A Rant about “Free Photography” Rants
Copyright 2008 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl

Here's a bit of insight that should not be too surprising...

If your business model relies on charging for services that others are willing and able to do for free, it's probably time to find a new line of work.

It's not uncommon for professional photographers to have a policy, on principle, to never work for free, so a recent post by Strobist's David Hobby suggesting that occasionally working for free has benefits has stirred things up. The one-sentence summary of David's post is:

Use some of the down time this economy has created in your photography business to seek opportunities to do the kind of photography you actually want to do, dangling the “I'll do it for free” stick to create a learning/experience opportunity for yourself that otherwise would not have knocked on your door.

David knew that this would create a firestorm because the word “free” makes the hair stand up on the back of a pro photographer's neck, although the kind of “free” he's talking about is different than the “free” that commonly vexes pros. The latter is that friends/relatives/“enthusiasts” increasingly take pictures for free, just because they like it. For example, a pro sports photographer bellyaches about his business disappearing because hobby photographers are providing the pictures that he used to be paid for. The funny thing is that he blames the hobbyists as if they are unmoral thieves, rather than blaming his own inability to adapt his business, or even to recognize the need.

The tide of technological advance brings many game changers: Henry Ford decimated the carriage industry. Refrigerators put milk deliverymen out of business. “Video killed the radio star.” The Internet is making printed newspapers irrelevant. I guess you can add to this list the business model of a lot of photographers.

In this digital age, it's easier than ever for non-professionals to create “okay” pictures, and so those whose needs are satisfied by “okay” are opting for the abundant free / low-cost choices offered by friends or hobbyists. Those choices weren't available even 5 years ago, so 5 years ago the market for a pro photographer serving those needs was much bigger than it is now. Now the market is smaller, and those not realizing the situation and adapting are hurting. And blaming.

I can understand being disappointed that a business model that has been profitable in the past is no longer so, but bellyaching and finger-pointing are as silly in this case as trying to hold back the tide. Deal with it and move on.

What David suggested in the post I paraphrased above is a different “free” than this, but it seems that some lump them all together and have the same deer-in-the-headlights reaction. For example, Vincent Laforet, a great photojournalist that I've mentioned before, wrote a scathing reply to David, including:

IF YOU ARE WORKING FOR FREE - simply to get “a” job - you risk destroying the entire business for everyone. In fact - your dream job - that you do for free - will be a job that some qualified person will no longer be getting paid for. And you'll hurt that person's chance of feeding their family in accepting to do that job for free. It's quite that simple.

Come on, Vincent... destroying the entire business for everyone... that's pathetic. Does this mean that you will go back to shooting film so that those who manufacture and develop film can feed their families? I could insert a thousand similar analogies here, but the point is that technology has already changed the entire business. The only “destroy” part is what those who refuse to recognize and adapt end up doing to themselves.

I'm not a professional photographer; I'm a professional computer programmer. I started at a time when computers and programmers were rare, but now both are wildly plentiful, and there are millions of low-cost programmers available all around the world, instantly at your fingertips via the Internet. Yet, I'm still doing well; I never seek work, and turn down 20 jobs for every one that I take. How on earth can I be so successful in the face of such a glut? Because I'm a really, really good programmer.

Photographers that bemoan the plague of “free” should spend their energy being a better photographer. Often, that doesn't mean “taking better pictures”, but rather, convincing potential clients how much better than “okay” the pro can do, and that the client actually needs better than “okay”. This is probably most clear in the wedding business, where a lot of couples shopping for a photographer simply have no concept of what a good job actually is, and how much skill it requires. It takes work to combat the “Wow, Nice Picture! You must have a great camera!” attitude.

I brought a camera to the last wedding I went to, and I got some nice photos.

Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan -- Copyright 2008 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/

But you'd be crazy to risk someone like me shooting a wedding for real. Yes, it won't be just luck that I get a few good shots — I'm sort of handy with a camera — but it will be luck if I get more than a few. Unless you plan on getting married often, I suggest putting your wedding-photography eggs in a basket that has a proven track record of getting great shots consistently time and time again. It'll be expensive, but so worth it.

A wedding/event photographer like Ryan Brenizer isn't in demand because others refrain from shooting their friends' weddings, he's in demand because he's good. In the same way, I suspect that Vincent Laforet will always be in demand, no matter how many people do what for free. But those who used to make a living providing snapshot-like pictures for family Christmas cards will find that people like me (who can shoot an okay picture for their friends' cards) are making their business evaporate.

If changing technology and the resulting business shift scares you, then either up your game, or get out. Just please, stop bellyaching about it.

All 18 comments so far, oldest first...

ONE simple statement “GOOD FOR YOU”
I love when someone has the pair to speak the truth and be frank. Because so many “Professionals” are doing so well, they put their business and marketing partners in front of their readers and their views are, at the very least, shaded. Wonderful Post.

Vincent (A friend) is on top of his game because he works very, very hard to be on top of his game plus he has not only good sense but good COMMON sense.
I too was on the top of my game, here is a 9th grade drop out that became a CTO for one reason, I worked very, very hard as well.
Keep it up.

— comment by Tom on December 6th, 2008 at 11:05pm JST (15 years, 3 months ago) comment permalink

I find it very ironic that Vincent’s rant about free photography is written on his blog, which is powered by … you guessed it … free software. (Look at footer of the page you linked: It says “Powered by WordPress 2.6.1.”)

David’s post rang true for me, in large part because it mirrors my own software career. I absolutely believe that free creates opportunities for commercial success — if you’re good enough at what you do. Indeed, it was by the act of creating really good open-source software that solved real and immediate problems faced by real people that I landed my first paying software job — one that was way ahead of where I might have landed without that public display of talent.

Hah, I never even thought to tie in the free-software aspect, and how it can parallel this situation. I, too, have for years tried to give back a lot for all the wonderful free software that benefits me and the world. Most recently, it’s my various Lightroom plugins and goodies, and it’d be really funny if Vincent used some of them (but I believe he uses Aperture, so if he’s using any free plugins, they’re not mine). Yeah, it’s probably true that someone’s not making money on for-pay Lightroom plugins because I build and offer them for free. I, personally, am bringing down the entire software industry. Sorry. —Jeffrey

— comment by Eric on December 7th, 2008 at 12:36am JST (15 years, 3 months ago) comment permalink

You write, Photographers that bemoan the plague of “free” should spend their energy being a better photographer.

It’s not quite as simple as that — you need to be not only a great photographer (or programmer), but also a great businessman . Many working photographers got into the field because they love photography, only to find that photography is just a small percentage of the actual work involved. (Substitute almost any small business and it still holds true.)

You have to sell yourself, sell your work, execute perfectly, understand and meet expectations. You said it yourself at the top — you need to adapt your business model to a changing world. That has little to do with photographic skill.

I thought I said that with the whole part that begins Often, that doesn’t mean “taking better pictures”, but in any case, you’re certainly right. I sometimes see the work of very highly paid pros (often “art” photographers) and think “geez, even I can do that”, so it’s clearly more than skill with the camera afoot. That’s why, pehraps, I’m a programmer who likes photography and not a photographer 🙂 —Jeffrey

— comment by Mark Sirota on December 7th, 2008 at 1:52am JST (15 years, 3 months ago) comment permalink

I couldn’t resist. See my 2¢ worth on Vincent’s blog…

— comment by Eric on December 7th, 2008 at 2:14am JST (15 years, 3 months ago) comment permalink

The open source (e.g. software such as the Linux kernel, Apache, Perl, Mozilla, …etc), as Eric mentioned is a good example of where giving stuff away for free can be beneficial to everyone. My way of thinking is that by giving stuff away for free (e.g. photos, software, skills, ideas, …etc) could help others which in turn could allow others to help you. One thing to remember though, giving stuff away for free is never about the money. The experience is what really matters (to me) and the money, if any, is really just a side effect.

— comment by Chi on December 7th, 2008 at 7:24am JST (15 years, 3 months ago) comment permalink

[Love the challenge question]

Well, your occasionally-good wedding pictures are pretty amazing.

Having been a software geek for 50 years now, I completely subscribe to your perspective here. As a marginal amateur photographer, often seen at events with my camera, I actually don’t like being asked to take pictures by someone, because I am not prepared for the accountability for quality that such an agreement signifies to me.

— comment by orcmid on December 7th, 2008 at 8:06am JST (15 years, 3 months ago) comment permalink

Wow.. well I think you take better than “nice” pictures! I read your blog all the time and am amazed at your pictures. It seems you focus more on scenery than weddings… but it’s all good!

I agree with your post.. I understand the value of a great photographer over having a friend take some shots with his great camera. Not everyone does… Most likely the people searching out the “free” photographers, would have went without rather than pay $4000 for a professional to shoot their wedding. Or they would have bought disposable cameras and let the guests have fun shooting what they can…. lol.. I think it gives us enthusiasts a chance to give people memories they wouldn’t otherwise have! And we can learn in the process. We challenge “professionals” to be worth their every penny!

I have shot a couple weddings for “free” for friends and family because they were on a super tight budget. I did warn them that you get what you pay for and begged them to hire a pro…. but they went with me anyway. They loved their pictures….. and in the end that’s all that matters.

— comment by Cathy on December 7th, 2008 at 4:24pm JST (15 years, 3 months ago) comment permalink

There was a similar current of worry on a translator’s mailing list I was on a few years ago. Lots of translators in India offering very cheap services. The general consensus was that you had to offer quality they couldn’t. In this new world there will always be somebody offering to do a passable job for nearly anything for cheap; if you want to continue receiving lots of $$, then you have to make sure you are a SD or two ahead of them in terms of quality.

— comment by Zachawry on December 7th, 2008 at 4:33pm JST (15 years, 3 months ago) comment permalink

And, that sports shooter is really kind of pathetic. He complains that amateurs are taking away business by working for free, without realizing what that means: there isn’t much of a difference between what he provides and what the amateur does. Maybe he can see a difference in quality, but apparently the end client can’t, and guess what, they are the only ones who matter.

— comment by Zachawry on December 7th, 2008 at 4:40pm JST (15 years, 3 months ago) comment permalink

The problem with working for free is once you’ve done that for a client, you can never charge proper rates. The next time your “client” (not really a client if you gave your services for free) comes a-calling for an assignment you may decide “hey I’ll charge a little bit for this one”. But you won’t get the gig, because down the road there’s another 10 guys doing exactly what you did…offering to work the gig for free – doh!

It sounds like in this situation that you wouldn’t get a the paying gig either way, so that initially doing the work for your own experience and benefit has no impact on whether you’d get future paying work from the client. But you do get the experience, which is the benefit you sought in the first place. This is the kind of “free” that David Hobby (Strobist) talked about…. seeking opportunities to expand your personal horizons in ways that you want to but that normal business would not allow. For an established pro, this is select and personal. For someone younger, just getting out of the classroom and working with real people may be the desired experience.

Not only that but word of mouth will have you as the “guy that works for free” in your local area. So many newbies see this idea of working for free or for “a credit line” thinking they are “getting a foot in the door” but really they are screwing the very chances of earning a decent living in the job they so want to aspire too.

If people come to you (relatives, friends, charities, businesses without a budget) and ask you work for them for free, that’s a completely different issue. I’m a computer guy and I help my mom with her computer, and I’ve helped a charity, but if you’re a business, you can expect me to charge you. Sometimes I’ve gone in and solved all their problems in an initial meeting that was supposed to have been just to talk about things, and I’ve never charged for that, but no one has ever thought that meant that they had a free pass in the future. So, I’ve not run into any of the pitfalls you’ve suggested, but I do realize that they can present themselves if you don’t properly present yourself.

On a similar note, I’ve spent thousands of hours working to build and provide plugins for Lightroom to allow people to upload to online services. I’ve done it all for free, just because I think it’s cool and because I can do it. Yet, when contacted by companies who want me to build a plugin for their service, it’s always been “how much will it cost?” because they know up front that the goodwill I’ve shown in doing what I’ve done for free does not translate to doing it on request free. Again, it’s all worked out for me in my business, so I think it’s possible to work out for you in yours.

It’s a shame these threads always seem to end up as “amateur or enthusiast v pro” because that’s not the argument. However some of the smugness that the enthusiasts seem to have may well be wiped out next year when their cube-farm job is done by an Indian or Chinese worker at 1/100th of the cost and they have to hock their shiny new 5D into the pawn shop to make the mortgage repayments?

When push comes to shove, especially in a recession, cheap will almost always be good enough. Nobody looks a gift horse in the mouth.


I hope the reference to smugness doesn’t include my post (because I hope that I didn’t come across as smug). If you can find someone who can produce the results I do at 1/100th the price, you’d be moronic to hire me. Maybe I am smug to say that I am 100× better than someone you could get at 1/100th my fee, but it’s actually a bigger difference than that, because in software, someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing can be much worse than simply doing nothing. In photography, if someone screws up a once-in-a-lifetime event, the worse is that you have no photos, but in computers, much more can be at stake (dollars, trust, and private data for millions, for example). —Jeffrey

— comment by ProPhotographer on December 7th, 2008 at 10:37pm JST (15 years, 3 months ago) comment permalink

Hi Jeffrey, you nailed it here:

“If people come to you (relatives, friends, charities, businesses without a budget) and ask you work for them for free, that’s a completely different issue. I’m a computer guy and I help my mom with her computer, and I’ve helped a charity, but if you’re a business, you can expect me to charge you.”

This is what Laforet is saying too and Mr Strobist. (No, I think they’re not talking about this kind of “free”, except to mention it as an example of what they’re not talking about. There’s not an ethos of “always make your mom pay, and never be charitable” that anyone has felt the need to counter. —Jeffrey) But a lot of people are actually taking this to mean working for free for anyone, businesess included, just to get “experience”. I think Mr Strobist should have really used “pro bono” not “free”. Free just has ban connotations and is easily misunderstood.

I don’t know your name, much less what kind of photography really gets your heart going pitter-patter, but, for discussion’s sake, let’s say that you enjoyed doing portraits. If you got the chance to portrait Barack Obama (or Yo-Yo Ma or Bono or Joseph Ratzinger or Miley Cyrus or whomever might float your boat), would you really pass it up if you weren’t offered your normal fee? Really? Most people would jump at the chance even if they were approached first, but if you had the thought and brought it up with the subject out of the blue, and they said “yes”, would you really then interject “but only for my standard fee”? I suspect that Mr. Ratzinger would not laugh at you, but the others might.

That said there are plenty of 5D toting wanabees out there shooting day rates for $100, giving over all rights and they’re happy. They’re being screwed but they can’t see it.

I think this one is going to roll!


p..s no the “smug” reference was a few other posts I’d read. Your views are very well put.

Thanks, good to know that I can sometimes express myself properly 🙂

— comment by ProPhotographer on December 8th, 2008 at 1:36am JST (15 years, 3 months ago) comment permalink

My father was a professional photographer with a one-time large business that slowly eroded over the years before his death in 1994. I doubt very much that the business would have survived the digital age and I constantly say that he’s probably “turning over in his grave” by what has happened to pro photographers.

Personally, I straddle both camps: I don’t make my primary living from photography, but that’s because I feel like it’s impossible to do so because of all the “photographers” who work for little or free. That’ s not to say that no one can make a living, but I don’t feel that I can, plus I’ve had great commercial success in a different career.

So a lot of the photography that I do is done for very little money and sometimes pro-bono. It’s photography for local musicians whose websites I produce and most of them are barely making a living themselves, so they could not pay market rates for professional photography. And even if they could, they would not because they don’t have to — there are too many people willing to shoot for free.

There has much discussion of this issue on other forums and I have always felt that in any business, one must differentiate to succeed. If a pro photographer cannot differentiate themselves from a hobbyist, don’t blame the hobbyist, the pro must blame their own lack of specialized skills.

There are many ways to differentiate: Maybe you shoot medium format and deliver the resulting improvement in quality. Maybe you’re the person who understands lighting so well, you make anyone look 10 years younger. Or maybe you’re the artist who can make food look great. Maybe instead of the usual boring wedding photos, you shoot it like a photojournalist would. Maybe your post-processing techniques are better than anyone else’s and you’ve built your own filters or programmed your own macros to give skin tones that no one else can get. Or maybe you concentrate on the quality of your prints, especially large-format prints. Or maybe, since all the hobbyists are shooting digital, you shoot FILM! And then, of course, you also have to have the marketing skills to get the word out about the special skills you have that differentiates you from a hobbyist. Are all those things hard? Of course. But that’s what makes you a pro – not that you happen to charge for the work.

Furthermore, there is a psychological factor when shooting as a pro for pay as opposed to shooting pro-bono. When shooting pro, there is tremendous pressure to get it right – that’s why they call it “work”. When shooting pro-bono, although I still take great pride in my work, there’s no pressure factor because if it doesn’t work out, it’s not a big deal, since the “client” wasn’t paying much (or at all). And the other issue is consistency: a pro can get it right every time and I probably can’t.

Musicians have been playing for next to nothing for years: when you see a rock group in a small club, they’re splitting maybe $500 between them and their equipment/sound guys. And if they drink, their bar bill is probably greater than their income. But we expect musicians to do this as part of “paying their dues” to achieve later success. Photography is no different.

All well written, but wow, “Are all those things hard? Of course. But that’s what makes you a pro – not that you happen to charge for the work.” is great, and applies to a lot of fields, not just photography. —Jeffrey

— comment by Zoetmb on December 8th, 2008 at 2:55am JST (15 years, 3 months ago) comment permalink

Having gotten it straight from David’s mouth yesterday at the Strobist Seminar in London, he doesn’t mean offering companies (who could pay) free photography, he’s not necessarily talking about friends or family either. He’s not suggesting you hang a sign on your door that says “Free Photography – Inquire Within”.

He means, find a worthy organization, a talented artist that needs a bit more recognition, SOMEONE that could use some better photography but couldn’t possibly afford the going rate or maybe hadn’t even considered what some better photos could do for them. Offer your services, probably just the one time, but maybe that’s all the boost they’ll need. You approach them, not the other way around (unless I suppose you’re feeling quite charitable).

They get a deserving profile upgrade, you get experience shooting a project that can go in your portfolio if you wish. No pressure, just giving something of yourself to others.

Simply put, “Do good things for others and good things will come to you”.

— comment by JasonP on December 8th, 2008 at 11:31am JST (15 years, 3 months ago) comment permalink

“How on earth can I be so successful in the face of such a glut? Because I’m a really, really good programmer.”

– I’m just like anyone else here, I put my pants on one leg at a time… but once my pants are on, I make gold records!

Sorry, just reminded me of one of my favorite quotes 🙂 Tell em, Jeffrey!

— comment by Jon Van Dalen on December 8th, 2008 at 3:15pm JST (15 years, 3 months ago) comment permalink

Thanks, Jeff! I was just reading and enjoying this essay when all of a sudden I got to a welcome shout-out! I definitely agree overall — times change pretty quickly, and some business models are worse off than others. If they think editorial is having tough times, just consider what’s happening to stock. Luckily, the kinds of photography I love to do require a lot of hard work on-site, cannot be shot beforehand, and rely on a lot of specialized skills, many of them not directly related to the composition of a photo. It’s similar to how political analysis, which everyone loves to do for free, is in trouble as a business model, but we’re not seeing many people itching to do the hard-slog initial reporting for free.

— comment by Ryan Brenizer on December 9th, 2008 at 8:48am JST (15 years, 3 months ago) comment permalink

Very interesting read, thanks! I too am a software engineer and amateur photographer (I’m starting to think the two come hand in hand). Sure I’d like to make a little money on the side through photography, but I do it now for the love of the craft. I can’t understand why a working pro wouldn’t pursue passion projects on their downtime. It would seem like a natural course of action for me. Of course if someone is willing to pay you for work and you need the work, I would expect that to take precedence over personal projects, and I think that was what David’s post was all about.

— comment by Justin Bonaparte on December 10th, 2008 at 11:42pm JST (15 years, 3 months ago) comment permalink

I would hold off on the comparisons between free software and free photography, simply because they’re very different businesses. Most photographers go into the business because they enjoy it. That immediately pushes down salaries because people will be willing to work for less, much like starving artists, new musicians, poets, and so on. While many programmers enjoy coding, the number who actually enjoy the code that they are getting paid for is much smaller. Plus, the demand for programmers is high enough that any average programmer can make a good living from it. The whole “don’t undercut my prices” and “you’re ruining the business for the rest of us” simply does not fly with how the world works. It’s kind of like how newspapers whine about how Craigslist stole their business by offering something better and cheaper.

However, pro photographers do have a save, and that is, photography today is more popular than it has been in perhaps all of history. They need to take advantage of that to grow their business. Offer classes, tours, and other services which grow when the number of cameras and amateur photographers grow.

— comment by Andrew S on December 11th, 2008 at 8:14am JST (15 years, 3 months ago) comment permalink

I am part of the “problem” because I put my photos up under a creative commons license. But I think most of the people who have chosen to publish my photos would not have paid any price for any photos. I’d rather be “famous” and not make money than obscure and making a lot on one or two photos.

— comment by Eric Mesa on June 9th, 2009 at 1:16am JST (14 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink
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