When to Give Away Your Photography for Free

In the first few years of my photography business I would get “offers” from people all the time. “Would you be willing photograph my event (or wedding, portrait, store, product, etc.)? I don’t have a budget, but this would be great exposure for your photography and could lead to paid work.”

Most of the time these people overestimated the value of the exposure and underestimated the value of my time and expertise.

The number of people asking for free work has turned into a trickle over time, but occasionally I’ll still get someone who asks me to work for free. Sometimes, I’ll take on the project. Am I crazy to give away my work for free? You decide after reading my rules for giving away photography for free.

Portrait of unidentified Masai children

Photo via Papa Bravo/Shutterstock.com

For a charity you believe in

There are tons of charity organizations in the world that need good photography. Imagery that illustrates a need or documents the work being done is essential to keep the charity going and to help with donation efforts. I like helping people and could literally spend all of my time working on visuals for legitimate organizations that are doing great work. I have chosen to limit my willingness to organizations that are fighting for causes I really care about and would be willing to donate money to. On my short list are organizations that fight extreme poverty, work toward social justice for the helpless or teach music to underprivileged children. Right or wrong, these are things I care about.

Legitimate exposure

When someone asks you to work for free, in my experience, about 1 percent of the time you actually get legitimate exposure for your work that leads to other paid work. The key is to sniff out these opportunities from the bad ones. Limit your free work to only stuff you really want to be doing. If you are looking for more wedding work, don’t take an offer for a free product shoot. If you shoot portraits and someone asks you to photograph Barack Obama or Bono for free, that is worth considering.

Valuable networking

Networking is related to exposure. Sometimes it’s worth shooting something if you know that people that could be valuable supporters of your business will be there. This is also one of those things that works out 1 percent of the time. It’s helpful to know ahead of time the kinds of people, or who specifically, will be valuable to have see your work.

Getting access to a popular band is sometimes worth not getting paid.

Access

Sometimes, the only way to get access to an event or a person you admire is to photograph them for free. This is certainly true for sports and music. A lot of people are willing to photograph sports stars or famous musical acts for little to no pay. This means that if you want to do the same, you might not be able to charge your normal rate. Having photos of recognizable celebrities does add legitimacy to your portfolio. Your non-famous clients will assume that if you are good enough for Johnny Moviestar, you will be good enough for them. There are certain soccer players, tennis players and musicians that I wouldn’t think twice about photographing for no pay.

When you aren’t working on anything

There’s nothing worse than being a professional photographer with no work. I think that it’s better to be working for free than not working at all. It builds your portfolio, it builds your confidence, and it builds your exposure to potential clients. I’d rather have a portfolio, confidence, and exposure with no money than nothing at all. If I’m not doing anything else with my time, it’s better to be out photographing than sitting around feeling sorry for myself!

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