The real cost of shooting for free – and how you can prevent the damage.
When you start out as a photographer, one of the most first things most of us seem to do is offer our services for free to anybody that will want them. Babies, wannabe models, product shoots, even full-day weddings – we take them on in an attempt to gain gorgeous photos for our sites, and hopefully gain a little recognition and word-of-mouth recommendation in the process. We might even give them as a gift.
Yet there can be considerable cost to to you to shoot for free, that you should be aware of, even if you are a seasoned shooter. Because even if you have been around for a while, some of us still shoot for free, right?
Even if you don’t ‘need’ to shoot the neighbours kids anymore, you might still shoot for free for magazines, for exposure, for new industry links, as collaborative projects – even just for some pretty shots for your website.
But are you aware that free shoots can be doing you + your reputation more harm than good? Here are the common pitfalls associated with undertaking ‘free’ photoshoots – and how you can prevent them.
PROBLEM 1; You don’t have the right kit
If you’re just starting out, the chances are that you might not have the right kit for certain situations. What happens if it rains all day at that wedding, or the venue is super-dark?
Research all eventualities. Before launching on your own, even if just doing a fun session with a friend, ask a more experienced shooter if you can shadow them for free instead. Use the opportunity to ask questions when you can. Testing the limitations of your kit under professional conditions, without the pressure of having to provide any/many images, will highlight what you might really need to invest in + what you don’t.
Use online resources to read as much as you can around your kit limitations too – but don’t necessarily be put off because you don’t have mega-expensive or expansive kit, just make sure that you know what your set-up can do, and how to make the most of it, and have a back-up plan prepared. You can always borrow or hire kit if you need to.
PROBLEM 2. Your style isn’t what the receiver is expecting.
There is nothing worse than providing the gift of images for someone, falling in love with the results, handing them over.. and then seeing the reaction isn’t quite what you expected it to be. This comes from a mismatch of expectation – you expect the receiver of the images to be thrilled with ‘free’ images, no matter what they look like. The receiver expects them to look like the images she has in her head. A lot of the time, these expectations don’t match up.
Schedule a pre-session meeting if possible/appropriate, or exchange emails. Show or attach images of your recent work, so that they can have a clue about what to expect. Let them know how many images they will receive, how they will receive them, and when. This prevents any misunderstanding occurring later on, which can lead to dissatisfaction of either or both of you.
PROBLEM 3. You mess up
Argh! The worst thing has happened, and you have somehow ruined the images from that free shoot. Perhaps there was a mishap you weren’t prepared for – your battery failing, and not having a spare. Perhaps you weren’t familiar with posing a model and it was harder than you thought – as a result the model looks stiff + unnatural in all of the pics. Perhaps the baby screamed throughout the entire session. Whatever caused it, you don’t have the photos that everyone was expecting.
Reshoot if you can. Explain as soon as you can to everybody involved, heartily apologise, and offer a reshoot. These things do happen sometimes and as you are shooting for free, most people are usually lenient – however this might not apply if those you are shooting with are professional clients expecting a professional shoot – when they might have spent time and money investing into props, etc. You may end up in a pretty awkward + uncomfortable situation and even though in your head you kind of want to shout ‘but you got me for free! If you wanted perfect shots you should have paid for them!’ the only thing that is going to help you in the long run is doing as much as you can to appease the other party. Do whatever it takes. Beg forgiveness, offer a reshoot at their convenience, offer to cover their expenses. Yes, even if you are shooting for free. Because the cost to your professional reputation just isn’t worth the risk. It only takes one person to tell one other person that you were unprofessional + bam, suddenly nobody wants to book you for free anymore – and certainly not for paid assignments.
Stay calm, apologise, appease, offer to reshoot.
Problem 4. You aren’t legally protected
Have you considered what happens during a photoshoot if a toddler pulls off your heavy lens from the nearest table and it lands on their head? Or if a member of the public falls over your camera bag + breaks their arm? You may think that you have taken the obvious precautions but accidents happen – and if it happens to you while on a free shoot, you’re still liable to be sued.
Even if you’re just starting out, insurance is essential. It doesn’t matter whether in your head you’re offering a ‘gift’ or not, the fact is, if you don’t want to run the risk of losing your entire reputation not to mention your business when the legal bills start to trickle in, get decent insurance.
5. PROBLEM You’re too busy
You offer to shoot your friends wedding for experience + because you know she is on a budget. That’s great. What isn’t so great is trying to find time to select and edit images from the 2000 you shot on the day, when you have a full-time day job, 2 kids, and a life at weekends.
You end up doing it by squeezing in an hour here and there, which ends up looking a bit like every professional’s idea of editing hell – confusing + messy + unstructured. You’ll probably then take an entire age to provide the images back to your friend, who is trying hard to be patient, but who is desperate for her special day photos.
Her expectations are building the entire time. She thinks because you’re spending so long on them they’re bound to be incredible – they had better be, because otherwise you’re risking not only damaging your professional reputation but also your friendship.
In the meantime you’re hugely stressed as you try to squeeze in editing time and get them back to your friend within a reasonable time frame. And then the kids get sick. You get the idea. This is a nightmare waiting to happen.
As soon as your friend snaps up your generous offer, book out time in your diary there and then to exclusively edit it. Ditto this for any kind of shoot, not just weddings. This one simple step will virtually eliminate all of the above. Protect that time – you’re going to need it.
6. PROBLEM You’re too good
Because you’ve shot for free for a while now, some people are beginning to expect it. If you even mention the p-word, you’re worried you’re going to risk not only your professional relationships, but your reputation too. Also, if you have been building your business based on free shoots for industry ‘names’, they’re like your security blanket to your business. If you no longer shoot for free, will your name +business disappear? Will you just become like every other photographer, invisible?
There is no obvious solution here, but the answer lies in making a choice.
You can continue to shoot for free – you get more exposure and maintain your relationships but are able to take on less paid clients as a result, (or you try to squeeze them in because you feel as though you should – resulting in work or timescales you aren’t proud of).
You could ask your clients to recommend you to all of their clients, which could result in more business.
You could arrange some sort of swap- so if you shoot for a shoe designer, you could shoot in exchange for shoes. Not a bad swap in our opinion, even if shoes don’t pay the bills.
Or, you could just decide that you no longer need to work for fre,e because your business is at a good enough stage that you either don’t need to, or you want to invest the time spent shooting for free into other areas of your business that need more attention.
In which case you just explain politely to your clients that you’d love to but you’re fully booked right now (if you find it hard to say you no longer shoot for free) or you’re just open + honest and hope that everyone understands. You could always send a thank you gift to say thank you for working together this far if you want to sweeten the blow and keep working relationships positive + fulfilling.
Working for free can have many, many benefits. It can increase your chances of recommendations for paid work, gain your publication credits, widen your support network, grow your contact list, even strengthen friendships + relationships. But it’s vital to be aware of the potential problems that can arise, + how to prevent them in the first place.
What do you think? Do you shoot for free? Why? We would love to hear from you, and your answers really do help others. Leave a comment below.