David Hobby, aka the Strobist, recently offered a controversial opinion that photographers should “CONSIDER” working for free. Read his post, then come back for my take on it.
David offers compelling reasons for his argument. His primary point is, that it will make you a better photographer. In the simplest context, that’s always true. Every time you shoot you get better. But there’s more to it.
Some other things to consider…
1. When you get paid, you lose control over the creative process. I think this is true for most, but not all photographers. I know several people, myself included, who often turn down jobs where we don’t have control. This necessitates that clients who hire us do in fact give up control – and a check. If you’re just starting out, you won’t be able to pull this off. So if control is more important to you than money, listen to David’s point here.
2. His point about access is well taken. If you want to build a portfolio, then this is a time-honored way to do it. If you want to get a chance to show some famous or sought-after client that you can do the kind of work they need, this is also a good approach. Again, the more experienced you are, the more successful you are, the less this applies.
3. Karma – I believe Karma is a powerful force in the universe. If you choose to use your art and skill as a photographer to better the world, and you can afford to do it, go for it. This is David’s strongest argument in my opinion. Doing something simply because it will help others is almost ALWAYS a good idea. Even established pros occasionally donate time, prints, etc., to good causes. I try to give away the equivalent of 10% of my income to charity every year, and I sometimes do that with in-kind donations of prints or studio time.
4. There is a counter-argument to David’s point that showing up for free undermines the trade. If you carefully read his post, I don’t think that’s a potential side effect here. In any event, our business is full of bottom feeders undercutting established pros already. Even if you subscribe to the position that this creates more of that, there’s already so much I don’t think it matters. As long as you make it clear that your offer to work for free has serious limitations, i.e., just this one time, you won’t have a problem.
5. One place I disagree with David is his hook that our economy has some influence over why you should consider working for free. I think this is a good idea, especially for emerging pros, any time, recession or not.
I think David’s advice, if carefully read and pondered, is correct, with the caveat that I believe it applies more to emerging pros than established pros. It’s really a simple lesson in marketing that all photographers should explore. We need more talk like this so that our industry can survive the recession/depression. And I’ve always been an advocate of the idea that professional photographers should spend 80 percent of their time on the business of selling their work, and 20 percent on the actual shooting. Discussions like this will help push that ratio in the right direction.