Whether or not you should work for free (also known as “working for exposure”) is a difficult question to answer.
Every creative at some point in time will be approached by people who want free work. Sometimes it’s your mom (in this case you should probably do it) or friends, but most of the time it’s a company.
So in this guide, we’ll go over why others try to get freelancers to work for free, why it makes sense under some circumstances, and how to handle everything so you’ll get the most out of it.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
About Working For Free / Exposure
“We won’t pay you now, but it might lead to paid work later.”
As a photographer, you’ll get quite a lot of messages and emails from all kinds of people. Event organizers, possible clients, fans, haters, family, friends, journalists, students, and other photographers.
Some of these might be for interviews or workshops for example. Most of them (hopefully) will be requests to work for someone who likes your photography and feels you are the photographer they need.
However, now and then you’ll be asked if you want to work for free, or ‘for exposure’, as they like to call it.
Don’t think this only happens when you’re trying to start your photography business. More established photographers also have to deal with this if they don’t know to handle or even prevent this. More on that below.
This isn’t only true for photographers by the way. For musicians it’s ‘stage time’, in regular jobs they call it ‘good for your CV’. And other creatives like designers also get the ‘for exposure’ requests.
It’s even so common that working “for exposure” has a Twitter account dedicated to it.
Why They Want You To Work For Free
When someone asks you to work for free, their train of thought goes something like this:
You have a creative skill that you want to make a living from. But for that you need people to be aware of your work so that they can hire you. If you do this work for me you’ll be exposed to more people that in turn will be aware you exist. This increases the possibility that you’ll make money from your work eventually. This is so valuable to you that I shouldn’t compensate you for the work you’re doing for me.
Unfortunately, for us photographers (and other creatives) it sounds more like this:
You have a skill that I need, but I would rather not pay you for it if I can avoid it. So I’ll just suggest you’ll get a bigger chance of getting paid more later by other people if you do it for free. Since this is also very hard to disprove and I’m not the one who has to pay your rent at the end of the month, it sounds like a great plan.
For some reason (see below), this is really persistent. Often these people offering “exposure” don’t even have any intention or means of delivering.
Even worse, they often make it sound like they are doing you a favor.
Why Working For Free Exists
The Difference Between Free And Exposure
When Should You (Consider It)?
Many will hate me for saying this but bear with me: Don’t write working for exposure off entirely.
When done right, it can work to your advantage.
Now don’t get me wrong either, exposure will not pay your bills. Period.
Ninety-nine percent of the time, the promised exposure leads to absolutely nothing. But meanwhile, you’ll have put in hours of work and blood, sweat and tears. Maybe even while putting off other real work that would have earned you money.
That said, below are some situations where you might consider doing some work for free. We also created an opportunity calculator that will ask you all the right questions to assess if it’s a good idea to work for free on a specific project.
This chart by Jessica Hische is also pretty cool.
When You’re Sure They Will Deliver On Their Promise
When someone asks you to work for free, they are not actually luring you with the exposure but with the promise of more work and leads in the future.
There are 2 main problems with this:
- This “exposure” is mainly formless and vague, and without greater detail, meaningless.
- There is no guarantee you’ll gain more work or leads from the exposure.
So when should you consider working for free?
When you’re sure they will deliver on their promise!
To eliminate all ambiguity and avoid a one-sided deal ask yourself these questions (and make sure you get the specifics in writing in a contract):
- What will the exposure be and how will they provide it?
- How will you know when you received it?
- Are you only agreeing on exposure, or is the deal only valid if you indeed receive more work?
- What will happen when they don’t deliver on their promise?
- Is the exposure aimed at my target audience?
Try to make it as specific and valuable as possible.
Agreeing that they send 3 new clients your way or hire you for another job is more specific and valuable than them mentioning you in an Instagram post.
The more you can be clear on their responsibility towards you, the less chance their promise will be “empty”. And there is a big difference between “getting great exposure” and making the exposure an integral part of the deal.
When It’s A Once In A Lifetime Experience
We all have dreams.
And when a once in a lifetime experience comes along you better take it.
For example, you might have the chance to photograph a music idol of yours. Or make a photo documentary about native tribes in Africa.
Whatever it is, although ideally you should still get properly compensated, you might consider working for free this time.
When The Work Can Be Delivered At Scale
The hours you are working for free is time you’ll never get back.
And mostly, the work is only done for one client (and their benefit). Even if they “share” your work, this is mostly vague as we saw above.
So it’s better to only work for free if that work is efficient and can move the needle by reaching a targeted audience at scale:
Showing Your Expertise To The People That Matter
When companies hire people to work for them, the last thing they like to do is take risks.
Because this could mean losing money, wasting time and missing deadlines. Not to mention that the one who hires you will have to report to his/her boss when things go wrong.
So when there is an opportunity to show off your expertise at scale to potential clients, it might make sense to work for free.
For example, this could be a workshop or lecture. I call this marketing by education by showing off your knowledge and education others how you can solve their problems. Or maybe it’s taking top-notch images that will be shown to decision makers.
The point is that you should only consider working for free if you can use the effort and hours you put into it to raise your value and lower the risk of hiring you by potential clients.
Creating Reusable Content
Let’s say that by working for free you’ll get access to places otherwise off limits.
Or you can photograph people in a specific setting.
In both cases, it might make sense to do the work for free if you’re (almost) certain you’ll be able to sell those photos later on.
This way you’ll still get compensated, just in a different way. And as you always have the rights to your images you’re fully entitled to sell them whichever way you like. Just make sure to specify this in your contract, although your employer should just pay you if they want to have any say over the rights to the images.
For example, I agreed to create some portraits at a local comic convention and covered a cycling contest a couple of years ago. I did the photography for free but was able to sell many images to the people in the photographs.
When It’s For A Non-Profit / Start-up / Cause You Believe In
Sometimes, working for free is about giving instead of gaining.
Maybe there is a charity, a small non-profit or a start-up that really can’t afford you. In this case, you could consider helping them out.
But make sure to have your priorities straight and set a limit on this type of work. It shouldn’t keep you away from paid work as well.
Also, use your best judgment to select who you do this for. Many non-profits do have the means to pay you, and start-ups are often backed by investors.
If you do decide to do some for them for free, take the lead instead of letting them be the boss. Let them know that you’ll do some free work but you’ll have a big say in what and how.
And show them your expectations about how it will be used.
Getting The Most Out Of It
How To Respond To Requests To Work For Free (Saying No)
So, someone asked you to do some work in return for exposure.
Maybe you would like to say yes, and often the answer will just be no.
So depending on the situation you might respond in a different way:
Bonus: Download these email templates for when someone asks you to work for free. Use them to help you with these often difficult conversations, save you time and help you earn more.
If someone contacts you with an offer for you to work in exchange for exposure, always assume they don’t know any better.
Go take a walk around the block if your first reaction is to answer them in rage (I often do this).
But there really are people that just can’t afford you or don’t have a clue although having the best intentions.
So, email them back and tell them you really would like to help but just can’t. Because you are too busy, are past doing free work,.. or any other valid reason. Then educate them about the value of your work can mean to them, your services, what your fees are and the next possible steps.
If they don’t want to work with you after that, let it go. They’re just not able to pay you or wouldn’t value your services anyway.
This way you also educate them that quality work isn’t free and should be properly compensated.
Offer An Alternative
Another possible response to a request to work for free is offering an alternative.
For example, propose to meet them for a coffee and help them in some other way, answer their questions, and then move on. You might even suggest other photographers that are just starting out and thus are within their budget.
This gives you a chance to show your goodwill and expertise. Because a lot of the time it turns out they could pay you after all.
Showing them you know your stuff might just be enough to get the job anyway or have them think of you first next time they do have a budget.
Of course, most of the time a request will be a lost cause from the start.
After a while, you’ll be able to spot freebee seekers from a mile away. They are just looking for suckers that they can exploit with the lure of meaningless exposure in return for free work.
So get comfortable with saying no.
Value your time and skills.