Why Photographers Shouldn’t Work for Free

Author: Jade Ferguson

July 21, 2023
Your skills and services are valuable. Don’t sell yourself short.

Starting out as a photographer, knowing what to charge for your services can be incredibly difficult. While it takes time to figure out your rates, it is important to know that your skills and services are valuable and shouldn’t be offered for free. Let me explain why.

Photography gear, equipment, and software are expensive 

To become a professional photographer, you need to have professional gear.  Anyone working in the industry will affirm that there is an extraordinary amount of investment and initial (and ongoing) financial outlay to be able to perform our jobs.  

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This begins with your camera, lens, and filters and goes down through all of the other equipment (lighting gear, modifiers, speedlights, computers, chargers, memory cards, batteries, and all other minutiae of physical gear). It also includes your software and programs, subscriptions, and accounting and admin needs. Additionally, you will require insurance (gear and public liability and indemnity). 

This investment means you need to start recouping your expenditure as soon as possible, which means charging a fair price for your services. While each photographer has their means of determining their rates so they can build a profitable business, it is crucial to start charging immediately so that you can cover the costs of running your business.  

Your skill and time are as valuable as any other regular job 

Given that most photographers are self-employed—and often ex-hobbyists—some will find it hard to transition into charging fair and reasonable rates from the outset and might offer their work for free to get a foot in the door. This approach is dangerous for several reasons, but simply put, your time and skill are valuable.  

You wouldn’t work for an employer for free, so why would you not meet your own basic needs by valuing your time and skill? Every time you walk out the door to photograph something, you are on the clock of your business. Time spent should be charged accordingly, and if it isn’t then you’re not running a viable business.  

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Shooting for free is damaging to your industry 

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Offering your skills and service for free is incredibly damaging to the entire photography industry. The industry that you are trying to enter and thrive within is reliant on photographers being able to charge both fair and competitive rates for their skills and services. When you offer these for free to potential clients, you are setting a precedent in the industry that is impossible for your colleagues to compete with. But more damagingly, it sets up client expectations that the skills and services of professional photographers are not particularly valuable and gives them the idea that there will always be someone willing to do the work without receiving payment for it.  

While it might be tempting to offer your skills and services free of charge to show a new client what you are capable of, each time you do this, you are devaluing the work of the entire industry. If you are just getting started and want to get your foot in the door, consider approaching potential clients with an “introductory” rate that is fair and covers your expenses. You could always offer an introductory client more value in terms of image supply—this is a much more valuable offer than shooting entirely for free.  

When you charge nothing, it’s worth nothing 

There’s an old adage that goes something like this: “When you charge nothing, it’s worth nothing.” And this couldn’t be truer when it comes to photography. When you choose not to charge for your time, skills, and services, your clients will not value the work the same way they would have if they have invested in it.  

This extends to a very important point about usage and licensing rights as well. If the original images have never been paid for, then you are leaving yourself open to clients using your images carte blanche ad infinitum, and you will never have a recourse to pursue usage or licensing fees in the future.  

Photography tends to live for an incredibly long and undefined amount of time in the current digital age, so should a brand or business you have been working with suddenly shoot to overnight success, you will have provided them with imagery for free to use however they wish for as long as they want—without your ever being paid a cent.  

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You won’t get referrals, and you won’t have a community of support 

You’d be surprised just how much work photographers get from other photographers who are too busy or not the right fit for a job. If you shoot for free, you won’t get referrals from other photographers, period. No professional photographer will refer work to another photographer who charges nothing.

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Photographers also build community by having each other’s backs and providing support and counsel in times of need. As sole traders and freelancers, this community is invaluable. When you undercut other photographers or provide your services for free, you are creating distrust in your community, and you’ll find yourself very much on the sole end of the trader spectrum.

Exceptions to the rule and a final note 

Like everything, there are always exceptions to the rule that photographers should never shoot for free. Some of these exceptions might be: 

Shooting for friends and family 

This type of unpaid work would be something you might choose to do because you want to offer your skills and services to friends and family as a favour.

Shooting for portfolio purposes  

Shooting personal projects or work that will expand and develop your portfolio is always something that photographers should be doing throughout their careers. A lot of this work will be self-generated and unpaid.

Shooting for charitable or personally meaningful purposes or projects 

Charitable work doesn’t always mean shooting for free, but if a project really matters to you personally, this may be an area where you choose to offer your skills and services free of charge.

Shooting for trade where you feel the exchange is mutually beneficial and equally matched to the value of your skills and services 

Shooting for brands and businesses in exchange for goods and services can be valuable to both parties. It is up to the photographer to decide whether the value of the goods and services offered equates to the value of your input as a creative.

Shooting work that provides you with the opportunity to have total creative control and direction 

Whether this is personal projects, editorial submissions, or other creative pursuits, any opportunities to execute your own creative vision may be of significant personal value to you as a photographer and, therefore, work that you do on an unpaid basis.

Any choices to shoot for free would always be at the photographer’s sole discretion and should never be expected. You are always within your rights as a photographer to set rates (perhaps special or reduced) for even the above exceptions.

However, one thing that should always be considered is making a written agreement for these free or discounted services—what the offer includes and excludes and what rights you are granting with the provision of the images. 

Shooting for free is an easy temptation to ‘win clients and influence people,’ but overall it cannibalises the industry, damages community and relationships, and ultimately isn’t a smart move if you’re trying to build a profitable business. In conclusion, charge something, even if it’s a minimal fee. Your future self will thank you. 

Author Bio:

Jade Ferguson is a Brisbane, Australia-based photographer who applies a fine art approach to the subjects she shoots. As an early-career photographer, her work attempts to create an emotionally visceral experience for the viewer by capturing the unseen. She works with film and digital formats; her subjects cover portraiture, performing arts, and a developing personal art practise. She is currently an undergraduate at Griffith University, Queensland College of Art, studying for a Bachelor of Visual Art.

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