5 Reasons to Shoot for Free, but Not For Nothing

Whether or not to shoot for free is always a controversial topic among photographers.  Often times working for free is more of a detriment to our career than a benefit.  We have to be careful when weighing the pros and cons of shooting sans monetary pay. However, just because you shoot for free, doesn’t mean you shoot for nothing.

If you can get something else out of a shoot other than monetary gain, it can still be quite beneficial.  These are five reasons to shoot for free that I have implemented in my own personal dealings with clients and photography.  Ultimately, you have to weigh the options for yourself, and decide your needs and wants, but I am pretty confident in this list having a mostly positive effect on you and your business.

trade for design work, portfolio piece


Do you need a new website? Do you need a new promo designed? A Logo? I am always up for trading creative services with other creatives.  Having an amazing custom built website can sometimes cost thousands of dollars! If you can shoot promo shots for the designer, or shoot their kids, family, dogs, whatever…you are in business!

I also love fashion and shooting fashion.  Because this is the case for me, I also love trading for expensive accessories, dresses and handbags!  Sometimes, I shoot for designers so I can get free stuff.  Obviously, if you don’t care about getting a nice leather purse, you don’t want to trade your photography skills for those items, but maybe you like going to concerts or sporting events.  Just make sure it is worth it to you to trade services, also remembering that a new ring or necklace won’t pay rent.

Travel is another tiny thing I want to mention in this section. Sometimes I will shoot for free if it involves a really cool trip.  If the shoot doesn’t require that much shooting time or stress, I would gladly go to say, Greece if the client is paying all travel expenses.  Obviously, you probably don’t want to shoot a high stress wedding for free, but maybe you do, if it’s somewhere in the world you really want to go.  Again, you have to decide what is worth it to you and personally, I think travel is something to think about.

trade for free bags

Family and Close Friends

I will usually do favors for my family and friends.  However, this needs to be taken with a grain of salt.  Make sure that your family and friends appreciate and value your art. Even though they love you, they might not understand the amount of work that you will be doing for them.  My dad is a painter, and I usually photograph his art for him.  He values me doing this for him, and I am glad to help him out!  I have taken quick headshots for close friends, too.  Honestly it’s 30-45 minutes of work for me, and I don’t mind.  I like being able to graciously give them something I am proud of.  I usually like to tell them how much it would be if they were paying though, just so that they know.  You just feel really great when you can give something special to a family member or close friend.

trade for free jewelry, and portfolio piece


This category is hugely important!  I will often do free work if it’s going to get my name out there in cyberspace.  My images might end up on a very important photo editor’s iMac screen!  I have had countless art directors email me because they saw some of my (unpaid) work.  Blogs are one of the biggest ways this can happen.  It’s great to partner with a popular blogger and do a shoot with them.  Your name gets pasted on their blog, twitter, and any other social networking they are committed to, and their readers might tell their readers and they might tell their readers, etc.  I actually got hooked up with Pinhole Press through a free shoot I did several years ago.  They saw the images on a popular blog, and now, crazily enough, here I am writing this post for Pinhole Pro!

Occasionally, I will shoot for a magazine for free if I am trying to get connected with them.  I will not keep shooting for free for them after the first shoot, but  it allows me to get in contact with art directors whom I otherwise might have a hard time getting in touch with.  For example, I shot one free photo for a magazine that I now get consistent work and income from!

trade for free jewelry, and portfolio piece

 A “Sneezer” Client

What is a “Sneezer?!”  Well, a “Sneezer” is a client that you know will “sneeze” your name and business out over everyone they know and meet.  If you give them a little something extra special they are bound to rake you in more clients and money.  Maybe offer them a free photo session, but they still have to pay for products and prints.  Or, they pay for the photo session and you give them some extra free items with their order. Pinhole makes great little gifts to give to these types of people!  The brag books are some of my favorite client gifts.  They are small enough for a “Sneezer Mom” to keep one in her purse, and pull it out when necessary.

trade for free jewelry, and portfolio piece

A Good Portfolio Piece

Like I said before, I love shooting fashion, so if I am going to do a free shoot, it is going to be something I am extremely excited about and will in turn end up as a portfolio piece that I am proud of!  So, say you want to shoot babies, well, then don’t do a free food shoot!  Or if you want to mainly shoot music, don’t do free family portraits.  Free shoots can also sometimes turn into paid work at a later date. I’ve done some free portfolio piece shoots where companies have purchased the rights from me later on.  I can sell the rights to a shoot I originally didn’t make any money on for a few thousand dollars (depending on the client and usage).  Just keep in mind this is not always guaranteed.  However, if you get some exciting, amazing images out of a free shoot I think it is well worth it!

well known lifestyle blog, lots of free exposure for myself, tons of website traffic

Of course there have been times where I have done things for free that I thought would be a good idea, but it turned out to not give me as much exposure as I had originally thought.  I did a blog post once for a very well known company and got absolutely zero web traffic!  So, there are definitely ups and downs, but I think usually it is more beneficial than not.

well known lifestyle blog, lots of free exposure for myself, tons of website traffic

When weighing the pros and cons of shooting for free, if you can hit upon two of these five reasons, I think you will reap an even bigger benefit!  For example, if you do a free shoot that works great in your portfolio AND it gets you coverage on a popular blog, that is all the more reason to think about shooting for free. Ultimately, you have to just be smart and decide what is beneficial for you specifically.  I wouldn’t advertise yourself as shooting for free, but I don’t think you should automatically write it off completely. Just because you shoot something for free doesn’t mean you are shooting for nothing!

trade for free clothes, and she also paid me some in cash, and traded the rest

7 Responses to “5 Reasons to Shoot for Free, but Not For Nothing”

  1. Cindy P says:

    Great article! I 100% agree!

  2. Niki Bradley says:

    Great Article and insight into free shoots. As I start my journey into the photography business world I am faced with this to get my name out. I have taken shots of my family and friends for practice right now (and for free). They in turn plastered their photos on facebook giving credit to me! :) But I plan to start offering sessions at a fee very soon! Thanks again for your insight. It is inspiring!

  3. These are great tips to avoid shooting “for free”! Thanks for the info!

  4. These are wonderful tips to keep in mind. Thanks Kelsey!

  5. Christine Karn says:

    Thanks so much for this article!
    I have done some free shots/shoots for close friends or as gifts for people, however, then I see my photo’s on facebook and instagram floating around without my logo on them, so my name is not out there anyway. What do you in these instances? Would you ask them to give you credit? Or tell them ahead of time to only use your photos with credit to you?
    Thanks so much for any advice!

    • Hi Christine!

      That’s a great question! I always ask for credit with things like that. It is most likely that people just don’t know that they should give you credit. It’s not that they aren’t crediting you on purpose, it’s just they don’t even think about it! I think it is totally reasonable to explain why it is important they give you credit, and ask them to do so…especially if you are giving them a discount or a gift. It’s good to educate them up front on this so not to get into an awkward, “Why didn’t you credit me?” conversation after the fact.

      It can definitely be frustrating, and I have had that happen to me for sure, but if you explain that you would appreciate credit up front, most of the time people are totally willing to put your name or link your site.

      Hope that helps! Thanks!


  6. Julie Hughes says:

    Excellent advice for an issue that is always around for professional photographers!

Leave a Comment

August Index Leave a Comment