Would you work for free? / by Neil Alexander

Land Rover Experience - Range Rover Sport

Would you expect a plumber to visit your home and fix a leak for free (unless he'd caused it in the first place, obviously), or would you expect the checkout assistant at Sainsburys to let you take your weekly shopping for free provided you came back and bought more next week? 

So why should photographers work for free or give away images from their archive for nothing other than the promise of exposure or more work in the future? 

Or should they? And if so, under what circumstances?

Let me back track a little. Although photography has only been my sole source of income for around a year now, I've been building up my business for a few years to the point that I could safely jump ship. Over that period, I've had "do this one for free and you’ll absolutely get paid when the next job comes around", "it'll be great exposure for you", "no other readers who have submitted photographs have expected to get paid" and "but you've already made those photographs so it's not going to cost you anything to let me have them". Each and every time I have stuck to my guns and my answer has (mostly) been an unswerving No. I'm in a relatively fortunate position in that I have past experience of running a business and so does my wife but it can still be a tricky call when you're trying to get something off the ground and a potential client dangles a large carrot in front of you, even though it's often on the end of an extremely long stick.

But what if it's for a good charitable cause, or it's going to go in the national press or some other reason that stops and make you think? Where do you draw the line?

I suppose it's different for everyone, but in my opinion those that give their time or work away for free are completely undermining the entire business of photography and themselves in the long run. 

If the job has significant commercial value, in other words the client is going to make money from my work then freebies are absolutely off the table.  

I am not just a button pusher, or a monkey so when someone says that they've got a really great camera and all they need is for me to come and press the button for them then I'll run a mile. It's the photographer that makes the photograph, not the camera.

And just because the organisation is a not for profit, doesn't mean that they get their gas, electric, tea and coffee for free. I have charities that are close to my own heart that I give to in my own way. Any others that want me to work for them, pay the going rate the same as they do their Royal Mail bills. 

Any decision I make to work free is based on the following criteria:

  • The subject matter is something that I'm truly interested in.
  • It's a location that I wouldn't otherwise be able to get access to, and would love to go shoot there.
  • The cause is something that I firmly believe in and it would be highly likely that I'd dip into my own pocket for them anyway.
  • It's something that I think would either hugely benefit my portfolio or really push my skills and force me to up my game.

Are there any other circumstance in which you'd give away your work or time? Have I missed anything? Hit me in the comments below if you think I'm talking jibberish.

Land Rover Experience - Range Rover Sport

So finally, I'm looking a worthy project or two this year. If you know of any causes that could use a photographer then please feel free to send me over some details by email to neil@neilalexander.net.

Incidentally, the inspirational Zack Arias took part in this video interview on Photoshelter with a post titled "If I had to start my photo business today" in which he shares many tips for photographers who are just starting out on their own business ventures.