Why you SHOULD work for free as a photographer

Kav Dadfar images to answer the question "should you ever work for free?"
(Image credit: Kav Dadfar)

Whether you are an amateur photographer or a pro, at some point in your photography journey you will be presented with those famous words “we don’t have any budget for photography, but you will be credited for the photos”. 

Let me first address the “being credited” part of this statement. This shouldn’t be presented as an incentive. This simply must be done by the person or brand that will be using your photo. I would expect to be credited anywhere that my photos are used. Adding to that, here's what you need to know about copyright if you're a photographer.

But now, to the more complex issue of whether you should ever work or provide your photos for free...

Kav Dadfar images to answer the question "should you ever work for free?"

(Image credit: Kav Dadfar)

Having spoken to many photographers about this, they have all said unanimously that they have provided photos or photography for free at some point in the careers. The critics will argue that this is exactly the reason why fees in the photography industry have plummeted over the last twenty years. After all, why should someone pay for something that they can get for free? There will always be someone who will be willing to provide photos or photography for low pay or even free for the experience or for their portfolio. And don't get me started on the fees for stock...

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I would be a hypocrite if I criticized people who decide to work for free because, in my career, I have done it myself. But I have only worked for free if I could see that there was a potential for a future paid working opportunity. So, in other words, I would take a gamble on doing a small job for free for greater rewards down the road.

For example one of my first ever big commissions came about in exactly this way almost 20 years ago. I was approached by a chef at a top London restaurant to shoot a couple of dishes and a few portraits of him for a competition that he wanted to enter. It was a half-day shoot and he told me that he couldn’t pay anything as this was a personal project. But being a chef, he said I would be able to have lunch at his restaurant.

Kav Dadfar images to answer the question "should you ever work for free?"

(Image credit: Kav Dadfar)

Kav Dadfar images to answer the question "should you ever work for free?"

(Image credit: Kav Dadfar)

This was a low-risk situation for me that would at most take up one day of my time (including editing). Fast-forward a few weeks and the restaurant manager was so impressed with the photos that I was approached to shoot the entire menu (breakfast, lunch, and dinner), the venue including all the bar and all the function rooms, the kitchen, service and some of the staff. In total it worked out to be a 10-day shoot for which I charged a heft five-figure sum. This shoot then led to me photographing other restaurants.

Of course, this doesn’t always happen and there are times when your “free” work will count for nothing. But even now I would still judge each potential opportunity on its own merit and turn down those which I feel are simply taking advantage of photographers.

A good example of this was when I was approached by a gigantic construction company that wanted to use one of my photos for the front cover of their customer magazine. The magazine would be mailed to twenty-thousand people and yet this company claimed they didn’t have a couple of hundred pounds to pay for the fee for using my image. Clearly the answer was a “no” from me.

The point that I am trying to make is that I don’t believe there is anything wrong with occasionally working for free or even low pay. But clearly, you should ensure that you are not being taken advantage of. I would also always state that “this is a one-off and that any future work would be charged for”. 

Ultimately, my advice would be to judge each scenario on its pros and cons, and you never know – you may end up securing paid work after doing a small shoot for free.

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Kav Dadfar
Professional photographer

UK-based travel and landscape pro Kav shoots on assignment for editorial and commercial clients, and stock for high-end agencies. He has written over 400 articles on photography, judges a major travel photo contest and leads tours and workshops worldwide with the company That Wild Idea. In 2021 Kav launched JRNY travel magazine with fellow photographer Jordan Banks.