This image that you see right here – the cover one – this is a picture I’ve taken last week with a triathlon athlete for her blog. Did I get money for that? No. Am I happy with that? Yes. Will I do it again in the future? You bet! You ask: “But Michèle, how can it be good when you don’t get paid?”
Well, here’s my humble opinion about free photoshoots.
The importance of personal projects
As a professional photographer, I thought that I had to spend as much time – if not more – on my business than on my actual photography. After all, being a full-time photographer isn’t only about taking pictures and editing them. I have to do my accounting, look for new clients and contracts, manage my social media, network, take classes or give classes, go to meetings – the list goes on and on. I’ll be honest with you. I’ve lost my balance of being an artist and being a businesswoman somewhere along this road. I ended up doing almost exclusively administrative work – you know all the boring stuff in front of a computer that isn’t working on my images – and very little pictures. Result? I’ve lost a lot of enthusiasm which led to the loss of confidence which led to the loss of actual work. I’ve spent so much time and energy trying to become a better entrepreneur that I forgot to nourish the most important part of myself: the photographer.
I realized it last week, as I came back from a free shoot, my first one in a long time. It just felt good and right. I felt inspired and excited. I knew I just reconnected with my true self in the field with a camera in my hands. This personal project has allowed me to just be the photographer I love to be without any boundaries. I’d probably still be close to a nervous breakdown and spend my time binging ice cream if it wasn’t for that photoshoot. (Although I’ll probably have ice cream regardless…)
• Build a stronger portfolio
If I want to show my work to my clients, I need great images and a variety of them. The only way for me to achieve that, until I become a veteran photographer and get hundreds of paid contracts to show off, is to take pictures on my own! Seriously. Even after I have had lots of contracts, I’ll still do personal work.
Nothing’s been better for me than meeting a bunch of new people in a fun way than volunteering. When you volunteer you do what you love (I was taking pictures to cover the event), you meet people with the same interests as you (because you choose a cause close to your heart) and you are not in a typical 5-to-7-all-dressed-up arranged meeting.
• Create new relationships
Sometimes you meet people and it just clicks. I’ve made great friends during the past two years because I went out and met them at photoshoots.
• Get your work noticed
When I shoot an influencer, someone who is well known in the area I am working, they will put my work out there and reach a lot more people with their 25k Instagram followers than I ever could with my little 1.2k account. They also probably have interesting contacts they will be willing to share if they enjoy my work. This will work for you, too.
• Having fun without the pressure
Everybody loves to shoot for fun. A personal project is all about that! I can try any kind of stuff I feel like because I have no stress, no fear, and no deadlines. I feel comfortable stepping out of my comfort zone. I can’t fail because nobody has expectations about the outcome of my work. I can create and be inspired as much as I want without restrictions. The funniest part is that the photos turn out to be my favorite pictures most of the time.
• Getting experience
When I wanted to learn to shoot boxing, I went to a boxing match. I wanted to learn how to shoot pole fitness. So I went to a pole fitness studio. I had to go by myself and spend my personal time to learn how to shoot different sports. Nobody would pay me for that! But now, I know how to do it and I am confident to go to clients who need that kind of work.
• Developing your own style
It takes thousands and thousands of images to develop a photography style. I found my path. I still have much more left to travel to learn and fine-tune. Even then, my path will always keep on evolving as the time goes by.
Being in action
Nothing’s worse for me than not taking pictures at all for a long time. I start doubting my skills. I look at my old pictures and I ask myself if I will ever be able to take anything as good. I guess that’s what they call paralysis by analysis. I think I think, I think and I don’t act. And when I finally go out and shoot for a free collaboration, I realize I’ve been stupid to be afraid. Action brings more action. Note to self: Always stay in action.
Developing quality relations
Joannie, the athlete featured in the pictures of this article, is getting ready for her first triathlon. She has a blog: “La Folle qui Court” which could be translated in English as “The Crazy Girl who Runs”. We decided to partner up so she could have beautiful images for her articles and social media. I didn’t know her when we started at the time but 3 or 4 photoshoots later, I can say she is now a good friend of mine. We’ve even ended up drinking beer and eating nachos last time.
The point is, straight at the start of this shoot, she told me she might like to take pictures in a bikini but she wasn’t too sure if she would go for it or not. She wasn’t 100% confident in herself. She had to have 100% confidence in me to open up and be willing to go for it as the opening photo proves. I believe this is a decisive element in the outcome of a photoshoot. Someone who is comfortable with you will do things differently, Things that might put them in a situation of vulnerability. They will allow you into their intimacy. This is a privilege I never take for granted and that I have great respect for. When I don’t feel in a rush, I have quality time to develop quality relationships with my subject. And when I truly connect with them, this is when I get my best images.
Have a plan and don’t follow it
Unpaid, personal work is the perfect occasion to Just. Have. Fun. Like for this very shoot, we knew where we were going to go and we knew when we were going to shoot. The rest is just feeling. We talked together and asked ourselves what would be cool, what do we feel like doing. There was no plan really, it was stupid simple. For the image on the cover of this article, I just saw the chairs aligned, the beautiful sunset and I knew where I needed to stand to get great light. I just asked her to stand there as she was trying (really hard) to put on her wetsuit. For those who know what it’s like to put on a wetsuit, you know the struggle is real. The wind was blowing so hard in her hair and that was it. Although we don’t see her face, I love the movement, the warmth and the energy of this image. Sometimes, no plan is the best plan and obviously, this is not something I’d do on a paid photoshoot.
Final word: Free doesn’t mean Worthless
I always get something out of collaborations, personal projects, and volunteering. It doesn’t show as money but rather as personal and professional values. I meet new people, go to places I may have never gone otherwise, create great relationships and even make new friends. Doing things I love, simply because I love them, brings a different energy to my work. I don’t HAVE to do it. I CHOOSE to do it.