As photographers or videographers, we can often be asked to give our time and expertise for free. This might be by a charity, an individual, a company or even an educational body. Knowing the right decision for you can be much harder than it seems. You might not be sure that it’s right for you, or you may feel uncomfortable saying no, or anything in between.
In this article we’ll look at some of the most common occurrences of being asked to volunteer our services. Ultimately, of course, the decision is yours, but hopefully this will help you make that decision in an informed, confident way.
The Charity Angle
Charities often fish for freebies because they’re trying to keep every penny within the trust to use for their cause—totally understandable. Often they’ll approach a photographer/videographer to document an event for free. It can be really hard to say no when you know it’s for a good cause, and charity workers can be particularly pushy.
Don’t be afraid to say no if it’s a cause you don’t really feel strongly about. You might prefer to do something for a charity that’s close to your heart, and that’s okay—you can’t give to everyone. It might also not fit with your schedule, and that’s okay too. Better to say no than either push yourself too hard or do a not so good job because you’re tired and maybe a little resentful that it’s a freebie.
On the flip side, if you have the time and the inclination, there’s no harm in saying yes at all. Giving your time for a charity can be a great way for someone to give back who doesn’t have the time to, say, train for a sponsored marathon. And let’s face it, it’s good for the soul. If you’re quite new to the game, it can also be a good way for you to build up your portfolio. Depending on the event, you may be around potential clients or even get introduced to them—don’t bank on this of course, but it could be a happy bonus.
Also, you don’t have to give your time for free. If it’s going to cost you to get there/back or you’ll need feeding during the event if it’s a long day, then you could always ask for your travel/expenses to be reimbursed, or give a quote for a lower rate than you would normally charge.
One of the risks of working for free is mission creep: the tendency of jobs to grow in scope little by little as they progress. Mission creep is normal; it's what happens when circumstances change. Charities are notoriously understaffed, so it's very common to be asked to do more than you though you'd originally signed up for. They aren't bad people, they're just stretched to the limit, especially when they're putting on an event: the very moment they need your services. Be ready for this going in and you can keep things happy and healthy.
When mission creep happens on a regular job you can negotiate a bit of extra money, but it's tough to ask for more money when you've started by volunteering your time for free. For this reason, some photographers and videographers like to charge a "charity rate." A charity, or non-profit, rate is a discounted rate, often just enough to cover your costs. This arrangement keeps the relationship with the charity operating on the understanding that there are limits to what you can reasonably do. Ultimately, that's a plus for both parties because you'll both get exactly what you need.
When Charity Isn't Charity
Remember, a charity event isn’t necessarily being paid for by a charity. I did an event last year (and I’m doing it again this year) which was for a charity but the costs were paid for by quite a large company—so I don’t feel as guilty for being paid!
There may be a time when you and another business can help each other out. Say, for example, you're a wedding photographer and want some nice bride and groom pictures. You could team up with a wedding dress and suit supplier who's looking for some great new product shots—you both get something out of working together.
There are plenty of examples like this, and if you're approached, it’s up to you to decide whether it’s the right thing to do.
‘It’ll Be Good for Your Business’
This is my least favourite way of being asked to work for free. It often happens when someone is holding an event, for example, and doesn’t want to pay for a photographer. So they’ll approach you and ask you to shoot for free because ‘you can sell prints and will make quite a bit of money’ or ‘it will be great publicity for you’.
My partner was recently asked to do some free filming because he’d get lots of great ‘stock footage’. I know if you don’t ask you don’t get, but these kinds of requests particularly jar with me. If someone is telling you what’s good for your own business, chances are, it’s not. I often feel terrible saying no, but really there is rarely anything in this kind of thing for me, and I’ve not met any other photographer who has gained massively from this sort of thing.
A particularly bad example of what we’re talking about here happened when I emailed a few PR companies to make them aware of my commercial offerings. One asked if I would do a ‘test shoot’ for them so they could trial my work—a new one for me, but I said if it was my local area and a quick shoot (less than an hour) then sure; I was thinking of potential repeat business. They contacted me the same week, asking for my ‘test shoot’ to be a three-hour event ten miles up the road.
Needless to say, I sent them a quote and didn’t get the business. It was pretty obvious to me that they were going through a big list of photographers, using their services for free under the guise of testing them out. Beware of companies like this—they are out there. I bet if I’d asked them to do a month of free marketing for my business to test them out, they’d have laughed me out of the building!
'It'll Be Good for Your Portfolio'
Similar to the above point, some people claim working for free will be good for your portfolio. But only you or a professional portfolio reviewer can decide what's good for your portfolio. Much like our scenarios above, if someone is telling you that you should work for free as it will benefit your portfolio, it probably won't.
I see this all the time, but a recent example was a company in Canada advertising for a student photographer to work for free in order to photograph a conference because it would benefit their portfolio.
In my personal experience, I was asked (during start-up, so my first year of trading) to do something 'as cheap as I could' for a company that supports business start-ups. It's absolutely baffling that places designed to help people get started in business or get work try to use their students/start-ups to get freebies or cheap deals.
If you're struggling for images to use and show then sure, these events could help you, but remember that by using you (or others) for free, they're saving hundreds of pounds. Don't feel cheeky asking them to pay for your travel or feed you while you're there!
Friends and Family
Ah, the dreaded moment when a friend or family member asks if you can just ‘get a few photographs’ of something because it’ll ‘take five minutes’. People can drastically underestimate what goes into digital work. Most have easy access to cameras these days, and they can think what we do is as easy as pointing and shooting. Many people don’t realise the huge investment in our kit and time, both when shooting and in editing and post-production afterwards.
If it really isn’t a problem for you then do it. You’ll clock up some great brownie points, and you’ll have a favour to call in at a later date! But if it’s something you’re really not comfortable doing or you don’t have the time, then just be honest. Maybe take the time to walk that person through a bit of what it is you do, and they might come out with a better understanding of your job.
Remember, if you do something way out of your comfort zone—say, for example, you’re a landscape photographer and you get asked to shoot a friend's wedding—messing it up could be detrimental for your relationship. Even if you’re doing someone a favour, it should always be your best work. Never do something you don’t feel right about or aren’t insured for.
If you have a skill or, to quote Liam Neeson, a particular set of skills, then it’s inevitable you will be asked to use them. When and where you choose to give these skills and your time, is completely up to you.
Think about whether it’s right for you: Do you have the time? Can you afford to
do this? Is the reason for asking genuine?
If no, then don’t be
worried about saying so. It's perfectly OK to say no. Having the flexibility, self-awareness, and confidence to say no to bad opportunities makes saying yes good ones a whole lot more meaningful and rewarding. Working for free should build you up, not sap your resources.
Nobody should make you feel bad or greedy for saying no to something that isn’t right for you. Remember: if you weren't half-decent at what you do, they wouldn't want you, so never undervalue yourself. Be aware of companies who may try to trick you into freebies, but also remember that there are genuine people out there who either don’t have the money (like charities) or who you can benefit from working with.
If you've asked yourself the questions above—good fit, enough time, affordable—and the answer is yes to each of them, great, do it!
Also, if it's something where you get a unique opportunity to be
somewhere you wouldn't normally be and you think you'll have a great
time, then why not?