Should you ever work for free as a photographer?

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In the continuum of a photographer's development, there's pretty much two certainties - the first is that once you start sharing work with your friends and family, people will praise your (seemingly) new found talent.

And the other? Being asked to work for free, and often by the very same people.

So what should you do?

We'd likely never expect a photojournalist to work for free, and yet other genres of photography have totally different expectations. Image: Getty
We'd likely never expect a photojournalist to work for free, and yet the expectations on other genres of photography seem to be totally different. Image: Getty

This is a tricky question that many photographers and other creatives struggle with, and it really doesn't have a straightforward answer.

On the one hand, it says a lot about how our culture values photography that it's often assumed it should or could be done for free, and yet at the same time, the right kind of free photography opportunity at the right time can be totally fine, and something everyone benefits from.

We asked a spectrum of different creatives for their opinion, and as you might expect, it drew some interesting responses.

As always, we'd love to hear what you think - do you work, or have you worked for free? Or do you have a blanket 'No way' policy, even if it is just a few portraits at Uncle Tony's wedding? Let us know in the comments.  

Sal Brownbill

A trained photographer, through The Brownbill Effect, Sally Brownbill connects creative talent from all corners of the industry. She provides career leadership and advice and also consults on the design and editing of photography portfolios and websites. 

Firstly, it is important to note that every job that is put in front of you should be looked at individually. Rarely are any two circumstances the same.

My golden rule is that nothing is for free. Your time is money and time is what we are all lacking.

However, as always there are exceptions to the rule.

If you have been asked to shoot a job for a client, where everyone on set is giving their time for free because it is for a charity, for example, and you feel strongly about the cause and you have the time , then it is ok to work for free.

Or If you and another person are collaborating on a project together, where no one is being paid and you can see the value for your own folio and it’s a great idea and concept, then go for it

Where other people are being paid for the job and you are asked to shoot for free, or they say it will benefit your folio…  it is not ok.

In these instances you can certainly reduce your rate if it's an amazing opportunity,  but it is not fair or right for anyone, who is being paid themselves, to ask you to work for free.

Image: Getty
Image: Getty

Drew Hopper

Drew Hopper is an Australian freelance documentary photographer exploring ecological themes, landscape and place. He is committed to documenting social, cultural and environmental stories around the world. See more of his work at

I've done my fair share of free work and it really hasn't helped me gain future clients or build professional relationships. I feel that it's crucial to be paid as paid work establishes positive and professional business practices.

By accepting unpaid work, you’re devaluing your profession. It doesn't matter if it's a family member, friend, or just a cool startup business you believe in, you deserve to be paid for your time and skills.

A way around shooting for free is to offer a discount to sweeten the deal for your client, it also helps to educate your clients and explain why you operate this way. Most people who respect your talents will understand where you're coming from and appreciate your professionalism. 

Anthony McKee

Anthony McKee is a Melbourne-based writer and social documentary photographer. In 2014 he was named AIPP 2014 Australian Documentary Photographer of the Year. See his work at

I think every budding photographer has done a few free jobs, just to get some experience. Sometimes those jobs might be for a mate, or sometimes it might be for an event that you really want to see, just as much photograph. You do it to get in the door and make the sort of images that you hope to get commissioned to make one day.

While you might be shooting a job “just for the experience” though, it is also worth considering some of the risks and responsibilities, particularly if you the only photographer covering a special occasion for someone. You might be photographing a wedding for “free”, but this does not free of any responsibility if anything goes wrong.

You have entered into a transactional arrangement; you are using, in effect hiring, the couple’s day to create images for your portfolio, and in exchange you are giving the couple access to those photographs.

If anything goes wrong on the day - if it is pouring with rain, if it is exceedingly hot, if your camera fails, or the new flash that you bought for the occasion isn’t working properly, you still need to be able to deliver at least some good, useable images to the client. Many a friendship has gone south simply because an inexperienced photographer has promised more than they could deliver from a “free” job.

Remember, be as creative as you want to be, but always make a few safety shots too - images you can fall back on if the creative ideas don't work as well as your client imagined. 

If you are really keen to start photographing weddings and events or any other pro work, don’t go into these situations by yourself. One way of getting started is to ask a professional photographer ask if you can assist them for free or be their second shooter. Look and learn what they do and how they manage situations.

Then, as you start to gain experience, take on some small assignments, preferably with that photographers blessing. Most pros are wary of teaching newly photographers, simply because they will eventually become their competition.

As another option though, if you are going to shoot a wedding or an event for someone, ask another photographer friend to help you make photos; if something goes wrong on the day at least between the two of you, you should have some reasonable images.

I began my professional career by going to one of the best photographers in town and asking if I could assist him - for free. I spent a year working with him whenever I was working nightshift at my other job, until one day I went on to study photography full-time at Wellington Polytech (now Massey University) in New Zealand.

Image: Getty
Studio shoots can be particularly gear heavy, which means a lot of expense getting setup. Image: Getty

Alex Cearns OAM

Alex is the Creative Director of Houndstooth Studio based in Perth, and specialises in capturing portraits that convey the intrinsic character of her animal subjects. She photographs for engaged pet lovers, corporate brands in Australia, the USA and the UK, and for around 40 Australian and International animal charities and conservation organisations.

Even if you are in the early stages of your photography career, I’d recommend always placing value on your work – because it has value.

I’m the first to admit, that my first fee for images was way too cheap. I was charging $95 for a two hour outdoor photo session and a disc (it was back in the day!) of 100+ images. I found myself spending hours editing and working myself into the ground and I realised pretty quickly that I needed a proper structured price list, with a range of professionally finished items on it to not only honour my work but to legitimise my business.

But, where I will cut myself some slack, is that still charged from the get-go. Start with what you are comfortable with charging and with what you consider reasonable and grow your prices from there, but know that if you are at a place where you feel your work is of a standard which is good enough for other people to display in their homes, then that same work is good enough to have a cost placed on it.

The only times I recommend working for free are to initially portfolio build, and in this case I would suggest one day of shooting perhaps for four or five people you know and trust, who can model themselves, their kids or their pets for you to get some online content happening and NOT months and months of free sessions for everyone you meet; and when working with a charity where you agree to capture images for them at no cost to assist with their charity mission – and I would only recommend doing this if you are earning enough income in your business to be able to afford to do a project for free here and there.

Tim Robinson

Tim Robinson is the creator of the TV program Snap Happy, the photography show. He has been shooting professional video for over two decades, with a focus on telling people’s stories through documentary. He is a keen wildlife and nature photographer and loves the opportunity to combine his passion of film making with photography. 

No one should ever feel obliged to work for free as a creative but there are a few reasons why you might consider it. When I was starting out as a videographer I worked on my own projects to build up my skills but that experience only takes you so far.

To work with other people that are calling the shots teaches you an entirely different skill set. Flexing your creativity, whilst managing a client's expectations is a skill you can only learn on the job.

So it may be worthwhile hand picking a couple of small projects that you can treat like a paid gig in order to gain this experience. The other reason that you might like to offer your services free of charge is to give something back to the community.

Occasionally I will take on a project that helps a local community, aid or church group. These are fun jobs because you usually have a lot of creative control, less responsibility and it has a positive effect on your mental health because it’s for a good cause.

Ultimately, it’s your choice if you decide to ever offer your creative services for free but just make sure you go into these arrangements with clear guidelines and expectations so that it can be a positive experience for everyone involved.

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