Combating the free army

Dear young/emerging/interested photographer, 

There is a simple question every one of us must answer at some points in our early careers: should I work for free?


But it IS more complex than that.

While I’m not the first photographer to ever broach the issue, and I won’t be the last, there are many who are new to the business who haven’t heard the warnings.

Hopefully this will serve as a logical explanation of why I don’t think you should.

Number one, what you charge equates to how much you are valued by the person you are shooting/assisting/interning for.  Someone who isn’t paying you simply doesn’t value your work otherwise they would find the money.

If they want you, they like you.  If they like you, they value you.  If they value you, you should be paid.

I made some mistakes while I was getting my business started.  One of them was shooting for a friend for free.  The promise of free publicity from a captive audience seemed great, but when I arrived I discovered I was one of three or four photographers who were shooting.

I felt used.

I was smarter the next time something similar came up.  Summer of 2009 I was approached by a well known theatre in Atlanta about doing some photography for them.

They even brought me in for a meeting, but things headed south as soon as compensation was brought up.

They wanted everything for free.

They wanted my time (shooting and editing), my gear (in the thousands of dollars) and my knowledge (years of experience and work) for a small little line in their program.

I could have bought an ad and come out ahead.

If bylines paid bills, you’d see them on billboards.  The only value I receive from doing a shoot is getting paid so I can buy toys for my cat.

From experience, I can say that they want everything and will be more demanding during the process. They don’t value what your work since they believe if you won’t work for free, someone else will.

Not everyone is like this, but most are.

Number two, should I intern/assist for free?  I still say no, mostly.

As I started booking gigs that required assistants, I found ways to pay those who helped me out.

I couldn’t always pay much, but I threw my assistants what I could.

Despite requests, I have not taken on any interns for my business. Do I have a need? Yes. Could I compensate them appropriately? No.  So I don’t bring them on.

That isn’t to say I haven’t helped out younger photographers though.  I just don’t make them provide free labor as a condition of having to talk to me.

I’m more than willing to sit down with young photographers, discuss their portfolios, go out and shoot with them and try to refer work their way if I feel they can handle it.

Why? It’s the right thing to do.

Conversely, as soon as one of them does anything in any official capacity with my name attached, they get paid. That’s the right thing to do as well.

Number three, are you really getting what you think you will be getting out of it?

I’ve heard all kinds of promises in regard to doing free work and none pan out.

Exposure is usually the primary point brought up.  As I mentioned previously, a byline doesn’t pay for my cat’s toys.

Experience is the second item usually promised by those looking for free labor.

“You can use this for your portfolio!” they say.  Well, fantastic, but I could still use it for my portfolio if you paid me.

It’s a great feeling when people love your work and want you to shoot for them.  Flattering really, but if they like your current portfolio enough to want you to shoot for them, you don’t really need to be shooting just for your portfolio anymore.

If no one is contacting you based on what’s in your portfolio, keep shooting for yourself and developing your eye.  Eventually someone will like what the see AND want to pay for it.

Knowledge, on the other hand, can be a legitimate reason.  This comes with a warning though; make sure the person teaching you actually knows what they are talking about.

In every field, there is always the charismatic person who can convince others that their chicken-scratch is chicken salad.  These people are toxins.  They have no loyalty to the craft, those they work for or those they convince to work for them.

They are the type to take credit for things they didn’t actually do, just because you spent some time around them, they associate your success with theirs.  And they will and use it to their own advantage.

If the person can talk, but can’t walk you could find yourself in the deep end of the pool not knowing how to swim.

There is more to any craft than just buzzwords, and just because someone knows the words doesn’t mean they know the meaning.

For example, a white-seamless that is grey and has visible seams.

If they teach you wrong, and you’ve bought in, you won’t realize you’re in trouble until it’s too late.

Think critically about who you will be working for.  Are their photos actually good or are they just better than yours?

Are their former interns actually getting a lot of work on their own or are they struggling?  How many are actually still trying to make it 3, 6, 12 months after their internship ended?

Claiming 40+ interns to your credit sounds great, but how many have actually been successful?

Further, try talking to former interns who aren’t currently employed by the photographer.  Are their names or contact information even listed anywhere for you to reach them?  If not, why not?

Charisma is a great trait to have, but it can be dangerous in the wrong hands to their clients, to themselves and most importantly to you.

Ultimately, it all comes down to this simple fact: if someone is making money on your work, you should be too.

People need to value their time and realize that if someone isn’t willing to compensate them for their work, someone else probably will.

In the end, it’s up to you to make sure you aren’t being taken advantage of. No matter what I or anyone else says, only you can figure out what’s best for you.  All I can do is offer my advice.


Josh D. Weiss