the newspaper; I was able to write off one my taxes a trip that I always wanted to take, and the photos still wow people when they look at my portfolio.

December 05, 2008 5:31 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

If we don't feel free to indulge our passions once and a while, isn't it just another "soul sucking day job"?

December 05, 2008 5:58 PM  
Anonymous Waldo said...

Let's see what 200 comments do ;)

I see mostly positive comments here. For those few that think this is a bad or not "good" idea, think of it as free advertising. I run a business, just like you professional photographers. NOTE: I'm not a pro photographer, that's not my business, and no, my business isn't advertising or marketing, I own a successful, even in this economy retail shop.

In a down economy you need to advertise more than ever, as much as you can afford. If you can't afford much advertising, then you need to do as much free or cheap advertising as you can. Don't worry about professionalism too much. For a retail shop like mine that means me or someone (nephew or someone else who's cheap) standing on the street corner with a sign trying to get people to notice you. It also means giving a way free samples of products as much as you can. Talking to people on the street, etc.

For a photographer, and if I was a pro, what David describes is exactly what I'd be doing. Go to a local park with some friends or family and make some photos, make a big scene out of it, get people looking at you. Volunteer your time for some event, charity, animal shelter, etc. Go to your local farmer's market and offer your services, for free, to some vendor to photograph their products.

Hit a dog park and setup shop once or twice a month and take free photos.

Hit your local, historic, downtown area and offer your services to some LOCAL businesses. Let them offer their customers free photos, hair salons, dog groomer, nail salon, tanning salon, etc. Print out some 16x20 prints made and hang them on the walls of those businesses. Let those businesses use your work on their site and in their advertising. More people will see your work, you're helping out LOCAL businesses and both of you will benefit.


Free advertising only costs you your time, or in my case of our retail shop, my time and some inexpensive product sometimes, though it's usually samples or free stuff from our distributors or vendors.

December 05, 2008 6:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

WOW! What a lot of feedback. I don't know if my comment will even be noticed!

During a recession a number of years ago, my wife (also a photographer) and I tried exactly this idea, but with a twist. We contacted only art directors who wanted to design their own portrait and encouraged experimental ideas.

Got very little response. I guess the shoemakers didn't want to make their own shoes.

-Fil Hunter

December 05, 2008 6:27 PM  

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