Monday, December 31, 2012

When it *is* OK to work for Free

I just came across a post on a popular business photography blog explaining how there is *never* any justification for providing free photography, no "ifs," "ands" or "buts."  While in general I agree with the sentiment, I think there are exceptions.

Most professional photographers get very angry when amateurs or newbies offer services cheap or free, and justifiably so.  The arguments made by the freebies -- "It's a great way to break in,"  "It's a good way to practice my lighting,"  "It's promotion for my business,"  "I have a day job, and this is just for fun."  Of course every professional photographer knows how ridiculous these arguments are.  We know that once you are categorized as "cheap/free" the rate does not go up.  We know that you are pulling the whole market value down, by lowering clients' expectations.  And, we know that it is the real professionals like us, who will suffer, because some amateurs want to offer a free service.

When I was starting out, thanks to a great mentor, I did charge appropriate rates.  It was difficult to do.  I thought no one would pay so much for someone with so little experience.  The point that was made to me then was that I was offering a service, and guaranteeing a certain level of quality, regardless of my experience.  And the rate must be commensurate with the product.  I didn't tell my clients, "It's free because I'll do a bad job."  Quite the opposite, I told them I would deliver excellent work, maybe even better than those guys with years more experience.  The price should be based on the product, and not what our emotions tell us.

All that being said, there is another situation where I think offering our services for free is justifiable.  Just the other day, I had a job photographing an event for neglected, abused, and abandoned children.  It was hosted by a non-profit organization.  And, while I did get paid this for this job, the money did not come from them.  It came from a major advertising agency that offered pro-bono services to this group.  This was an incredibly rewarding experience for me.  Just seeing how these children's lives had been changed by some of the most basic amenities that I take for granted was very moving.  And, providing images that could help them, even in the most remote way, gave me a great sense of pride.

The experience really changed my outlook.  There are situations where I think doing the right thing and helping to heal the world overrules the laws of good business.  I know this can be a slippery slope.  I know it all too well.  Just the other day, I lost a big job to a major client, because another photographer offered to do it for free.  It's a dog-eat-dog world, and we need to survive.  But, I still think there are times, when we should go out of our way to give back.  It's something worth thinking about anyway, especially this time of year.  Just some food for thought.