Should You Work For Free?

I have to admit that this topic has been on my mind for a long time. I wanted to share my experience and advice that I’ve learned over the last 10 years as a wedding photographer in New York City. I thought that if you were just starting out, you were probably being asked this question just as much as I was (and still AM!) and I hope I can help you make an educated decision as to what you should do for yourself and your company. So, should you work for free?! Let’s dive in!

Should You Work For Free as Wedding Photographer?

Should You Work For Free? Yes AND No

My initial and honest answer is Yes and No. Complicated right? Let me explain.

When you are first starting out and you want to get your name out there, make connections, and new relationships, YES you should absolutely work for free. Offer your services for free to colleges, designers, wedding planners, and so forth to get your foot in the door. I mean, they don’t know you exist yet so you have to introduce yourself to them. You can collaborate on a styled shoot, branding sessions, family photos, etc… the ideas are endless but your free services should not be.

Once you’ve started to make those connections and those people are hiring you for real paying jobs, you need to end your working for free mentality. It’s all well and good but at some point, you have to start charging so you can actually be a business that makes money. You have to remember that you ARE a business, and you need to put an end date/time frame on the amount of stuff you do for free.

Working for exposure. Is it worth it?

How many times have you been asked to work for free because you’ll be paid with “EXPOSURE” from an event? Oh goodness, let me count the ways. At the beginning of your career, for the right client, and it feels right for your brand sure you can work for a 3-hour event for free and get “exposure” but just remember that exposure does NOT pay the bills. You cannot give your “likes” “mentions” and press clippings to the bank for actual money. Sorry, doesn’t work that way!

Partnering with the right brand/sponsor/event can certainly increase your exposure to new eyes but doing these types of events over an over again, will not pay the bills unless you are seeing a direct return from working an event. Such as booking a paying client and making hard-earned money because they met you/liked your work from the free event. If that is happening, then your ROI is high, but if it’s not, it’s time to move on and start charging.

Ask for the details

I learned a hard lesson by working for someone for free who promised me that their event would get published. They said it would be picked up and my name would be shared all over the place which sounds great, right? Well, what I walked into was not only NOT going to be published, it was also a clear sign that my eagerness to please was being taken advantage of. Friends, do be like me (10 years ago) ask for all the details in advance. I wish someone would have told me to ask for a mood board, Pinterest inspiration, or just some photos of how it was going to be styled and where it was going to be held. It was a hard lesson to learn but I hope in sharing this story you learn from my mistakes and don’t end up crying on a bench with your husband afterward knowing that you were just taken advantage of for your photography services.

If you are going to work for free, have a contract!

Take it from me, have a contract for every single one of the jobs even when starting your career. When I first starting out, I did an engagement session for a family member for free. It was over 3 hours long, I didn’t tell them when I was going to deliver the final gallery, how many files were included, or any important information and it created a bit of an uncomfortable situation between the two of us. Now, it’s not their fault, it’s mine. I didn’t know any better but looking back, I should have had a clear contract outlining all of the information so everyone was on the same page. It would have been a better ending for both of us but now, I know better and always have a contract :)

When Should You STOP working for free?

The easiest answer I can give you is this when you can start charging for your work, you should stop doing it for free. You are out of the “get all the experience” phase and have officially crossed over to the “I know what I’m doing” phase and people are asking you to take their photos for them. I think a good indicator for when you should start charging is when people are asking to hire you. It’s a good sign people like what you are putting out there in the world.

Should I Still do Events for free after I am charging?

Well, that’s up to you my friend. I cannot answer everything for you but I know from my own experience that if I feel passionate about an event, charity, or person, I will still offer my services for free or at a discounted rate. If they have no budget but are a blogger, have a service, or their own website, I will negotiate a deal that is a win/win for both of us. Maybe that’s a listing on their vendor page, or use of the venue for a styled shoot later down the road, or an Instagram post to their 100K followers with proper VISABLE credit, something that for me makes sense to barter a deal for services.

So what about you? I’d love to hear your stories and experiences with working for free. Why did you do and was it worth it for you in the end? Did you feel that you gained a lot of great exposure? Did you connect with new people? Please leave a comment below and let me know!! xo

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