• © Lori Cicchini. Cover shot for Surreal Beauty magazine, 2016. Model : Ilana Davies. Makeup: Liz Bomben.
    © Lori Cicchini. Cover shot for Surreal Beauty magazine, 2016. Model : Ilana Davies. Makeup: Liz Bomben.

Love or money. Should you ever shoot for free?

A lot of people work for free. For all sorts of reasons. People who take work home, creatives who scale down their billable hours on a job, businesses that do two-for-one promotional offers, any business that does a free sample offer, all work for free. Of course, there’s a psychological difference between giving something away that you’ve planned/budgeted for, and being asked, point-blank, to work for free. Candide McDonald investigates.

Why would you work for free? It’s very common to be urged to work for free “for the exposure”. There are two parts to this. There’s goodwill – exposure within a business. I have a very long-term client who has asked me twice in a decade to do a major job for free “as a favour”. She pays me exceptionally well, tells people far and wide how great I am, refers me to people who need writers, and we put up with each other – no one is always wonderful to work with. Being asked sent a prickle up my spine both times, but I was more or less happy to oblige. She had earned it, and I knew she would “pay me back”. If she was client who didn’t pay me very well, didn’t give me regular work, didn’t promote me and refer me, and if she gave me grief on jobs that cost me money, I’d say no. Or, more likely and more reasonably, I’d negotiate. Business relationships are all – and always – about give and take. She may well have expected me to do so.

© Keren Dobia. The Permacuturalist. Portrait of Taj Scicluna in her garden, Silvan, Victoria.
© Keren Dobia. The Permacuturalist. Portrait of Taj Scicluna in her garden, Silvan, Victoria.

The second part of exposure is getting your work seen – exposing your work to all the potential clients “out there”. This is a personal call. Maybe you don’t need it. On the other hand, if it’s a really great job, you might consider it. Once. No one wants to be known as the photographer who’ll work for peanuts, or free. That devalues your work. If it’s a first-time client, you might not consider it. That client hasn’t earned it and may not pay back. A relationship based on you being generous and your client being stingy isn’t a good relationship to have.

It’s not uncommon for photographers – for any creative, in fact – to work for free to get a foothold in the industry, break into a new genre, or refresh their portfolio. It’s an advertising campaign with your work as the product. This is akin to a business doing a product sampling offer. Businesses don’t do sampling offers unless they have a plan. So, do one. Create a marketing plan, with a clear goal and a proper budget, and don’t underestimate your costs. Make sure that the offer achieves the goal and stays within budget. It’s not good advertising unless it promises to be your best work. And it’s not good advertising if no one who matters knows it’s your work. If a photographer’s credit or another form of acknowledgement is part of that goal, make sure you get it – agreed, in writing, up front. If you’re using it to advertise yourself, make sure you have permission before you sign on. Don’t imagine that you’re building great industry contacts by working for free. You may well be painting a sign on your back that says, “Cheap”. You don’t want to be known for that either.

© Lindsay Adler. “Sometimes simple styling can create an elegant image. I made the dress out of a scrap piece of tulle, and the powder is simply a bit of flour.”
© Lindsay Adler. “Sometimes simple styling can create an elegant image. I made the dress out of a scrap piece of tulle, and the powder is simply a bit of flour.”

Turning freebies into a unique selling proposition

US wedding photographer, Matt Druin created a unique selling proposition that made his name by offering no travel fees to clients who book him for US weddings and “great deals” for those contemplating an overseas one. On his website, he details the “top destinations we would really love to photograph in no particular order!” Of Australia, he says, “sadly we have never been and are itching to go”. There’s nothing at all wrong with being creative or proactive in your approach to what you’ll do for free. And many Australian destination wedding photographers are also happy to bend their rules in order to secure a booking at an exotic location, where the client, obviously, covers travel expenses.

Every now and then another creator, with whom you’re working (or indeed with whom you’ve worked in the past), might ask you if you’d like to stay back (or come over) after a shoot and work on an experimental idea. This can help build great industry contacts. The caveat being that it’s a creator or creators you admire, if you think the idea has legs, and if it’s sufficiently developed so that you won’t be pissing in the wind.

What if you’re asked to take extra photos on a shoot for free? If it’s an idea that grew from the shoot and is easy to do, it may be worth your while to say yes. Being seen to be part of a collaborative process could stand you in good stead. If you’re asked to shoot something else, say “for the website” or “for the corporate brochure”, it’s likely that your client is taking advantage of you. It’s probable that those shots would have been predetermined. Both of the curt answers, yes or no, are less than desirable. Don’t say no and whinge about your reasons either. Say no and state your case, without emotion, in as few words as possible. Or say no and suggest an alternative. Offer a discount and give a reason, for example. Because you’re already there (which minimises your costs) is a reason. Or ask for something in return. A guaranteed place on the pitch list for the next job is a reasonable request.

Those who will, those who won’t – and why

Digital artist, Karen Alsop also takes social responsibility into account. “I’m regularly approached by organisations and families who have seen my charity work with The Heart Project and desire something similar to them,” she says. “Many times, they want to pay me, but can’t afford what it would actually cost (in the thousands). Under these circumstances, I prefer do the job completely for free, rather than for a nominal amount. Subject to my availability and other income streams, I would rather contribute my time and talent to helping others than ask for a token amount. This generally means that the work is valued much more because there is an awareness of what it would be worth. I am often able to get costs covered by generous like-minded companies. I also find there is an endless number of people wanting to volunteer and help,” Alsop says.

© Karen Alsop. Shot for The Heart Project.
© Karen Alsop. Shot for The Heart Project.

Her approach is different for clients who do have the money and means. She would refuse. “I’ve been around long enough to know that the promise of exposure does not equal the work involved. On the flip side, if I see a collaborative opportunity that could provide strong exposure to my brand, I will approach the other party and am comfortable in doing the job for free because there is mutual benefit.”

American fashion photographer, Lindsay Adler says she shoots for free all the time – “But that’s only when I’m shooting for myself. Each month, I put together approximately two shoots in which I am creating marketing materials, experimenting, building my portfolio, and testing concepts with my creative team. On these shoots everyone works for free, and no one is making money. Instead, we are all growing and ‘profiting’ in other ways. I honestly consider these free shoot days just as important as paid days because they help me to continue to grow, learn, and evolve,” Adler says. She doesn’t work for free if someone else is profiting, neither for exposure, nor to make a new contact. “Years ago, I used to,” she admits.

© Lindsay Adler. “I wanted the model’s skin to mimic the smooth texture of the flower petals. It was lit with a single soft light source (right) and a silver reflector (left) to illuminate her jawline.”
© Lindsay Adler. “I wanted the model’s skin to mimic the smooth texture of the flower petals. It was lit with a single soft light source (right) and a silver reflector (left) to illuminate her jawline.”

If asked, point-blank, to do a job for free, Australian food, lifestyle, and ocean photographer, Rob Palmer would say no. “Without knowing more about the client or the job itself, my initial reaction would be a firm ‘no’. I firmly believe that, as a commercial photographer, you must recognise the value of your own work. Companies and individuals are asking you to perform a task because they require your services. Without you, their profits are not going to reach their full potential. On top of that, hopefully these companies and individuals are also contacting you because, not only do they require your services, but they also believe you will perform these services better than anyone else,” Palmer says.

Early in his career, when most are more vulnerable to being taken advantage of by potential clients, Palmer says he was fortunate enough to have great mentoring from older, experienced photographers who helped him navigate through tricky negotiations and agreements. “I don’t recall shooting anything for free, for cheap maybe, but not for free. Having said that, now I’m finding I’ve reached a point where I am doing jobs for free, sometimes even looking for jobs to do for free, but all these types of jobs take three things into consideration.” Palmer’s three requisites are: Collaboration – having the opportunity to collaborate or partner with other inspiring people or groups making a difference socially or creatively would get a definite yes. Creativity – if the project itself is really creative, Palmer would consider it. “It may be a really interesting brief that requires technical lighting or interesting post production, or maybe the campaign is going to be a WOW piece in my portfolio.” Charity – “If I can work with a charity that is close to my heart or that I feel is making good social or environmental changes, then I’d definitely work for free on some projects.”

© Todd McGaw
© Todd McGaw

Brisbane-based wedding photographer, Todd McGaw works for free – under certain circumstances. “For humanitarian work and volunteer work, or to help support the photographic industry and community,” he says.
“A perfect example is this article. Publications, community groups, and camera clubs occasionally contact us asking for contributions, thoughts, opinions, and competition judging. This is all unpaid. Technically it’s working for free. These contributions are squeezed in around a very full-time business workload,” McGaw says. “However, as a contributor
to a respected publication, it provides the advantage of presenting me
as a subject-matter expert within the industry,” he concludes.

Melbourne-based Keren Dobia is the 2017 AIPP Australian Professional Photographer of the Year. She still does jobs for free. However, she has a procedure that helps clarify for her exactly what she is getting into. That begins with insisting that the client puts all the job requirements into an e-mail. “This way I get it in writing, gain some time to think about it, and can see if what the client wants is realistic, and something I am comfortable doing for free.” Then, she asks herself five questions.1. What will I get out of doing this? Do I realistically think that in doing this job I will get more work or business connections? 2. Does this job allow me creative freedom? If I am agreeing to do a job with no financial benefit, then I want to love the brief and have some control over the final image results. 3. Is this a job I am going to enjoy doing? Not all paid jobs fulfil all of those things, however when I am working for free I want to have a great time. 4. If there are any out-of-pocket expenses, will these be covered? Most people assume that doing a job for free includes wearing the expenses that come as a result. I’ve found that if I break my cost down to the client they are often understanding and willing to cover expenses, within reason, including lunch and parking. It’s about education. Makeup artists ask for a kit fee, even on free jobs as they have makeup to replenish. 5. Can the images produced be used for self-promotion? This includes considering whether you’d be allowed to or would want to use them. Sometimes this is not an option, and if that is the case my answer would be absolutely no.

© Lori Cicchini. ILLUMINATING. Model : Olivia Hood. Makeup: Lauren Cataldo.
© Lori Cicchini. ILLUMINATING. Model : Olivia Hood. Makeup: Lauren Cataldo.

Fashion, beauty, and creative photographer, Lori Cicchini also has questions about working for free, and questions for those seeking work done for free: Why do you think I should work for free? and Do you have a full-time job that you get paid to do? “I am a full-time professional photographer who has invested a substantial amount
of finance in continuous training, education, and equipment to develop and refine my skills and craft, thus confidently delivering a product or service, therefore I am justifiably expecting fair remuneration for my time,” she says.

Another of Cicchini’s reasons for resistance is cost. An average day’s work would cost her venue/studio space, utilities, various insurance, prop hire/purchases, equipment running costs/maintenance/repairs, education/training, software costs, website, domain name, marketing materials/time, phone, and the Internet, she assesses.
“Like any business, big or small, there are numerous costs in running it. To assume there isn’t any cost in being a professional photographer
is senseless. Working and being paid for it means I can continue to pay those bills and have some left over to live on as well.”

© Rob Palmer. Michelle Bridges, shot for her book, Keeping it Off.
© Rob Palmer. Michelle Bridges, shot for her book, Keeping it Off.

For Rob Palmer, cost is not an issue. He reckons that doing a free job would not cost him very much. “The cost of an assistant or two, which is about $350 per person. Plus, I own my own studio so I don’t ever need to rent one, but the ongoing costs of mortgages, electricity, insurance, etc. amounts to about $150 a day, which is nothing compared to actual studio hire. I own all my own lighting and camera gear which has paid itself off tenfold by now. I’d say that the
average shoot physically costs me under $600 a day,” he says.

What is common to all these photographers, and what may be the crux of the question, is their differentiation between free commissioned work and free collaborative work. Even Cicchini will work for free on projects with other artists, to develop her skills and portfolio. “I have a tight network of professionals in hair, makeup, and design who, over time,
have also become my friends. We work well together as we have similar aesthetics and have supported each other in our development over the years,” she says. “We sometimes collaborate together to make work that will benefit us all equally, and we all have the opportunity to experiment with techniques to develop our existing portfolios.” Perhaps it’s perspective. Perhaps it’s creative spirit. Perhaps it’s “who’s calling the shots.”

Every photographer works willingly for free, sometimes.

© Lindsay Adler.
© Lindsay Adler.
© Lindsay Adler.
© Lindsay Adler.


Lindsay Adler     

Karen Alsop       

Lori Cicchini      

Keren Dobia       

Todd McGaw      

Rob Palmer  


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