If you are a food photographer with any amount of online presence, it is a given that at some point you will be contacted by brands who are interested in your photography, but don’t want to pay for it. Messages like these may start to sound way too familiar…
“We cannot financially compensate you at this time, but we have 20K Instagram followers and will tag you for exposure!”
“We are just a small business and this would be a huge favor.”
“We do not have a budget for photography, but we will send you our product ($100 value!) for free!”
The list goes on…
Some of these offers may sound tempting. I’ll be the first to admit, I love free stuff! But there are a lot of things you need to consider before agreeing to take on free work…
I’ll admit it, I worked for free when I was starting out.
In my first 6 months as a photographer, I was eager to work with brands, but I didn’t think my work was good enough to charge real money for. I also had zero business skills and had no idea how to go about pitching, negotiating, etc.
I had this idea in my head that maybe if I gained Instagram followers, everything would magically fall into place and my business would take off (spoiler: I was wrong). So here’s what I did… I reached out to a handful of brands with larger Instagram followings. I offered to take some photos for them for free, as long as they tagged me when they posted said pictures.
Here’s how that worked out…
The brands I contacted had no reason to reject me. There was no money on the line. So I ended up with tons of free work on my plate for several brands who took me up on my offer. At first I was excited. I’d be exposed to 100k+ instagram followers.
But what ended up happening was that I had a ton of work to do, and I wasn’t particular excited to do it since I was not going to receive real compensation. I rushed through the shoots and delivered subpar photos. And in the end, I gained very few followers from the experience.
I don’t think that my experience working for free was all bad. There were definitely some important takeaways.
- I gained confidence pitching to brands. Before my experience working for free, I had never contacted a brand. During my time working for free, I sent my very first “pitches”, and since there was no money on the line, it was very low-pressure. When I decided it was time that I actually turn my photography into a business, I had a better idea of what a pitch email should look like and how I should communicate with a brand.
- The experience gave me the opportunity to practice my photography skills. I did a lot of shoots, and took some lessons away from each of them since I was still a newbie.
- I learned my value. When brands were actually interested in my photography and wanted to display it on their Instagram pages, I came to realize that my work was actually valuable and desired. This made me feel more comfortable actually charging for future projects.
As you can imagine, taking on a ton of unpaid work was not all great...
- I shut out potential paid opportunities. Once you offer to work for a brand for free, it is unlikely that they will take you seriously in the future when you want to be financially compensated. After all, you are basically saying that you don’t think that your work has real value. The brands I reached out to during this time will probably never become real clients of mine.
- I found out that exposure isn’t actually all that valuable. I did not actually gain many followers from the content that the brands posted, and probably would have gained more followers if I used my time to produce amazing content for my own social media channels.
- I was not optimizing my learning potential. As I previously mentioned, I was not particularly excited to do the free work, and I did not give it my all. It would have been better practice to take on some personal projects that excited me and that I wanted to put all of my effort into. I would have learned way more.
So should you work for free?
My short answer to this question is no. When you are staring out in photography, your #1 objective should be to learn and improve your skill set. And I think that the best way to do this is through personal projects. When you take on a personal project, you get to choose a subject that excites you, and that means that you will really put your all into the work and learn a lot from it. There is nothing wrong with building a portfolio made up entirely of personal work when you are starting out.
Though I did learn and accomplish some goals while working for free, I could have learned the same lessons without doing subpar work that I wasn’t passionate about. I could have learned pitching and business skills by reading blog posts or taking an online course. I could have gained online exposure by pouring my time and effort into my Instagram account and website to make them as beautiful as possible. And that’s what I recommend that you do!
Some of the brands I contacted during this time were really cool and would love to work with them as real, paying clients. But unfortunately, that probably won't happen any time in the near future now that I have presented myself as less-than-valuable to them.
Ultimately, every photographer will have to make their own decisions about this matter at some point in her career. If the question “should I work for free?” is something that you are grappling with right now, I can’t give you a straight answer, but I hope that you can learn from my experience and mistakes.