What is the Difference Between Shooting for Free and Shooting for Me?

And I should add to that headline… “and not giving a damn?” Today’s RANT on common sense.

A recent post at Blackstar Rising has created a mini fire-storm there. The post, by John Harrington, who runs the very popular and quite informative Photo Business News and Forum. Lots of good action / info in the comments.

In the post, Harrington seems to be a little harsh and off the mark, at least to my way of thinking. His admonitions of “Never for Free” are certainly important, but then he begins creating arguments to illustrate that proposition.

And that is where it falls short.

Look, I think photographers should be paid, they should be paid well… VERY well for their work. It takes a long time to clear the bar of mediocrity and get to the point where the work is viable in the marketplace. I wrote an article about working for cut rate here, so you know where I am coming from.

But attacking kids who make MySpace or FaceBook pics of their friends or some guy who shoots his company picnic? Wow… I don’t get that. Nor do I think that there are no situations wherein shooting for something other than money may be important as well.

I spoke with a young man who shot a ton of bands – on his own nickel – at a famous Indie Concert. The access he had was amazing, and the doors it opened jump-started his business. The bands he shot ended up ordering prints, and the managers of some of the bands also had more work for him – hiring him to do entire press packs. AT his rate.

It is certainly important to note that the bands did not ask him for the work, he asked them for the access. Can you see the difference? I can. Instead of being ‘used’ by the bands, he ‘used’ the bands to promote his own work. Did money change hands? No. Did the photographer ‘profit?’ Oh, yeah… he did.

It was such a powerful marketing tool that he is going back to the concert this year with a goal of shooting 25 Indie bands. The images are also going into a book.

Soooo… shooting for free? Or having the bands pose for free? Seems like a paradigm shift to me.

I have a bud that wanted to start a local magazine. I knew what he had done to get that first issue off the press. I told him I would help him in his endeavor by shooting some stuff for the magazine… for free. A gift for starting it up. All I asked was that I was given the opportunity to shoot what I wanted… and access to the advertisers.

I had fun. Shot some pretty cool stuff. Contacted the advertisers who had all seen my work and landed a half dozen gigs (both photography and design) for that quarter. So yeah, I could have charged the local ‘rate’ for the shots, but I parlayed the access into about $25K in design and photography over the year.

And the magazine got successful and I was paid rate for further shoots. We had a great run, he sold the magazine – they brought in a new AD and that was that.

Now there is a hell of a lot of difference between shooting something cool, for access and the ability to market and grow the business, and shooting for free. Would I recommend that anyone shoot a catalog of bolts for free? Hell no. And no corporate portraits, or annual report stuff. Common sense is a wonderful asset.

If there is no benefit to the work, and no access to leverage the work, then it really is ‘shooting for free’. And that will make no one wealthy – or even pay for the gear.

Here is a wonderful example of a photographer shooting something without direct remuneration, but incredible visibility – AND the knowledge that they created something cool. Janell attended a workshop I did in Seattle. We discussed doing something to enhance a photographers visibility. She took the idea and ran with it. Following my instructions to the letter, Janell and her sister ended up getting at least three big write-ups in the local newspaper and two full page stories. All mentioning that Janell was a local portrait shooter.

Any idea what a full page ad costs in the Everett Newspaper? Heh.

So she shot 50+ portraits for free. Gave copies to the county for a show – which pulled a ton of people in.

Yeah, I’m going to go for that trade-off.

Ask yourself:
1. Will the image be worth it? Will it be something that others would recognize as something valuable?
2. Will the image be something that you will be able to ‘market’ and create ‘buzz?’
3. Will you do what it takes to do the hard work that it takes to get that ‘buzz?’
4. Is this something that anyone could do? Something stupid/simple? Chances are that image isn’t worth your time. It is probably worth money.
5. Is it something that you can put into your portfolio, and then show it to get some more work in that genre. (Hint… simple stuff, catalog, most small advertising, anything that is simply boring ain’t gonna go in your book – got it. A ‘tearsheet’ of a quarter page ad for a real-estate company or some corporate guys against a gray background are not interesting to anyone.

And one last thing about worrying about low-ballers. I don’t. I don’t care if a guy shoots his companies picnic. I don’t care if someone shoots a wedding for $400. I don’t care if the kid across the street shoots FaceBook shots of all his buddies.

I don’t care.

I have a business model that is a little beyond that work. And if I cannot shoot in the market I have spent decades building, I would do something else. I cannot imagine shooting a wedding for $400. Hell, I’d charge my kids more than that… and I love them. (Family gets 15% off… no questions…) And FaceBook shots? Yeah… sure. On my 38′ full cove? Hell it costs me a hundred bucks to cool the place down for a day.

Lexus doesn’t care about Kia’s pricing. Ruth’s Chris’ management doesn’t stay up late at night worrying about Arby’s pricing. The Biltmore Resort doesn’t call a quick meeting every time Motel 6 has a sale.

And I don’t care about those who are scrapping for – well – scraps. I don’t hate them, I don’t worry about them… and I don’t compete with them.

So I agree with John on the overall approach of not working for free, but NEVER is a little strong, and the examples seemed to be off mark for me. But I also think that access, PR, word of mouth, and the ability to use the imagery to promote ones self can also be considered valuable. You just gotta KNOW what you are gonna do with it, and then follow through.

Oh, and I had a chance to photograph Mohammed Ali – twice. I donated the tiny fee, and didn’t make a nickel on the gigs. But I got to photograph and shake hands with my lifelong hero. Worth it? Oh man, yeah. It was.

Workshops being announce this week: Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Savannah, and Portland.

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  1. Wow, thank you for the enlightening insight! I’m just starting out my business and have been struggling with this very topic, how much should I really shoot for free? I had read John’s post and felt that yes, shooting for free isn’t a way to make a living, but I agree more with your post in the fact that sometimes shooting for free will help give you a “leg-up”. I’ve had several shoots that I’ve done for free or a discounted rate that have been great referrals, book pieces and have brought me new clients. Sometimes shooting for free can be more fun when you know it’s for a good cause or a family in need.

    Thanks for your opinion! :)

  2. This is the BEST article I’ve EVER seen written on pricing. In most areas of my life, I’m a big fan of common sense and looking past the next five minutes. You really nailed it IMO. People do need to look at the larger picture. There’s different ways of doing everything, and using others for access to beef up your presentation is very, very smart. There are few things in life that are absoultes (always/never). Have a goal or endgame in mind, and find creative ways to reach it.

    Seriously, well said and well done.

  3. Don
    I saw that post the other day (and commented there too) and wondered about the message there–he seemed to contradict himself–ie–he started out by implying “don’t do it” and then suggested keeping the dialogue open; but–send along a proposal that confirms the list price??? Having read his book and articles I thought his blog post might have gone in the direction you took yours today (and how I responded there)–ie–as a new kid on the block I am always approached to do it “free/cheap for portfolio…”.but have to “figure it out…”

    Its a constant struggle but I have 30 years in another biz world; have read the books; talked to the photogs–and, the take away for me was find the “win-win”–something I did in business for 30 years. so, in a few weeks I will shoot a big high school party/event –will do so discounted to “normal rates” BUT “negotiated a win-win”…I insisted on a marketing move so as to get my work in front of the eyeballs of over 100 seniors and soon to be seniors; the eyeballs of theirs parents; the event is at a new conference facility and I meet next week with the director; will be one of the first photogs to work the joint; one of the host parents is a conference planner for a university here–meet with her next week too

    Admittedly it is an ongoing struggle to craft these arrangements and not all will work out–and, sometimes I have to say no too. But, in this post (and I think Harrington book too) the case can be made that it’s not a black and white issue–as I have commented previously –we need to be problem solvers

    thanks again for another interesting read

  4. Right on the mark. I also read Harrington’s article, and came away with many of the same feelings. As someone once said, “Never say never.” You’ll end up eating your words.

  5. Yet another great discussion.

    I think the key sentence in the article that he/she wasn’t expected to shoot for free. That is the notion that everyone still understands the value of photography despite the details of a specific setup.

    In general though, as long as ideally both sides, and at a minimum the photographer can articulate the actual trade, then it’s much more above board. And when I say articulate, I don’t think the generic ‘I’m building my portfolio’ is good enough. It needs to be more specific why this gig, this client, this image will further your path to paid work. That addresses the big fear that is out there that some folks are just reckless and spoil the party.

    And then there is the there is the proportionality. If maybe about 10% of a given market is in trade, then it’s nothing more than a discount or occasional freebe everyone enjoys. Once a significant portion of a market is in trade, then the perception will set in that there will always be someone around good enough that will do trade, and then the market is no longer willing to trade.


  6. Some of the best shots in my book were taken on “free” assignments for causes and organizations I believe in, and some of the “free” websites I’ve built have resulted in thousands of dollars of work for other clients who saw the “free” site I created and wanted me to build their sites as well.


    Each and every one of those “free” clients were people/organizations that I approached first because I either believed in what they were doing or I could see the benefit for me in the long run of doing the work at no charge. If a potential client comes to me and says “we can’t pay you, but it’ll be good exposure”, I let them keep walking, because that’s a big warning sign that they’re not really interested in providing “good exposure” for me, they just don’t want to pay anyone for the job.

  7. I like John…… I really do. He has a lot of great information for photographers, particularly those doing commercial and editorial work.

    Having said that, John is big time anal when it comes to tripping the shutter without dollars crossing his palm. He leaves me with the impression that he wouldn’t shoot his own kids unless somebody paid him. That also makes me feel like he can’t have any fun with photography. That’s too bad.

    There are lots of B2C photographers who give away work. His points are more well taken with B2B work. Part of the equation should be, as you point out here, the difference between asking for access and being asked to shoot for free.

    Some more examples of using free to market:

    Wedding shooters giving images away to venues – canvas prints, albums, etc. in order to land on the recommended list.

    Being the “Official Photographer” for the symphony, ballet, theater, etc. in order to place images in public places that you wouldn’t be able to buy your way into.

    Having a facebook day at a local coffee shop to benefit a charity of your choosing.

    Some of the things you do yield new clients, others you might do just to be a good citizen. Yeah, charities have budgets and their employees are paid, but if it’s one I want to help I may be able to do more good by providing my services than by giving a cash gift. That’s my choice. I’ll contact the charity and offer my services. If a charity contacts me though, I may choose not to donate, but ask to be paid for my work. Again, my choice.

  8. Bravo!

    You’ve done a beautiful job of articulating something important: there’s a big difference between working for nothing and working, in your excellent phrase, for something other than money.

    You get it, and Harrington doesn’t. Hope he reads your post!

  9. Great, great post.

  10. Again well done!

    Pricing can either be the bane for the professional photographer, or it can be the catalyst to change and transformation, the change being the way we honor the value we provide our clients. I believe if we had these type of conversations more often more visual artists (newbies) as well as seasoned pros would begin to shift the way marketplace views the contribution we provide.

    At the end of the day it’s all about value (and I’m not speaking about cut rates) our clients expect it, we provide it and we should never be ashamed or reserved in talking about it with them and each other.


  11. Great post. The family wedding quip and 15% discount made me LOL.

  12. Don,

    Excellent points. If I “never” shoot for free, then I won’t do personal projects, explore new markets, support a cause I believe in or grow my style. Common sense has to rule in the end.

    I think the best differentiation is Who Wants What. If a client initiates the job and wants free photos, then “No”. If it’s something I conjure up, then it’s on my dime.

    – Ron

  13. All I can say is I’m so grateful that Jimmy Allen was willing to work for free. He volunteers with Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, and the healing gift he gave to my wife and I is of immensurable value. I’ve always had a love for photography but the experience has motivated me to develop my skills to the fullest. I hope to help another family because of how invaluable the help we received was. Going to have to give it enough time so I can actually walk into the hospital again though. I keep realizing I can see the window of the room my wife stayed in when ever I park. I just end up staring at it from the parking lot.


  14. Awesome article! i love this. Thank you for sharing it. Very Important notes :)

  15. This confirms everything I’ve recently come to terms with in my head. As I’ve been doing better as a photographer and starting to make a name for myself, I have friends calling asking for portraits of their children/weddings/etc. I say, “yes! I’d love to! THIS is what it costs.” And then I never hear back from them. And I don’t feel bad because they aren’t worthwhile projects. These aren’t things I want to base my business around.

    Thank you for pointing out this fine line.

  16. Thanks Don,

    I was looking to break into the photography game and wasn’t sure I was going about it the right way. Now I feel better knowing that working for free to build up contacts and opportunities is a good way to go. The best part of working for free is you only do the things you will enjoy. I hope one day I can build a business from my photography.



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