Working for Free - Photography is not Plumbing

There's been a huge discussion going on recently on The Interwebs about photographers working for free.  Big-time bloggers like David Hobby (of Strobist), Vincent Laforet, Chase Jarvis, and John Harrington are all talking about it right now due to a post by David Hobby last week, but the discussion has been going on for a couple years, including this big post by Matt Brown on Matt is a photographer whose thoughts I'm especially sensitive to because we both shoot for Cal Poly Football and Basketball and I wouldn't want to be doing anything to jeopardize the work he gets from them.  (As an aside, I caught a glimpse of Matt on TV on the sidelines of the UCLA/USC game yesterday...)

The main argument comes down to whether it's "OK" to do photography for free and what the effects of that are on you, your clients, the industry, Western Society, etc.   On one hand you've got David Hobby putting forth four reasons why you should consider working for free.  On the other end of the spectrum there's John Harrington who reasons that working for free will destroy your career, put other photographers out of business, make you a horrible person, and maybe worse.

I'm not going to weigh in on the discussion other than to say that working for free has it's place (especially when trying to get your foot in the door) but isn't a long-term business model.   I shoot for some clients for free.  There are other jobs I would never take for free.  (I turned down a free job offer just last weekend, because it involved too much travel.)  But one argument that always seems to come up that you could never call a plumber and tell them that your toilet was clogged and would they please come over and clean it up for free and therefore, photographers shouldn't ever work for free either.

I love that argument, because its so ridiculous.  I've got news for you: taking pictures is a lot more fun than cleaning up poop, and that's why there's a steady stream of people willing to try it for free.  I'm a firm believer in the law of supply and demand and the recent explosion in the popularity of photography means there's a huge glut of people wanting to try it.  If you're a professional photographer lamenting all these damn newcomers to the industry, all I can say is that if you can't actually differentiate yourself from the amateurs then you probably have a problem.

There are lots of ways a pro can differentiate their work from that of the newcomer:

  • the quality of the final product (this seems first and foremost)
  • being able to handle large or complex projects
  • professionalism when dealing with the client (invoices, quotes, business insurance, someone to answer the phone during the day, etc.)
  • availability for jobs when hobbyists might be at their 9-5 day job
  • the ability to be there in the future

and so on.  I don't think we're in danger of pros losing their ability to make money, due to the fact that there are always people that are going to need the level of service that a professional photographer can provide.

Final Thought: In computer science, there's a long transition of giving away perfectly good work for free.  The entire open-source software movement is proof of that.   I wonder how that affects the philosophy of computer nerds who go into photography...