Requests for Free Photography: When Should Photographers Work for Free?

So you’ve made it. You have some clients that are paying you – although I would bet if you’re new to this whole business thing it’s not enough – but still, you’re getting some dolla dolla bills.

I don’t know why I like that phrase, I just do.

You have marketed yourself as a photographer, and you probably list yourself as a photographer for your business on Facebook and other social media outlets, yes? Hooray! Even if you don’t, the world now sees you as a professional photographer!

And now, the request start to come in. Requests for free photography.

We have this event coming up that will be amazing, we don’t have a budget to pay you, but the exposure will be amazing!

Exposure pays bills, right?

Can you photograph this event for us, it’s a charity event and we can’t pay you but you can hand out business cards.

Ooh business cards, basically the passing of trash in most cases.

We have a silent auction to benefit our team coming up, do you have something you can donate to the fundraiser?

A card on a page with my name for people to pay you? Sure!

Hey I’m an upcoming model and would love to work with you, you can use the photos in your portfolio, and pay me…

So I get to PAY YOU to work for free when you want me to? Hmmm.

There are a ton of schools of thought on this, and it’s not always a black and white subject. It can also be a pretty hot debate, I have seen some nasty comments and trolls come out of the woodwork when this question is asked in photography groups!

So when should you work for free, how do you know if it’s worth it?

Short answer: you don’t.

Working for free is a choice you have to make, knowing that the payoff might be just the opportunity to work for free. It may result in zero exposure, zero bookings, and zero dollars after all.

Your time is valuable, and if the work doesn’t fit into these categories, you could be doing OTHER work that could be growing your business. Or spending time with your family. No matter how much money someone has, every single person on this planet always has the same amount of hours in a day as everyone else.

Saying yes to something means saying no to something else.

I have put together a guideline for when I work for free, and how to know if I should or not! We will just start with the hardest one…

1. Exposure.

Yep, I said it. The nasty word that we use every single day in photography, but when it comes to exposure for payment, feathers are ruffled. Here’s the key when it comes to exposure: is the person that is asking you to work for free someone that you really want to build a relationship with, and someone that could move your business forward? Some will disagree with me on this and that’s fine, but there are certain people that I might photograph for free, or work with for free.

Do you have the “list” with your spouse, of the five people that you could sleep with if they wanted to? You know what I’m talking about, the list of people that are completely unrealistic and probably never going to ask? For me it’s Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe (Gladiator days), Channing Tatum, Jesse Williams and Jason Momoa. Yum, yum, and more yum, right ladies?

My “Exposure” list is about the same – a really small list of people that would definitely highlight my business and move it forward, but probably aren’t going to ask anytime soon because they’re too busy with their own businesses. Like, maybe five people. MAYBE.

The bottom line is that exposure doesn’t pay the bills. It just doesn’t. I can’t pay my utility bill with exposure, I can’t write my studio rent check with exposure scrawled over the account numbers. Exposure is usually something that is used to gain something for free, and 99% of the time, screws the person that is working for free. So you REALLY have to do some soul searching when someone asks you to work for exposure. Most of the time, the answer will be no. But if this is someone that you really want to build a relationship with, you’ll have to weigh whether it’s really worth it.

For more exceptions to this rule, keep reading.

2. An amazing cause.

There are a million awesome causes in the world. Human rights, animal rights, save the whales, literacy, drinking water for all… my fingers would be worn to nubs if I tried to type them all out. While there are a ton of amazing causes in the world, usually most of us have a soft spot in our heart for a few specific causes. They are usually linked to experiences that we have had in our past, or specific groups of people that we really want to help. We are human, and can’t possibly help everyone, so we have to be careful how we approach these causes.

Is this a cause that you would travel across the world to work for, for a week? Is this a cause that you would just WRITE A CHECK to because you believe in it so strongly? Is this a cause that makes you teary eyed every time you think about it?

If the request is coming from a cause or charity that is something you really feel strongly about, it might be worth donating your time to photograph an event, or partner with them. Be careful with your time and resources, but volunteering your time for this cause is worth your time and work, if you are that passionate about this cause.

There are a few that are close to me: domestic violence, women’s rights, homelessness, and animals. That doesn’t mean that I hate the others – SCREW THE DRINKING WATER! No no no, they are worthy causes too – but it just means that these particular causes are close to my heart, and things that I will go out of my way to help with.

3. To feed your creative soul.

What the hell does this even mean? Stay with me here.

As a photographer, you’re an artist.

Chances are, you got into photography because you enjoyed creating images. The way the light plays on a subject, the way the shadows bounce around, the way the image is composed… these are likely things that you really love. You might be missing out on this because you have become consumed with running your business – I get it, I’ve done it too. But there are projects that you LOVE, the things that really feed your creativity, and leave you recharged instead of drained.

Hopefully, you are working in a capacity that allows you to shoot what you love IN your business. But if you’re not, for whatever reason – you need to be.

And this, my friends, is usually where I work for free.

When I have an amazing but crazy idea and I’m not entirely sure that it’s going to work out. It usually does, and is usually absolutely amazing, and I usually provide the models images and shoot for free. Because I want to do something artistic and amazing.

My husband does this as well, he is a musician: when his friends come up with a gig in another city once a year, he flies out, pays for the trip, and ends up paying more to do the gig than he makes. Why? Because he loves to play. Because he wants to see his friends. Because he enjoys what he is doing. Would he give the same effort or pay for the trip if it was a weird gig without his friends and on an instrument he doesn’t love? Definitely not.

Sometimes, we just need to do something amazingly creative that doesn’t pay the bills – and that’s okay.

If you’re the type of person that needs permission, here it is: YOU HAVE PERMISSION TO BE CREATIVE EVEN IF IT DOESN’T PAY.

The super awesome thing is, when you are marketing your business correctly and appropriately, you might be surprised to find that these creative endeavors will help to pay the bills later.

THAT, my friends, is my answer to when should you work for free. My criteria and guidelines regarding when and how I choose, and what the heck I’m thinking as I decide where to spend my time.

The bottom to ALL of this: your time is valuable. If you are working in a way that won’t grow your business or heart – either financially or with connections – you are wasting your time. You are saying NO to your family. You are saying NO to marketing. You are saying NO to other things that are important to you.

Learn how to say no gracefully, and embrace it. There is nothing wrong with respectfully turning down requests for free photography. You are worth it!

IF you would like more help in deciding, I have put together a free checklist that you can go through to decide whether you should work for free!

Enter your information below to access the checklist. Print it out whenever you get a request, and go through the questions. Soon you’ll be a PRO and knowing whether a request is the right fit or not will become second nature.

I would love to know if this resonated with you, or made sense at all! Did you find this helpful? Leave me a comment below, tell me your stories of being asked to work for free!