Starting Out – Should You Work For Free?

This page is a collection of my thoughts on the idea of ‘Working for free’ to become established as a photographer, film cameraman or a writer. The two articles below are actually blog posts dating back to 2008 and yet today, they are just as relevant as ever. Each week, I’m either contacted by email or I meet on location young, talented, ambitious, creative people trying to become established. The subject of being asked by people or other businesses to work for free to gain experience, but with the promise of future riches, is often discussed.

These two articles below will hopefully inspire people to give thought to the issue and finding a balance between being taken advantage of and finding a middle ground that works for everyone. Even after fourteen years as a professional photographer, writer and digital marketing, I’m still sometimes asked to work for no fee. Will I do it? Yes, sometimes I still do, but read these articles below for my own views on the subject.

2008 Blog post on Working For Free

Originally written in December 2008

This month on various photographer’s blogs, there’s been a huge stirring of keyboard activity over the posting on the popular Strobist blog about working for free. I’ve had a very busy December with several short notice projects to tackle as well as trying to plan January, so it’s only now that I’m sitting reading the comments and catching up. So do I ever work for free?

Sure I do. I have in the past and I doubtless will in the future But Vincent Laforet’s posting on his blog probably mirrors the views I hold. I’m very much against working for free, both myself and people who work with and alongside me.

There is value in what’s being said on Strobist, but there is a very important disctinction to make. Are you working for free ‘just to get the job’ in the hope of food later, or is there REALLY NO BUDGET, due to the economic realities or simply the circumstances of the people involved in the project?

There are times when the job just has to be done, because you can see the future income, either in raising your profile, adding to your book or in terms of hard cash. In which case, it’s an investment that may well pay off. The trick, as Chase Jarvis says, is in negotiating that income at the relevant time and ensuring the project pays off for you. Vincent suggests doing such projects no more than once per year and he’s probably right, even if sometimes it can be hard to say no. He’s enjoyed a massive increase in his profile over the last few months due to his involvement with the Canon 5D Mk2 launch. He funded the shoot of Reverie himself initially, but the commercial rewards are now flowing in.

Sadly, it takes experience to judge these things and it’s something many photographers sadly lack, in my view often due to a lack of experience in the non-photographic business world and also not realising the commercial value of their own work. If I have time in January, I’ll post an example of projects I’ve been involved in where ‘working for free’ was the only option and how I made it work for me.

2009 Follow Up Blog Post on the Subject

Originally written in January 2009

In December, I wrote about Strobist’s blog entry on working for free and the flurry of comments it created. At the time, I said that I’d find the time in January to write about a time when working for free has worked out for me, so here’s one…. Back in February 2004, when my pro-photo career was still young, I had a call from a race instructor pal of mine who was working in Norway, telling me all about driving on frozen lakes and the great time he was having in the unique environment. The business owner at the time was looking for some photography, but the usual ‘no budget, hoping to get something for free’ mentality was prevailing. He would pay for my travel and accommodation, but no chance of wages, he’d just continue to struggle on with the shots he had. “You’ve got to get yourself here, mate”, says Andy on the ‘phone, “You’ll love it.”

He was right, I would love it. I’m lucky enough to make a living doing something I enjoy, but that doesn’t mean I have no bills to pay and ultimately, that’s what it’s about. Time for a checklist:

  1. Is there really no budget? No. It’s a brand new business and as usual, the owners didn’t consider the value of photography in their plans
  2. Is it a teriffic assignment that could be a career builder? Quite possibly. Back then, the work was appearing for me, but there were several magazines that I thought might just run with the story, but would not pay for the cost of sending someone specifically.
  3. What rights would they need? They were happy with rights to use in connection with promoting the business. No other uses, editorial, commercial etc were needed.
  4. Any other reasons it needs to be done? My gut feeling. I’ve learned to trust it over the years in my working life and I’ve always regretted when I’ve ignored it, or been overruled by others.

A discussion about what was needed by both parties followed, together with a bit of education on rights management and we had a deal.

OK, We’re on. One VERY rough North Sea ferry ride later, I’m driving on the narrow roads of Norway, heading for the venue. The following days we shot all day long, as I tried to cover everything I could think of. I’d never used my Canon 1DS in such a cold climate, but it never missed a beat as I hiked out into the middle of a frozen lake in -20C plus wind chill to shoot cars blasting by a few feet away.

At the end of it, I was pretty much exhausted and thankfully the ferry ride home was as smooth as the back seat of a Lexus.

So did it work for me? You tell me.

  • The story ran in two different magazines – a motorsport mag and a men’s lifestyle publication.
  • While I was there, two of the rally car owners gave me their contact details to discuss work. One placed a VERY large order for prints and canvas wraps for their workshop and office reception areas. The other commissioned me to help with his marketing materials that year.
  • Around two weeks after I returned, the business owner called to ask if I’d shot any video. I had shot literally just half a DV tape, as I’d thrown my camcorder in my bag as an afterthought. Two days later, I had a large Jiffy bag full of other peoples tapes and the job of editing it all down to a couple of promotional videos, for which they paid.
  • Two years later, my mate, Andy, decided to set up a bigger and better operation using a venue in Sweden. I’ve been working with him in Sweden each year since, shooting photography and working with guests and it’s getting ready for another season right now.

So yes, working for free worked for me that time because of several things:

  • I retained the rights to the work
  • I could see another market that would pay to use the material and sold the rights they needed for their uses
  • My picture library holds the images and we get regular requests for pictures of motorsport cars in winter environments
  • It was a portfolio / career builder and enhanced my reputation as someone who doesn’t just wait for the ‘phone to ring, but finds interesting stories and opened the door to several new clients, both commercial and editorial.

It was a win/win situation for all concerned. The winter rally school owner got a one-off deal to use the work to enhance his business. I retained the rights to uses he would never need and made my income that way.

And finally, I’m a big believer in the saying, “You can never tell who you’re going to meet next”. But that’s the subject for another post.