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Working for free, for pay.

Working for free, for pay.
Working for “free” gets a bad rap, of course it’s also often misinterpreted in what free involves.

A few months ago I was contacted by the lovely folks over at Local Tourist Ottawa to write a blog post that included a good selection of my personal work from the Ottawa area. Now, I do believe that writing is a commodity and has value, as do my photographs, and I do charge for their use on websites. This time, I decided I was very much okay with the terms of this relationship as I like the blog, found it a good fit, and was given freedom as to what I would write and include photographically.

This was a mutal exchange – they gave me creative freedom, and I gave up my rates because I was happy to do it. No fuss, got some exposure, showed my work, all for a few words and photos I had already taken.

A month later the article was retweeted by the Ottawa Marriott twitter account – in short – praising the photographs. Hmmn, well I think that since I am trying to build my client list for real estate & architectural photographs, perhaps they’d like me to come and photograph their hotel? But what’s my “in?” They’re a big hotel chain and I’m new kid on the block who doesn’t know anybody. Free?

So I made them an offer. Let me come in, take “my” photos, if you like my work then you could use them online (just as I would do) and if you (the Marriott) would like do anything else – ie: commercial use/print advertising etc – then I would license them to you. This is a great option for them: No cost up front, no risk. The worst thing that could happen is that I have spent a few hours with access to a newly renovated hotel to add images to my portfolio.

I’m happy to say that I got those and more! The fine folks at Ottawa Marriott were happy to license many of my images for promotion, and I was successfully able to turn “free” into work – good paid work. Some will criticise me for “stealing” another photographers work, I think I’ll address that too. The Hotel already had images taken, very professionally, but much of their main lobby was under renovation at the time so my work was to merely complement those already taken. In no way am I trying to supersede their work, under-quote them or steal their client – if I’m asked to do work again I will quote my day rate – that’s just business. And really, ultimately, it’s not up to ME if I work again, or if someone else does, of course I contribute to it largely, but saying one photographer has stolen another’s work doesn’t give the client a lot of credit. They make up their own minds, make their own decisions, and build their own relationships. It happens. It’s my job, now, to properly steward all my clients, to keep and maintain those relationships.

Not every situation will work out this way…but if you are not booking jobs, your full time job is to MAKE jobs happen, all the while expanding on your personal portfolio. An element that certainly helped me succeed in this instance was treating the free shoot like ANY of my paid shoots – including the the same follow-ups, communications with the client, and a contract stating what will and won’t happen with the images. Service. And that said, I am happy to add the Ottawa Marriott to my client list. Hopefully other entrepreneurial photographers, artists, or creatives will see that this model DOES work. But it involves doing your best work and having some foresight into where it can lead long term.

Do you have any strong feelings about this? Either way? Have you ever did a job for free – did it pay off in the long run? or were you left dissuaded? I’ve done it all – sound off in the comments!

7 thoughts on “Working for free, for pay.

  1. Anna Epp says:

    Great job Justin!! Both with the photos and turning your free into paid. You really captured their new space so well.

    I agree with what you wrote with only one thing to add. I don't believe you can 'steal' someones work if you are asked to do the job, but sadly there are photogs out there that will hear you are going to do a job then go in and offer the free (poaching) thus resulting in you losing the paid gig. So not cool.

  2. Greg says:

    I just like the photographs. I have no strong opinion on the rest. "Free" work is a hot topic in web design/development as well, but the hot issue is being expected to do work on spec; so-called "poaching" only indirect in that sense.

  3. Your take on getting/finding/earning work -paid or otherwise- is refreshing, Justin.

  4. Hey man
    I recently did a "free" gig for a friend. She runs a facility for handicapped youth, and young adults and they were having a art show and they wanted some live music. They had no money to offer, so I brought some friends and we played.
    While there, I met somebody that runs and Entertainment Agency, and he called me a couple weeks ago to book me for a good, well-paying event. Isn't it nice when karma pats you on the back (instead of kicking you in the ass)?!?
    In terms of "stealing" other peoples work, I'm in the same type of business and I feel like as long and you aren't doing anything underhanded, or trying to sabotage another artist, it's a hustle and we're all doing it. Gotta find work…gotta get paid!
    Congrats man, the pics look great!

  5. Herne says:

    You can't "steal" something that wasn't there to begin with.

    People talk about "losing money" when they're not working. Well if you're not working then you're not making money, so how can you lose something you don't have?

  6. Lydia Peever says:

    As a writer, I am often expected to write for free. I mean, I write for free on my blog all the time, so why not for everyone else, right? Sadly, being surrounded by writers and photographers who give work away makes it tough to assert yourself sometimes. I for one am glad you did. Working for free or pay is a choice. Donating time to others projects is a personal judgement call. I like what Ernesto had to say, as that is the essence the karmic nature of donating time and effort.

  7. Chris says:

    At the moment I'm in the process of putting together a similar package in order to gain a foothold in commercial photography in my own town. It's certainly difficult when you're starting out without a large portfolio to fall back on.

    I figure in a similar way to your offer, go out there to offer free photography to businesses and shops and either provide them with small web sized versions for free with the option to purchase full res ones for a certain amount.

    That way they don't have anything to lose really, I can introduce myself to a variety of new companies, and build a portfolio on the back of it. As I'm only part time, with a "full time" job on the side, I feel I am in a position to comfortably make this sort of offer.

    As you've said, providing I give them a stellar experience from start to finish they'll a) recommend me or b) perhaps bring me back in the future.