Exposure or Exploitation? The Problem With Working for Free as a Photographer


Being asked to work for free can be a frustrating experience for photographers who have invested years of hard work and dedication to master their craft. In a time where equipment and running costs are so high, it has never been so important to politely decline requests to work for free.

For many of us, photography is not just a hobby. It is our profession and one that deserves to be compensated appropriately, just like any other.  If my bath was leaking, I would not expect a plumber to repair it for free. I wouldn’t turn up at the airport looking for a free seat on the next flight to London, even though they are going there anyway.

Picture this: You receive an email with details of an exciting opportunity. The inquirer has scoured your website or social media accounts and thinks that you are the right photographer for their planned project. Sounds great, so you respond seeking more information. You email back and forth a few times, obtaining details to start building a picture of what your client is looking for and the conversation is going extremely well.  But wait, you have replied five or six emails so far and there has been no discussion of budget yet. You find yourself wondering when a good time would be to discuss that. Unfortunately, when that thought creeps in, you might just realize that you are being asked to donate your services and shoot for free.

There are so many occasions that photographers and artists are asked to work for free, and this request doesn’t only come at the beginning of your career.  Having offered professional photographic services for the last 15 years, I am not at the stage where I am looking for opportunity to build a portfolio; I very much require fair compensation for my work.  That’s not to say I never pick up the camera without a paycheck, but there are certain rules that I follow in this regard.

Some of the reasons that people have requested a free shoot have been quite comical over the years. I have been asked to shoot corporate events in return for all the free food and cocktails I want while I am there (did they want a drunk photographer?). I was asked to shoot a wedding for free because it was a really special small wedding on a speedboat, which would be great for my portfolio (see earlier comment about not needing to build a portfolio). I have been asked to shoot for product and fashion retailers to provide sales and marketing images. In return, I would receive exposure to their thousands of Instagram followers by being tagged in their social posts. Most of these requests come from cold callers, but one opportunity arose from an acquaintance who knew that I absolutely loved photography and invited me to their event saying that I was totally free to bring my camera along to capture the night and get some brilliant images for myself. Gee, thanks! There have been so many occasions, I could go on and on.

There are always indications and red flags where someone is asking you to work for free or well below a reasonable fee. There are a few tells which should raise alarm bells during initial communication and a sign that you should bring up the budget before continuing the conversation further.

There Is No Mention of Budget in the Initial Communication

This can just be an oversight, but sometimes, they will see how far the conversation can go without discussing money if they do not plan on proper compensation.  The reason behind this is to get you invested in their idea or product so that you will really want to do it no matter how small the compensation is. You should not go more than two or three emails without being asked for your rate or being advised of a set budget.

The Request Is Last-Minute

You have not been factored into the initial plans and therefore have not been considered within the budget. This is more often than not an indication that fair compensation is not on offer.

They Are Already Over Budget

Perhaps the most insulting response you can get as a photographer. When you ask what their budget is and they respond telling you that they are already over budget, that means that they have paid for other services, but they do not plan to pay you. Your services and your work that they reached out to you for are actually not valued at all.  This is where communication usually wraps up for me.

I’ll Pay You Next Time!

The lucrative promise of a larger paid shoot at a future date is often a carrot dangled in these scenarios. They just want to do a quick test of ideas first or to shoot a separate part one and plan another part of the shoot at a later date. That second shoot will not come, and you will be left scratching your head wondering once you realise that you have been bamboozled. Even worse, you might then see that they have gone ahead with your ideas but with another photographer and wonder if they too have donated their time, or if they were paid to bring your donated ideas to life.

The request may come with the promise of exposure, suggesting that the opportunity to have your work seen by a larger audience is enough compensation. However, exposure does not pay the bills or cover the time and resources invested. This will not lead to more work – other than more free work.

Why Does This Happen?

The nature of digital photography can be misunderstood, as some may not fully grasp the time, skill, training, and creativity required to produce quality images. The ease of sharing digital content may lead to the perception that digital photography is inherently less valuable than tangible products. Honing your skills as a photographer takes considerable investment of both your time and money. Whether you have a formal qualification in photography or not, equipment, storage, and insurance are just a few of the costs involved. 

What Is the Negative Impact of Working For Free?

Whilst many photographers might not see an issue with taking on the odd free assignment, there are some negative consequences for doing so.


Its easy to discount your fee, but near impossible to raise it from zero. Your work and your time are valuable assets! Be assured that this client will likely never come back to you in a paying capacity once they have secured your services cost-free.


There is no feeling quite like being the only one in the room working for free. That lack of value seeps within, and it is a horrible feeling. This can lead to feelings of being exploited or taken advantage of, which can negatively impact your self-esteem and self-worth.


You will never regret refusing to work for free, but you are likely to encounter a scenario where you regret agreeing to shoot for free (or so cheap it might as well be free). Those jobs will always seem more demanding than clients who understand the value of your work, as they try and pack in as much as they can for free.

What You Can Do About It?

Set Your Standards and Stick to Them

Set standards of what you consider fair compensation for your work. By making a rule for yourself with an average daily, half-day, and hourly rate, you set boundaries for what you will accept. You can always offer discounts on this rate if there is a project that you want to work on that is just a bit below your rate, or if it’s for a cause you believe in.

When Should You Work for Free?

The answer to this could be “never” in certain circles of photography, however, there is no steadfast set of rules. It’s down to you as a photographer. As a general rule, if someone is using the images for profit, then you should absolutely be compensated for your work. I have offered photographic services at some fundraising events for causes close to my heart/ I’ve shot free portraits of a terminally ill child so that her family would have professional portraits as a lasting memory of her. I have shot portraits as a thank you from time to time and offer the classic 100% family discount on multiple occasions. There are other instances, but these examples give you an idea of what I personally find acceptable.

Is There an Alternative to Working for Free?

Sometimes, there will be opportunity for a trade in services, rather than being paid for your images. In this case, you will usually receive goods or services to the value of the session. A common practice for photographers building a portfolio is to shoot with new models in a trade usually referred to TFP, which stands for Time for Print. In this scenario, no one is paid, but both photographer and model (and makeup artist, stylist, hairdresser if you have a wider collaboration) all use the images for their portfolios. This is a desirable trade with value for all involved.

I once swapped a family photoshoot for car repairs. I allowed the editor of a bridal magazine to use my images in an article in exchange for a full page ad when they originally offered to just credit me. I have worked on numerous self-initiated personal projects, which have brought opportunities such as exhibitions, paid workshops, and talks. These are all examples of situations of more or equal value than monetary compensation.

How to Respond to Requests to Work for Free

Declining to take a job due to unfair compensation shouldn’t be something you feel awkward about. You are asking for a completely normal arrangement, and if it turns out that this is not what is on offer, there are many ways to say, “thanks, but no thanks.” Let them know that you are unable to take on any unpaid work at present, as you have to prioritize paid work. You shouldn’t have to remind them that you are running a business, but sometimes, the inquiry comes in such a way that it seems they don’t understand this. State how much you would normally charge for such a job, and communicate that you would be happy to proceed on a paid basis. You never know, you might be able to negotiate some compensation with a well-worded reply. If they need you, they will pay!

Have you been asked to shoot for free or been the only one in the room who was not getting paid? 


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