How photographers can use freebies to get more work

We wanted to know if there was any genuine benefit to commercial photographers to do free or heavily discounted commissions, so we posted out the question to our linked-in photography groups to get some opinion and experience from professionals.
The response was fantastic, and the majority of the following blog has been inspired by the feedback we received, so thank you to everyone who contributed. We’ll follow up this blog with a selection of quotes from contributors.

So what’s the verdict? Does that promise of ‘publicity’ or ‘promotion’ in exchange for a free shoot, bring the photographer huge business rewards? The answer to that particular question is very likely to be a resounding ‘no’, but what our research did bring out was some very interesting ideas about what free actually means, and this can be the difference between being taken for a ride, or actually converting the freebie into other, properly priced commissions.

Free photography

The ‘free’ that is most often thought of when photographers are discussing this concept should actually be re-defined as ‘donation’. That is, something that you can do it you want, but that you shouldn’t expect to get anything in return from. Have a friend with a new business who needs a favour? Want to help a charity? That’s free photography – think of it as donating your time to them. A hard-faced businessperson, trying to get a good deal by persuading a pro to do a freebie also comes under this category. They don’t really think the resulting ‘publicity’ will do you any good, and they don’t really care, once they’ve landed the free shoot, then their job’s done. So if you really want to donate to their cause, then go ahead.

What you agree to do for nothing is your own personal choice, but in summary, there are two types of freebie:

  • Those that appeal to your charitable side to help someone out
  • Those requested by a business that doesn’t value photography and doesn’t (and probably never will) have the budget to pay for it

Exchange photography

Excuse the term, but there is a way of using your skill and professional talent to get something out of a free shoot. But you have to think of it as a completely different thing to a free shoot. The golden rule here to stop such things falling into the former category, is that an exchange is strictly on your terms and provides you with material to use proactively in your marketing or networking, in a controlled and planned way that gets you something you want and helps you advance your career.

Before you can decide on what you say yes to, you need to have a good think about what you want to achieve and how you will use it. Here’s an example. I allowed myself to be persuaded to do a job for free once. The client had no budget, but we agreed an approach that gave us complete creative control over the project, so we could do something that was creative enough to use for awards entries to get us more recognition in the industry. It worked. The client gave us complete freedom – and was delighted with the results, and we even managed to win a few awards. It developed a strong relationship that lead to a paid job from the same client and some other recommendations by them for paid commissions.

There are a number of things that you can get out of doing work for a discount or for free occassionally. Here’s a few examples:

  • New material for your portfolio – possibly in an area that it new for you
  • Creative control over a job so you can use it for an award, or a case study or for your own personal marketing material
  • To get you access into a new network
  • To demonstrate your expertise in a particular field, establish yourself as an expert and again incorporate into your marketing or personal PR

If someone does approach you with a shoot for free request, don’t be afraid to put the question back to them about what’s in it for you. This could be the point where you get the publicity line (walk away!), or it could turn into an interesting conversation which opens up a new avenue to you. This is a great example told to us by a photographer on our linked-in discussion. He agreed to photograph a charity golfing outing at an exclusive club free of charge. In exchange, he got 4 golf passes for his personal use and went on to forge a strong relationship with the club. He was invited to shoot all future events and used the opportunity to network within a high-end group of people that in turn led to many paid commissions.

We met with another photographer recently. He is a well-respected architectural photographer in the North of England. (He’s guest blogging for us soon, so we won’t give too much away right now.) He does projects (gratis) that allow him to demonstrate his leading expertise in his field and provide him with fuel for his blog and his social media activity, both of which, thanks to such material, have helped to build him a significant following and have lead to numerous commissions.

The perception of a good deal

Today’s culture is one where we all want a good deal, or value, whether we are commissioning photography, getting a builder in, or buying a pizza and a bottle of wine from our local supermarket.
People want to talk about cost, they want to know that their money is valued by whoever they are buying off. For the commercial photographer, this doesn’t mean slashing rates, but it does mean being prepared to play the game to some extent.

Whatever the situation, the value of the work that you do should always be maintained – but it also has to be clearly communicated. Put detail into your quotes, show your client every stage of the process and what it costs. Unless you charge by the minute, like lawyers, you are likely already giving your client good value, but are you telling them? Spell it out in your quote. Show them the jobs that you don’t charge for. Let them see that they are getting good value for money. Let them see that you give great service – how quickly you can turn things around, supply images to them. Pay them a visit to take them through the shoot and help them select the best images to use. Good service is value too. It costs you very little but it tells your client that you care about them (not just your invoice), and those are the building blocks for long term relationships and repeat commissions.

Things you should never do

Give away the copyright. Ever. It’s the principle.
Charge the same price as an amateur. You’ll never get the price back up.
Give a huge discount. If the client hasn’t got the budget, help them find out what they can afford for the money they have. If they spend more time giving you better and more specific information you might be able to do the job in less time.
Too many exchange jobs. Be selective. Man can’t live on free golf passes alone.
Take your paying clients for granted. Look after them, surprise them with extra value or things they didn’t expect.

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