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Should you work for free? Not every “opportunity” is actually an opportunity.

As with all creative professions, as a photographer you’ll find yourself inundated with “opportunities” throughout your career. Some will be just that, whilst others will be a huge waste of your time. It’s all a bit of a learning curve to be honest. As you gain experience and build a client base you’ll start to recognise which opportunities are worth your time and which ones most definitely are not. In turn, as your confidence grows you’ll also learn how to say thanks, but no thanks.

The unique thing about photography and “opportunities” though is that pretty much everyone wants or needs photography to some degree. Whether it’s a business seeking commercial or property photos, or a family looking for portraits. Because of that you’ll find a whole spectrum of jobs available at any given point in time. When you’re new to the game you may be tempted to jump in feet first and take a chance on any work you can get- even if it’s unpaid. It’s not uncommon for photographers to work for free initially to build a portfolio, or to gain relevant experience in their chosen field. But there’s one important thing to remember about working for free. Not every opportunity is in fact an opportunity.

Not every opportunity is in fact an opportunity.

Sadly, there will always be people out there who will seek free labour. Not everyone values photography and simply can’t understand why anyone would pay for a professional when there are people willing to do it for free. Then there are others who know the market and will use this to their advantage to exploit new photographers. For example, if you’re a member of any wedding photography groups on facebook you’ll have no doubt seen requests for second shooters. [Too] Many of the posts go something like “I’m new to photography so haven’t budgeted for a second shooter as i’m not being paid much myself. But if you want to come along for experience and work as a second shooter PM me.”

In such situations you really do have to ask yourself what is in it for you. The answer is, not a lot. If you are ever going to work for nothing, you absolutely have to make sure that it is worth your while. Speaking specifically about wedding photography now (as that’s my area of expertise) if you are going to second shoot for nothing my advice would be as follows

Layer Marney tower wedding

  • Only do it for an established professional with a good few years experience. There is no point second shooting for someone who’s as new to it all as you are. If you’re working for free your payment should be your learning potential. With an established pro you’re likely to actually pick up some tips and advice or even techniques that’ll help you in future.
  • Do it for someone who’s work you admire, who shoots the kind of weddings you want to shoot. If you’re working for free, again, your payment should be learning potential. If you’re all about relaxed festival weddings and cool laid back couples, there’s no point going to shoot for studio based Alan who shoots really formal weddings for very traditional couples. For a start it’s not going to give you any experience shooting in the style you want to grow proficient in. Secondly, it’s not going to equip you with the kind of portfolio building shots you’ll need to attract the kind of couples you want. If you were a super chilled couple looking for a cool photographer and you saw a portfolio full of stuffy looking weddings in venues you don’t like, would you take a chance on that photographer? Probably not. So you’re actually hindering yourself in the long run. What you put out there is what will find you. Always remember that.

What you put out there is what will find you

  • Make sure you’re actually going to get something out of the whole thing. As much as learning potential is important, you need a clear understanding of what is expected of you by the photographer you’ll be working for. Ultimately this is their gig, so they set the rules so to speak. Some photographers are very strict about what second shooters can do with images shot at one of their weddings. For example, some wont let second shooters use their own images at all. Not ideal if you’re second shooting to build a portfolio. There is nothing wrong with stepping away from an opportunity if it ends up not seeming like one.

Styled shoots: A similar thing applies to styled shoots. This is something we were caught out with when we were starting out. We were really keen to network and do something a little different. So we’d agreed to take part in a styled shoot thinking it would be really cool and lead to lots of great things- including business relationships. We jumped on board, pretty optimistic about the whole thing.

Essex Suffolk wedding photographers, Sam and Louise photography

The reality ended up being that it was a huge, huge waste of our time. The original photographer had dropped out and we’d basically just been called in as a last resort. The venue was somewhere we would never have wanted to work because it just didn’t suit the kind of couples we liked to work with. It was dated and traditional. The venue owner was a rude, cantankerous old cow too, to be blunt. She insulted the model we’d brought along and ultimately told us our work wasn’t in keeping with her venue.

The whole thing was so poorly organised and had such a random mish mash of suppliers. It was near impossible to pull anything workable together. The dresses didn’t fit the models properly, there were no shoes for them. There was no theme for the shoot. Everyone else was involved because they had basically all been promised free photos out of it. After the shoot we were contacted by people pestering for images. People we hadn’t met. People who had dropped off their stuff and not even bothered to hang around for the shoot. So much for networking right?

All anyone wanted was their free pictures

Others went on to plaster them all over social media without credit and then had the cheek to get hissy when we simply asked to be credited. All anyone wanted was their free pictures. No one else cared about networking and promoting one another. That’s not what styled shoots are meant to be about!

If you’re going to take part in a styled shoot, the fact is you need to have a lot of creative control so you can determine things like lighting. You need to be working alongside suppliers and in locations that fit with your vibe, your style, your branding. Again, if you’re a hip photographer hoping to work with countryside couples don’t go getting in a florist who specialised in artificial Gerbera’s bound in ribbon. It’s not going to suit the aesthetic you’re trying to promote.

The William Cecil wedding

As the photographer you are going to have the lions share of the work. You will be the one who has to shoot and edit the images, deliver them to everyone, submit for publication and take on all the work associated with that. Therefore it needs to be worth your time. Set the boundaries and expectations. Make sure that everyone is on board and prepared to work as a team. Encourage sharing of the photos far and wide but make sure everyone involved is credited every time the photos are shared. That is essential, otherwise you were just free labour. If you have set up the styled shoot yourself, fine- if you are asked to participate in one and other suppliers are already on board, be that bit more careful before agreeing to take part. Don’t let ego or flattery blind you. Ask your questions and be confident that this is something you want to be involved in.
Other things dressed up as opportunities

Other things to bear in mind are offers of work from paying clients. This may sound like an odd one, but stick with me. Sometimes paying clients will offer you opportunities too. For example, in our early years we were contacted by someone who claimed to work in the wedding industry selling luxury something or other. They promised that if we gave them a discount they would recommend us to all their clients. Their rich clients. It seemed like a great deal in theory. A discount now but lots of promises of more work in future! We didn’t end up booking that wedding thankfully, but as it turns out a few people we know did. They had all be sold the same sales pitch and to this day, none of them have ever received any of the extra work promised, so far as we know.

In more recent years we’ve been offered similar deals by other industry professionals including MUAs and stationery providers. My advice is to think about every offer carefully before accepting and use your head when trying to establish if something is going to be beneficial for you. Unless it’s a wedding venue for example, we always tend to politely decline these kind of offers. Why? Well, in the vast majority of cases, a wedding photographer is one of the first things people book. After a venue, photographers are pretty high on the booking list. So usually, by the time someone gets to the point of booking an MUA or a stationery provider, they already have their photographer booked. Therefore, even if that supplier did recommend us, it’s likely to fall on deaf ears unfortunately. It’s little things like that which come with experience

Opportunities will come and go. Don’t be afraid to ask for more information and to outline your requirements. If you’re working for free, no matter what the context, you are doing someone a favour- so make sure you get something out of it. Something that is valuable to you. Sometimes that might be a free lunch, other times you might be learning a lot from someone you admire. Either way, don’t ever be afraid to say no to the rubbish jobs dressed up as opportunities.

I have included a chart below which helps decide when working for free is worthwhile. I came across this a couple of years ago and it’s a good general guide. Assess each situation individually on it’s merits though.

Should I work for free chart
Click to enlarge

Thanks to http://jessicahische.is/. The images remains copyright of Jessica Hische. If you choose to save, use or share, please ensure that the appropriate artists credits are used, including a valid hyperlink.

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