Working for free.

The passage of every photographer, and creative soul, right?

The thing you have to do to pay your dues before you can book paying clients.

Yes…… Aaaand No.

Because working for free IS an important part of building up your photography business, but it’s also a massive mistake to make if you don’t know how or when to quit.

Let me give you a little sorry tale here from my own experience, in the hopes that you can hurdle over obstacles like these…

Working for free is a rite of passage for most photographers, we all know. But the danger is not knowing when to stop and jump off that free train! Because if you don't know how to strategize and you don't have a plan, you're leaving profit on the table and missing out on lots of growth opportunities

Firstly though, there are definite advantages to working for free, so I’m not dissing the whole process here:

1. You get a portfolio quickly

You need photos. You’ve got none to show to potential clients, so how can they trust you? So you offer free shoots to friends and companies you know to get your photograph count up. Everyone wins. You get images, they get a free photoshoot with some photos included. 

2. You build experience.

This, for me is the main reason you should work for free. To hone your skills. To practice your client/photographer relationship. And to understand how photo sessions should work and how to tweak them to yourself and your client’s needs.

Okay, benefits ticked. So here’s how I face-palmed as a new photographer!

How Free Cost Me Big Time...

I’d been working for free for a while, doing mainly head shots for friends who were actors & presenters, so who needed them for work. And that was great. The sessions themselves were relaxed, good fun, and really versatile because every friend had a different look and style that we could play with. Result.
But I never actually sat down, with pen and paper, and worked out the cost to me for working for free. There was no plan. There was no ‘jump off at this point’ mapped out for me.
I was on the ‘Free Train’ and I had absolutely no clue where my station stop was!
Working for free is a rite of passage for most photographers, we all know. But the danger is not knowing when to stop and jump off that free train! Because if you don't know how to strategize and you don't have a plan, you're leaving profit on the table and missing out on lots of growth opportunities

Why 'Free' is expensive

The thing is, I had enough photographs.
I had a versatile portfolio.
I was leaps ahead in knowing the kind of photographer I was and what worked for me on these photo sessions.
My skills had developed, and I was ready to move on…..
…..But I didn’t. Instead, I carried on booking these free sessions because, despite ticking all of the above boxes, I didn’t know how to make the move to charging.
What amount was right? 
What should I offer? 
Do I give them a package or charge for images individually? 
Do I charge them for retouching? 
Do I bang my head against a brick wall and hope for the best? (well yes, actually, that’s pretty much what I ended up doing!)

But then came a big gig for me… and I had no clue what to do

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Having no plan was dangerous

All of those questions I should have asked myself, I never did until it was too late. I accepted a booking for a lovely event, a bit like a summer fete. It was a whole-day thing, with games, stalls, vendors, lots of people having fun, products being sold….

You get where I’m going with this, right? 

Yup, I did it all for free. Talk about shooting myself in the foot!

Now, if I’d have been literally just starting out, this would have been fine. In fact, a great opportunity for a stack of photographs across different niches – food, people, events, products, nature….

But I wasn’t. I had experience. I had more than enough experience. I had skill. I had a good eye. What I didn’t have was a plan! 

If I’d have taken the time to set myself goals and understand what pricing structure I needed, I could have made profit on that event. AND I could have nurtured loads of new relationships too! (honestly, this whole tale still makes me smack myself in the face to this day!) There was no structure except in my little head of going “Ah great, this will be a lovely shoot”. And then on the day itself, I just felt like a dope for having agreed to do it.

So, before you end up with a brilliant gig being offered to you, and with no idea how to handle it, charge for it, or be prepared for it (like yours truly!), here’s some advice…


1. Set a Deadline

Now, everyone’s deadline will be so completely different because of life restraints that this isn’t a one-size-fits-all kinda deal. But instead I want you to consider what could work best for you:

TIME Deadline

Would you be happier if you set yourself a time limit? So for example, you say that you’ll work for free for 6 months, but then start charging. That gives you 6 months to practice and develop your skills. It also gives you 6 months to start thinking of a pricing plan. And if halfway through you find that Yeay, you’ve reached a point you’re happy at, then by all means, start the process of developing a pricing plan and charging.

SESSION Deadline

This is where you’d give yourself a certain number of free sessions to work, after which you start to charge. So, let’s say you benchmark 20 sessions. You might be doing 1 session per week, or 5 per week, so the speed at which you get through your benchmark will differ. 

Don’t rush – but don’t dawdle, either.

The main thing in either case is not to rush. Rushing is very different than working efficiently. Rushing is careering face first into a brick wall in the hopes of ‘getting through it’ as quickly as possible.

Don’t be afraid to change the deadline halfway through too, if you want to. Thought 6 months would be enough, but now need some extra time? No worries, make it 8 months and re-address why you need the extra time? Is it because you’re not getting enough practice in, or because you’re still working on your pricing strategy?

In the same breath, don’t be afraid of making that leap into charged sessions. Every single photographer out there has been where you are now. We all have to start charging at some point – the important thing is that you start. 

2. Tweak the offer

You did a photo shoot for your friend Jessica, 3 months ago, and she loved it – yeay!

It was a 1 hour session and you gave her 8 digital images as a thank you.

Now, 3 months later, your friend Sam wants the same shoot. That’s all well and good, and maybe you’re happy to offer that to Sam too.

But don’t be afraid to tweak the offer. Just because you’re still working for free, doesn’t mean you’re still working on the same terms.

Consider giving Sam only 5 digital images this time. Or reducing the session time to 30 minutes. 

I understand that you might feel awkward if they’re good friends, but you can explain that

– you’ve not got as much time as before.

– you’re not offering as many free sessions any more (just to good friends like Sam) so have to tweak the offering

– you’re busy working on growing clients

– or any other legitimate reason, of which I’m sure you have many!

Sam will hopefully understand, and still be happy to get some free photos and a fun session with you. Plus you’ll not be staying ‘stuck’ in the same offer as before, and getting yourself a step closer to a paying client.

3. Know your costs

The thing is, as a freelance photographer, chances are you don’t value your time properly. If at all.

It’s easy to get into the trap of working an extra hour first thing in the morning when the kids are asleep. Or grabbing an extra hour at night, working furiously on your laptop under a duvet in ridiculously poor light! 

Haha, yes, I’ve been there! I’m still there some days!

But do you know what the massive difference is now to when I first started? 

I know what my costs are.

And I know how much my time costs. Every hour of it.

Being a photographer isn’t just about the products your offer at the end of the session. It’s about the service you offer too

And that service takes time and effort and your unique personality. So don’t ‘throw it away’ as a means to get to the end products. It’s part of your offering, and you need to understand how to actually calculate it.

4. The big mistake about 'value'

So following on from that, I’ve seen so much rubbish (sorry, just my opinion) from supposed ‘experts’/business educators about ‘value’ and charge rate. 

And some just talk a load of nonsense about how to calculate your earnings – because they never properly take time into account. 

‘Value’ is talked about as some quick calculation based on what you want to earn and how many hours you want to work. 

But if you don’t know what every single hour of your time is currently worth and what you want it to be worth, how can you then even begin thinking about charging clients? 

Think about it. Take a simple product like an apple. How can a grocer know what to charge you, the customer, if they don’t work out every aspect of that apple’s cost?

Cost of purchase, transport, storage, wastage costs taken into account, packaging, staff to sell the apple…. and so on.

The grocer doesn’t just go “Oh, well, I want to earn $1,000 this week, so if I sell 5,000 apples at 20c each, I’m a success!”

Nope. He’d be crazy if he did! And so would you!

Working out the cost of your time is critical in even considering your pricing strategy. Just as much (in fact, more so) than what you’re charging for prints or digital images. And only from that can you work out what value you bring to your work.

5. Remember you're in charge

Working for free is unfortunately still a kinda rite of passage. I wish it wasn’t, but it’s the case for most creatives – actors, singers, designers, artists, musicians…. 

It’s a rough deal, and it sucks. 

BUT never forget –  it’s YOU who are in charge of when to jump off that train.

Don’t listen to the grumpy old sods on forums and message boards who insist on you doing it for a year to ‘pay your dues’. How do they know your background? How do they possibly know your skills or your availability? Or the niche you’re in?

Remember – there will come a time when working for free actually costs you money. And that happens when you pass the ‘break-even’ point of experience.

For example, let’s take your friend Sam’s shoot. If you had more than enough experience you could charge Sam instead of doing the session for free, right? Even if you charge him $25 and $5 per image, you’d be making more money than free. 

I’m not advising that. But you see the point, I hope. You don’t have to jump up from free straight to $500 sessions. You can do it in steps and see what works for you and your clients.

So what now?

Set yourself a deadline. Don’t worry if you find you need to change it, but try to make it realistic to start with. Think about your lifestyle and when you can manage to book in sessions.

Tweak your offer. Don’t feel stuck to the same ‘free offer’. Tweak it! Reduce the session time or what you offer at the end. Make it work for you as you gain experience and move towards those paid-for bookings. 

And know your costs! I cannot express this enough! Don’t undervalue the time you spend on your work – if you can properly get these cost foundations nailed, you’ll always be in a position to make profit at every stage of your business – and that sounds pretty good to me!


And, if you really want to know how to calculate your time, utilize a budget, plan your finances, work out how to start thinking about client pricing AND put a proper cost on your time, check out the Pricing Made Easy course!

With a comprehensive eBook, worksheets, ready-to-use calculators (to do all that difficult math for you) AND video tutorials – it’s the essential foundation you need to know your numbers, inside out!

Catch up again soon,