Is photographing for free always bad? Only if the photographer does not get anything out of it. When I shoot for free I create great new images for my portfolio. Images that sell me to new clients.
Shooting ads for free costs you money and hurts the industry as a whole. This is different than testing with models for your portfolio to get paid work. Answering an ad on Craigslist for a free shoot is what concerns me. Just the other day I saw an ad from the largest local Lexus car dealership asking for free images for their website. Please, do they give free car tune-ups or anything away for free…nope.
Yes, I do shoot for free with models, but only when the image is for my book and is something that benefits my crew as well. For instance, I might want to do a few new headshots and need to test a new lighting technique. The idea is mentioned to the various talents I work with and those that need new images will respond. In return I give them the creative freedom to do as they wish and I handle the lighting and posing.
Then we contact several models that have specific or appropriate features. I do inform the models that we are only doing headshots and that they will have very little input in how we shoot it. The models are aware of our respective portfolios and know beforehand that they will get a great image. This is a mutual arrangement that benefits all involved.
When your shooting for a paid client, many times this is not the most creative work. I always say this, I shoot the creative work to get hired for the boring work. This theory applies to the models and crew as well. Clients want to see your level of creativity and skill. After all, your portfolio is about showing off your skill set and bragging rights.
Your portfolio needs to have updates every 3 – 6 months or it gets stale. Periodically, I send out 6 x 8 inch promos of new work every few months to current clients and new prospects. This keeps my name fresh in their mind and lets them know I am still breathing. Sometimes I get an email from the art director to have a coffee and discuss a project and how I might approach it. Its called networking.
Now for the devils advocate, Craigslist. I love this site for buying and selling stuff. From a creative perspective it is a nightmare for artists. Generally speaking, people post here to get free work or work for next to nothing. I say generally because I did get several very lucrative long term assignments, and that was a fluke in the galaxy and the planets must have been aligned just right.
My favorite ads fall under PHOTOGRAPHY GIGS. A couple is looking for a student photographer to shoot their wedding, stating that this will be a tremendous opportunity for the student to build a book. The student jumps at the opportunity, maybe even rents a few lights and lenses to do a great job. Now the student has very little experience with lighting or posing groups or what to even shoot, weddings have key points of interest. Or even worse, the student shows up at the venue only to find out that it is a very cheap location and all the photoshop in the world can’t fix the 70′s decor. Essentially a 100 things can go wrong both technically and esthetically. Chances are very good that your images will look like party pics and are not usable in a portfolio.
Years of experience have taught me that the cheapest client is also the worst client. Even your best intentions will not be appreciated and in the end one regrets the entire experience, a painful lesson. Not to mention that you have taken a paying client out of the market. That same wedding couple would have paid a professional photographer a large sum. After all, everyone else involved got paid. This would be the location, the caterers, the minister, the florist, the baker, etc….everyone else got paid and your the sucker holding nothing.
Small business and entrepreneurs love to pull this on students and beginning photographers as well. Typical ad is “new business seeking photographer, students encouraged to apply”. They offer a generous credit line. Honestly, this is complete BS and in 20 years of shooting I have never received a job from a credit line. What will happen is that you may get a call from one of their friends asking if you would shoot their ad for free as well.
If you want to build your book and get paid for it do this. Assist a professional photographer and learn how to work with clients. Become a second shooter/assistant for a established wedding photographer, you will learn so much more and have a nice book. Shooting a job is the easy part, getting the paid job is the real work.
Later when your on your own and shooting professionally, my comments will make more sense. Maybe you bid on a $1200 a day job and the client calls, “Hey, we love your book, but a student just offered to shoot it for free”. Now that is a client that has no respect for your work, skill level, nor any regard for the product they are advertising. This type of client has very little technical knowledge of what is needed to produce a quality image. Chances are, they will have a bad shoot with the inexperienced free photographer, and call you later to re-shoot or fix the images. This has happened to me on three occasions. In all three instances I stated that I will not retouch the other photographers images, instead we have to shoot fresh at my normal rates.
It is fine to shoot for free, only if the image benefits only you and your portfolio, gets you paid work or a Pulitzer.