2009
06.01

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:

28 comments so far

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  1. Dear Graham,

    Thank you for your passionate defense of those who are in an artistic profession, and who are easily exploited. If I gave away a painting every time I am asked to donate for a good cause, I would have nothing left to sell. What would I live on?

    I hope your article gets read by many who need to have their own worth confirmed.

    Many thanks, Katharina Rapp

  2. Hi Graham, and thanks for a beefy analysis!

    If you want to, you may label me, considering my fascination with digital media and my amateur photography, an “opponent” in this struggle for the livelihood of professional photographers. However, that is only assuming it’s a zero-sum game, and you bring up several points why it should not be. And I certainly will send my friends to read this blog post, so please don’t doubt my optimistic attitude!

    The advancing role of “amateurs” was discussed on a similar topic – that of journalism and how it’s growingly difficult to finance for example war reporters, in the video linked to from here:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/cjsveningsson/3029682706/

    It is very interesting what you say about comparing photographers with stock photo libraries, and the difference is worth pointing out. Billing equipment or training (certifications?) costs separately is not bad at all and can be done also without renting the equipment. Compare to how manufacturing industry easily can put a post billing per machine-hour.

    However, this does little to eliminate the growing availability, quality and price-competitiveness of stock photo or for that matter, happy amateurs like me. While cheap or free photography may be a threat to the livelihood of professional photographers, it is not immoral or bad strategy to provide nor use it. Like you say, they are different things, so the other side of the coin is then not to make customers pay for something they at least do not believe they need.

    Licenses like CC are pushing hard to make great stock photo available for free while curbing confusion which would easily lead to piracy, so many people can find what they need at sites like FlickrCC:

    http://flickrcc.bluemountains.net/

    Finally, to challenge your thinking regarding free/paid even further, I suggest this great talk:

    http://unclecj.blogspot.com/2009/02/free-things-this-week.html

    I think that is enough said about the role of the free or very price-competitive photography, and like you say, one must not mix profession and hobby. Now I will go check out the video you suggested. Cheers!

  3. I think the seeds of this issue were sown way back, with the shortsighted photographers would charge a modest fee to get clients into the studio, then ask a hefty fee for supply of prints. This practice had 2 negative aspects: first, the worth of the photographer’s skill was greatly undervalued; second, the photographer was seen to be overcharging for prints – which everyone knew didn’t cost much at the chemist shop. So, photographers effectively shot themselves in both feet.

    Now, with every Tom, Dick and Harriet able to own a half-decent DSLR, the perceived worth of the experienced professional is taking another battering, as amateurs are able to turn out sharp, well-exposed images without any difficulty. The aesthetic quality of the work, and its creativity and professional execution, must be sold for all they are worth – even more so that in the past.

  4. Hi Carl-Johan, thanks for your response. I don’t see the amateurs contributing to stock photography as working for ‘free’. If their work sells they get paid, so although it is very little, there is still an acknowledgement that the work has value and the photographer receives some payment. However, it is regrettable that so many are queueing up to work for so little. If these same photographers were being paid $0.05 per hour for their work (which I guess is more than most receive!) as a wage it would be illegal and a scandal. Unfortunately, this distorts the marketplace, and tempts so many potential clients to go with poor quality images to save a few dollars in the short term. So their marketing images are not as good as they could be, less quality work is produced overall, full-time professional photographers miss out on these clients, so the photography profession is poorer overall, and when the client needs something better than a stock photo they find that all the local professional studios are out of business. Ironically, many of the amateurs who contribute to stock libraries are hoping to become professional or semi-professional some day but fail to see that they are destroying the very market they hope to enter. I don’t see a solution other than some protectionist legislation which would be highly controversial in itself. The world seems intent on chasing ever cheaper and lower quality goods and services.

  5. This is so true!

    Why do young designers, young brands, new websites always think they are allowed to have photography work for free? It is very comfortable for them to cut this costs in the budget. Why can’t they just plan in advance photography costs in the business plan?

  6. My view of the Photography industry has evolved over the last few years, I started of thinking clients were overpaying for a photographers service but after taking classes and see what it takes for an image to be produced, I now have the feeling that they don’t charge enough. It all take time and education, Photographer need to educate their client and educate each other, that’s the only way to bring back value into the industry.

  7. Many thanks for this. I always like to see more voices join in the protest on the war against photography. And it is a way. More and more clients are counting on the artist to be an artist, not a business person, and not know what his/her work is worth or act to defend his rights and income. Those selling low end microstock are key examples of this. If they were business people, if they were PROFESSIONAL, they would also be professional enough to realize this is not a fair pricing/use model and does not even support the cost of replacing the camera alone when it wears out.

    The game has reached unprecedented levels. Each week I am contacted by one or more “clients” with a new angle as to why i should work free. It is easy for me to say no. These are not clients, they are criminals. Unfortunately, many will find some photographer who will agree to do it on the hope it will lead to paid work. It NEVER does. Such crooks will simply move on to the next SUCKER when you demand your worth.

    This happens only because so many of us entering the business don’t know the business, don’t know what it actually costs to do business and don’t take the time to find out.

    Thanks for helping to educate more of us. Oh, and by the way, I thought my work was great until I looked at your portfolio. I have some more work to do!
    Mark Stout
    http://markstoutphotography.com

  8. A related article which may be of interest was just published on Photofocus.com
    http://photofocus.com/2009/06/20/do-professional-photographers-need-copyrights/

  9. It is actually worse than being asked to work for free. Yesterday a magazine asked me to PAY to be included in their publication, wanting a high quality full fashion editorial out of me. This is the second time in a week this has occurred. The claim is I will get so much exposure that models will beat down my door to shoot with me. Problem is they already are, and it is because they know I work with magazines who do pay and hope to get paying work through me. I doubt they will want to pay me to pay someone else to publish the work.

    When I politely said I do not work for free and cannot as a businessman afford to do so I was attacked as being “principled” and should learn that photographers must learn to see an “opportunity” when it arises.

    Things have become horribly inverted in the business. And it is happening because so many photographers desperate to break in are willing to give away the whole farm in the hope that they will one day be able to sell one potato. Unfortunately, if more of us don’t demand what we are worth and what it actually costs to produce good work, when that day comes you will have to PAY someone to take that lone remaining potato.

    As for the poster who defends the “right” to license images for peanut shells or work free, I’ve seen this quite a bit. I don’t understand it. Why would someone defend their “right” to be screwed. As if we are evil to demand what it costs to produce our work and they are righteous and good because they give it away free.

  10. Thanks for your comments, Mark. Other might be interested to read Mark’s own article which he just published about the ‘free exposure trap’:

    http://markstoutphotography.wordpress.com/2009/06/24/the-free-exposure-trap/

  11. Great blog! You took the words right out of my mouth. A few years ago, I had a couple come into my studio and told me they would pay me $5.00 (five dollars) if I put all the images I shot on a CF card. I told them I would be more that happy to do that. I told them all they had to do was write me a check for $12,000 so I could cover my monthly expenses of rent, payroll, supplies, and other costs. They seemed to have been offended? I don’t know why?

  12. I can say this is great because I just got done with a client who couldn’t afford the session. Ok so I will only probide as shot pics and you will have to buy those of my site. Retouched will be as priced and will be delivered. Covered my buttox, right, wrong. Put the pics up so they could be purchased and haven’t seen one purchase. So I am out and the time is lost. I wont do that ever again. I spent one hour at the shoot. One time rookie mistake and I thought I was being hard on them. Kudos.

  13. Well said…

  14. BEAUTIFUL! THANK YOU! <3 This is everything everyone wanted to say!

  15. Hey bud, I am not sure if you have seen my group on facebook, please join it and spread the word , I cant tell you how much this has made me so mad, thanks again for talking up about it and pls pld join my group, Kind regards

    Louis

    http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=151486828197054

  16. Everyone needs to have this mindset for the benefit of the industry. On a lighter note though I think you should check out this site: http://www.derekpyephotography.com/
    The xtra normals vids are hilarious!

  17. I would have said you stole my “race to the bottom” line from one of my recent blogs, but I read and quoted it from an industry newletter 🙂

    http://www.callumw.com/blog/photographic-mission-statement

    C.

  18. The days of free gigs is OVER. Would you ask a plumber to stand knee-deep in browny’s for free? I don’t think so! Or a musician to play for free? Or an electrician to re-wire for free? In other words – pay people PROPERLY!

  19. what always gets me, is that someone wanting a photographer to produce images to ultimately sell them (as a model), their product, their clothing, their jewellery, whatever the product may be, doesn’t seem to understand still the value of a high quality photo that is visually stimulating and pleasing, which sells their products ten fold, and brings the customers through their doors or buying off their website. They are selling their stuff but yet expect everyone to work for free to create that image that sells their product. That is the frustrating part, a photographer gets paid one off for that job and if they have done their job well, goes on to sell that client’s product on and on. In today’s age where image is everything, we live in a visual world with our mobile phoned glued to our palms and the internet at our finger tips, photos are even more valuable today than ever before.

  20. I can’t pay my rent in exposure!

  21. I face the exact same problem as a stylist starting out. For some reason, it’s totally acceptable to some people to request my services for free in return for ‘exposure’ as well.
    Of course, the development of the portfolio is important to me but for how long does this need to go on? And when you work for free to develop said folio, your first client you request a fee from could ultimately turn around and go, “well you worked your last job for free, why not me?”

  22. I agree with everything you are saying! I have a friend who is a photographer and
    it’s an on going thing with fashion designers especially wanting there lookbooks shot for free when clearly they will make a profit from these in some way.
    But let’s not forget the other creative side that helps bring all this together as a hair and fashion stylist I always get asked to do work on a TFP basis, I am a professional freelance artist and I have done numerous courses, bought thousands of dollars worth of equipment, products,clothes and props and I am expected to work for free also. I think this arguement goes with everyone in the industry. I have even been contacted to hair for a real life wedding on a TFP basis?????? She said “you get great pictures for your portfolio” no offense to her but I already have pictures for my portfolio in weddings I actually get paid for why would I do it for free? Now to put it in perspective would you ask a plumber to fix you
    toilet for free??
    I have a friend who is a high profile make up artist
    in Queensland and was contacted to do make up for an advertisement shoot she had previously quoted a half day price to him this included hairstyling and all touch ups on set for 4-5hours. He agreed with the price and booked her. On the day the shoot went for 13 hours 30 outfits needed to be shot and she was there from start to finish as he asked her to stay she did touch ups and alterations on most looks. When it came time to finalise invoices he refused to pay her as all his garments weren’t shot and he said he’d need to shoot again not long after that we saw the advertisement in mags and shop fronts he’d used the images.. She is still fighting for the money he owes her. Is this fair???
    I’m not trying to take away any light on the subject but trying to give the perspective that it happens to photographers, make up artists, hair and fashion stylists alike and without all our contribution beautiful images would not be so beautiful.

  23. Thank you for posting this. I don’t think clients understand the amount of work we put into what we do. *sigh*

  24. Charlie, you are welcome to post a link.

  25. Thanks yet again from another reader. I would like to post a link to this on my website, is that doable? I could not have said this any better.

  26. I have been asked to work for free as a Professional DJ and entertainer on the promise of food and sex–what a joke people!!

  27. Nothing makes my blood boil more than the confidence tricks employed by certain ‘customers’. A well-funded London-based arts charity recently contacted me, asking to purchase an unlimited use license image to promote a wide-scale project during the forthcoming London 2012 Festival. The image can be seen on my web page banner. They attempted to portray themselves as strapped for cash, which means they have plenty of money. When I checked their website, I noticed that one of their projects cost two million pounds! They wanted to use my image on three high traffic websites, on large posters, leaflets, press releases and anything else they needed. Needless to say, when I quoted a figure of £949, I never got a reply. Someone else will no doubt supply a picture for peanuts and the promise of ‘exposure’. It won’t be as good as mine, but at least the photographer will become known as someone who gives away their work for very little. That’s what ‘exposure’ tends to produce. And don’t ever be fooled by the word ‘charity’. They are businesses, with paid employees, accountants and advertising budgets. For some reason, however, the photographer is the only person being asked to work for free.

    Last year, someone asked if I could ‘loan’ a dozen of my A3 prints to their office, so that they could admire my work. They of course, promised ‘exposure’. My retort was as follows: “The next time you have the painters and decorators in, ask if they can ‘loan’ their paint and man hours.” The conversation ended shortly afterwards. So, I’m supposed to ‘loan’ my prints and all the while they are hanging on someone’s wall, I could be selling them and making money. And I might not get the prints back in a sellable condition.

    I spend a lot of time explaining to people the costs involved in producing work, along with the skill, time, effort and experience required. If photography is so easy, why aren’t there more people like me? That never occurs to people until I point it out to them.

  28. In a response can an amateur create a photo from exacting specifications of a designed comp or layout ? Do they understand the resolution requirements or post production skills, or have they studied art composition necessary to fulfill this commitment ? Do they have the management experience to know when and how to hire an assistant, a stylist, a set or prop builder, or location scout let alone shoot a casting call for talent selection ? The arrogance of most attitudes today toward a profession is absolutely obscene. Maybe we should start amateur real estate appraisers. An occupation many are capable of doing that charges a great deal of money but is intrinsically supported by local and federal licensing. I have worked in the Dental industry for over 40 years and it is a profession that a lot of people could learn. Should we now have amateur clinics ? All things are possible with technology-right ? Yea you can’t go to flicker and get a stock photo of Naomi Campbell wearing Prada with styling and make up by renown artists on the upper scale nor can you emulate that or something like it at a substantially less well known level. Bottom line-what amateurs want to spend more on equipment education and time than they will ever be able to earn back by giving their work away ? Who wants to dodge bullets or other dangers as a photo journalist as a part time job ? Who out there is so inept that they will spend their family income on a speculative venture, on a part time basis, so that some FAT CEO on a golf course can reduce their bottom line ? You gotta be kidding.