What Is Spec Work And Why Is It Bad for Photographers?


“Spec” is short for “speculative,” and “spec work” is defined by the AIGA (which counts many photographers as members) as, “work done prior to engagement with a client in anticipation of being paid.”

This is the classical definition, and it began in the creative industries, where a photographer would shoot images for a desired client and then show them the work in the hopes of being hired. Notice the very important distinction: the work was done BEFORE contact with the potential client. This “free” spec work was not solicited or negotiated.

So there was never anything “free” about it. If the photographer did not get the assignment, then it was a poor bet (hence the word “speculative”). However, if the photographer impressed the potential client enough to win a job, then he/she would typically add-in the cost of the spec work into the contract.

Spec work has become a serious issue for photographers because the process has been hijacked and the script flipped around. Instead of a photographer targeting a specific client and shooting images as part of an unexpected proposal, now clients are demanding truly free work from photographers as part of their normal operations. And in return photographers are promised vague to nonexistent compensation.

What are the signs of spec work? You’re approached by a client and asked to provide images and other services in return for:


Promising future work

The client gives you a design brief and asks you to give them images so they can see if they “like your work”. And if they do, then they promise to hire you for real next time. In the meanwhile, they’re taking every photographer in the area for a test drive and promising to hire them for real next time too.

If a client can’t tell if they like your work from your portfolio, then the issue resides with them and not with you. If they don’t like your stuff, they won’t hire you. If they do, they will hire you. A respectful client won’t take the nebulous middle route of semi-hiring you and paying you in promises.


Promising to refer you to others

This involves the client outsourcing the task of actually paying you to others that they will refer you to. The client tells you they have tons of connections and doing free work for them is a smart move. Could this be the truth? Absolutely, but what incentive does a client have to do anything on your behalf once they have what they want? Little to none, so it’s a bad bet.

If a client can only pay you with word of mouth referrals, then maybe they’re not ready for the level of services you offer. Ask them to refer you ahead of time, and if they send you enough paying clients, then you’ll do the project they’re requesting.


The “possibility” of payment

Similar to the first scenario, the client asks you to shoot a project or provide images prior to discussing payment. They want you to spend your time, energy, and resources for the chance that they’ll like your work well enough to pay you for it. And then they’ll tell you that they like your work, but don’t love it, so they’re only willing to pay you X amount for it. But that’s ok, because they know you learned a lot working on their project and that the extra exposure from them is totally worth about a million dollars.

If a client does this to you, ask them if they conduct their business in a similar manner. For a lawyer, ask them to write up a contract for you and if you like it well enough, then you’ll consider paying them. Or tell an architect to draw up plans for a house that you’re dreaming of, and if you like it then you’ll think about giving them some money.


Contests that aren’t really contests

This last scenario has exploded in frequency with the spread of the Internet. The increased reach and size of the audience permits lots of companies to put together “contests” that are anything but contests.

A true photography contest is one that is judged on particular merits and the award may be money or some other prize. However, the images submitted remain the copyright of the photographer. The contest operators may ask that they can use your image as part of their promotions, but that’s the limits of their rights to your work.

These days, you’ll find lots of contests where a company needs a new logo or image, and they’re too lazy, broke, or ignorant to solicit true bids and estimates from designers and photographers. Sometimes there will be a prize, but the twist is that they use your work for their business and assume all copyright and ownership (or think they do).

An example would be a startup company that holds a “contest” where they want photographers to take photos of their new product and the winner gets a prize, perhaps money or a free unit of the product. In return, they want unlimited usage rights of the winning image (and possibly the other submissions) and entrants get no further compensation – or maybe just an image credit (Yay!).


Why is this terrible? Because a professional product photographer will tell you that doing a product shoot takes a lot of effort. And that they negotiate particular usage rights with their clients. Will the image be in a catalog that will be mailed to twenty thousand people? Or on a website with three million visitors a month? Or on a billboard on a busy highway? And for how long with the image be used? All of these situations call for different compensation. However, many companies don’t want to deal with all of that so they create these shady contests to get what they want for free or for very little money.

What’s a photographer to do in this climate of tough competition and clients demanding spec work? The number one thing is to insist that your client has some real investment in the matter. That they have “skin in the game” so to speak. If the client can’t pay money, can they compensate in another way? With a trade, or credit at their store, or something else tangible and valuable that goes beyond referrals and back slaps?

Many photographers have done spec work, and they can tell you that they are typically the projects that end up badly or where the clients didn’t value the service in the first place and never fulfilled their “promises” of more work, referrals, or payment. Spec work is almost always a bad bet and you can find a more productive and beneficial use of your time and skills.

Image credit: Place de la République Lyon by FaceMePLS

  • agour

    The work I produce, is the work I produce. They can pay me for similar work, or I won’t work for them.

  • Matthew “fotomatt” Lit

    This ploy is nothing new by any means. And please, any of you who would respond with an emphatic “we must educate our clients!” Here’s the distasteful glass of truth. Clients don’t give a rat’s butt about your business. They want photography and they’ll get it cheaply in any way which the market will support.

    This needs to be about photographers educating photographers – AND – photographers seeking out and being open to that education. Unfortunately, no one wants to hear the message and those who respond usually do with a “you’re just an old and bitter photographer.” And to this, I reply, “YES! And you made me this way!”

    Until photographers wake up, nothing will change. But, to use the “Closing the gate after the horse is out” cliche…that horse dropped dead in the desert years ago.

    AS FOR CONTEST. Yes, yes yes! Read the terms and conditions. (in fact, read them for the many, free build-it-yourself websites). Look for the words “perpetual, royalty-free, grant us” etc. THE WORST – BY FAR – has got to be the Red Bull Illume contests. This is a rights grab – with no compensation – by a company that spends $2.2 BILLION annually on marketing. Talk about exploitation.

  • Jason

    I think you guys missed something, I see 5 photos used in this article, and an image credit that goes to none of them. Any idea who took these photos? Are they stock that you bought rights to, or did the author take them?

  • David

    Well, the bottom line is not that “Spec” work is bad for photographers, per se. It is this articles new definition of what “Spec” work is that is bad. I do work on “Spec” often, but it is always work that i choose to do for my own sake first, on my own terms, so if the potential client is uninterested it really is not a loss on my part.

  • gochugogi

    “Spec work” is a common tactic used on musicians too. It degrades the value of your service and the industry as a whole. Too bad many people aren’t smart enough to tell these tightwads to go spec themselves…

  • Antonio Carrasco

    Great job working against your own self-interest!

  • Antonio Carrasco

    This is a great article. I agree 100% with all the points made.

    If you have trouble figuring out whether you’re being exploited, just ask yourself if you would agree to the terms of that photo job if it was any other type of job.

    Would you work at a retail store for the “possibility of future work?”
    Would you wait tables at a restaurant if the owner “promises to refer you to others?”

  • Michael Zhang

    The first 5 photographs are by the author himself, and the last one (a CC photo) is credited at the end. Thanks! :D

  • Antonio Carrasco

    agree 100%… well said. Even worse than the cheapskates who ask us to work for free are the photographers who will argue with you tooth and nail over why it’s so great that they are not making any money.

  • Victor

    Doing free work for referrals will usually result in more opportunities to do free work for referrals.

  • iowapipe

    As a musician; I either do work for pay, or for free (or in-kind remuneration). Free gigs are like charity for me – I give what I can for a cause that I feel is justified. Paid gigs are for those who are hiring me as a professional. If they don’t want to pay for a professional performance, then it won’t be me playing. Business is business, and there should always be professional respect given accordingly.

  • Matthew “fotomatt” Lit

    Well, not to be rude…but you can’t fix stupid! Honestly, I have never, ever seen another group of business owners with no business sense whatsoever.

  • Matthew “fotomatt” Lit

    Here’s a comparison for understanding…

    Walk into a restaurant. Tell the waitstaff/manager/owner that you look forward to trying their food. In fact, that you want to try their food first. After you’ve been able to try it, you’ll be willing to pay – what you want to pay. Or, tell them that by providing the food free, they will benefit by the exposure you’ll be able to give them.

  • OSAM

    And that, kids, is what we like to call “getting absolutely shot down”

  • Angus McFangus

    So when you say ‘a CC photo’ what you really mean is you decided to go for a free image instead of paying for one?

  • AdminHarald

    Good post and good points. @Matthew: I’ve organized more than 60 photo contests, and you’re absolutely right about reading the T&Cs VERY carefully. But be careful about painting other contests with the same brush. Terms like “perpetual”, “royalty-free”, and “grant us” are normal with many contests, including some of the most-respected, e.g., National Geographic’s. It’s HOW the images can be used that’s important (including, of course, who continues to own them). People need to read the part AFTER the words: “… irrevocable, perpetual, worldwide, non-exclusive…”. (and make sure the words ‘NON-EXCLUSIVE’ are in there).

    Harald Johnson

  • Bob Simmons

    Why non-exclusive?

  • ewilde

    Nonsense. This has nothing to do with the fake spec work. What the fake spec work looks like is something like this: I was approached by people who worked for a photo agency. They asked me whether I would like to cover an event for them. The event was in a location away from the place I live in. I would have to pay the transport, pay the accomodation and everything else, and then they would distribute the photos through the agency client network to see if somebody wants the photos. Aboslutely no guaranteed payment, not even to recover the incurred expenses. In retrospect, I was really too polite in refusing.

  • AdminHarald

    @Bob: reasonable question. Because otherwise, you (the photographer) could be granting (to the organizer/company) full or exclusive rights to your images. It could be argued both ways, but use of the word “non-exclusive” makes it clear that the organizer is definitely NOT expecting full/exclusive rights, which is what you want. The current National Geographic Traveler 2013 contest says it like this: “By entering the Contest, all entrants grant an irrevocable, perpetual, worldwide non-exclusive license to Authorized Parties, to reproduce, distribute, display and create derivative works of the entries (along with a name credit) in connection with the Contest and promotion of the Contest, in any media now or hereafter known… ”
    I say it basically the same way in my contests. And the other thing you want to see is the phrase: “in connection with the Contest and promotion of the Contest” (or something similar). That limits the usage to that and only that.

  • Bob Simmons

    Thank you, I see why
    non-exclusive is a very important thing to look for.

  • AdminHarald

    Yes. Another way to say it is like this: You are granting (licensing) non-exclusive usage rights to Entity A so you can also grant non-exclusive rights to Entity B, C, etc., or just retain rights for yourself.