The Consequences of Working for Free

The Consequences of Working for Free

More than a few articles have been written on the detrimental effects of working for free in the photo industry. Unsurprisingly, the same issue has raged on for years in the writing community. But I didn’t expect to see the issue percolate in my Facebook feed in relation to the circus industry.

The circus industry? Yes.

My diverse group of online friends (some of whom I’ve actually met irl) happen to include a few talented acrobats and aerialists. You know, the type of people who might work in a circus (or as Austin Powers says, “carnies”). And there it was, an article from entitled The Consequence of Working for Free in Circus. Author Mary-Margaret Scrimger lays out arguments against working for free that are all too familiar:

  • “When someone works for free it decreases what services are considered to be worth and, therefore, decreases what professionals can charge.”
  • “North America has this silly belief that work is a negative word. If we are working, then we shouldn’t enjoy it. Work should be hard. We should only be paid if there isn’t enjoyment.”
  • “Artists are frequently promised exposure and future paid work for giving their creations for free…Promises are for tomorrow and tomorrow never comes.”

Author Tim Kreider astutely pointed out the following dynamic in a The New York Times op/ed entitled “Slaves of the Internet Unite”:

“I know there’s no point in demanding that businesspeople pay artists for their work, any more than there is in politely asking stink bugs or rhinoviruses to quit it already. It’s their job to be rapacious and shameless. But they can get away with paying nothing only for the same reason so many sleazy guys keep trying to pick up women by insulting them: because it keeps working on someone.”

Scrimger isn’t the only one. Hula hoop performer Revolva turned down Oprah’s offer of free work for exposure.  Revolva penned an open letter to Oprah:

“Oprah Winfrey’s event can’t afford to pay performers. I’d have to drive a rental car to the arena in exchange for exposure,” she added. “And the tour that wants free work is called “The Life You Want.” It’s like a sitcom, except it’s reality. I wrote this post because I guess I just felt exasperated enough to say, ‘Can people who can afford to pay artists please stop making super-saver coupons out of our lives?'”

And recently an interview with writer Harlan Ellison has been making the rounds.

Ellison yells, “There’s no publicity value [in working for free]! The only value to me is if you put money in my hand!”

Industry expert, John Harrington, writes, “When you get the request from a prospective client to work for free, it’s not really free to you….remember that your expenses continue whether you’re getting paid or not. Because you still have to pay all the bills that keep you in business, each day has a net cost associated with your business existing.”

All of this seems blatantly obvious to nearly anyone in an artistic field, and yet people continue to work for free – as if these platitudes somehow don’t apply to them. Part of the issue is that it’s hard to negotiate for yourself. In the New Yorker, writer Lizzie Widdicombe quotes an agent for computer programmers, who states, “’It turns out that negotiating is a lot easier when you’re doing it for someone else.’” Most people undervalue themselves. Most people don’t bother to calculate their cost of doing business.

How can we really change this dynamic?

Photographers are notoriously secretive about what they earn on specific jobs. I once moderated a panel, and asked one of the photographers what a certain type of job might generate in fees. He coyly dodged the question by saying “it depends,” which of course is true, but his response was indicative of an opacity of pricing that hurts photographers.

Repositories of information like Who Pays Photographers? are incredibly valuable, but more photographers need to open up about pricing and negotiation tactics by:

  • Participate in open pricing discussions on trade industry forums
  • Offer to help young/new photographers understand contracts
  • Blog about how to price jobs from large to small

Free will never go away when the cost of expendables is nothing. The average hobbyist doesn’t associate cost with taking a picture, whereas the pro who makes a living from it is very sensitive to the dynamics of free. So even if you’ve heard of the consequences of working for free, the next photographer hasn’t. Help spread the free advice.


Learn something from this post? Share the knowledge and hit the “Tweet”, “Like”, “Share”, “Pin it”, or “Plus” button below.

Are you a professional photographer? Check out PhotoShelter — we make killer photography websites and offer over 100+ professional grade tools to help you showcase, store, share, and sell your images.

Next Post:
Previous Post:
This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 23 comments for this article
    • Allen Murabayashi Author at 3:38 pm

      Colluding to fix a price within an industry is illegal in the US. The discussion of prices could raise an eyebrow at the US Justice Department — but given 1) the lack of a photographic union, 2) trade organizations have smallish numbers and minimal influence, and 3) the diversity/distribution of photographers throughout the US, my non-lawyer opinion is that exposing this information would probably raise the ire of anyone. Of course, this is not legal advice.

      I think if a photographer wrote an article on how he/she charged for social media usage with the logic behind it, that would allow other photographers to constructively scrutinize the approach. As it is, no one seems to have a good answer for “what should I charge when a company wants to use my photo on Instagram” — or at least, I haven’t seen it.

      • Aaron K at 8:48 pm

        Your conclusion is spot on Allen. Advertising and editorial photographers need to stop being so paranoid and start sharing real-world pricing data that shows new entrants what clients are willing to pay for professional photography services. Which is why the AIPA in New Zealand has recently launched a Photo Shoot Pricing blog –

  1. Pingback: The Consequences of Working for Free | PhotoShelter Blog – The Click
  2. Pingback: The Consequences of Working for Free
  3. Chris Adval at 6:14 pm

    Sounds like this article is saying working for free at any time is wrong.. or is it just me?

    If so, let me say this, sometimes “working for free” but in reality a trade can be helpful to working pros in my opinion. Either for a certain level of exposure to your prime demographic in marketing or something else you as the photographer highly value. I know “word of mouth” is gold in the photo industry, and yea sometimes we may get a bad “word of mouth” if we work for free, especially too much and especially with the same people/businesses. But compared to the cost of traditional advertising I think its much less costly than that investment than doing personal projects, which some may consider as “working for free”.

    Maybe its just me of what you mean as “working for free” could mean a million different things good or/and bad. But since you did not define this in this article I’d assume all “working for free” is bad which I completely disagree with. If I did not “work for free” I could not do any “personal” business projects which provide portfolio development and marketing opportunities to my and other photographer’s business.

    How about “The Consequences of Not Working for Free”?

    I don’t like to work for free either, but I don’t wait and sit around for clients to roll in and give me projects without proof of concept, i.e. a portfolio. Which some may argue you get from clients, but some clients expect a well refined portfolio BEFORE being hired for a paid gig.

    We will always have the new emerging pro photographers willing to “work for free” in order to prove themselves/ourselves to the industry and client markets, especially since our industry does not require any license or certificates in order to be running a photography business.

    Does this mean I’ll “work for free” without any high valued return (excluding literal USD) or some kind of savings from traditional advertising channels.

    • Chris Adval at 6:22 pm

      No, I will not “work for free” for no absolute value, heck I don’t think anyone anywhere would “work for free” for absolutely nothing at all in return. Some may see their return as worthless and assume its literally “working for free”. But for a real life example now, would I provide some nice images to a salon to get some exposure to their clientele that is looking at my posters/brochures/business cards, etc. that to me is worth it and saving me possibly $5000/yr in local advertising and its to the salon’s demo specifically not the local paper’s demo.

    • Allen Murabayashi Author at 6:22 pm

      No, I think that there circumstances where working for free is beneficial (but to your point, perhaps that’s another op/ed). The larger point is that there is a cost associated with working for free.

      When a big business asks you to work for free, you are literally subsidizing that business, while creating downward price pressure for the services you’re providing. There’s also an opportunity cost to you.

      When you work for a small business or a friend or a neighbor, I think the circumstances are different. It might be that you are bartering, or collecting a tacit “IOU,” or maybe you’re just being altruistic.

      Most of the people railing against free in my examples are older and wiser, and simply understand the value of the services they provide. That’s an enormous self-realization that will benefit a freelancer in any field.

    • Sarah at 3:37 pm

      Even if you don’t work for monetary compensation, people need to stop working for nothing. At least get trade for your work – – advertising credit in publication / blog, gift card for same value at restaurant/hotel/retail, whatever. Get SOMETHING OF VALUE in exchange for your work, and don’t be cheap. If you shoot weddings or social events and the hotel or restaurant wants to use your photo in their advertising/marketing campaign, but they don’t want to pay, maybe say okay…but not only just for photo credit, but also for $500 or $1000 worth of meals or hotel room/spa credit….get something. Stop giving work away just for photo credit, that’s for damn sure.

  4. Bob Ray at 9:38 pm

    The most powerful word in every language is one many artists – photographers, especially – have forgotten is no’; as in ‘No, I don’t work for free’, ‘No, you can’t have my images for free’, etc., etc.

    One of this article’s great points is that “free will never go away when the cost of expendables is nothing.” Camera gear, computers, software, training, rent, overhead, insurance, all cost money.

    Buyers don’t see that as all they want to see is ‘free.’ They get paid to to convince photographers not to get paid! Every time that happens, it lessens the value of photography and reduces compensation for all photographers.

    When companies call offering ‘exposure’ instead of cash, giving in means you are subsidizing that company and its project; lowering their expenses, increasing the black ink on their P/L. They profit. You’re screwed.

    I have given my work for free to charity – the special kids and their families at Ronald McDonald House, Veterans on Veterans Day and the homeless – but that’s a wholly different scenario.

    If you’re an artist making a living from your art, Taylor Swift succinctly said it recently. “Art has value and must be paid for.” I believe she’s dead-right and, last time I checked, Safeway doesn’t accept ‘exposure’ as payment for my groceries.

    Some will read this and respond, “that’s the way of the world today.” Well, not in my world. And apparently not in the world of Hula-Hooping.

    So, how about yours?

    • Chris Adval at 11:48 pm

      So all circumstances, even trade, for you and all or most other 10, 20+ years of experience photographers think all scenarios you do not get a “USD” compensation is considered “working for free” correct? Please clarify. I know I won’t work for free, but would I work for other stuff yes. I do not start my career in photography with 30+ years on day 1, and I can’t intern at the local photo studio and ask “oh dear mr pro. photographer, do you mind I use your studio, and equipment, and everything else for portfolio development at no cost (USD) ?” Not going to happen. If you want to get started and build a career in photography these days you do what you have to do, heck even paying models and other artist professionals could be considered “working for free” since you are the one paying everyone except yourself. Can I pay my bills with it, no, of course not, but the other option is simply not being in the career at all, period and simply let the “experienced” ones stay in it forever. As for businesses or individuals, etc. looking for free photographers/photos they can do so at their own risk, which can be high or low depending their methodology of selection, but vs. the option of hiring a professional than looking for a photographer willing to do work for free or some kind of trade obviously the full time working professional will make much better work and much more consistently.

      It may sound like I am defending “work for free” but I am not, I am defending bartering which may be seen as “working for free” especially by the “experienced” industry pros.

  5. Mark Davis at 3:25 am

    There seems to be a misunderstanding about what constitutes shooting for free. When you work for a client, they expect you to do the best you can and get the results they want. The goal is to have visual content that benefits the client. When you shoot personal work, or make images that you can use to get more work, then YOU are the client. The great shot then gets more paying work down the line. So whether you are putting money in the bank or an image in your book, you stand to benefit. That’s not working for free. The problem occurs when you make an image that somebody else uses to make a profit, including non-profit organizations. I have a very simple rule of thumb when it comes to working for nothing. If nobody else on the project, and I mean EVERYBODY, is not getting paid, then I will work for nothing. Of course, there is always someone who is getting a check somewhere down the line, so it rarely ever comes up. I shoot a lot of personal stuff, but if anyone requests a copy or a print, then it’s not free. And don’t fall for that, “But you got paid to shoot the photo by the client, so why can’t I just use it for nothing”. Usage is usage, and I want to benefit from that usage. Therefore, if anybody is getting paid, then everybody gets paid. Simple enough.

    • Chris Adval at 5:47 am

      I agree totally. But even a benefit like “exposure” is not good enough and is considered “free” especially by the “experienced” industry pros who think the only way to get paid is pure hard cash even though they do not need for once on building a career in certain art related industries you need to prove yourself and will end up “working for free” some times for some people and for some value. Exposure in certain circumstances may be actually worth doing “for free”, but repeatedly? No, teaching or accepting bad behavior of course not. If I got an offer to get my work seen on a cover of Maxim and that was my prime demo for my work, and they told me we can’t pay ya (this time), I’ll say sure! But for this 1 time only.

  6. Johnny Griffin at 8:54 am

    I read through this article twice and both times my thoughts roll out the same conclusion. “IF YOU WANT TO GET PAID, DO SOMETHING WORTH GETTING PAID FOR!” I hear “PROFESSIONAL” photographers all the time complaining about not being able to find or conjure up work, but the same cat will say “Oh I’m not doing this” or “It’s not worth it to learn that”. All the while the shear crap they’re producing can be done by any grade school kid with a cell phone and a local 1 hour photo. I’m actually retired from my profession and took up computer graphics 20 years ago to expand my intellect. 6 years in, Photoshop came out and shortly everyone was able to do graphics at home. Not wanting to be like everyone else, I moved on to 3D modeling. Blender came out and now the kids can model at home so I moved into photography to combine it with the graphics and do stuff again, very few could do from home. Smart phones/tables came out and improved which left me once again doing what anyone else could do. I’ve let that slide for about 8 years now because they still couldn’t produce what my experience allowed me to do, but here lately I’ve been moved to yet again to get ahead of the consumer. 3 weeks ago I found Jason Page on the web and his work inspired me to get into Light Painting, so now I’m moving into adding that to my list of skills. For 7 years now, I’ve taken and uploaded for free on average 10,000 action sports shots a year at the local high school for Mom and Dad to have of their kid playing sports. Zero charge! During the school year, that’s at least once most times twice a week, 4 hours at a time taking “FREE” pictures. On top of that I’m a full time Grandpa spending two to three days a week with the Grand-kids. Because of Papa-Time and all the volunteer work, I only make around $30K a year in graphics, video and photography. Did you read what I just typed? That’s $30,000 on the side because people like what I do and can’t just go do it themselves so they call me!!! To sum up, Get off your ass, get good at what you do and put yourself out there if you want to be a “PROFESSIONAL” and you can make money at it!

  7. Gurukarm at 1:59 pm

    We value the wrong things (types of work) in this society. (IMO) Athletes are paid breathtaking salaries for being really good at games; financial people are paid amazing amounts for moving money around; CEOs of corporations are paid hundreds of times what the workers in their companies earn, for shepherding (sometimes very badly) the company’s business. But artistic endeavors (photography; arts such as painting; writing; etc.) are considered to be so valueless by some users and consumers that the purveyors of those skills and talents are expected to be willing, even happy, to offer them up for free.

  8. Tim at 12:57 am

    as an artist, I think of doing work that benefits what I want to do in that moment, and if you need me to do your work, then you should pay for my time doing your assignment. It would be a great help knowing what to price your work, and I hope it can be easy to get paid and others to pay for certain types of work.

  9. Peter at 3:41 pm

    ‘Exposure’ is a funny one, especially when the client doesn’t define it. Example, does it mean I get a mention about who I am, what I do, and my web address, right up by the photo they wanted for free? Well, if it’s ad photos we’re talking about, there’s no room or way to put in a credit on an ad. And if it’s editorial, the credit is sometimes in some listing elsewhere in the mag or in tiny print in a far corner. In several cases during my career, I’ve had editorial clients bugger it up and actually FORGET to credit me, including where I have agreed a discount in exchange for this elusive ‘exposure.’
    Finally there’s the fact that ‘exposure’ may not get you in front of the people who are likely to hire you or buy from you and bring the supposed benefits of this ‘exposure.’ Example, an editorial photo in a travel magazine is going to be seen by travellers who have no reason to look me up and purchase my pics. Thanks publisher!
    Working for no payment when the recipient makes money from your material is shortsighted and misinformed, and the action of someone who probably won’t prosper in this business.

  10. Regan Wood at 4:55 pm

    Nope, I won’t work for free. When I was in school I would advertise on Craigslist for models to build my book for various things, but when I see ads now and they go on and on about what kind of equipment you need to have, looking for top notch work and then….no fee for this work. I don’t think so. And it seems to be really chronic with photographers. I especially laugh at those that ask what kind of equipment you have–you must have the very best camera buuuuuutttt we won’t pay you. Amateurs.

  11. PV Bella at 10:24 am

    Professionals get paid. People confuse professional with professionalism. I rarely work for free. If you want my time you will pay for it. I do not do TFP or pay to shoot pictures either. Exposure does not put money into my bank account. It rarely generates clients.

  12. Hochzeitsfotograf Fiona at 4:13 am

    I believe, everyone has the right to work for nothing or just small fees to build up a portfolio, develop skills, etc. Consider it as an investment in the photo career that is way more important than the investment in photo gear. And of coarse, that makes live for us professional photographers, living from our craft not easier… But in the end, if your product or service is worth the money, customers will be willing to pay for it.

  13. Pingback: The Problem with Using Free Photos | Libris Blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *