Shoot for Free: Blasphemy? A good idea? Neither?

First, let me preface this with a little about myself.  I am not a professional photographer.  I have NEVER been paid for my work.  I have also NEVER shot for free.  I shoot for myself – for the joy and challenge of it.  I guess you could say I have actually shot for free if you count the handful of photos I took at my father’s recent wedding.  Didn’t even charge him for them!  Before you get your blood pressure up, they also had a paid photographer there as well.  (Guess whose photos they preferred?  But that is beside the point…)

I am 28 years old and my day job is in strategy consulting, with my eduacation in Engineering and Economics. I like a good debate. I like to challenge the logic of others and have mine challenged right back.  I like to call a spade a spade.  I’ve read a lot of the ‘free’ debate that has come up over the last year or two (Ranging from ‘Free’ by Chris Anderson to inputs from photographers I follow: strobist, chase jarvis, etc.).

I previously came across a post by John Harrington, mentally disagreed with it, and quickly moved on to the next article in my feed.  It showed up on Twitter again today, so thought I’d throw my hat into the ring.  I won’t go point by point through John’s article, as I don’t think it adds to the conversation.

1. Don’t shoot for free because you’ll never be able to charge again - That is just patently false.  Will doing something for free increase the liklihood that you’ll be asked to do something for free again?  Yes!  Of course it will.  Does it mean you have to?  Of course not.

Say I, an unexperienced photographer, do some work for free.  If it is terrible, nobody is going to pay for me for the next job.  If great, I’ll have a good example for my portfolio and increase my chances of getting paid in the future.  Will they ask me to do the next bit of work for free?  Yes.  But, I don’t have to.

If I am a professional photographer – the story changes, but Free isn’t always wrong.  Would I run around doing jobs for free that I normally get paid for?  That would be crazy.  Could I do jobs for free that I normally wouldn’t get (e.g., break into a new area) – sure.  Could I donate work to an NGO?  Absolutely.  Just because it is free – doesn’t mean you can’t control what you do or don’t. (David Hobby’s article on this is great)

“You have the ability to offer your work for free, but you retain the ability to decline a request to work for free.” – David Hobby

2. Don’t shoot for free because it is actually costing you money (even shooting digital isn’t really ‘free’!) - Mathematically, I will agree.  However, in practice – it often isn’t true.  Let me explain:  sure, there is a small technical cost to using equipment you paid for to do a ‘free’ shot.  The argument is around the fact that your camera has only so many shutter actuations, you paid for Lightroom, your time is valuable, etc.  All technically true; however, how many photographers use a camera until the shutter dies?  I’ve got no clue – and would love to see some statistics on it – but,  I’m guessing that given the speed at which camera bodies change – only a small proportion use cameras until they die.  As a result, those ‘free’ shutter clicks actually didn’t cost you anything.  Lightroom / Photoshop?  No incremental wear and tear from a ‘free’ gig.  Hard drive space? – I’ve got plenty of old drives lying around.  My time?  If I turned down billable / productive time – there is clearly an opportunity cost.  If I skipped a few hours in front of the TV – I’m probably better off.

The main, and to a certain extent, most understandable criticism against doing Free work:
3. Don’t shoot for free because you are stealing work from a ‘real professional’

I’ll be honest – not a surprising remark from someone making their living selling their work.  If you like your job, and are making decent money – you certainly don’t want to get paid less / lose jobs because of some kids / idiots (or both) giving away something for free that you got paid for last week.

However, the economist in me says competition and change are a good thing for the world.  Competition and progression are what drives the world forward.  Though, it does result in winners and losers.  Digital has completely broken down the barriers to entry into the professional photography world.  For the price of a camera and a few lenses, I can rattle off 30,000 frames and learn the technical side of it much more quickly than people that learned with film.  I’ve got incredible access to great blogs and websites teaching me the tips, tricks and techniques many people learned in school or through sweat and blood on the job.  I get joy from it – I can do in a few hours what used to take days or weeks.  Means that the pool of good (or better) photographers has grown dramatically – significantly increasing competition for all.

You can’t live in a vacum forever – and you can’t keep getting paid the same thing for the same job – not expecting someone else to disrupt the status quo.  If that were the case – none of us could afford to fly.  (These discount carriers don’t have the right to come in and charge way less than I am!)

Is change uncomfortable?  Absolutely.  Would I be upset if someone came and offered to do my job for free? Initially, sure – but I’d quickly realise that I need to grow and adapt to keep one step ahead.  If somebody in China is willing and able to do my job for less, then I fully expect to be out of that job and finding something new.  Will it be fun?  Hell no.  Just because I don’t like it, does it mean it shouldn’t happen?  No.

What are my points of differentiation going to be?  It used to be that I could make great photographs.  Lots of people can do that now – guess I need to change my game to stay alive.  Teach.  Write.  Create new services.  Expand into video.  Find a new profession.  Change.

What do you think?

See a selection of my work here, critique always welcome.

See my first stab at a Blurb book here (not for sale – but any feedback welcome)

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