Freebies Anonymous: I am here today because I shot for free for YEARS. And sometimes? I STILL occasionally shoot for free. And SOMETIMES … it gets me things that I never would have gotten otherwise, like my photos published on Time.com.
"What?!!" Professionals gasp in horror. "That is unheard of! You’re going to ruin your career! You’re going to ruin the photography market! You’re going to be known as that photographer who shoots for free! Aliens will attack you and steal your camera equipment!!! THE SKY IS GOING TO FALL!!!!"
This is the general hysteria Professional photographers who’ve been in the business longer than 10 years begin to rant about when the subject of ‘free vs. paid’ work comes up. (I mentally call these people ‘Dragons’ just for fun, so I’m going to call them that here. I might get some flak, but I like being somewhat disrespectful in a playful way. Its fun. :D It shortens the copy too. No actual dissing here. Dragons is a loving term in my mind.) There’s usually a lot of huff and puff (Get it? Dragon? Puff? <:D … Ok, moving on…) about the newbie person destroying the market (I'm not going to get into this one...way too complicated) and then they go on to say that the Newb photog’s future business career is going to be ‘ruined’ because of low expectations (ie. Thereafter people will expect them to work for free).
You know what is going to ruin my business more?
High expectations from clients that I can’t meet because I haven’t practiced my craft enough to be able to constantly recreate the same quality. And the Dragons never seem to cede that even while newbie photographers are committing the sin of saying yes to free work, they still have the capacity to say … wait for it … ‘No.’
There is an aspect which professional photographers who are screaming at newbies sort of ignore:
educating the newbie who needs to shoot for free on when to say No to free. Usually, their tactic is to say "You should never shoot for free! Say No all the time!"
Well, that's not realistic. Because
everyone has do something for free to learn. Unfortunately, the digital market has created a mass tidal wave of crazyified monster newbie photographers who are all over the place swinging their cameras at everything that moves. What the Dragons don’t seem to recognize is that they need to direct the flow of the flood rather than lament about the mess its made. IOW, teach the flow how to NOT make a mess.
I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t done work for free. (Granted, I’m nowhere, but that statement sounds good. :D) By all accounts, I should never have shot weddings for free, events for free, models for free, but I did. And I gained some amazing experiences, access, and portfolio pieces. But HOLD ON! Before you get your celebration panties on and prepare to write "Jude loves free work!" in the sky, I'm getting to my actual point.
There are degrees to free work, and while I believe there are reasons you should do it, There are also definite reasons you shouldn’t.
This topic has kindof been blogged to death, by some very good photographers, none-the-less, but one thing I haven’t seen them mention is this: If you are a photographer shooting TF work (Time For), what should the thought process be behind why you should say ‘No’ to free?
Here’s the easy part (ie. I don't have to write it!) that HAS been talked about: Why you should say yes.
1. For portfolio, as was said here very well.
2. For exposure/contacts. No, no grand spiel here. This one is simple: if people don’t know who you are and what you can do, you’re invisible. Truth.
3. For experience. Well said, here, by Don Gianati
4. Because you darned well WANT to. Don again. I love this guy.
Free truly is freeing. You get to do what you want and many times what you need. Sounds easy, right? Sure. Now, on to the hard part. After the work has met the initial criteria of something you need or want to shoot for free, how to make the individual decisions on when to say NO.
I trust humanity, but sometimes, there are those who would take what they can get and screw you in the process. I’ve learned that the hard way. In fact, early this year, I had someone ask me to drive 6 ½ hours, work for 8 hours shooting designs that wouldn’t benefit my portfolio , for all images shot on a disk, and all for zero pay. The payment? Exposure. In a market that I’d never ever be getting into. Then, when I said no and gave a price, I was badgered for around 30 minutes. No, bullied, is more like, since my sentences saying “Well, that’s my price. Man, I’ve really got to get off the phone now…” were completely ignored. Though I eventually did end the conversation, I let the person sit there and badger me. Why? Because I wasn’t confident enough at the time to just say “Look, this is my price. You’ve already heard me say no to your ‘offer’ 3 times now. Get ahold of me if you want to hire me. Click.”
I’m an idealist, but I have to admit that unfortunately, you will get bad eggs. The good from this is that 'bad egg' gave me the motivation I needed to never again let a situation progress to where I feel bullied. Its too annoying for my friends. I end up hating the world and for a solid month ranting about climate change, politics, pizza and space monkeys. It's a scary scary thing.
So, for you, to avoid space monkeys. The Hard Part: Figuring out when to say ‘NO’
1. You know the person has a budget and they COULD pay you.
This is simple. Only a complete dirtbag doesn’t pay someone when they could easily do so. Hit the ‘delete’ button. They’ll probably be terrible to work with even if they DID pay you.
2. You feel like the mental trauma is not going to be worth the job.
Free work should be free from stress. If you want to stress me out, pay me to stress me out. Otherwise? NO.
3. They ask for too much or don’t offer the equal value in exchange.
This is an actual 1+1=2 situation. In other words, if the shoot is 1+7=1, its probably a bad deal.
4. They stand to gain much more than you.
This is only a half of the time rule and its just from my own experience. Its directly proportional to exactly what sort of thing you’ll gain, be it exposure/portfolio piece/makeup. In general, the more a person needs a shoot desperately, I’ve found that the less appreciative they’ll be later on when its time for them to give me a shout-out or whatever. I know, this one is weird, isn't it? It really seems like it would be the opposite way around with the people being extremely grateful, but from my experience, it hasn't been. I do say choose this one on a case by case basis, though.
5. You know the person isn’t going to give you a shout-out.
A shoutout that is genuine is huge. It’s the equivalent of paid advertising but better. This one is also a case by case thing. Normally, I reserve these ‘no’s’ for those people I’ve worked with who haven’t given me shout-outs before, or if their shout-out doesn’t match my work-put-in. If this is the case, there’s no way I’ll ever work with them again unless I have to. Even then, I’ll harbor ill will. Grr.
6. You know the person isn’t going to appreciate you.
This one is so important. I feel it’s the most important. Number 5 is a byproduct of this one. The people who don’t appreciate you or your work are slime under your foot. That’s all I have to say about it.
7. The person has asked other people that you know, was quoted a price, and then instead came to you asking for free.
NO. Just, NO. If you take this job for free, you are degrading the craft of photography. You are acting as second-hand goods, and you're not representing the craft of photography very well at all. You're teaching the person asking you that if they don't want to pay, all they have to do is try and find someone either less principled, more desperate or less talented in photography. This is harsh. But its the truth. Its a truth I had to realize about myself when I used to completely suck (as apposed to partially suck). Its wrong, its wrong, its wrong. There is no gray area with this one. Don't be lame. Just say no if you know they're doing this. THEY are being lame. Don't be a part of their lameness. I will say lame more unless you listen to this. Lame.
The overall feeling you should say No to? You feel the person is trying to or going to use you.
If you get this feeling, before, after, during shooting for someone for free: run away. I promise you, you will regret staying. You will hate that you said yes. It’ll pretty much feel like the person has asked you to pull your heart out of your chest but keep on moving. Let me tell you: if the person asks you to pull your heart out of your chest, odds are it’s not going to go well for you. That and you might feel somewhat used as you stare at it your heart beating in the dirt, pouring your lifeblood on the ground.
JUST. SAY. NO. Photographer’s need a t-shirt of our own about this one. ;)