A creative photographer with any experience in the industry already understands well that they will be asked to work for free on a regular basis. Either they will be approached to work on a project without pay, or they will find the passion to complete their own project without guarantee of pay at the end of it. For those who are just starting to make the leap from amateur to professional, this can bring up some difficult questions.
When should you be satisfied to work for free, and when should you expect to be paid? In an ideal world, of course, we would all be paid for our work – even those labours of love that are our personal projects. However, particularly when working with small businesses or individuals, the funding may simply not be there. There is a certain culture growing in the industry in which new photographers will do just about anything for free, but this is harming the work opportunities in the industry overall; when clients see that they no longer need to pay for images, they are not likely to go back to offering a payment.
If you want to be responsible for the way your actions impact the industry, and also to ensure that you are always being treated fairly, you can follow these general guidelines to understand when you should work for free – and when you should not.
When Testing With Models
Testing with models means shooting without either of you exchanging money. In some cases, you may pay their travel expenses, but not all (and working with models in your local market will minimize this). Testing can be used, as the name suggests, to try out looks, styles, and themes for upcoming shoots. You can also generally use test shoots to create editorials for submission to fashion magazines, but you should make this clear up front.
Agencies are often happy to let their models go to test shoots as it builds up their portfolio, so you could end up shooting with some great models without having to pay. So long as you are working to your own ideas or testing things that are relevant to your paid work, it is fine to test for free. This becomes more of a grey area when you are asked to test by the agency or individual, working to their ideas and creating something that they need. In this case, you may be better off asking for pay. Some photographers will do the work for free, however, in order to build good relations with the agency. It is down to your discretion which path you take; weigh up the potential benefit to your future career against the normal fee you would charge for the work. Consider offering them a reduced rate to keep you both happy.
When Shooting For Companies
When you are asked to do some work by a company, it can be a lot easier to figure out whether you should work for free or not just by asking some simple questions. Is the company a charitable organization? If so, and you support their cause, then doing some work for them for free is completely acceptable. In fact, it may be the only way that they are able to get that work done.
Is the company a small local business? If so, could you help one another? For example, they could exchange one of their services for your photography, or they could agree to refer customers to you and display your advertising materials to drive more clients to your business. If this is not possible, you should consider negotiating rates with them; if they will not pay a level that you are happy with, you should not work for free.
Is the company a big business? If so, you should always expect to be paid. Even if they say that they have others who are willing to do it for free, this is not a good enough reason for you to do so. No matter how great the images would look in your portfolio, the money in your bank would look even better. A big company can afford to pay you and is only being cheeky by suggesting that they will not. You owe it to your own self-respect and also to fellow photographers to say no – and demand a fee for any work you do.
When Shooting For Yourself
If you can afford to shoot your own projects, even without the promise of being paid, there is only one piece of advice to give: do it! Cultivating your own ideas and working on your own projects is very important to help you develop your creative style. It can also fuel your passion and allow you to stay engaged and happy with your work. Personal levels of satisfaction can increase hugely if you are able to follow your own path.
For those who do not have the funding to go ahead, it becomes a more complicated question. There may be times when you can raise a little funding to keep your ideas alive. Could you apply for a grant, or a creative arts fund? How about a competition which is giving away funding to creatives? Could you even run your own crowd-funded campaign to see the work come to fruition?
These options will allow you to reinvest that money directly into the project. You are not likely to see any profit from it, at least at the beginning of the project, but you can put your ideas into reality without having to spend your own money.
If you need to take investments from those who would profit from your work should you sell it, then you may need to weigh up the decision carefully. This kind of funding does mean you get to put the project together, but it limits the amount you can earn if you sell the images or publish a book later. This could mean it would be better to wait until you are able to fund it yourself (or convince a client to let you create the work in their name as paid work).