Should You Work for Free? A Lesson for Every Photographer

At some point or another, if you own a nice camera and have at least minimal skill using it, the time will come (and probably more than once): Someone will ask you to work for free. Or maybe no one will ask you, but you’ll find yourself slow on work, worried about growing your business, and wondering if maybe you should work for free. You know, to get “exposure.” It’s a hot topic, and the lines of distinction can be fluid and may change with each circumstance… But at some point or another, you will have to answer this question: Should you work for free? Let me tell you about a recent hiccup in my business to help you decide.

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I knew it was a mistake. All the signs were there. Not to mention my common sense.

But I did it anyway.

Against my better judgement, I committed to working for free. To be clear, I’m not even talking about an (unnecessary) discount. I didn’t give away a few extra prints or digital files. I said FREE.

And it didn’t go well for me.

The Backstory

I set a goal this year to grow my senior portrait clientele, particularly senior girls. Up to this point, I have primarily been a family and child photographer, and seniors are a market I would like to expand to over the next two years. While I have had the opportunity to photograph several male seniors, my portfolio is lacking in senior females. And so, I launched my first Senior Rep program.

And then my Rep from the most prominent high school in my area got injured and had to pull out of her commitment due to unforeseen surgery and recovery. I realized I didn’t have a backup plan (another lesson, ouch!) and I panicked. To make a long story short, this is how I ended up committing to work for free.

I felt desperate. I felt like I was going to drop the ball if I didn’t get someone in there, and fast. To be completely honest, I jumped ship and dove right into offering the free session to a new “client” without even trying to re-fill the position under my existing business model.

Why?

Notice I talked about how I felt. If there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that our emotions can mislead us. I felt desperate and rushed. I felt afraid of failing and not reaching my goal. I felt insecure in my ability to quickly replace my representative… And I used those feelings to make a decision that was against my better judgement.

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The Outcome

My new Senior Rep (and her mom) were thrilled to be getting a free session! With practically no strings attached, there was excitement, squealing, and lots of giddiness as we discussed styling, wardrobe and locations.

And that’s where the fun stopped.

It didn’t take long for things to go downhill. First came the missed consultation appointment. And then the paperwork that was being stalled on. The unreturned phone calls. And finally came the phone call that my Senior Rep was also going to be “representing” a new photographer in town (who was also her family friend), and knowing the stipulations in my contract (which she had yet to return to me), she hoped I’d make an exception (insert batting eyes here) by letting her do both. By this time, I’d more than learned my lesson. We needed to part ways. Like, yesterday.

The Lesson

I wasted a lot of time and emotional energy on a client that never paid me a penny and never produced anything for my business. And ironically, it didn’t have to be that way. I have an existing business model that has proven to be successful, and yet I deviated from it in a moment of panic. Bad move.

When I realized I was without a backup plan after losing my first Rep, I made a poor decision that wasn’t without cost. And let’s face it, I set myself up for it. By agreeing to work for free, I let my client off the hook for any sense of obligation or commitment to me. Was she excited to work with me? Sure. But when I told her I’d work for free, I removed my own value from the table. No longer was she part of a mutually beneficial partnership where she had something invested, just as I did… No, now she was the only one on the receiving end, and she had no tie to me whatsoever. So when someone else came along offering her the same thing as I was, off she went to partake in more free goodies.

 When I told her I’d work for free, I removed my own value from the table.

And ironically, there I was, in the same place I started. But now even shorter on time and with a bruised ego.

What I’m NOT Saying

Please don’t misunderstand: there may be a time and a place for offering free work. I personally do free sessions for my very best friend, and would do them for my immediate family if they didn’t insist on paying me 🙂  And each year, I donate a designated number of sessions to fundraising auctions for charities and causes I believe strongly in. However, I donate these sessions strategically. I don’t donate to raffles where a person has a minimal to no investment in order to win the session. I donate only to auctions, where the person “winning” the session has likely made a reasonable investment in order to win the prize. This means that 1) the charity I’m looking to support is receiving reasonable funds in return for my donation, and 2) because the individual winning has made an investment in order to “win” my service, they are more likely to invest with me again in the future as a paying client. (Every single one of my auction winners have been returning clients!).

Another consideration is portfolio building.  If you are building your portfolio, that may be a reasonable time to offer free or discounted services. But keep in mind that portfolio building should consist of a very minimal time frame, and is not a lasting business model.

The next time you are approached about doing free work, or are tempted to offer your services for free on your own, take some time to think about what your business is worth. If you’re in a lull and worried that the only way to bring in “business” is to do it for free or to offer a discount, evaluate why you’re making that decision. Learn from my mistake: Never make business decisions out of desperation or emotions. Take the time to develop a plan for your pricing and stick to it. You’re worth it, and your success depends on it.

So how about you? How has working for free helped or hurt your business? Let us know in the comments!