When to Work for Free and When to NOT

The debate about whether to work for free or not as been going on for some time and I don’t think that it will ever go away. The reason being is that there are always people wanting top quality work for nothing and (oddly enough) there are people who are willing to work for nothing. Recently, I saw Gary Vaynerchuk talk about how people were getting too fancy and wanting to charge money for services when they should be giving it away. I scratched my head and thought “Easy enough to say when you run a multi-million dollar company” but there is some truth to what he says. It’s obvious he knows what he is talking but for photographers working for free can sometimes also mean being taken advantage of.


When to Work for Free

When it comes to clients and projects, I want a win-win situation. A win for the clients side is getting the images or the work that they want for free. A win for me is getting something worthwhile in return for the images. It is as simple as that. However, there are times when the “something worthwhile” means nothing but that is my choice.

You may have seen a few of my cinemagraphs around for different companies. Some of those companies I reached out to on my own and gave them one of my cinemagraphs. You may think that I lost my mind but I did this because I really liked their product and I wanted to give a little back. Typically, I’ve done this for some startups that I felt needed a boost or that I just really really liked their product. The image and the creative direction was my own and it was a gift to them without any strings attached. If they use the cinemagraph, great. If they don’t that’s fine too.

The thing here is that there is no assumption of quality on the part of the company as they are not paying you or contracting you to do anything. This goes a long way to building a relationship with the company and will lead to future jobs as you initiated the first contact and then can negotiate a price for a “real” project later. If they have used your image then they probably have seen how well it does and now they will possibly  want to work with you for a particular campaign.

So, my advice is to find products that you love and reach out to them. Make a proposal that is a win-win and see where it goes. Again, you make the proposal and accept the costs if their are any because afterall you are in control. If it is for free then so be it, but it will be a project that you are happy to be a part of. This proposal also needs to be strategic as Gary Vaynerchuk says in another video. If you are looking to expand your client base then look towards the companies that will have a big impact or following.

Free doesn’t Always Mean “Free”

Exploring this idea of win-win a little further, you can opt for something else in return for your services. What you are looking at is value. You will often see this with companies who want to get their products seen on instagram or facebook. Over the years, I have been contacted by a number of companies to review their products. In exchange, I got to keep the product. In my mind getting a new product for simply reviewing it is a win-win.

Working towards a win-win is always optimal because you’re NOT obligated to provide anybody anything simply because they like your work. I like Range Rovers but they are not going to simply give me one because I liked their ad on facebook. However, if you are working with a smaller company and providing them with quality images and helping them get their name out, one of their products or something else should be on the bargaining table if they don’t have a proper budget. This is not asking for a handout but rather an exchange. If they can’t provide cold hard cash then they should provide something in it’s place.

If you are reaching out to a larger company then make sure that they can get your name out there. If you are giving away your best work then it needs to be in a place where people will see it and know who your are and have a way of contacting you.


When NOT to Work for Free

Every so often I get an email telling me how much they like my work and that they have this great project that they want to use my work for. They usually tell me how successful or amazing their project or thing is and that my images or cinemagraphs would be perfect for it. Sadly, there is just no budget to actually pay anything. They are hoping that I would  love this project as much as they do and give them my images for free. Now, the issues here are: I have never heard of this company before, there is an assumption of quality and they are primarily in control of the situation.

They are reaching out to me to license an image and they are the ones benefiting from it in the end and they are looking for the best quality that they can find. This is different than what we talked about before because your were the one making the offer, you know, like and use their product, and you are giving them whatever you made. Here they are acting like a paying client but offering nothing in return.

This is a prime example of a win-lose situation. How many times have you watched a video or used an app and thought who took that picture? Unless you are in a place like me where you know many of the photographers and know their work, you probably don’t care. You see the pic and think “that’s nice” and move on. I feel that 99% the world works like this unless they take an active role in promoting your work. However, few places actually do this. It is a false statement as they just want your image and nothing more to do with you. They want to make it seem like they will get you more work but instead they are just taking your work for free. It is the “don’t call me, I’ll call you” of the photography world.

The fact of the matter is that if you don’t know or even like the company, they do not deserve your work for free or even a discount. If they are willing to give something of value in return then that is fine. Sadly, most companies, agencies and individuals who have no budget are looking simply to get your work fast and easy.

What to Say

When you get offers for free, negotiate. Think about the win-win and ask what else they have to offer and be clear about it because they know what they are doing. I had a friend work for shoes as a bonus. The company was into sports and wanted particular shots of their team. They couldn’t quite meet his price but compensated with brand new shoes and merchandise. While this may not pay the bills it does save money in some ways. The deal is that you have to negotiate. Be upfront and say “Thank you for reaching out. I am looking for a win-win here. What else can you offer to cover the difference?”

My favourite is when you get the “we have a large list of followers” or “It’ll be great exposure” offer to set them up with an affiliate code. Tell them that they can purchase the product at full price and with the affiliate code they can earn back their budget. This way the “exposure” or “followers” that are so great turn into clients when the current client is held to their word. If the client truly believes in their followers then they will go for it. In my experience they typically don’t because you called their bluff.

The bottomline is that it is ok to work for free, if it serves you as much as the client. IF you want to give your work for free it should be on your terms because you want to do so. However, if you have no idea what the project is or the project is of no value to you then don’t do it.

If an agency or company contacts you and wants you to support them, it has to be win-win. This also goes for those low offers of $50 for a product that you typically sell for $500 to $1000.  As Chase Jarvis and other have said “a $50 client will never become a $5000 client” It is ok if they can’t pay that is fine but they have to come your way in other ways. Make sure that they have a way compensate for the difference.


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