Photographers, Should You Work For Free?

October 2, 2019

This is purely based on my own experiences. Take it with a grain of salt. Everyone’s situation is more similar than different. Creatives as a whole do not value their work or suffer from some degree of impostor’s syndrome.

Let’s start with free. I don’t think any photographer should shoot for free once they decide this is a business. There are exceptions and they are few. Depending on your brand, I don’t believe in discounts either. Remember, this is my business model and based on what is working for me. My sole income is from photography.

Building a business is hard. There is just no easy way about it. But offering free shoots is a sure fire way of making your journey more difficult. When you shoot someone for free, it needs to be calculated. Why should it be calculated? If you shoot someone for free, 99.9% of the time you can forget them ever paying you for your work in the future no matter how good you are or will be. Choose wisely. You are building a brand. If it won’t enhance your portfolio, stay away. If it doesn’t put you closer to booking your “target client”, stay away.

How do you grow your business without shooting for free or starving with promised “exposure”?

  • Don’t worry about what everyone else is charging. Don’t concern yourself with their flowery social media posts about their latest mini-sessions. Don’t compare your work to theirs. That noise will destroy you.
  • Invest in yourself with personal projects defined to build your portfolio/brand. Think of something you would like to shoot. Find a subject. Plan it. Execute. Post about it with a story.
  • Price your work according to what you value it as and not your competition. Remember we as creatives undervalue ourselves, until it finally clicks. It took me a few years to see what I brought to the table. If you can afford yourself, you are not charging enough. Raise your prices, period. You won’t be comfortable, but you have to do it. This is your business. Competing on price is a race to the bottom.
  • Network…. Get out and meet people. Listen more than talk. People do business with people they like. People like people who are legitimately interested in them. Grab your laptop and go to a coffee shop to work. Be seen.
  • Contribute to local publications. It gets you in front of people outside of your circle. This will lead to more touches in your community.
  • Find a bigger pond with fewer photographers fishing in it. If everyone is chasing lemonade stand and little mermaid shoots, you chase small business branding or something that suits you. 
  • Niche down. You will get more business. Specifying in one area will lead to more work than being a generalist. When you are perceived as an expert in one area, you are perceived to be an expert period. My thing is headshots and professional business portraits. That is my bread and butter. I do other types of photography. I just don’t promote it.
  • Play nice. Make friends with other photographers. They will refer to you when they are unavailable. You need to do the same.
  • Establish a style that separates you from everyone else in your area. It will come naturally, but the quicker you get there the better.
  • Ask for help. When a large commercial client knocked at my door, I didn’t know how to properly bid. Classic case of a dog chasing a car and not knowing what to do when he caught it. I reached out by email to a prominent commercial photographer based in Los Angeles. They shared their process, actual forms and contracts with me. The worse they could have said was no, but they didn’t.
  • Experiment with the occasional Facebook or Google ad. See if they work for you. Post often on social media. You just want to be top of mind when folks are searching for a photographer.
  • Don’t sell photography. A prospective client can find photography anywhere. Sell value and solutions. Took me a long time to figure that one out.

All of this takes time, but at this point you have lots of it.