Why Professional Photographers Should Not Work for Free.

From project I did for free in my early portfolio building days.

From project I did for free in my early portfolio building days.

This touches on a subject that I have to admit, frustrates me a little. In a day and age where cameras are becoming ever more widely available and accessible, being a professional photographer is in a sense, being part of a club that is ever expanding, diluting and smudging around the edges. First, I want to make clear the definition of a professional photographer. I did a quick search and the paragraph below appeared. I think it quite accurately nails it.

A professional photographer is likely to take photographs to make money, through the display, sale or use of those photographs, while an amateur photographer may take photographs for pleasure and to record an event, emotion, place, as a person without a monetary motivation.

So, having said that, I think it is fair to say that it is quite possible one could be an amazing photographer, but not a professional. On the other hand it is also possible that someone could be a terrible photographer, but fully professional.

But what about getting exposure?

Now, in my humble opinion, problems start to creep into the picture, (hehe,  get it?) when you have people claiming, or attempting to be professional – but offer their services for free. OK, there are very rare occasions, (and I emphasize rare) where a professional photographer should accept an assignment for no monetary return. Say Kim Kardashian Jennifer Aniston spotted your work and asked you to do the honor of working with her. Say no to this and the phrase cutting your entire face off to spite your body comes to mind. Always use wisdom to mentally weigh each case when considering just how much, ‘exposure’ you are in line for. If you wanted to do your part to help a charity, I would probably stretch to allow that. But aside from a few rare exceptions a person claiming to be a professional photographer should no longer be in a position where they are continually accepting free projects for, ‘exposure’.

Destroying the industry for everyone else.

Practicing your skills for free as an amateur is imperative for your development in becoming professional.

Practicing your skills for free as an amateur is imperative for your development in becoming professional.

If you are an amateur photographer building a portfolio in the hopes of one day becoming professional. Then it is perfectly fine, in fact imperative that you take on gigs for free. However, if you are wearing the tile of Professional Photographer, continually doing projects for free (or for pennies) has a damaging effect on the industry and how people perceive it. Just because the tools you use for your trade are so readily available and used by seemly everyone else, it doesn’t mean your trade is any less legitimate than the virtuoso pianist who has their piano parts imported directly from Löbau in Germany. A lot of non photographers generally don’t appreciate what it is to be a professional photographer. Part of the blame for this lays with professional photographers who are selling themselves and their services well below their market value. This may be out of ignorance, or in a bid to get that little bit of extra business. Either way, this way of business is diluting and damaging this beautiful industry to the point where people are always expecting their photos to be free.


Feeding people expectations.

In my early days of trying to expand my brand I used to frequent  Gumtree.com. Using variations of, ‘Photographer wanted’, ‘photographer needed’ or, ‘photographer required’ brought up a varied and somewhat random selection of adverts posted by photographers and people searching for photographers alike. One typical advert header that used to appear more times than none was,

‘Professional photographer needed for the day to shoot (project type here)’

So I would think,

“hmmm, lets see what exciting project I can potentially put myself forward for!”

‘Click’…So far so good! The first paragraph of the advert would by filled with promises of working with great people in some, ‘amazing’ locations. Network possibilities that are, ‘endless’. If lucky, they would even throw in a sandwich and a bottle of warm water. I could live with that, sometimes I would get very hungry and thirsty on a shoot!

The real kicker would come when I reach the last paragraph. Maybe a sentence or two from the bottom. It would read something like this:

“Unfortunately we cannot pay you for this project, but you will have some great photos for your portfolio.”

Oh, and let’s not forget this variation:

“Unfortunately we cannot pay you for this project, but if we work well together, there will be paid work opportunities for you in the future.”

Hmmmm. I don’t know about you, but when I see, ‘Professional photographer needed’ in a title, I automatically assume that everything written from that point on is written to be targeted at professional photographers in the industry. Loosely translated – photography in exchange for payment.

As long as professional photographers continue to feed this kind of mentality by accepting these jobs,  respect for the professional photography industry will continue to be eroded.

Know when to say no. But most importantly, know your worth.

Create the Buzz!