Doing Photography for Free? Ask Yourself These 10 Questions!

You’re young and passionate about photography, and you don’t know how to break into professional photography except by giving away your services. In other words, you’re willing to work for free. Listen up, before you do!

In any business transaction, cash is preferred. Cash gives you the freedom to spend it any way you want – to enroll in photography courses,  pay for advertising space, spend on marketing materials, buy a new camera or lens, pay an assistant,  book a holiday at your favorite resort, or to save for a special purpose.

However, there may be occasions, especially when you are just starting out, when your client offers you no cash or very little cash. Should you accept? Should you still do the job? Before you do, ask yourself two important questions – “What’s in it for me?” and “What else can I get instead of cash?”

Hopefully, by thinking through such offers, you can maximize your non-cash benefits from this less than ideal transaction.

When you are being asked to charge low or not to charge at all, ask:

  1. Is everyone on the project working on a voluntary basis, or are you the only one being asked to work for free?

It may be a worthwhile project, especially for charity or advocacies, and maybe everyone is really pitching in, then doing photography for free may be a worthwhile effort. Even in business, there are a few situations that may justify rendering your service for free. In the U.S., ad agencies and design studios are paid to pitch for an account, but in the Philippines, they are not. So, if everyone is pitching in to pitch for an account, being there with them (creative team, account management group) from the very start may land you the account when they do.

However, if in either situation – charity or business – the designers or ad agencies are being paid or their other suppliers are being paid, then it is only right that you should be negotiating to get paid.

2. Can you get products and services in exchange for rendering your services?

They’re called gift certificates or gift checks (GCs), and you can get them in exchange for the discounts that you are giving away. Hopefully, they’re just for the discounts, and you’re not being paid the full amount of your photographer’s fee entirely in GCs. It is also important that you are selective with which GCs to accept, otherwise, you will end up with worthless certificates that you are not cashing in, or if you redeemed them, you will have products that you will never need, want or use, or cannot even give away.

Check the expiration of those GCs and make sure they have far dates. (The law now provides that no expiration dates should appear on GCs.) If your client has several branches, ask for GCs that can be negotiated at any branch. GCs that allow partial debits and new balances carried over would be better than GCs that demand that you redeem them in full (no cash change given, and no balance carry-overs allowed).

3. What can you get for the discount that you are giving?

If your client’s budget is smaller than the fee that you have in mind, and you can’t make him budge, can you negotiate for faster payments? Can they bring down the number of requirements, or number of hours that you need to work? Can they take care of paying your assistant, or paying for out-of-pocket expenses such as prints, transportation, food, USBs, etc.

4. Are you being promised lots of future jobs in exchange for a sizeable discount on what is possibly your first job with a client?

Avoid giving discounts now for jobs that are still to come. You cannot give away what you have not yet earned. Instead, charge in full for your first job but offer to give them rebates, in terms of credit memos to be applied to future jobs. That way, you give discounts on those promised future jobs when those jobs actually come through.

5. Can you think in terms of pesos and centavos, instead of percentages, when computing how much you are giving away in terms of discounts? 

Instead of thinking 20% of P10, 000, think P2, 000. Maybe this will help you realize how much you are giving away. If you are doing a project for free, don’t just think free. Instead, think how much you could have charged – P5,000? P50,000? P100,000? and think of that amount as how much you are giving away. The word free does not help you feel how much you are losing. Then, keep a record of those discounts and free jobs and see how much you actually gave away in a year. You’d be surprised.

6. If you are thinking of getting free publicity in exchange for free photography, can you get photo credits in respectable, legible, recognizable size and in a form or style that will help you reach paying clients? 

Get at least your website or email address in your byline, and do ask for bigger type sizes (points). A better arrangement would be for you to be credited in the same way as the author. If the author has a byline for writing the article, you should see your name displayed just as prominently in both the article and the table of contents, especially if you are the only photographer contributing to the article.

7. Can you get editors or publishers to do a full-feature article on you as a rising talent? 

If the people who approached you for free photography are publishers or editors, this is a possibility. It does not cost them any money for their writer to interview you and do an article on you. Just make sure that the magazine’s readership is the same as your target market.

8. Can you get advertising and marketing mileage in exchange for your free or discounted services?

Ask your clients or customers to allow you to distribute your card or flyer at their event. Whether wedding or trade show, you have an opportunity to pull in possible clients, if you have a place where you can give away or display your marketing materials. In addition, if they have invitations, souvenir programs, banners or other materials announcing the event or the event’s program, you can get your name and email address (better still, your website) on all of them as sponsor. Again, just make sure that the market that they are targeting is the same as yours.

9.  At weddings or events, get your client or customer to treat you like a guest with your own seat at a dining table, and allowed to mingle with guests so you can at least do some networking, or do marketing even with just the people across the table from you.

Just because they are paying you dirt does not have to mean that you should be treated as such. If you were covering a conference, can you have a free hour or so not doing photography but mingling with delegates or speakers so you can learn from the speakers or market your services to the delegates?

You might be able to learn something that can help you do better photography or better business in the near future. How much is that worth to you? How much would that be if you were to pay to get in, for example, in a conference on entrepreneurship, business management, photography, advertising, weddings, or any field of photography that you want to get into? Especially if that the only or the best place to learn it, then working for free or a low pay may be worth something, after all.

10. Have you set the conditions when you would shoot for free, and when you would not?

So that you don’t become an overeager photographer who will get a reputation for being an easy target for free photography, write your own conditions for shooting for free, or when you would insist on getting paid, and stick to them.

Ultimately, the test on whether you should work for free or a low pay is this – compute how much it will cost you to do the job, and how much it would bring you in terms of benefits. There may not be any cash exchanged, but there should be an exchange of benefits, preferably equal or in your favor. In the end, nothing is really free, except when you give away your services and get absolutely nothing in return.

Why should you?

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