In Defense Of Free
November 2nd, 2010

Kathmandu, Nepal

It seems that barely a week or two can pass before I once again read (often from photographers I respect) about the evils of photographers working for free. It’s as if doing so were the equivalent of stealing somebody’s dinner and kicking their dog. The arguments against working for free are many and varied. There’s “they’re paying everybody except for you, the photographer”, which can be true but can also be mostly irrelevant. There’s “you’ll steal business from a professional who needs to pay his mortgage”, which is mostly bollocks. A lot of reasons are given, but I don’t really believe them. Let me explain why (and for free I might add!).

Photography has the apparent misfortune of being both craft (also art, which I will freely intermix here—despite their differences) and vocation (for some). As a result there is a blurry dividing line between what one will do solely for the sake of art and what one will do solely for the sake of compensated vocation, which in addition to money might also include fame, prestige, influence, etc. Some are content to work on their craft solely for the art of it, and we don’t hear much from these people. They’re toiling away in near obscurity, cranking out masterpieces in their basements. At the other end of the spectrum there are those who excel at marketing themselves but really aren’t very good photographers—nor even productive members of this wonderful photography community (something which is entirely subjective but useful for this point; so let’s just agree this category exists without pointing fingers). The vast majority are somewhere between these two extremes. There are the amateurs and hobbyists looking for knowledge, feedback and sometimes praise but not money (despite their talents), and there are the professionals dedicated to their work and to their clients. Apparently, free is supposed to be bad for all of them and everybody in-between. Free is just bad; it undermines everything. It causes sharp images to blur and changes apertures and shutter speeds when you’re not looking! It probably even warps time.

Now if you’re in the unenviable position of not being able to pay your mortgage or put food on the table, then dedicating all your time to your love of photography without any monetary compensation is probably an unwise act. Some might call it irresponsible. I would. However, if, at the other extreme, you’re fabulously wealthy and desperately want to photograph for a certain client, holding out for a day rate they won’t pay seems absolutely pointless. You’re going to give up a dream because you can’t add a couple grand to your mountain of money? Glad I’m not you! No, really; I’m glad that I’m not you.

The point here is that where one allows the spheres of photographic art and photographic vocation to overlap is entirely personal. It’s not my job to tell you how much you have to charge. And it’s nobody else’s business to tell me! And let me be perfectly clear. I WILL work for free. Now if that bothers you, I suggest that you ask yourself why you’re bothered by what I do. No, I’m not going to call Monsanto and offer to shoot their annual report for free. I wouldn’t work with them for ten times my day rate; so I’m certainly not going to do it for free. But if I want to work with a client who can’t afford me, then I’ll try to find a way of making it happen. And free might be that way. It also might not be.

How do I decide? Its a combination of desire and gut feeling. It’s how much I want the job factored with the client’s ability to pay. The ideal scenario is when my desire is high and their bank account overflowing. But if my desire is stratospheric and they’re counting pennies, I’m not taking their pennies. You can do that if you like. And if you’re just starting out and want to offer yourself for free, go for it. I see nothing at all wrong with that (as long as you’re actually adding value and not just taking up time). In fact, I’m going to go ahead and potentially piss off a lot of people and even encourage it (although assisting somebody might be a better option). You have to build your experience somehow. If you can afford to do it for free, then why would I wish to stop you? For fear of competition? I don’t think so. I photograph for projects and clients in which I believe. If you can offer them the same (or more) value for less, then I’ll even recommend you! It’s my job to make sure that I’m worth whatever I ask. It’s not your job to match me.

There’s absolutely nothing—NOTHING—wrong with pursuing your craft without monetary reimbursement—that includes for clients if you so desire. Don’t go out there and start charging just because others who are afraid of a saturated market tell you that in order for the playing field to be level that you have to charge, that you’re an idiot if you don’t. Life’s not like that. Let’s see, they have 20 years of experience and a long list of clients. You’ve got a camera, hope and a dream. Yet you’re supposed to charge top dollar so that they can compete against you? Bollocks! Do what you want. Charge what you want. Make up your own rules. One of mine is to never blindly obey people who want to tell me what I should or shouldn’t do!

I think that accusing amateur, semi-professional and even professional photographers (categories that are thankfully blurring) of being idiots, or worse, for willingly working for free, a byline, a $30 cover, etc. is like accusing me of hurting the restaurant industry by inviting friends over for dinner! I don’t buy it. And you’re all welcome to dinner! (Just not all at once.)

22 Responses to “In Defense Of Free”

  1. Radek says:

    and i’m just gonna say i’m glad that someone finally put the issue into words! Bravo Jeffrey. Supporting what you have written 100 percent !

  2. ” They have 20 years of experience and a long list of clients. You’ve got a camera, hope and a dream” . . . very pragmatic Jeff! Just loved the post a lot.

  3. Mark Olwick says:

    Amen, Jeffrey!

  4. Kerry says:

    Glad I emerged from tooling around my basement to read this. ;) Excellent post, well presented and written. Thank you!

  5. Rad Deverala says:

    Timely! Good thing is that this defense comes from someone with credibility. I’d gladly assist you Jeffrey whenever you’ll be planning to visit Japan. That would be for free.

  6. Matt Welsh says:

    I absolutely agree with you – as a matter of fact I’m doing a free shoot this weekend of a local dance company that has very little money! I don’t think it’s hurting anyone by doing so and they really need the help…

  7. Chris Ward says:

    I read a “no free” post, and I think “yea, I must charge, I’m worth it”, then read your post and think “yea, I can do what I want”. It can be a little difficult trying to find ones path, ones voice, ones style, and ones rate all at once, and there are a ton of folks willing to rant. Still, thanks for your rant on this side of the fence. It’s nice to know that someone with experience, clients, equipment and better photographs isn’t afraid of me :-)

  8. I wrote a recent rant about free on a site I contribute to and yet I read this and find myself nodding my head in agreement in parts. :)

    Actually for me it’s a pretty simple (in theory) decision to make – if the end user / client who approaches me is a profit-making entity and seeking to use my photography to financially benefit themselves, then they should pay. If it’s a non-profit that does something I believe in and has little or no funding, then it’s negotiable on a case by case basis. It may be a little hypocritical of me at times, but that’s life.

  9. Couldn’t agree more. My only complaint about free is when clients demand it and photographers concede without the understanding that it’s costing them something. there is no “free” but as long as you’re cool underwriting it, I totally agree. Money is not the be all and end all and I’d guess the best work is done without money being a consideration, whether or not it changes hands at some point.

  10. Whew. Finally someone said it all correctly and beautifully. Well put.

  11. Ian Furniss says:

    I’ll add my echo into that “well said!”. I’ll happily work for free when it suits me. To paraphrase slightly the immortal words of Jaz Coleman ‘money is not a God’ and there are things in life which are far more important to me than the accumulation of wealth. You can’t deny the need to earn and making a living, but by the same rule, you can’t deny that friendship as one example of many is worth more than any cash sum.

  12. Jeffrey Chapman says:

    Radek, Pramod, Mark, Kerry and Mark (aka, JerseyStyle), thanks for the support! I was a bit nervous about posting this particular rant, but I thought that it had to be said. And yet again you all as a community have proven to be thoughtful as well as thought-provoking.

    Rad, I just canceled a trip to Japan for January. :-( But it’ll make it back into the calendar at some point. I won’t make you work for free, but I might make you share some tea!

    Chris, oh, I’m still afraid of you! :-)

    Craig, it’s almost never hypocritical to act within your beliefs!

    David, good point. It’s important for us to educate the market. We can be free when we’re OK with being free. That’s not the same as being free because the market demands free. And actually, “free” is just an illusion. We’re getting something out of it – even if just a good feeling, which frankly is sometimes priceless.

    Ian, just about everything is more important to me than the accumulation of wealth. I tried that avenue once. It was hollow, and the rainbows were fake!

  13. Rowan Sims says:

    I’m so glad to hear you say this, Jeffrey. All the “Free is Evil” crap has been getting to me lately, so it’s great to hear someone with as much cred as you say this stuff openly. You’ve helped me to let go of a bunch of misconceptions about the whole industry, and maybe even take some risks!

    Thank you.

  14. Camille says:

    Thanks for writing this. I feel a lot better. I do work for free. And I don’t have 20 year track record that I can price myself off of. And I only work for free for organizations whose work I truly believe in. And I have to be careful not to take on too much work because even organizations who do amazing work will ask for too much sometimes. And I feel like I have to apologize to other photographers before I tell my stories all the time. So thank you.

    Interestingly enough, the work I’ve done for either zero or very little money has given me the most exposure, introduced me to the most amazing people, and given me the greatest satisfaction. Last week I was working on two projects. One was paid and one was not. You don’t have to guess which was more inspiring and produced the most appealing images. Now, maybe one of these days soon, the two will come together, but until then, I will keep working for free and visualizing paychecks that come from those same organizations.

  15. Chris Gelken says:

    Excellent post.

  16. CJ Kern says:

    Agreed, there is nothing wrong with it, except when the client wants you do shoot something that doesn’t feed your head or your heart.

  17. Really good post… In fact we always get something in return :-)

  18. Well said! There are also those times when working for free (or almost free), there is less stress, expectations and more freedom to create.

  19. anita says:

    I love the spirit with which this is written. One of my favorite mottos comes from Paul B Evans, entrepreneur and founder of 100X Missions: “make more | give more | live more.” His purpose for making money is to have the ability to give. …such a lovely way to live. (if anyone’s in the mood to give, he could use some great photos). ;)

    In this day & age when we have this incredible opportunity to create lifestyle businesses, I see too many people blindly following someone else’s blueprint. “Should,” “need to” and “can’t” are red-flag words for me. If you’re being told those things, even if it’s coming from your brilliant business coach, you still need to stop and evaluate the why.

  20. Eli R. says:

    Well I had to give this some thought Jeffrey -as I’ve started saying ”No,Thanks” now.

    I did a photo shoot for a friend who wanted to pay me, and he asked me how much I wanted to charge. I said I could do it as a favor to a friend for free. Since this was for a business purpose, my friend wanted to pay. So far, so good. Then we got to discuss the amount. I didn’t really care since this was my friend but suggested that he start with what he meant was an acceptable salary for a photographer and adjust that to how many hours I’d spent. Before even calculating he burst out that that was “WAY too much”. So I just asked what he wanted to pay and accepted that as fine. My friend also pointed out what a good opportunity this was for me, being “seen” in that business. He said he was doing me a favor. I thought maybe he was right. I just wanted to be open to opportunities.

    My friend came back a next time and I did the job again. My friend was still very pleased and came back a third time and this time I said no.

    I don’t think he meant to take advantage of me, but he had no idea how much time I spent editing and working on the images, not to mention the extra equipment I invested in to be able to do the job. And I didn’t manage to educate him into knowing. In addition to this he has used the images for far more purposes than we had agreed on.

    I got to the point where I was thinking – what’s in it for me? Really. The “More business” he thought I would get never came. And to be honest I did not want it either.

    So I’ve said no to photo shoots, to teaching, I’ve said no to print sales where the customer thought I was too pricey. I tried to explain that preparing an image, talking to the shop, picking it up and meeting you in a café to hand it over is two hours work time for me. I get a lot of these requests and I would not have time for photography if I accepted giving prints away for the price that the printer guy wants for the print – a price which they may already think is too expensive.

    I guess what annoys me still is that these people thinks what they wanted was a good deal… for ME. And that I could be a bit more generous. Since they are doing me a favor. They think it is good for me to get the practice. They think it is good marketing for me that my prints are seen on their walls by their friends. They think it is good for me to get more practice in teaching.

    The only party it is good for is them.

    So my opinion is that if you spend your time and money doing “free” work, make sure that the good feeling you get from giving away your time and work minimum matches what you invest.

    There are some clients I would take on for free again any time but only because that type of work makes ME feel happy.

  21. Amie says:

    Eli, you are SPOT ON, and David, too. I don’t mind when people work for free for reasons that matter to them, but I so often run into people who want to ‘hire’ me for free because it would be ‘good exposure’ for me, or they say “we don’t have a budget for photography,” that it makes me want to ask if they collect a paycheck themselves. If you don’t have a budget for it, then you don’t get to have it. I can’t go to the grocery store and get food for free because I forgot to budget in food costs, so there you have it. Photo credits don’t pay bills, and nebulous ‘marketing opportunities’ don’t either, so when I’m working my butt off and putting my heart and soul out there and people think that makes it ok not to pay me, it just isn’t right. I have learned to say no, and stand firm by my rates, and I do still work for free on occasion, when I choose to, but I have a standard line for those who think the marketing opportunity is payment enough: “I have a carefully thought out marketing plan for my business, and my work in exchange for marketing value has been met for this year.” Good post, Jeffrey!

  22. Owen Schebella says:

    Great post. I think in photography the only way to really differentiate is to be uniquely ‘You’. The images aren’t the product, the photographer is. That way, there is no competition and its certainly not ’stealing’ money from the ‘pros’ if others want to do it for free, as there are no two photographers that are exactly the same.

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