Tips to help you avoid working for free as a photographer

Everyone likes free stuff. My friend bought me a burrito the other day and I think it tasted even better just because it was free. Also it was a burrito and burritos are just delicious by nature. You know what isn't delicious by nature though? Free photography. Working for free seems like it's a necessary part of getting your start as a photographer these days, but it's not. When I was getting my business off the ground I got email after email, text after text from people asking me to shoot their band, their concert, or their model portfolio etc for free. The phrase "it'll be good for your portfolio" took its place as the most bitter and irritating words someone could utter to me. Asking a photographer to work for little or nothing is a huge slap in the face. We spend so much time and money investing in ourselves, our gear and our business that being asked to use those utilities for free for your benefit simply hurts. 

But how is a photographer supposed to build their portfolio if they can't get anyone to pay them until they HAVE a solid portfolio? It's an unfortunate situation. You want to have a kick ass portfolio and get paid to work, but you can't get paid to work until you have a kick ass portfolio!

In this post I'd like to talk about how to get your portfolio off the ground without gaining the reputation of being "that guy" who will work for free. 

Image is everything. Perception is everything. If you project success, you will likely become successful. It sounds corny and ranks up there in corporate america phrases like "synergy" and "webinar" but its true. If you let people know that you're working for free, that will be your reputation. However, while you're building your portfolio, you can carefully and systematically build your photography empire by only releasing little bits of information at a time online to let people know that you are a serious professional who ain't gonna work for free. 


Let me explain what I mean with the following tips. 

1. Turn down more "work" than you take: You've gotta let people know you're not a chump. If someone asks you to work for cheap, say no. That'll get around. People will start to know that you're serious about your work and won't work for free. This is important, and it's also really tough. Many times when I was fresh out of college and someone offered me $100 to shoot their band I said no, even though I desperately needed to pay rent. My self image was far more important than the money. 

2. Choose your words wisely: When posting online, use your words to build an image of legitimacy. Example: "I'm so happy that (client) hired me to shoot their (project) last week, the shots look great!" is far better than saying "Check out these shots I did for (client) last week!" The subtle language here indicates that you were HIRED and got PAID, even if it was a case of beer or a $6 burger or an expired gift card to Radio Shack. 

3. Don't post your photos too quickly: When you finish a shoot for someone, sit on those photos for a while, don't release them right away. You may be super excited about them and finish your edits the same day that you did the shoot, but releasing them the same day/next day projects illegitimacy and paints you as an amateur. Let people know that you take your editing process seriously. Turning in photos too quickly also doesn't give you the necessary time to critically think about your photos and make changes to your initial edits. 

4. Get your paperwork in order: From day one, you should be getting model releases and making your clients sign contracts. This is something I didn't ever do til I hired a business manager and she (Emily McGonigle look her up she's a great photographer too) got me into shape. This seems like a waste of time to do for a portrait shoot you threw together in half an hour for your friend but do it. Not only does it make you seem professional, but it will save you a lot of hassle down the road. When that client or friend comes asking for every single photo you took that day, you can point to the contract and remind them that you agreed on 10 final images to be given. 

5. Communicate with your clients: If you can't make rent or need gas money and need to take that cheap job your buddy referred you for, do yourself a favor and communicate VERY clearly to the client that you don't normally work this cheap. Tell them what you normally charge. Also tell them NOT TO TELL OTHERS how much they paid for your services. Make them sign a non-disclosure agreement if you have to. The less people know about you doing cheap work, the better. 

6. Be different: This one is a little ambiguous, but it's relevant. Set yourself apart from the other photographers in your genre, niche and market. Being inspired by other photographers is great, but don't just go with the flow and lazily apply VSCO filters until your work blends into the worthless tapestry of mediocrity that every other photographer on the planet is part of. Make it so that clients can go to you and only you for the type of work you create.

7. Be patient: This goes back to #1 a little. Don't get discouraged. Turn down work you don't think you should take, and be okay with that. It takes a long time to gain a good reputation as a photographer and even longer to start getting legitimate, paid work. Don't expect to start shooting ad campaigns and album covers in 6 months. Some people are just that good, and have the skills to leap over everyone else in the industry, but that is rare. 

Well, there it is. These are the general guidelines I followed when I got started, and I still follow to this day. I get emails every single week asking me to do work for little or nothing. It really never stops. Value yourself and your work highly, never compromise, and do great work.