Photographers Working for Free or Low Pay

Posted: March 5, 2016 in Uncategorized
The idea of new photographers working a job for free or low pay is not uncommon, and many that are new to the business of photography feel in some cases the exposure and the word of mouth could bring them more business in the future. Depending on the situation it may work out well, or may not.
I know pro photographers complain when they see a new photographer trying to get into the business and charging lower rates then all the other established pros. I guess they shouldn’t be charging the same rates if they are new and inexperienced.
A pro athlete doesn’t start out at the highest pay unless they are an exceptional talent and they play for less money until they start to improve and their pay goes up.
A new wedding photographer shouldn’t be charging the same rates as a well know established photographer charges as the client will not be getting the same quality images.
Many moons ago when I was in the music business and playing in a rock band, it wasn’t all that unusual for young bands to take on gigs working for free or for low pay to get exposure. So for me this idea of photographers working for free or less pay for exposure and experience is much as it was in the music business.
If you read the book by rock legend Sammy Hagar who was best known as the lead singer for Van Halen, Montrose, and his own bands, he talks about when in the band Montrose and their first album was released, they went out on tour as an opening act for major groups in arenas all over the country to help promote sales for the new album. He said they toured for about a year and all they got paid was enough to cover their hotel expenses and a little food money. The idea of all opening acts that are unknown is to get in front of an audience and play for exposure. These bands go out play their set night after night for basically no money, in hopes of gathering a following that will pay off down the road.
So I guess when I hear photographers talk about working for free or low pay for exposure, it’s not just in the photography business that this goes on.
I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, just saying it happens and sometimes the exposure pay off and sometimes it doesn’t. Some rock bands went on to become huge from those early gigs they played for the exposure with little to no pay. So again not in support of working for free and not totally against it under the right circumstance.


  1. jmlecocq says:


    Nice post. I’m in such a weird niche that it’s really hard to get paid…I co-author a blog with my friend Susan on using conifers instead of perennials and annuals to get color and texture in your garden all year round…so, I’m basically a garden photographer but not even as broad gauge as someone like Saxon Holt (whose work I admire) or Dan Freeman who does more architecture and interiors along with the gardens that often go with the structures…Sara and I are hoping to get enough traffic on our blog to attract some advertising…but both of us have some pretty demanding work outside of the blog…she and her husband own a world class equine medical center (surgical and rehab) in Petaluma, CA, and, I am actually the full time CEO for the last two years for a startup….so, I’ve had no time for photography except in desperate campaigns with Sara over a long weekend or two. Anyway, I occasionally get a request from someone to use one of my images in their narrowly targeted publication, usually having to do with some gardening niche….not exactly House and Garden (if that still exists in print) or whatever…sometimes I can get them to make some sort of small payment, but it’s pitiful. And, the only reason I get those requests is because they either see the images or those I donated for all the banners and else where on the American Conifer Society website.

    It’s a good things that I don’t have to try to make a living at this (which is part of the gripe the full time professionals are expressing on this “free” issue), because I would have to do what all the rest of you “real” photographers do which is travel constantly, do workshops, write books, look for assignments, etc. It’s a tough profession, no doubt. I try to sell enough to be able to say that I’m in the photography business.(which I claim for tax purposes) .but at this stage in my life (having also done a really tough job for 30 years)…I just love photography itself. And, if I can get my little startup launched and the reins passed to the next generation CEO…you’ll see more of my Images…probably still predominantly gardens I visit with Sara.

    I know this is a bit long, but your post obviously pushed a button (a good one). I really look forward to your commentary. Your photography is gorgeous, your post processing very artistic, and your commentary thoughtful and candid. I’m a fan.


    J Janice M LeCocq Sent from my iPad


  2. There is at least one big difference between bands and photography. With the band you are guaranteed exposure to everyone who comes to see the main band. In photography, the additional exposure is usually minimal or non-existent. Especially today with huge photo data bases like Getty, Flickr, and 500px, art directors and others seeking images are not going to look for photos in publications, they are going to do a web search using key words. Posting with good key words in one of those data bases or on your own website will probably get you a whole lot more exposure then letting someone use your image for free. That said, if you refuse, they will either go ahead and use it anyway because what can you realistically do about it, or they will find someone else who will let them use a similar image for free. Best option is probably do negotiate to at be assured of photo credit, which they may be willing to provide.

    I just went through this – a contractor for an army base in the south wanted to use my image of a snake for a brochure to help soldiers avoid getting bitten. I specifically asked him if I could get paid. He got back to me a couple of days later and said “there is no money for that.” Until image users specifically require contracts that specify payment for images, photographers won’t be compensated for most uses. Which suggests to me that maybe I should write my senator and suggest that all government agencies should be required to at least offer minimal payment.

  3. James Saxon says:

    Still enjoy listening to Montrose’s Paper Money album/CD. They had a good sound.

  4. Mark says:

    I’m sure you heard this before. Trying not to rant. I’m not a professional but in my opinion I think the field is just over saturated. Seems everyone is a Photographer today. From the person who needs another career for whatever reason, the retired person who maybe is thinking their hobby can make a couple of bucks and everyone in between. Hey, you take great pictures why don’t you sell them. Sure, along with the other millions. lol. I think in some cases they just try and sell without the right knowledge and that has an impact on “True Professionals”. Someone Like yourself. I’m sure your business has had some impact. Heck, that’s how some professionals make money, Reaching out to this population. I think the best illustration of this is below. Makes one think on what a true professional is other than clicking, doing some post processing and trying to selling. I have friends and family members that just think since they bought a camera they can do weddings and “Photo Shoots” to make a living. They may get some work / sells but sure doesn’t put food on the table and soon they loose that interest but the damage is already done. Just not reality and I think this mentality is hurting “True Professionals”.

    • Mike Moats says:

      Mark, you are right about the fact that many people with cameras what to make a little because they see others doing it. I guess I can’t blame them because I had those same thoughts when I started out, so hard to get upset with them. But you’re right the more people entering into this to make make the harder it makes it for everyone. Thanks for the link.

  5. Lisa Cuchara says:

    The problem with doing jobs for free as a photographer is that all your clients that get referred to you expect you to do it for free. Word of mouth will get you more photo shoots, like “Hey, I know this photographer who will shoot for free…” Exposure, yeah right. You cannot pay the rent or buy the new lens with exposure. If you are new and need experience think about this instead — the barter system. In days gone by that is how people got what they needed, they traded, someone made shoes and traded it for a hat and same salted meat and some milk. Your co-workers brother needs a new headshot, and his specialty is SEO, TRADE and enhance your website. Your sister’s friend is pregnant and has no money for a baby shoot, but she is an awesome graphic designer, trade her for a new logo or website/blog design. Your next door neighbor’s son needs senior photos (they are just too expensive), have him mow your lawn for the summer so you have more time for photography. Trading makes both parties feel better about the situation, and in the end often results in less hard feelings and misunderstandings too.
    For laughs check out this link — ‘Exposure’ Now Legal Tender For Photographers

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