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The photographer working for free

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Is working for free ever a good idea

You will get asked, but what response is best

Always a tricky area – people will ask for free photography. How you phrase your answer is up to you, but ‘yes’ is rarely a good choice.


As a pro photographer, is there a place for ‘free’ work?

buffet lunch with three businessmen

Is this a free lunch?

One of the traps that many new photographers fall into is the ‘Pictures for credit’ ruse.

It goes like this:

“We’d love to feature your work in our website/brochure/magazine, but we’ve no budget. If we can use it, then we’ll make sure that your name is there as a picture credit”

Well, apart from the fact that your name appears in 2 point type, possibly nowhere near the picture, surely this must be good for ‘exposure’?

Only thing is… how many people do you think actually read picture credits?  How many of those do you think go to the trouble of noting down the photographer’s name, looking it up on Google and think of using them for future photography work?

I suppose it might have happened, but this really isn’t very different from the lottery approach to photographic business success I looked at a while ago.

For myself, when it come to paying for work, I’ll charge, and I’ll try and charge our full rates.

A client that gets cut price (or worse ‘free’) work from you, will only see any return to ‘normal’ rates for subsequent work as a massive price hike, and not think of the previous job as a ‘special’ introductory rate.  Do you think the ‘picture credit’ approach worked when the client’s heating failed and they needed an engineer?

The only real credit you are likely to get, is noted as a source of free photos…

‘If you work for peanuts to start with, don’t expect a four course meal for the next job’

BTW Working for free is covered in Nos. 13, 14 & 15 of my 50 Photography Business Tips – just remember that those tips are a collection of bad advice.

So, nothing for free then?

Well, there is free, and there is free…

If you’ve read many of the articles and reviews on this site, you’ll know that I also test printers, papers and colour management kit for several manufacturers.

test prints drying on the top of a piano

Testing a new paper

One side effect of this is that I have a lot of high quality prints in desk drawers. All sizes, from A4 to big panoramic shots.

An important aspect of getting new commercial work for us, are people’s personal referrals.

At one local business networking group I visit, I’ll often take a few prints and give them away (they do have my name and contact details on them). I also make sure that the prints are good quality – first impressions count.

People tend to take images that they really like, and they now hang in offices and homes far and wide – all part of trying to make my name the one that first pops into mind when someone they know needs commercial photography.  It also generates a steady stream of follow up print sales and image licensing – not large, but worthwhile.

What else is nominally ‘free’

There’s that old adage: ‘There’s no such thing as a free lunch’

Well, I’ve always taken the attitude that free lunches do exist all over the place, you just need to think of them in the right way.

The articles on this site are free – the cost (if you choose to see it as such) is that I have adverts on the site.

These articles ‘give away’ expertise for free – I don’t expect a direct return on them, but with over 5 million visits a year, I know the site will generate an income that helps ‘pay’ for my time, not to mention the knowledge and expertise I gain in the process.

Every so often I’ll take some photos or donate a print or two for causes that personally matter to me. That said, I’m always wary of charities who phone up and try to get work for nothing (or perhaps a picture credit). If I don’t know them, then this gets the same response as anyone else wanting work for free ;-)

If you are going to provide any aspect of your work or business for ‘free’, take a close look at what it really costs you, and the benefits it can bring, such as how you can use it in your marketing. Remember that free stuff can just end up attracting people who won’t ever pay.

Living in the middle of Leicester, it’s very easy for me to get to local clients, so I make a point of not charging travel costs in the city. The converse of this is that it helps establish that I do charge them for work further afield. Likewise for our minimum half day rate outside of the county.

I’m looking to increase our collection of local photographs, for print and licensing.  If someone locally wants a shot we don’t have, then I’ll sometimes offer to get the shot myself (for ‘free’) and only charge the license for its use. Given that it may well be a shot I’d have taken myself anyway, if only I’d known of it. I’m not losing anything, and also establishing in the mind of the client that image licensing costs money.

Free is one of those words that catches the attention in marketing copy – I just make sure that if I’m not charging for something, then there is a tangible benefit for me and that the recipient feels they have got something of value.

I’m always wary of the fact that much free stuff is worth everything you paid for it – choose your offers with care.

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