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The Case Against Free Work

I'm not doing any more free work.

This probably seems like an unnecessary post, but hear me out; my reasons for taking a stand against "free work" don't start and end with not getting paid. In fact, while I do think there's significance to the lack of money attached to a project, it's got very little to do with walking away empty-handed.

I also want to start by clarifying that I am not lumping in hobbyist photography or videography with free work. If I bring my camera on a trip and I'm taking (what I consider to still be) nice photos or videos and editing them, that's for me. If I was shooting shows just for the joy of doing it, that'd be for me. So I'm defining free work here as something that I would typically be paid for, but, you know, not being paid for it. Moving on.

"Now, keep in mind that I'm an artist. And I'm sensitive about my shit." - Erykah Badu

If I'm doing something for free, it comes down to a passion for the project or event, and the fact that at the end of the day, us photographers and videographers are artists. Even if a specific project doesn't feel like it has the most traditionally artistic merit, I think we all just want to create art. There's no comparable feeling to just absolutely nailing the shot. It's a sensation that I chase every time I pick up a camera. But the fact that I love what I do doesn't negate the fact that shooting can be exhausting work, both physically and mentally. Passion also doesn't nullify the hours put into editing; a shoot doesn't start and end at the event in question. I think above all else though, the biggest thing that free work fails to cancel out may very well be validation.

Now, when you wrap up a project and you get paid for it, that's its own form of affirmation. Job's done, mission accomplished, onto the next. However, I find that generally speaking, I have a far more personal, emotional attachment to the work I do sans compensation...and I don't mean that in a positive way. I get far too invested in the feedback, or lack thereof, upon delivery of free materials. It's the only time I really feel entitled to praise and gratitude; it's a gross, but deeply human feeling. I've scratched your back with free work, now scratch mine with acknowledgement and public social media appreciation. Again: gross. I know. This is what experts refer to as a "me problem." I'm working on it.


But aside from my own professional insecurities, I do think there's an inherent issue with not having any money invested into a project and it's...well, investment. When a client has spent their hard-earned dollar on my services, I believe that both parties are more inclined to invest their time, energy, and commitment to the best product possible. I take being hired for a job very seriously and my goal is always to go above and beyond to exceed expectations. I also feel like that paying client is more likely to participate in ensuring that their best foot is put forward, whether that's a musician on stage or a web client providing assets and information.

So what happens when those expectations aren't there? Sure, there's less pressure, but there's also this unshakeable sense of apathy from everyone involved. It's not as though I'm not going to try my best, but how far am I going to get "the" shot? What lengths am I going to if the lighting's not up to snuff? And on the other side of the coin, there's not much that's more professionally gratifying than delivering a product to a client that's waiting with bated breath. Conversely, there's little that's less satisfying after hours of work than a "cool thanks" DM on Instagram.


There's also an expectation I want to dispel that free work will lead directly to paid work. I'm not saying it never happens, but the rate at which I've shot something for free and that's led to paying work from the same client is maybe ten percent. More often than not, if there's any conversion from free work, it's by way of networking with other people at an event.

However low your rate may be, it's never going to be as appealing as free. Even if your work has gotten considerably better, your now superior product will hardly ever circumvent the initial lack of a price tag. Standards drop off a cliff when there's no cost associated with a product. If you buy a $4 pair of sunglasses off of Temu, you can't really get mad when the lens pops out. And worse, if that $4 pair of sunglasses managed to get the job done for a duration that you find acceptable, you're not making the jump up to the Ray-Bans when they break. You're probably getting another $4 pair of Temu sunglasses.

broken cheap sunglasses
Pictured: stock sunglasses for this belabored analogy

And now, because I can't help but acknowledge the contrary:

The Case For Free Work

"But Mike," you might be aggressively screaming at your screen, "you just spent so much time incoherently ranting about the evils of free work! How can you make a case for it now?"

What can I tell you? We're complicated creatures, people.

I might be personally done doing free work, but that doesn't mean I don't understand its value. Free work can be invaluable when it comes to establishing a portfolio full of the kind of work that you want to be doing. I've known photographers and videographers that have booked HUGE clients with NO evidence of their skillset. It's mind-boggling and more often than not, it backfires. Most of us, myself included, will not get that lucky. So you want to shoot concerts? Find a friend with a band and go hone your skillset for their benefit. Want to shoot family portraits? Something tells me you know a family who'd be thrilled to have some shots that aren't from Sears in the early 90s. But do it for the people you know. Do it for friends. Do it for a good cause. Make it a gift that benefits both parties.


Alright. End of rant. Be safe out there. Be good to each other. Don't get taken advantage of. Let me know how wrong I am in the comments.

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