A few more thoughts about working for free. One thing I'm interested in discussing is how badly it works. Tom Kwas notes that he's done work at deep discount for start-ups that promised him paid work later, once they "get their ducks in a row," only to have the same companies hire ad agencies later which then gave the work to their own suppliers. Several others pointed out much the same thing, saying that freebies done for "exposure" only result in more requests for freebies in the future.
Nick D observed that "gratitude or goodwill cannot be assumed," and that's a big problem in my view—half the time when you do people a favor, it results in them being dissatisfied with you in some way, usually because you're not doing more for them than you did!
A few times when I did portraits as a favor, I'll supply one good print of my choosing, and sometimes the recipients are dissatisfied because they didn't get proofs to make their own choices from. I'll explain that that's what I do for paying customers, and that makes them feel like I've somehow given them less than my best. Once, I had a portrait subject absolutely love the portrait I gave her but still wanted to see "all the outtakes," and she got upset when I wouldn't show them to her!
I had another customer who also loved the work I did, but very strongly felt that the price was too high. So I gave him 50% off the bill. And my reward was that he still thought the price was too high.
Another time, I had a customer refuse to pay, but refuse to return the work as well, because he liked it so much. His argument? That I couldn't possibly have any other use for pictures of his family, so I might as well let him keep the prints! I had to show up at his house demanding that the work be returned before he very grudgingly paid me half my bill.
There's that problem: you can't assume goodwill in response to an accommodation. Doing work for free is just as likely to disqualify you for future jobs as it is likely to qualify you for them. And, ironically, charging too little is often just an encouragement for people to think that you charge too much.
I've done what Brad B suggests. He writes, "Yes, there is a problem with peoples' perceptions of the value of things they get for free. One idea I've heard, but never used, it to always sent an invoice, even if your are not charging. List the price you would have charged and then list a discount for the same amount whether it be a 'friend discount' or 'family discount.' This way there is a zero balance, but they can see what they would have been charged, had they not gotten it for free. I'm wondering if there are other TOP readers who have done this." This has worked well for me when giving discounts and doing work for reduced prices. No one objects to paying $75 for materials when I present an invoice that says the price is $750, minus a friendly discount of 90%.
Here's another wrinkle: some photographers won't work for the public. That means no portraits, no weddings. The reason? They want to work for professional buyers who understand how much original photography costs and who have budgets to work with. Many misunderstandings come from working with people who don't know the rules of the game. Some photographers just don't want the hassle.
And (as an aside) that leads me to a little tip. Here's one way to make a million dollars in photography: start an "Angie's List"-style referral, rating, and mediation service for wedding photographers and clients. In my experience, the biggest problem that photographers have with the public is the same as the biggest problem that the public has with photographers. Namely, weddings—misunderstandings, mismatches, and frustrated expectations between wedding photographers and their clients—going both ways. A service that allowed agglomerated independent feedback, that set standards for expectations, and that helped mediate difficulties on both sides would be a boon to all concerned.
There's a real need for this. If some computer-savvy company wants help setting such a thing up, I know exactly how it should should be organized. I'd be happy to consult for a fee. Just please don't ask me to do it for free, or for half price, or in return for the promise of future work. :-)
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Malcolm Leader: "As a non-professional photographer I only sell prints when someone falls in love with a shot. I only charge costs plus a bit for my time. Even then, I would rather give away a print free as a gift to good friends. This is what happens most of the time. I can afford it and, this is important, it makes me feel good!
"In my profession as a registered Professional Engineer, I am required to charge my published rates. Discounts and the like are against the law and I could be fined and/or have my license revoked. This is one of the checks to assure quality engineering work is performed and the public is not endangered. Not a bit like photography, I admit!"
Joe Boris: "Count me as one of those photographers who has 'never worked for the public,' until very recently. After 30 years of shooting for ad agencies (or corporations directly), I'm now using an online referral service to market my photographic services directly to the public. After agonizing over which and how many 'perfect' images to post on their site page (just as I have in my advertising portfolio for years), I'm finding that even when my price quote falls within a prospective client's image needs and intended budget for their shoot, half of the time that client looks only at my quote, and never clicks through using the direct link to view my posted work. So fully half of these people requesting a photographer are shopping price alone, after I've paid (a small fee) for the privilege of submitting a quote to them. It bothered me at first, but now I'm just happy not to be creating images for those who are unable to appreciate the difference between cost and quality. 'Free' would be akin to the seventh gate of Hell."
Dave in NM: "The perceived value of professional services is a contentious issue in every field. There have been occasions when my services as an architectural designer have been considered by builders to be a necessary evil, rather than a valuable contribution, necessary to the successful completion of a project. It's a pleasure when I have the opportunity to work with an experienced or an appreciative client that understands what I'm bringing to the process. C'est la vie. You move on, and try to work with and for people who understand."
Steve Caddy: "I echo the 'working for the public' sentiment. Although I'm not a professional photographer, I was a professional designer for well over a decade and have seen the same pattern play out in software development as well as in various kinds of consulting.
"The big end of town not only appreciates the job to the point that they're have the budget and desire to value the work in terms of its effect (when effect is important), but they appreciate that a lot of the value in great professionals is that they don't need to be directed and managed, and that that reliability and consistency has its own inherent savings—both in cash and opportunity. Not only do professional organisations have the budget, they don't have the nit-pickery. They trust you do the job (the set-up, selection, direction, editing). It's part of why they hire you. More money, less hassle, and—if you do the job well—recurring bookings.
"Private individuals and small businesses don't have that mindset or understanding. They bring their personal perceptions of value to it, not their professional ones.
"The caveat is that this value is always going to be weighed against the market rate. We commissioned a reasonably large piece of work a year or two ago, enough to book one or two photographers out for a couple of months, but time pressure meant we needed to move quickly.
"We had three great photographers, who I would have loved to hire, submit quotes that were more in the realm of advertising or feature editorial rates. Close to day rates multiplied by weeks.
"Our budget was realistic, but didn't cater for that, and we only had time to interview serious people who wanted the work and could turn it around. In all three cases, the guys I would have loved to have hired called back weeks later—'I've been thinking about your project and would love to be involved. If my initial quote wasn't palatable I'd be happy to have a conversation about how I could work to your budget; it's an interesting project after all and I'd love to be involved. If you're still interested, lets have lunch in the next couple of weeks to discuss. Looking forward to hearing from you.'
"By that time we were already in production. I was used to seeing that pace of work from my book-publishing days, where product cycles were months or years long, and I was so annoyed! I was annoyed because we could have had better work. But I was more annoyed, because better people, who wanted the work, could have been given the work had they not seen us as a cash cow, had they been aware of the scope of the project and the rates that their contemporaries were charging. It's not 1995 any more."
JK: "A few years ago a friend came to me wanting a print of one of my photos. 'I'll pay whatever you want,' he said, and I knew it wouldn't be a hardship for him to do so. But I was a bit torn, charging full market price to a friend. So we came to what I thought was a fair agreement: in return for the print, a big full-on dinner at his house made by his wife, who is a legendary cook hereabouts.
"Well, I went to considerable effort and expense with the printing and the framing, as one does. He was delighted with it, and promised our big night of food and wine would be forthcoming. And then I waited, and waited, and waited. There always seemed to be an excuse why it couldn't happen yet.
"After a couple years I finally told him, forget about it. Keep the print, forget about the dinner.
"So I've learned my lesson. When it comes to friends, either make it purely a gift or else charge the going rate. If I'd simply given him a dollar amount he would have paid it, and we'd still be friends."