Should I Work For Free As A Newbie Photographer?

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.

 

The pros:

 

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.

 

The cons:

 

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.

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How to Build Your Perfect Prop Collection

Good props are essential for great food photography. I have spent hours and hours looking for picture-perfect tableware, and I've stumbled upon some great items.

I've am proud to say that I've curated a beautiful prop collection over the course of my time as a food photographer, so today I'm sharing some tips to help you build yours.

 

 

Experiment with what you already have.

 

I’m going to let you in on a little secret… you probably already have some food photography props in your house just waiting to get in front of the camera.  Before going out and buying new props, take inventory of your kitchen.  Do you have plain white plates or bowls?  Maybe a simple wood cutting board or a white dish towel?  

 

If your answer is yes, then you’ve already started building your prop collection without knowing it!  Start experimenting with the items you have before you go and buy more.

 

 

I had this cooling rack in my kitchen for years before I even started with photography, and I love the way it looks on camera!

 

Start your collection small.

 

You do not need to drop thousands of dollars on props when you first get started in food photography.  Start your prop collection small!  You will figure out what you need as you go along your food photography journey.

 

You do not want to go waste your money on a bunch of bright white props only to figure out that you actually gravitate toward a dark and moody style.  You also don’t want to waste your money on really niche props (like cake stands or honey dippers) only to use them once a year.

 

When I started out with photography, my prop collection consisted of just 4 plates, 2 linens, a set of cutlery, and a cutting board.  I experimented with that small collection for a few months so that I could figure out what I really needed before buying more.

 

Keep it simple.

 

Simple props are great because you can use them over and over again.  You can never go wrong with some neutral off-white bowls or plates.  They will definitely give you the best bang for your buck.

 

When I’m prop shopping, I am always on the lookout for simple dishes with some detailing that makes them stand out.  Maybe some texture along the edges or a speckled pattern.

 

I absolutely love these simple dessert plates.  They have some nice speckle detailing, but they are still very neutral so I can use them over and over again.

 

Smaller props are better.

 

When we are photographing a dish, we want it to look full and abundant.  Just like we want to see large portions when we eat at a restaurant, we want to see large portions in food photography.  One way that we can create a feeling of abundance is by styling the food to take up the whole plate.

 

My prop collection consists of many salad plates, dessert plates, and dip bowls.  I rarely buy dinner plates because they are really large, and that means you need a lot more food to fill them.

 

Watch out for reflections.

 

Shiny dishes may look really nice on your kitchen table, but they will not look as nice in front of your camera.  Shiny props reflect their surroundings, and reflections can be really tricky to work with in food photography. 

 

I can’t even tell you how many times this scenario has happened to me…  I come out of a shoot with some really gorgeous photos.  I go to edit in Lightroom.  As I’m editing, I zoom in a little closer and… is that my face reflecting on the surface of a spoon?  Yikes!  I highly recommend buying matte dishware and flatware if you can find it in order to avoid this issue.  

 

On a budget?  Shop vintage!

 

Antique stores are a great place to start when shopping for props, and they happen to be very budget-friendly.  Some of my favorite props are vintage.

 

If you don’t have antique stores in your area, you can also try searching for vintage props on Etsy.  I highly recommend buying vintage flatware because it tends to be a little worn and therefore less shiny and reflective.

 

I got 3 of these pearl-detailed white plates at an antique store for only $4!!

 

Here are some of my go-tos… 

 

Etsy: Etsy is a great place to find small businesses with beautiful props.  I buy a lot of ceramics on Etsy as well as vintage flatware.  Here are some Etsy shops that I love: 

 

  • LifeFilm
    • This is the shop that I turn to when I need a prop that’s unique, something other than the usual white plate or bowl.  I love LifeFilm because they have specialty props like sifters, cooling racks, and cheeseboards that will supplement your prop collection perfectly.
  • Artisan Artifacts
    • This shop has gorgeous ceramics at a very reasonable prices.
  • Lovely Heart things
    • This shop has absolutely gorgeous cheesecloths that can elevate any photo.

 

Crate and Barrel: I love Crate and Barrel for the basics.  They have great linens, glasses, and simple dishware, and it’s all very affordable!  Here are some of my favorite items that I own from Crate & Barrel:

 

 

Wilbur & Wolf: WIlbur & Wolf has gorgeous linens in a wide range of colors as well as curated collections of tableware.  This shop is unique because it is actually created and curated by a food photographer.  Their products are unlike anything you can find at a more general store like Crate & Barrel.  They are made specifically for photography, so you know that anything you buy will look good on camera.

 

Anthropology: Anthropology has great statement pieces for your collection.  I love their serverware, colorful dishes, and detailed glassware.

 

Goodies LA:  Goodies LA is a small shop that is great if you’re balling on a budget!  They have great wooden, marble, and ceramic props and everything is under $25!


NOM LivingI am obsessed with NOM Living.  They have dishware that is neutral with beautiful detailing.  Unfortunately, I don’t own a lot of products from them because they are based in London and shipping to the USA is expensive, but the few items I do own are some of my favorite props in my collection.

Where I Find Inspiration

If you’re a photographer, you probably know how frustrating it is to be stuck in a creative rut.  Have you ever been stuck scrolling through Instagram or Pinterest for hours looking for inspiration, and finding nothing?  Me too.  And it’s rough.  Here are three places I turn to for inspiration when nothing seems to be doing it for me.

 

Open a cookbook.

Cookbooks are full of polished, professional imagery.  When Instagram just isn’t doing it for me, I love to flip through a cookbook and bookmark pages with images that capture my eye.

 

I was recently gifted "The Last Course" by Claudia Fleming.  It was full of beautiful images of fruity desserts, and it inspired me to bake and photograph this cinnamon apple babka.

 

Look for photography challenges on Instagram.

Many food photographers host photography challenges on Instagram for their followers to participate in.  Usually they will provide a prompt for the challenge (for example, "Christmas-themed photos" or "photos with steam"), and a hashtag for you to use on whatever photo you submit for the prompt.  Some of these challenges will really make you think outside of the box, others will help you brush up on a photography skill.  And if the photo you hashtag for the challenge wins, you will often get a prize or some free Instagram exposure.

If you follow photographers on Instagram, watch their stories to see if they are hosting any challenges.  Here are some accounts I recommend looking out for:

  • @foodcapturecollective
  • @useyournoodles 
  • @thelittleplantation

 


This was my entry for @foodtographyschool's #fsdripdrizzledust challenge on Instagram.  For this challenge, participants had to capture some type of movement in an image.

 

Let your food inspire you.

Sometimes when I don’t know what to shoot, I’ll just take a walk through a grocery store or farmer’s market looking for beautiful food to inspire me.  Sometimes I’ll find some gorgeous produce or a unique food product, and ideas will just start flowing from there!

 

One weekend this past summer I stumbled upon the most beautiful red currants at the farmer's market, and they inspired this photo!

 

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3 Composition Tips For Beginners

One thing I love about being a food photographer is that I get to create my scene from scratch.  Unlike other genres of photography (e.g. landscape photography) where the photographer works with an already established scene (e.g. the landscape), food photographers start with a blank canvas and create the entire scene themselves.  I love the creative freedom this gives me as a photographer, but sometimes I get stuck staring at the blank canvas with no idea how to start composing my scene. 

If this has ever happens to you, here are 3 composition tips I turn to when I just don't know where to start.

  1. Try using the Rule of Thirds.

The Rule of Thirds is great for beginners because it is so easy learn and execute.  Here’s how it works: when you look at your image, imagine that it is divided into thirds both vertically and horizontally to create a 9-square grid.  When you use the Rule of Thirds, you place your subjects along the lines and intersections of the grid.  This helps to create balance and intrigue in your image.

 

In this photo, I placed the main glass and the creamer along a third line.

 

  1. Play around with an S curve.

If you’ve never heard of an S curve, the name is pretty self explanatory.  When you use an S curve, you basically arrange the subjects in your photograph in the shape of an S.  I always use an S curve when I’m in a composition rut because it requires little thought and it looks good almost every time.  

 

 

  1. Create triangles in your images.

When it comes to composition, triangles tend to be very pleasing to the eye.  If you’re looking to elevate an image, try arranging similar subjects in triangles.  You can group subjects by color, shape, or proximity to one another.  This is a fun trick because it’s versatile.  There are many ways to create triangles, and you can create many triangles in one image.

 

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Balling On A Budget As A Food Photographer

 If you're starting out as a food photographer, one of the first things you will learn is that photography is EXPENSIVE.  From camera gear to props to backdrops, the costs add up quick.  If you're starting out with photography and don't have thousands of dollars to spend on equipment, this post is for you.  Here are some great, cheap finds I've come across while balling on a budget as a food photographer.

 

For backdrops: Ink and Elm & Captured By Lucy

 

If you’re just starting out in photography, vinyl backdrops will be your best friend.  Vinyl backdrops are considerably cheaper than hard surfaces and they can produce great results!  I have bought many of my vinyl backdrops from Ink and Elm because they have a really wide selection of prints, their backdrops are super durable, and they often have sales.  Captured By Lucy also has a great selection of beautiful vinyl backdrops.

Though vinyl backdrops work in many situations, they do have limitations.  I would recommend investing in higher-quality backdrops if 1) you are taking macro shots or 2) you want a more detailed, textured surface such as rustic wood.  A close up, crystal-clear macro shot may pick up that the background is a print, not a real surface.  More textured surfaces such as wood and textured concrete tend to looks less realistic when printed on a vinyl backdrop than smoother prints like marble and tile.

 

This photo was taken on Capture By Lucy's "Latte Marble" backdrop ($35.16).

 

For Props: Goodies LA and Crate & Barrel

 

Here’s the thing about props: you can find cheap ones, but over time you'll probably buy a lot of them and the costs can add up very quickly.  A few plates will only take you so far.

I love Goodies LA and Crate & Barrel because they have great basics.  I have plenty of simple white plates and dip bowls from both shops, and  I can use them in many shots before getting tired of them.

I also like that at both Crate & Barrel and Goodies LA you can buy individual bowls, plates, etc. rather than buying them in sets.  Many stores force you to buy items in sets of 4+ so you get stuck with a bunch of items you don’t actually need.  

 

The wood board in this photo is from Goodies LA ($18), and the cups are from Crate & Barrel ($4.95 each).

 

For education: The Bite Shot by Joanie Simon

 

When you first start out in photography, there’s obviously a lot of learning to do.  Many professional photographers and colleges offer classes, but they can be very pricey.  Well here’s some good news for you: Joanie Simon’s Youtube channel, The Bite Shot, is awesome and it’s FREE!  In her videos she covers everything from lighting to composition to the business of photography.  I’ve learned so much from her videos and still watch every one she puts out.

 

The best first lens: The Nifty Fifty

 

If you’re shopping for a first lens, the 50mm f/1.8 or “nifty fifty” is a great one.  It’s price falls around $125 which is very cheap for a camera lens.  It can take really sharp images and its mid-range angle makes it extremely versatile.  A 50mm lens has a wide enough view to use for overhead shots, but it is not so wide that it creates undesired distortion in your images.  It also goes to a pretty low aperture (f/1.8),  so you can blur the background of your images to make the subject shine.  I use mine for everything from flatlays to head-on shots.  

 

 

 


Both of these photos were taken with my 50 mm lens.

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