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Tuesday, 28 April 2015


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You get (or don't get) what you pay for (or don't pay for). It's been like that since Judas Iscariot.

I was too late to jump into previous posts on this subject. The same problems are present in the graphic design field although perhaps not as prevalent.

There are three things I've found to be true about free or reduced-rate work:
1. Like Josh Hawkins said, don't expect to see any paying work from that client in the future.
2. Don't expect to get "exposure". This has only worked once for me. Once in 15 years!
3. Don't expect the client to reduce expectations of service or deliverables. Funny thing about discounts is that as soon as you give one I swear it is forgotten by the client. Expect to have to commit the same resources as you would to a full paying job.

I've found these all to be true through some repeated testing. This is why I only do free work for charities I believe in or good friends or family who need something like a wedding invite. And I only give discounts to long-standing clients.

This dicussion makes me glad I declined a partnership in a commercial photograpy company way back in '69. In my real profession I sometimes had to deal with three or more competing 'bosses'. While annoying, not a problem I couldn't deal with. Had I turned pro I would have had to deal with the customer as 'boss'. But I wanted to do my photography to suit me, not a boss. And on the few occasions when I have done a 'job' as a favor (e.g. a wedding for someone who couldn't afford a professional photographer), I didn't have to deal with this problem. A fringe benefit of my no-pro decision.

Also, don't discount your price. As in we don't have much money for this project, could you cut your rate in half? Do it once and they will always expect you to work for cheap.

What I've found best is to to jack up your rate to an unconscionable level, than double it!

I have an excellent rejoinder to those who ask me to work for free. And I will disclose it for a very reasonable fee.

I have slightly re-phrased this, "Yeah, I'll get a lot of exposure to more people who want to use my work for free. That doesn't accomplish much for me."

Any company/individual who'd ask you to work for free is not worth working for anyways.

Mike, considering that you are the father of Bokeh and a few other photographic pop-culture things, I'd say this has a pretty good chance of catching on. Consider me on board with it and will share it on my website.

Onr thing I have debated using in situations where one is being asked to giving away time would be this. Ask what that person's hourly, or equivalent, is. After a quick "I could charge that," give them the number of hours. One might be giving something away, but at least the idea of your-time-equals-my-time gets on the table. You could legitimately serve someone less well off, if you wished. A little too socialist for some, I suppose.

I suppose Hawkins Axiom holds true for all professions and services. Now on I shall take it as a given truth.

Right on, Josh. I've only worked for free once and it was back here in Josh's home town. I was talked into waiving my creation fee for an event with the promise of tons of print sales, which never materialized.

"Sure, I'll consider doing free work. But you first have to hire me for ten jobs to get the free job (limits do apply). Here's your loyalty card."

I'm a very amateur photographer, but I also play music solo and with a band as a hobby. My philosophy has always been that "I shouldn't have to pay to play." Most gigs require some cost to me - strings, sound equipment, mileage, food, overnight stay, whatever. I've pretty much stuck to that philosophy over the years. Often, the customer can come up with something to offset my costs. On some occasions, we've turned down gigs when they can't/won't.

Also, it doesn't mean I don't do gigs for free. But I do it as my choice, always with that little saying in the back of my mind.

"I shouldn't have to pay to play."

Too long. A laconic and diplomatic answer to a prospective client's freebie spiel, may go thus:

Photog:   Hawkin's Axiom.

Client:     What?

Photog:   Google it. See ya.

Newspapers here (Australia) have sacked most of their photographers, just relying on a core overworked group and reader's "contributions". Some of them also run photographic competitions and charge a fee for entry. Travel, Sport etc. So the paper ends up with some great shots (and not so great of course) which they can use as filler. The share holders must be laughing all the way to the bank.

My response in the past when asked to work for free was to offer the sage advice offered to me when I started out in this industry a life time ago ( over 40 years ago ) the person who works for nothing will always be busy.
Keep warm and keep well.
Paul Colclough.

All counter intuitive phenomena intrigue me. In the case of "Hawkins Axiom" it is quite simple to understand the underlying mechanism that makes it true if you have be on the other side (hiring photography services) as I have.

In the majority of instances, photographers work for agencies that in turn are working for a client that actually pays for all expenses. If the client has given the agency a healthy budget for photography, should the agency hire great (expensive) talent, or should they hire "that guy who works for free"?

The "guy who works for free" only gets called when the agency forgot to negotiate a photography item in the production budget. So it is actually worst than it seems, since the only exposure the photographer is getting is through an incompetent agency for a low budget production.

There is also the opportunity cost to consider. The time spent making low budget images for free could have been spent making an artistic addition to the photographer's portfolio.

If the aspiring young photographer wants to learn the trade and get some exposure, the best route is to become an assistant to an established photographer.

When anyone asks to use my work free for "promotion" I tell them that the fact they found my work, like it and want to use it is evidence that my current promotion is quite adequate. What I need more of is money.

Mike - how many of the pro photographers that refuse to work for free have unpaid interns?

I don't need your free exposure. You found me, didn't you?

"quality is remembered long after price is forgotten" unless the price is zero in which case price is all that's remembered.

I wrote earlier, but having just read Brady's 2011 bio of Bobby Fischer, I am compelled to jump back in to note that Fischer demanded what he thought he was worth. Chess fans know where that got him. IOW, life can be hard.

I would only change one thing - call it Hawkin's Law... I think that it rolls off the tongue a little better (like Murphy's law, mentioned above).

As an added benefit, you get the standard reply to the request for free work: "I'd love to, but I'm afraid that it's against the law."

If you want exposure then you should pick a company or client you want to work with in the future and offer to do a modest project for him at a reduced rate or for free. That way you can choose to introduce yourself to what might become a lucrative account.

@Nick D.

My experience (as graphic/interaction designer) as well (during the 5 years I had my own design shop). Some clients actually felt very strongly they were doing you a favor. As I had the tendency to "own" my clients and want to make them happy, I suspect I was less than a smart businessman. It has to work both ways, and Sietse is right. Actually, my canadian friend Doris would charge _more_ when the clients were difficult, so she would not regret having shaken their hands.

If it is not a very experientially rewarding collaboration, then at least you have to make some good money out of it.

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