Working for Free

Ah, the old controversy of working for free. A guaranteed way to get any self-employed person’s blood flowing. I’ve read several posts and articles about this topic recently, as well as having a few conversations and correspondences about it too, and I thought it was high time I stuck my oar in. It’s always fun to throw myself into a nice controversial topic.

First off – full disclosure – I work for free all the time, and some of that free work has been extremely valuable to me. Last year alone (2016) I did some 15 or so shoots for free. There were a whole host of different reasons why I did unpaid work, and later on I’ll work through all the various categories, but to get the ball rolling I’d like to make a fairly clear statement.

I’ll be blunt – if you work for free, you’re an idiot. But wait Tom, didn’t you just say that working for free has it’s uses, and that you do it all the time? Yes, and I meant it too. Let me qualify what I mean by “free”. By “free” I mean work where you come away with literally nothing. The only thing you’ll usually get from shoots like this is the certain knowledge that you don’t want to repeat the experience – no money, no imagery for the portfolio, no “exposure”, no useful contacts, no traded favours or exchange of expertise – just a slightly bitter taste in the mouth.

Working for free - portfolio work
“Free” work – in this case stuff I shot for the portfolio.

Last year I had one shoot that definitely fell into this category, and another 2 that were skating on very thin ice. Needless to say, I won’t be working with the personnel involved ever again, and I can add a few more red flags to my personal list of things to watch out for before shooting with someone new. The other shoots though, all had a clearly defined purpose, and to a greater degree or other, that purpose was fulfilled. Let me make that nice and succinct before I delve into various different categories:

Working for “Free”, where you come away with nothing, other than a lesson learnt the hard way – BAD

Consciously working for no direct payment, but with the understanding that you will end up with some clear, non-financial benefits – GOOD

I’ll get into those non-financial benefits in just a moment, I’ll just add one last caveat. For all the positives to working without direct payment, you obviously shouldn’t make too big a habit of it. If photography is your main or sole source of income, then you do need to pay the bills! There is also the underlying problem of giving the impression that your work has little or no value. I’ll discuss this in more detail when it comes up, but essentially the solution to not devaluing yourself, is clear communication with the client before starting on a project.

What about these non-financial benefits then? Well, there are many, and sometimes there are several in one job. Starting with the most obvious, you may work for no payment because you want to get specific images in your portfolio. You may work for someone in exchange for them working for you in some capacity. You may choose to devote some of your time and expertise to an organisation or other entity you believe in, and work pro-bono. You may work in the hope that the images you produce will be seen by the right people and/or introduce you to those same people. You might shoot for free on the understanding that you’re building up to a bigger job with that client, and are merely providing proof of concept at this stage. You may also simply choose to give work away, though as I’ll detail later this usually happens (for me, at least) after the event.

To keep things simple – from now on “free” work means BAD, and all the other categories will have specific names. Hopefully that will avoid confusion. Hopefully.

This is such a big topic that I’ve split things across 3 posts – the first couple of categories today, 2 more on Wednesday, then 2 more and a summary on Friday. Trust me, this way you’ll be able to work up lots of outrage by the time I post the follow-up…..

Working for free – Working on Spec

Not everyone will be familiar with this term. For those that aren’t, it’s full name is “Speculative work”. Strictly speaking it covers work done on the condition that whilst this work won’t be paid, it’s leading towards a fully paid job sometime in the future. The potential for being ripped off is obviously HUGE with spec work, and unless you already have a very good relationship with the client in question, I’d strongly suggest getting everything in writing first. if you shoot on spec, and then either the promised shoot never happens, or is given to someone else, you can find yourself seriously out of pocket, with lots of time down the drain too.

Working for free - spec work.
Puma/Runner’s World shoot.   The images left and centre were taken on the “test” or “spec” day, which was unpaid, but where we were able to try out our ideas and nail our technique down before the shoot itself.

If things are clearly agreed before starting, and you can trust the client, then working on spec is pretty safe. Lots of spec work functions as what could be called “Proof of Concept”. It’s used to convince a client, or other people in the chain, that an idea is going to work. This might be from a technical standpoint, or it might be to try out different models or locations. Some spec shoots can end up being quite large scale, so you would be wise to keep an eye on costs. Since spec work can often be slightly experimental, there are some similarities to areas of shooting personal work. You may not be just going through the motions, and may find yourself having to push your own technical boundaries a bit.

Done well, spec work will obviously lead to a nice, juicy, well paid job in the near future. Better than that, it will hopefully smooth the path for you as well on the shoot, as you’ll have had a “rehearsal” of some, or all of the elements.

Quick summary – Get things agreed in writing up front, and be prepared to experiment quite a bit to get the right results.

Working for free – Trading Favours

Working for free can be great for getting access to interesting locations, or working with people you might not normally be able to get time with, or trading professional favours. As with other types of work I’m discussing, make sure the terms are clear before starting. One side can very easily be abused by the other. Ensure each party understands the correct value of the other party’s time. Most people undervalue photography – I have had people just starting out in business insist that a whole day of my time, plus editing, is worth a couple of hours of their time. If you don’t establish a fair rate of exchange, the relationship is going nowhere.


Working for free - trading favours
Work for the Foundry.  I’ve done a few unpaid shoots for them, and will continue to over the next year or so.  In return, I have a full paid membership of one of the best gyms in London.  In pure financial terms, they do quite well out of me, as my fee for the shoots would add up to quite a bit more than a year’s membership, but having such a fantastic location within 10 minutes bike ride of me is pretty priceless to my mind!  We agreed everything in writing before I took the first picture.

Once you’ve established a fair rate, I’d highly recommend you treat the job as if it were a full-paying gig. Don’t be tempted to short change the client, because by extension why should they then supply you with their half of the deal? If you’ve established terms – such as how long you’ll get access to a location for, or how much retouching you’re prepared to do – then adhere to them strictly.

Quick summary – well worth doing, as long as you value the return favour, and ensure it gets delivered!

Part 2 – Working for “exposure” and shooting for the portfolio is here.

Part 3 – Giving work away, and Pro Bono work is here.

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