Should You Work For Free?

November 27, 2013 at 10:30 am  •  Posted in News & Events by

According to some editors and potential clients you should work for free. The reality is free means it will cost you.

According to some editors and potential clients, you should work for free. The reality is "free" means it will cost you.

It was an interesting discussion and one that no doubt has been heard many times within the amateur photography community: How much should I charge for my photographs, if at all?

The arguments were varied and offered a certain degree of logic, but at the top of the list was the notion that the aspiring professional photographer has to have their work published in order to develop a portfolio, and if working for free translates to photo credits, so be it. This group of energetic and enthusiastic aspirants reasoned this was a cost of getting into the industry.

Unbeknownst to them, the arguments they raised were the same that have been trumpeted for decades—only the primary media has changed.

Allow me to tell a story that I have told many, many times when on a speaking tour with a presentation called Taking Stock. It was May 21, 1996—a time when digital cameras were just becoming mainstream, FedEx was the primary delivery vehicle and Fuji Velvia was the hot film.

My first love in photography was to shoot sports, but I never developed the necessary skills in earnest. However, when an IMSA motorsport race came to my backyard, the lure of shooting Ferraris and Porsches racing through a chicane was too overpowering. I secured a media pass and, the next thing I knew, I was wishing I had earplugs.

During the course of that three-day event, I befriended a staff photographer with the Ferrari. I was astounded to see him capture some photographs, run to the media room and transmit those images back to Milan—from capture to print in an Italian newspaper was mere hours as opposed to several days. The industry was changing, and it was exciting to see this unfold for the first time.

That same photographer had seen some of my film and suggested to a motor-racing magazine that I might have an image that would meet their cover requirements. The conversation with the editor went something like this:

Editor: I received some indication that you might have an image we could consider for cover use?
Wilson: Yes, that could be.
Editor: Could you send up a selection so we can have a look? We need them tomorrow as we go to press on Friday. We will be sure to give you a photo credit, should we use an image. (My photo credit alarm bell goes off.)
Wilson: Before I package the material to you, perhaps we could talk about your budget? I base my license fee on the traditional usage, distribution, placement and so on.
Editor: Oh, we don’t pay for our cover photography, as we believe a cover is a great coup for our photographers. Just think what a photo credit in our magazine will do for your career. (Now my pragmatic sensibilities kick in—I have photographed this event for three days and shot about 40 rolls of film.)
Wilson: Interesting, let me see….a roll of film and processing is about $25.00. I have had to drive the film to the lab and then back again to pick up the processed film and that is about another $10.00. My time has to be worth at least $75.00, and FedEx is going to cost me another $25.00 to get the slides to you. Let’s see, that is a total cost to me of at least $135.00 in order to just send the material to you. Are you sure you are only interested in compensating me in the form of a photo credit that is required under the Copyright Act anyhow?
Editor: Yes, that is correct. We have helped launch the careers of many photographers. Just think what this will do for your career.
Wilson: I believe I know exactly what it will do for my career. Why don’t I just send you a cheque for $135.00, and we can both let on we never had this conversation.

And with that, I hung up the phone. This is a true story, and I later learned that the magazine went out of business several years after that telephone call.

The point I’d like to make is that photography is an industry that has been built on respect and professionalism. Over a career spanning more than 20 years with photo credits appearing just about every major magazine on the planet (I had a really great agent when stock photography was in its glory days), I can say with certainty that I have only knowingly twice received an assignment as a result of a photo credit. In short, photo credits don’t mean a whole heck of a lot to experienced photo researchers and photo buyers. It is your photographs they look at, not your name.

In my next posts, I will endeavour to show that the value of your photography is all about perception. Generally if you work for free, that is the value you portray of not just your photography, but also of yourself.

Always ask yourself one very important question: Is the person on the other end of the conversation working for free? That should also be your answer.