Photography for Free: No Pay Only Shots for Portfolio

“Do you want to work this awesome gig?”

“Hell yes.”

“Great, you’ll be on the list with a press pass.”

“Cool, whats the pay?”

“No pay, just shots for your portfolio…”

Too often this dialogue transpires for the emerging photographer. The responses vary but all photographers feel the same way: USED. Clients in this situation are taking advantage of something new in the freelance photographer’s market: everyone has a camera and to some degree know how to use it.

What clients do not understand is the difference between the amateur and professional. A professional photographer will shoot an event and take, lets say 100 photos, of those 100 maybe 75 will be “keepers”. Had an amateur covered the same event and taken the same 100 photos maybe only 25 will be “keepers”. For my purpose the actual ratio does not matter, it is simply the difference between the two.

A pro photographer is like a lion waiting to pounce on moments and situations using a carefully crafted balance of creativity and skill to capture and create. Unlike the pro, an amateur will approach the same situation optimistically yet without the confidence, knowledge, or experience necessary to get equal results. What ends up happening is moments/photographs are missed (to a variety of reasons) or overall quality suffers. Simply put, a pro MAKES photographs, an amateur TAKES photos.

Because of the advancements of modern cameras, anyone is easily capable of getting good to excellent photos (in ideal situations) without any working knowledge/experience, but in order to do this on-cue repeatedly requires a professional. Sure there are times when there is no budget and a student must be found on craigslist who will work for exposure/experience/something-to-put-in-their-portfolio, but this is an inherent risk to the client. Before looking for a “free photog” you must be absolutely willing to receive sub par results. If you require quality, you must hire (pay) a professional. And please, do not give me the line, “to better your portfolio”, I do that everyday.

*Side Note*

To ALL photographers: You have a skill and should be paid well for it. Wether or not you consider yourself qualified you must understand that the service you are providing is not cheap and anyone cannot do it. Find out what other photographers are charging. If you want to be cheap, be cheap, but don’t sell yourself, and the industry, short by working for nothing. Many potential clients like my work, but can’t afford to hire me. I always try and work with a client and their specific budget, but there must be a point of no return. No one likes to turn down work, but this is how we make our living. Working for free is not better than not working.

15 Replies to “Photography for Free: No Pay Only Shots for Portfolio”

  1. i see your point. let’s say someone hit you up to shoot the Black Keys show at HOB but told you they had no room on the budget for a photographer but they can give you a stage pass and some drinks (should ‘professional’ photographers be drinking on the job?). would you still turn that down? the chance to be on stage with a band you like, some seriously personal shots, and a great experience. there is a time when doing something for free can’t hurt you. it’s about working with people. the person you told to “fuck off. pay me” probably won’t come back to you when they actually do have the money to afford you. i’m not saying you are wrong, but there is always underlying circumstances. what makes a photographer “professional”? experience? equipment? i’m not being a dick, i really am curious b/c i have seen you make posts about this frequently.

  2. Ron, I will address each part:
    1) If the Black Keys (multi-millionaires topping the charts) did not have enough respect to pay me I would certainly not work with them.
    2) For any band to assume that shooting their performance is going to be so uplifting and sentimental as to not warrant payment for services is downright pretentious and rude. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with volunteering, but expecting to donate your time/skill is absurd.
    3) Working with people implies professional relationships, usually that means money is being spent.
    4) No one should be expected to work for free in the hopes of one day getting paid.
    5) I would not accept work from someone who tried to use me in the past.
    6) What makes a photographer a professional? A professional gets paid.
    7) These posts are responses to a meltdown in the freelance profession.

  3. I agree with the author 100%.

    Spec work is absolutely wrong no matter what the industry.

    It’s a way for a company with some sort of name recognition to take advantage of smaller firms or freelancers. They know the freelancer is willing to do anything for exposure, so why pay them? It’s completely dishonest.

    There is simply no excuse for spec work.

  4. “Spec Work”

    I like the term and the site NO!SPEC. This is becoming more of a problem because people are ignorant to what work (photos, design, writing) should cost. Lots of new start-up companies are looking to collaborate, which is good but they don’t understand that it is necessary to pay for services so the cycle can continue. A company is not legitimate if they don’t pay the people who create their content.

  5. Of course, in my case I use photography as an example. The same goes for graphic designers, web designers, writers…

  6. this is a concept/issue that goes wayyyy beyond photographers! I love when even a couple of local photographers held a “logo contest” for their website. Graphic artists, web designers, and even hardcore programmers get solicited to do on-spec work in a manner similar to what you mention here.

    Musicians also have this problem-for every union musician, there’s a wannabe soloist or garage band that will play a club for free to get their sound out.

    Pros don’t give it away, simple as that.

  7. I agree with Zander as well. As a designer, I try to help some local non profits out when I can. I do a lot of work for Oak Street Main Street and for YLC and I do not expect payment in return for those things. I also help out family, friends, friends of friends… but after everyone gets a favor or two it is time to pay up! Of course I love to design but I do not want to spend every minute of my life doing it, especially for nothing in return.

  8. Couldn’t agree more. That’s just as bad as under cutting (i.e., $500 weddings), either way it damages the income of a lot of awesome people that make photography, design, etc., their career choice.

    Some people actually think that anyone that can open Photoshop or owns a dSLR can make a quality product. (“Uncle Joe has a D3000! He can do what that guy charged you $3000 for! And he’ll do it for free!”)

    It’s a dangerous combo, People willing to work for nothing, and uneducated “clients”.

  9. RULE 1 get paid as much and as often as possible.
    ObSERVATION If you are making cash and try to talk someone in to working for nothing, you can feel smart about yourself for a week, but real pros will detect your stench long time.

    THE ART EXCLUSION CLAUSE. no money in any pocket, no client, selected friends &experts, you give me a day, i give you a day. growth opportunity.

  10. Zander, I see where you’re coming from, but your advice isn’t for everyone. When you say “Working for free is not better than not working,” you have to realize that, while this statement may be sound advice for some people, it’s a pretty bad philosophy for the large population of aspiring photographers who are working to develop their skill, portfolio, and client base. Essentially, you advocate passing up the opportunity to get some time and experience behind the camera while meeting potential future clients instead of…what? Sitting on your butt waiting for the phone to ring? For those with a bit of skill trying to get a foot in the door, the wisest thing they can do is get out and shoot, even if it is for nothing. Aspiring vocational photographers should only turn down a spec job when they have too many paying gigs taking up their time. Until then, get your ass out there, learn your craft, and make a name for yourself.

    Clients know they’re taking a risk when they get a free photographer on craigslist or whatnot. If they need professional results, they’ll call Zander White.

  11. I agree that working on your portfolio and networking is valuable. That said, I believe that everyone deserves to be paid… No matter what you call it, when you work for a client who is making money but not paying you, you are being taken advantage of.


    It’s a great big world and you WILL get punked by smart ass producers if you are trusting fool. Which is another way of saying “green, newbie, rookie.”

    Digital gear and the internet are a producers dream – access a huge talent pool in one easy motion. it’s what farm owners perfected with fruit pickers in the great depression. Ever read Grapes of Wrath?

    Interning is a legitimate option, but it’s done for valid legit companies who can hire you or reccomend you later, not fly by night “producers” with no pedigree.

    Working for nothing is legit on creative indie shoots.
    For friends to help them get ahead, but they HAVE to help you back. we used to keep track of days, never rate. among friends all time is equal.

    Next is bedwetter land. “I have no penis, allow me to destroy the industry, I want to pretend I’m a pro” territory.

    Anyone who can rationalize working for nothing on a commercial shoot is a fool and an enemy to their working colleagues. we need to eat.

    Solidarity, there is a reason for it.

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