When You SHOULD Do Work for Free


Whenever somebody asks me if they should take a free job I answer with a resounding, no. Don’t do it. Just don’t. It should be a hard and fast rule in your book: do not work for free! That said, everybody breaks the rules, especially their own. Case in point, I just came off of a job this past weekend where, you guessed it, I worked for free.

So since me sitting here and lecturing you about why you shouldn’t work for free would be a big waste of everybody’s time, especially having just taken a free job myself, lets instead go ahead and look at when, perhaps, just maybe, you should at least consider working for free.



This is probably the most common instance of people breaking their own rule about working for free. Heck this is the category my pro bono work from this past weekend would fall under. And it’s totally understandable. It’s hard to say no when a good friend needs a headshot, or wants to know if you can help their mom photograph some stuff for her work, or even when someone needs help shooting a school project. Especially because you’d probably come off as a huge jerk telling your childhood friend his mom’s going to have to pay you to take some photos of her new craft showcase simply because the photos are well lit and in focus.

This is one of the safest instances to break your own rule but you should still try to be wary, you don’t want the reputation of being cheap and easy. And really that’s true for a lot of things in life.

A good secondary option here is trying to barter for something else. This is something you’ll probably hear me say a lot in this post but when you’re confronted with working for free, rather than devaluing your skills or yourself, try to see if something else is on the table. Maybe your friend has a skill they could repay the favor with? Or their mom makes awesome leather goods and that’s what you’re supposed to be helping her photograph? Anything is better than nothing.



While non-profits and not-for-profit’s do pay their employees that doesn’t mean they have a bunch of money sitting around to pay for things like photographers. Thus, at one point or another, you’ll probably be asked to do some free work for one.

This is another instance I’ve found myself in, and one where I surprisingly have no regrets. When the fantastic Atlanta street art non-profit, Living Walls, asked me to edit a video for them for free I never hesitated. It’s a great cause and one I believe in and support. And as long as that’s true for whatever charity approaches you, you probably won’t feel bad when you get a whopping zero dollars at the end of your job for them.

Sometimes it’s true that the work itself is its own reward and this would definitely fall under that category.


Student Work

I know when you’re a student in school, or even a student of photography outside of school – learning on your own in the real world, it’s easy for people to try and take advantage of you. They tell you your work will be repaid with experience or worse yet “an IMDB credit” or some such excuse. I know when I was in film school it was incredibly common for people to try and use “credit” as payment. And while this feels like the ultimate sleazeball sales pitch you also have to be realistic about your skill level in these situations. Nobody likes to hire inexperienced photographers on their word of being good and really if you haven’t been shooting long how do you even know you’re good?  This may be the perfect way to prove it to others and to yourself.

That said, this is another instance where you should be careful about which jobs you accept because it’s still a bit of a minefield. This is also another instance where bartering for help down the line is a good idea. Going back to my film school experiences, it was a regular practice for us all to trade skills amongst eachother’s student films. I’ll shoot your short film now if you can help me edit mine later, and so forth.


Future Possibilities in the Field

This is a very similar situation to working for free as a student and holds similar pitfalls. “Work for me for free now and I’ll pay you next time” is a common ploy amongst people trying to get unpaid work from you, it should be noted it’s also a similar ploy drug dealers use so maybe that should tell you something.

It’s very easy to get burned this way and yet, I’ve actually seen it work and turn out for the best. Despite how sketchy the “free now, paid later” pitch is I know several people that have taken on a pro bono job only to get another job with the same client down the line. The trick here is to evaluate the person approaching you and determine if they’re trustworthy and if you’d even want to work with them again.

When You Believe In It

I put this one last because it’s a bit of a catch all and really any of the above exceptions could fall into this category. Whether it be a friend starting a website that needs some free photos, a charity looking for some help, a fellow student’s short film, or even your own project (don’t think you shouldn’t pay yourself when doing your own job, it’s called turning a profit) as long as you believe in it there’s a good chance you won’t regret doing it for free.

One last piece of advice that I cannot stress enough, and a bit of an alternative to working for free, is try to ask for a reduced fee, or even minimal pay. A lot of people live in a black and white world where you either get your fee or you get nothing but in reality there’s a lot of wiggle room. And speaking from experience it always feels better taking a small fee than having to turn down a potentially rewarding job or getting hit with a big old goose egg at the end of a long day.

Image credits: Header photo by Tax Credits, Student filmmakers attend workshops at VFS during the 2009 BC Student Film Festival by vancouverfilmschool

  • radiancedeluxe

    In my eyes, it’s always OK to train/assist/2nd-shoot for free when building experience. I’ve 2nd shot for folks who taught me so much, I felt like I should have paid them! The key here is an even exchange; some of the most valuable rewards aren’t always monetary. That said, of course some potential clients might be in a position where they want more than they can afford. As along as you aren’t being abused, handle those on a case-by-case basis. Just as there are no absolute rules in photography, there are no absolute rules in the photography business.

  • iowapipe

    small suggested correction – wary, not weary, is what I believe you are trying to say.

  • Tony L.

    I do agree with the author’s philosophy in offering free work, in general. I would have to add that non-profits or not-for-profit companies should pay photographers. Their business is one of not to earn a profit. So any money coming in must be spent and accounted for. If a non-profit cannot pay, then one should offer up the cost of the photography as a donation and have them write a receipt for tax purposes.

  • Christian DeBaun

    I do a lot of pro-bono work for non-profits, and I often get paid work from it later on down the line. Kharma.

  • thingwarbler

    Precisely. You can be smart about that, too: take a look at who is on the board of the non-profit and where they work; or check if the volunteer coordinator asking you to work for free has a day job somewhere interesting that might lead to work later. The hard part (for those of us who suck at selling ourselves) is making the succinct ask that connects your freebie “for the cause” to paying work down the line.

  • Eugene Chok

    i do work for the gym i train at, in exchange for fees, since its a mma gym saves me a couple grand a year and i get to hang out with kool fighters and photograph UFC champions, well worth it IMO

  • elektrojan
  • Guest

    I’ve recently secured a new full time job as Senior Graphic Designer, part of the process was to do a project designing a range of T-shirts, as I’m currently self-employed, these designs are mine, and clearly stated in any files that the copyright resides with me, my new future employers want me to bring said designs with me on my first day, but I will be asking for payment before I hand any artwork over, or sign contracts, whether or not they see it as a cheap way to gather designs,or expect me to hand hand them over or not without making a fuss,,I don’t know, but I’m not some fresh out of college designer eager to please, I’m a hardened professional with a mortgage, wife and child to support!
    I think it’s important to have some self respect for your craft where appropriate,,there’s far too many designers on People Per Hour selling themselves and the rest of us by default, for peanuts, this applies equally for photographers ( of which I’m an eager amateur ) it’s taken me at least 15 years to gain the skills and knowledge I now have, that’s what you’re paying for.
    I do free designs for charities and for friends who will return favours, and obviously family get plenty of freebies! But you have to stand up for the little fresh faced guy/ girl you were all those years ago

  • bob cooley

    lol – if not taken seriously, this pretty funny :)

  • guest reply

    “selling themselves and the rest of us by default, for peanuts”

    they are not selling you cheap by default… the customer was never in a position to hire you in the first place. not every customer buys a bugatti, some of them can only afford a second hand ford escort.

  • Davor Pavlic

    I have a series on my website about how to charge for photography where I also have a part about (not) working for free.

    I don’t believe you should work for free for friends. You can charge them less, but even then write an invoice for the real price and state the discount you done for them.

    When working for free same rules applies. If working for a charity you state your worth and then you state the discount or mark it was pro bono. So even you are working for free or a little cheaper, but not for cheap, you state your real value and help the people you have been working with percieve it.

    I should probably be working on something like this text, touching more on when to work for free and what to do when you do it.