I was recently asked again to work for free as a photographer and became inspired to write this article, which I had been meaning to do for some time. I hope it will help in a small way to encourage discussion about this subject, and enlighten clients and photographers alike as to why it is in no-one’s interests for a photographer to work for free. In this article, I use the term ‘photographer’ to refer to an advertising or fashion photographer (my own field which I know best), but the points are mostly valid for all genres of photography and even other creative disciplines.

Over the past decade or two, there has been a shift in how clients regard advertising photographers and their services. There is less respect for their skill and less value attached by many to the photographer’s work, yet marketing images are as important as ever and the quality of truly professional photographs is higher than ever, so how did this happen? And why do so many clients expect photographers to work for free? The most obvious culprit is the digital photography revolution, which has had several effects.

Photography is now seen as technically easier and therefore requiring less skill. It’s true that the digital camera has eliminated several difficult steps which were previously required with film technology. This has clearly removed some of the technical barriers, and made more people than ever consider themselves to be of a professional standard. Clients who now see photography as technically easier begin to value it less and some even think “how hard can this be?” and use their own photos, mostly with disastrous results. What most people fail to see is that the standards of professional photography are higher than ever meaning that more advanced lighting and post production techniques are now required to be competitive (i.e. the consumer expects more), and the digital workflow has introduced a multitude of technical issues which most people are unaware of because they require work to be done after the shoot ends and are therefore less visible to the client. A photographer will often spend more time post-processing photos on a computer than the time he spends at the shoot, and this requires new skills. So in fact photography has not become easier – the skills required have merely shifted and quality professional work still stands out.

Digital photos are wrongly seen as free to produce. Anyone can understand once it is pointed out to them that a digital camera is expensive and eventually needs replacement, so digital photos do have a cost, yet there is a prevailing perception that digital photos are free to produce. In the film days, a client would not quibble about the costs of film, development, scanning and couriers, but very few photographers these days charge a fee arising from the new digital costs because there is not a concrete cost to point to. When you consider that top digital cameras can now cost over $40K it’s clearly reasonable to attach a camera usage cost to each shoot. However, most photographers are better artists than businessmen and have failed to make this transition of costs clear to their clients. At least in some markets such as New York, many photographers do not own their own equipment – instead they rent it specifically for each shoot. That way a $1500 rental bill is a clearly visible cost which is easy to demonstrate to the client. Most clients are probably unaware that a studio worth of lighting equipment runs into the tens of thousands of dollars too. Digital photography now requires powerful computers with high-quality, calibrated monitors, vast storage, backup systems and expensive software. By the time you add studio rental, employees’ wages, marketing and general business operating costs into the equation, it should be clear that digital photography is in fact far from ‘free’.

The internet and more specifically the stock photo libraries have increased availability of images hugely and driven prices of stock photography down in a ‘race to the bottom’. However, the costs of producing an image have not decreased and there is no reason why a photographer should charge less to compete with stock photography. If you commission a shoot you have the opportunity for complete control and exclusive use, and the opportunity to include a specific face, product, location or message in the image, as well as a generally higher technical and artistic standard. Comparing a photographer with a stock photo library is somewhat equivalent to comparing supermarket food prices with restaurant prices and asking the restaurant to compete.

These points raise a further and perhaps most significant point. A photographer is not merely a ‘man with a camera’. A good photographer can add so much more interest or beauty to an image using his experience, techniques and artistic judgment, just as a gifted painter can achieve wonderful results using the same brush and paints that we all have at home.

So how is it not in your interest to work with ‘free’ photographers? In the short term it might seem appealing to find a photographer to work for free. After all, it saves you money, right? However this is not in your best interest in the short term and even less so in the long term. A photographer working for free is not likely to stay in business long, or to have much experience or to be properly equipped for your project, which is a recipe for disaster. At the same time, everyone generally wants the best looking images possible for their advertising, and this is where the conflict begins. The professional who charges for his work but knows how to get it right first time and on time, has all the necessary team and equipment in place, and with whom you can build a successful long term business partnership will result in better images, a more successful marketing campaign and ultimately more profit.

Some photographers, especially those just starting out, are just as much to blame so here is my advice to them. Any experienced professional photographer has heard these approaches many times:

1) our budget doesn’t stretch that far
2) if you do it for free, it will be great exposure for you
3) we can pay properly next time
4) another guy is cheaper

Please do not be tempted by any of these approaches. By doing so you are devaluing the art of photography in general, and starving your business of the income it needs to pay you and invest in marketing and equipment. You would be better off working on personal projects over which you have creative control and which would boost the level of your folio. My responses to these approaches is:

1) it is not the photographer’s responsibility to meet an unrealistic budget. You are welcome to come back when you have a realistic one.
2) When was the last time you saw a photographer’s name printed in bold letters across a magazine ad? Enough said. This is a fallacy.
3) A client who is prepared to get substandard results to save a photographer’s fee is likely to keep approaching photographers to work for free. And they are unlikely to pay someone who has shown they will work free. If they are offering to pay you ‘next time’ then they are basically stating that they are expecting to have more money in future, so offer a deferred payment plan instead of free work.
4) Ask the client if they want the best result or the cheapest one. There’s a reason they came to you rather than the cheap guy. Or say “my half-blind grandmother will do it for $4.50 although she sometimes forgets to take the lens cap off.”

Above all, remember that as a photographer you have creativity, vision, technical skill and talent which has huge commercial value. Never give away this valuable asset. Even if you are a student, you deserve to be paid. The client wouldn’t be asking you to do the job if it had no value. As soon as you work for free it becomes a hobby and it’s time to find a ‘real’ job!

This humorous video makes the point abundantly clear: