Thursday, December 11, 2008

Shoot for Free *and* Get Paid

In my last post I sounded a cautionary note about working for "free" -- with good reason, I think, given that it can lead to being taken advantage of. Today I thought I'd counterbalance that with a "success story," a personal experience that shows how doing free work can lead to more business -- if you do it right.

Last year, I had been doing some free work for my local community theatre group. One of the actors in the play was also a producer for a start-up but larger theatre group, the San Diego Hispanic Arts Theatre. She asked if I could come and shoot the dress rehearsal for their first play -- for free, since they were just starting and had no money. I agreed, deciding to see if I could make the most of the opportunity.
The first thing I did was make up flyers for all of the actors in the play, and pass them out the night I shot. I offered CDs with images from the shoot and prints at reasonable (starving-actor level!) prices. I also offered a "headshot special" to any actors in the play. I stapled one of my business cards to each flyer, then went and did the shoot.

A quick aside...if you've never shot a small theatre company performance (or dress rehearsal), be prepared to work hard but have some serious fun. The people involved are outgoing, committed to their art, and not only work hard but make the most of their time on stage so that they have serious fun doing what they love (sound familiar?). These shoots have been some of the most enjoyable work I've done.

Anyway...I shot the dress rehearsal, provided overnight prints to the producer to use on the theatre's entrance, and provided them a CD to give to press and to use for ads -- all gratis. It was lots of fun, and everybody loved the pictures.

A week after the show closed, I got orders for CDs and prints. Not that many, but enough to make it worth my while (about $400 worth). A few weeks later I got a call for my "headshot special." Then another, and another -- I did 8 of them altogether. Suddenly I've made around $600 profit from my "free" shoot, and I have some happy new clients. Over the next few months I did a few more headshot sessions, some of which were for actors not in the play but referred to me by those that were.

The director of the play is a fairly well-known actor/director/producer -- and a terrific guy (Carlos Mendoza). Late in the summer he and his brother did a Latin song-dance production called "The New Mambo Kings," and guess who he called to shoot the production (for pay this time)? Yep, the photographer he already knew and whose work he liked. Altogether my "free" shoot brought in over $3000 in profit, and 8-10 new clients who will use me regularly.

Tonight I'm going to shoot the same play, in its second season. I have better flyers than last year, I'm offering a few more specials...but I'm still doing it for free. The company is more profitable now (though still not rich!), and they could probably afford to pay me...but I didn't even ask. It's partially the same cast as last year, but with some new faces as well...and I fully expect to get more CD, print, headshot, and referral business out of this. Plus I get to shoot something I love and have a fun night.

So...doing the free work can indeed pay off in new business and referrals. It can establish relationships with people who will use you for other paying work, and who will tell others about you. Just make sure when you get into something like this that everyone understands that you don't *always* work for free, and that you're looking for more work, and that you're being nice by donating your time and effort and materials. As long as those involved don't think they can call on you to do free work all the time, it can be a great experience!

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