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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About 

I am in love with light.

Also known as Don Giannatti, photography has been the focus of my life for most of my adult years. I have written three books for Amherst Media (available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble: keyword 'don giannatti'. Lighting Essentials is my flagship blog and ezine with a slightly different slant than most photography related blogs. If you are interested in becoming a better photographer, check out www.project52.org. Thanks for visiting.

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