One of the inevitable things about working in a creative industry, is that at some point you will be asked to work for free. I do believe there are times when working for free is a good idea, but you have to be careful not to be exploited. There's so many photographers willing working for free (likely they have a primary job & photography is a hobby), and it is having a negative impact on the industry. It's bringing down the rates photographers can charge, and has developed a bigger expectation that photographers will work for free, which has a big impact on the livelihoods on working photographers. So below is some advice for both pros and hobbyists about working for free, and when it can be beneficial (or detrimental) to you.
The photos I've included in this blog were all photographed on 'free' shoots - whether a test or a collaboration with friends.
When Working For Free is A Good Idea
When starting out, you will need to work for free. If you don't have many skills or are inexperienced, free shoots can be a great way to build up your portfolio, develop a style and meet people in the industry. If you've been working as a photographer for a while, you may want to consider working for free if you're inexperienced in that area of photography. Testing or TFP (time for prints) shoots can be worth working for free to help you develop your work, make new contacts and try out ideas, and photographers at all stages of their career will test for this reason.
If the job provides genuinely valuable and useful contacts, it may also be worth working for free. Whether it's working with a great model that will boost your portfolio or for an art director that holds a lot of sway with their clients, meeting new people and making new contacts can be really valuable.
There may be times when there will be an opportunity to do something you have an ambition to achieve, a front cover of a magazine for instance, and the shoot might be unpaid. This may be a time worth considering accepting an unpaid shoot.
When Working For Free Is Not A Good Idea
Exposure - I would almost never recommend working for someone on the basis of exposure. Exposure very rarely pays off. Only consider working for exposure if it exposes you to a big potential customer base, and the exposure is massive with a visible credit. And by massive following, I mean massive. A couple of million or more followers on instagram, twitter or youtube. Exposure can only benefit you if it leads to new business. Otherwise, it's essentially useless. I've seen a lot of companies recruit photographers on the basis of exposure and future paid work, only to look for another photographer willing to work for free when they next need one.
'Let's collaborate!' - Recently, I have been hearing people use the word 'collaborate' when they really mean they want you to work for free. If the project is for the benefit of the person, or is content to help them generate business (so a look book for their clothing collection perhaps or content for their blog), it should not be a free shoot. They're looking to use your images to increase their following, their income and their business, so they should be paying their photographer. I've seen businesses selling clothing that's 'ethically made', but won't pay someone to photograph their products. The hypocrisy is grating, but unfortunately quite common.
The Promise of Future Paid Work - Sometimes people will try to persuade a photographer to work for free with the promise of future paid work. The promised future paid work very rarely materialises, and when it does it may be a laughable fee.
The Free Photographer - Another downside of working for free is that the person with whom you're working will likely always consider you the photographer that works for free, and will recommend you to their friends as the photographer that works for free.
I think occasionally working for free can have some great benefits to a photographer, but hobbyists and newly professional photographers will frequently be exploited for free photographs. I hope with some of this advice, you'll be able to make good judgements about when it's appropriate to work for free.