Every time I mention the words FOR FREE, I have to get on my knees and protect myself because either someone will feel offended or they will decide to offend me.Before I start writing anything, I have to say that I come in peace and my goal is never to ignite any sort of confusion or war between what all photographers agree and disagree but I fully believe as someone that doesn't live the glamours life of having a thousand inquires coming my way every single minute or the "status" of only shooting the perfect clients, I would love to share with you guys that it's ok to shoot for free, but not at all times :)
A couple of years ago I came up with this amazing idea. I thought I was a genius and that I had found the secret to book all those incredible weddings at the west cost that we get to see so often on our Instagram. I thought, what if I created a BUCKET LIST with all the cities & countries I would like to photograph at and put it out there for all my future clients to see. If somebody happened to be having a wedding in one of those places, I would exchange the wedding fee only for a travel fee. Not only I thought that was an amazing idea, but I decided to share the same in a facebook group with over 30k photographers from all over the world expecting to help also those ones searching for the same thing. I guess you know what happened. I not only received hundreds and hundreds of hate messages, but I also was ashamed and embarrassed by some of the photographers that were my heroes. Some of them posted on their personal facebook wall how ridiculous that idea was and that if such person did that, they should just quit their careers and do something else. Of course, I took down what I called "The Bucket List"and tried to hide for a while until the shame could pass.
Dear friends, we have to stop shaming the ones around us for every little thing. As professionals, we should be rising by lifting others, and not taking people down with our voices. It's ok to not agree in everything you see out there, but it's a must to respect others.
This is what one of the photographers I most admire wrote on his facebook page back then. It was posted literally a couple of minutes after he had left his "pleasant" comment on my post at that facebook group. He also forgot that we were friends on our personal accounts.
"I think I have seen it all. People, STOP SHOOTING FOR FREE. STOP THAT! When you shoot for free, you are either telling people that you are not worthy of their money or you are taking somebody's job. This bucket list shit is the greatest bullshit I have ever seen in my life. Anyone that submits themselves to create such thing doesn't deserve the hustle this industry brings. If I were you, I would just quit. Never shoot for free! Always charge people what you deserve."
It's ok to shoot for free! It's totally ok :) There is a season, a time and a moment in our career where shooting for free is almost required in order for us to build something. I think that sometimes we get caught in THAT BIG PHOTOGRAPHER'S OPINION, or HE HAS 100K FOLLOWERS ON INSTAGRAM OPINION and we forget that the most beautiful part of our business is that it can be done in a million different ways and all of them are probably right ways too.
WHEN YOU SHOULD SHOOT FOR FREE.
Shooting for free can be extremely helpful in so many opportunities but here are a few examples:
1. Beginning of career: Every time I see a photographer declare to the top of their lungs why you should not shoot for free, I get myself thinking: "Did that person get paid for every.single.shoot. they did in the very beginning?" - If they did, we all need to find out what is the secret sauce because I believe it's pretty hard to have a bride & groom paying you to shoot their wedding before you can share jobs you have done before. We all start somewhere and the best way to get yourself tested out there, is to shoot others for free.
2. Finding your audience or a new field: We all get tired of shooting the "same old same old". We all want to travel, shoot in other states or get those clients that love the camera and look great on your portfolio. Some of us want to go to another direction different from what we are now. Maybe you want to shoot new borns and babies instead of weddings, or maybe you want to start shooting weddings instead of corporate events. Whatever it's, it will take a big shift for you to (a) attract the clients you want or (b) head towards a new industry and shooting for free is a great way of put your foot and taking the first steps towards that.
3. Testing new ideas: If you are like me and wants to use smoke bombs, test crazy prisms or learn a new technique, shooting for free is a great way of doing all that. There is no compromise and no rush (:
WHEN YOU SHOULDN'T SHOOT FOR FREE
This is where all the misunderstand happens. This is where photographers shut down others and criticize their choices without explaining the main reason. I have come to a conclusion that it's not - YOU SHOULDN'T SHOOT FOR FREE, but WHEN you shouldn't. By creating that Bucket List, my goal was to be invited to shoot in states where people just didn't know I existed. With the Bucket List, I eliminated the issue of not having to spend an extra dime out of my pocket when all the money I was making was going to either paying bills, having a life and investing on my own gear. By creating the Bucket List, I could expand my business and also have the amazing experience of starting to shoot in mountains or deserts. What I didn't realize is that, a bucket list can sound pleasing to the ears of many, but it also can drag your value down if you already have something stablished. I had tons of couples contacting me and interested in finding out more about what the Bucket List was. Once they heard and saw the deal, they came to the conclusion that it was "too good to be true" and most of them backed out choosing to pay somebody else what they wanted instead of getting something for free. I also realized that when I presented my deal, which was - "Hi, I will come to you all the way from the other side of the cost to shoot your wedding for free." - It sounded scary for them to demand or request anything as a backup. When your clients pay to bring you all the way from the other side of the globe, they know that "payment" is a form of confirmation and certification for them. It happened that clients at the West Cost or across the world decided to decline me because either they thought I was "too desperate" or "too cheap" - That started to hurt my business name, which was already stablished and going in full speed.
Bottom line? You should be able to read yourself and your business. If you already have gained somehow the market around you and your bills are getting paid here and there by it, you should be very careful how you present yourself.
We all shoot for free. We all travel to a new city and try to put together a styled shoot or get a cute couple to photograph in a new town and it's ok with that. Life eventually will transform shooting for free into paying business opportunities, which will lead us to have a busy agenda, which will also lead us to not shoot for free so often anymore.
KNOW YOUR VALUE
Yes, you are worth millions. We all are! The time, the heart and the creativity we pour in each shoot is unique and it's incredible to be paid what we deserve. It's all about finding balance and saying yes to the right opportunities and not to the wrong ones. People often say EXPOSURE DOESN'T PAY BILLS and that's the biggest BS I have ever heard. The ONLY reason we all have clients is because we have been exposed to them somehow. Either through an Instagram image or a website visit. EXPOSURE in itself doesn't pay bills, but it does drag clients you way, which clients result in money and money does pay your bills. A great example of that is: If Beyonce came today and asked us to snap a few photos of her and her family for free, I bet we all would do it in a heart beat and while we click those images, we can already see all those new Instagram followers you will gain once she tags you on the post and possibly will lead you into new bookings.
Every time I come to the opportunity of shooting for free I sit and analyze the situation. Shooting for free should: + Always benefit you. + Drag you new clients / opportunities. + Bring you closer to your goal. + Fit your schedule and time. + (be) Under your conditions and terms. + Make you happy to be doing that, not stressed or annoyed.
If I am presented with an invitation to shoot for free/collaborate and it just doesn't match what I have mentioned above, there is a big chance I going to say no. Opportunities come and go in so many ways. Sometimes they come with a big pay check and sometimes it requires us to sacrifice a little bit if it will take us where we want to be. The idea of shooting for free shouldn't be shut down or crossed from our list. It should be study and picked in the right moments :)
Still doesn't believe that shooting for free can bring you any sort of benefits? It's ok :) - Let me share with you a timeline of my career and life until now:
16 years old - Got my first camera and started shooting friends FOR FREE just to create a portfolio, find my styled and figure it out if photography was for me.
17/18 years old - The coolest (and super famous) Teen Magazine found me through twitter and saw my photos (the ones I has shot FOR FREE many many times). Contacted me saying they were looking for an intern and that they would like to interview me. I nailed the job and started to get paid to hang with famous people and photograph them. That same job I nailed because of the images I shot FOR FREE paid in full for my 4 years of Art College in a super badass school.
21 years old - I quit my cool job and moved to the USA and started over. I shot my first wedding (ever) FOR FREE because I knew I needed to have some sort of portfolio towards the wedding industry.
22 years old - I booked 17 weddings that next year and 4 of those first ones were references because of the wedding I had shot FOR FREE the year before.
Today - I shoot between 50 to 65 weddings a year and at least 20 to 25 of them are out of state and sometimes out of the country :)
I hope we all learn to be open and to understand that not everyone lives with great mountains and sand dunes around them and and that some people want to shoot people in mountains and sand dunes. We all have steps to take and sacrifices to make in order to grow and reach higher! If shooting for free seems to fit the stage you are in your career, do not be afraid. Go for it and bring back with a bigger prize. You totally can do it!