I was all set to write an entry today about some ideas for making money as a photographer in a tough economy, when I came across this post in the Strobist blog. Work for free? How is that going to pay the bills?
Actually, part of what I was already going to write was to do personal projects (for no pay), and to do occasional free work to get yourself known in your community -- so you can get *paying* jobs from that exposure. And so I was a bit surprised by my initial reaction to the Strobist post.
I mean sure, it's easy to be magnanimous and do some free work when you're an established pro with plenty of high-paying jobs. When you don't have to worry about paying the rent or putting food on the table. But what about those of us struggling to make it, who are being hit hard by the bad economy, and have seen our bread and butter local work fall off by 50% or more (like mine has)? Wouldn't your time be better spent doing paying jobs, or at least looking for them?
I also thought the post glossed over some of the downsides to doing free work. When I first started full-time as a photographer, I joined a local business organization, and was flattered that they put me on the Board of Directors almost immediately. I thought it was due to my enthusiasm and organizational skills. It turned out to be partly that, but mostly because they wanted me to shoot all of the organization's events for free, do free publicity shoots, businessman of the year shots, board portraits, etc. When the free work started to take up too much of my time, I spoke to the president about it, and mentioned that a board member who was a lawyer did indeed do the organization's legal work -- but charged his normal fee. The president himself was a realtor, and I didn't see him doing free real estate work for board members. Why was it different for me? "Well, you're just a photographer," was his reply, "it's not like you're a lawyer or anything." Clearly they saw what I did as a glorified hobby, not as a profession that I'd invested years of study and practice in. I quit the board.
I honestly do believe that doing well-chosen free projects can get your name out in your town, and show the quality of work you can do. Such projects can result in a considerable amount of paid work down the road. And working on your own personal projects when time allows keeps the creative juices flowing, and keeps the joy in your work after a day of shooting product shots that you may not care about, or another real estate interior of another house that's not going to sell.
My point is that those of us that aren't already extremely well established need to keep the bottom line in mind, and carefully consider the free projects we do. If you're going to make a living as a photographer, you need to get paid to be a photographer...and doing too much or the wrong kind of free work can simply result in you being labeled a "hobbyist" (no pun intended, David!) instead of a professional.
Pick the jobs you do for free very carefully. Don't do work for free that you could or should be paid for. By all means, do free work for groups or people who normally couldn't afford to hire a professional -- and make sure you get some advertising in return so that it brings you business. I hope that doesn't sound too mercenary...and I really do take on free projects for worthwhile causes, so I believe in the concept. Just be careful what you choose to do for free, and how you choose to do it.