Monday, October 14, 2013

Photo Shoot for Free or Not?

My daughter and son-in-law

No doubt this is a controversial subject with many opinions for and against.  To each his own.  I don't know that there's a hard, fast right or wrong but wanted to share my thoughts on the matter after experiencing a recent dilemma.  I'm sure some of you have found yourselves in similar situations and struggle with what to do so I hope this will be of some help.

Background - Recently a neighbor called my wife to ask if I'd shoot her daughters' Senior pictures and mentioned "money is a little tight so maybe" her and her husband could make a "really nice meal" for my wife and I at their house - quick to say they would buy all the ingredients and then added "maybe" my wife could help with the meal (huh?).  This came to us via voicemail late one evening after my wife retrieved her phone upon realizing she had left it upstairs all day.  It was a rather long-winded message that seemed to devolve the longer it went.  Like with each attempt to get out of a hole the hole just got deeper and deeper.  Yeah, the red flags were popping up like crazy in my head.  I want to be a good neighbor but I couldn't just pop off a, "Sure I'll do it."  I wanted to but I didn't want to.  "Let me think about it."  After a couple days of mulling it over I told my wife I wasn't interested in doing it for free.  Not any more.

I had already done wedding photos at no cost for this neighbor.  (I was not hired to do so (in fact, nobody was hired) but knew photos were expected of me none-the-less).  Then, later in the year she asked if I'd shoot a family photo for them around Christmas time and told me several times she'd pay for it.  Just a shot in front of the fireplace with the Christmas decorations around it.  At first I thought, no big deal.  It's one shot.  Or so she had led me to believe.  Well that one shot turned into a couple different day and time changes and 73 shutter clicks and almost 1 hour at their house while I waited for them to get ready (even though I showed up at the time requested) and then ended up shooting different groupings, poses, and locations around the house.  Then the post-processing took several hours.  But believing she was going to pay appropriately, I even presented them with a nice 5 x 7 family photo along with about 20 photos on disc.  And I had it all ready for them after just a couple days.  However, despite my letting them know the pictures were ready and would they like to see them on my computer first (27" iMac) to which she affirmed that would be great (but can't come over right now.  Maybe sometime later this week) seven weeks went by before I eventually just loaded the images to a CD and walked across the street to present them. Payment never came.  

That was hard on me.  Did they not like the photos after all?  That didn't make sense because I thought they turned out quite nice and she said so as well.  Also, why would she keep asking me to take photos if she didn't like the results?  Simply because I'm free?  I don't know about you but I don't want photos I don't like even if they're free (this is not an empty statement.  I have put my money where my mouth is on that score).  And then there are the parties they'd have and if I didn't show up she'd later say something about thinking I'd have come over and brought my camera.  Unsaid but implied, of course, was she was hoping for pictures from said party.

It was a difficult several months for me as this really played on my mind.  I obviously had made several mistakes, not the least of which was leaving payment up to her discretion.  But also, we didn't discuss what she really wanted from the photo session.  Or, what my expectations were.  In fact, I didn't realize it was to be a "session".  When she said she just wanted a family photo before her oldest went off to school I took it at face value and thought she just wanted a family photo.  

I was, after all, just trying to be a good neighbor.  And while I want to remain a good neighbor, I won't be taking pictures for free anymore.  I'm not bitter about it - any longer.  I beat myself up plenty for awhile.  It is a lesson learned.  You see, it wasn't so much about the money (I have a good full-time job that pays well and I wasn't expecting much from this shoot anyway - something, yes) but that I had been taken for granted and taken advantage of.  Used.  Lied to. Ripped off.  Not a good feeling at all.  It hurt.  I experienced several sleepless nights because I was so conflicted.  The thoughts that went through my head from feeling ripped off to being worthless (photography-wise).  That experience just isn't worth repeating.  And I'm mostly to blame because I didn't put a value on my work and the time involved so my neighbor didn't either.  Shame on me.  The fault is mine.

My wife has experienced the same thing with her cakes and cake decorating so I have no doubt this scenario is played out many times concerning a lot of different interests - not just photography.  Bottom line - if you don't put value on your time and talent, no one else will either.  And the psychological impact of that is tough to deal with as I found out.

At this time my thoughts on the matter are that my immediate family members can expect free photo shoots and photos from me.  That's a given.  No one else, unless I'm purposely doing a charity event.  My time and talent have value and is not to be taken for granted.  So whether compensation is in the form of money or something of equal value and benefit to me ...

Please, feel free to share your thoughts on this matter.  I'd love to hear from you.  


  1. I agree. Like you, it is we that devalue our work and our time. When things are free it's easy to miss an appointment or miss an opportunity to say thanks. When money is involved, our concept of value goes up as does the importance of what it is we are paying for. No one breaks a Wal-Mart vase and then becomes devastated, whereas you break a Ming vase and WOW! Yet they are both vases made out of similar materials. Good lesson learned. But don't let it harden you to hard fast rules. Always follow your heart, not your wallet.

    Good post.

    1. I don't think this experience has "hardened" me but, rather, helped make me a little wiser concerning the value of a service and subsequent product not to mention the psychological aspect involved in the concept of "worth" vs. "worthless".

  2. Hi Dave,

    I never shoot people for money, never. Despite enjoying shooting portraits and head shots, even if they are people other than family (friends, strangers, etc...), I don't accept any offer to shoot someone, be it a portrait session, a wedding, an engagement, a university grad, etc...

    You can see I didn't mention money yet, and there is a good reason for that. I don't like being dragged around and requested to shoot this or that, be it for money or for free. For some reason I regard this as slightly humiliating, it might be slightly different within other cultures, but where I live, the "event" photographer is dealt with as a machine, you can see people calling him "come and photograph us here", "please take my picture with xyz", etc... He might even be requested to shoot something that he doesn't want to or don't like. Certainly not a position I want to be in. You have said how much they left you waiting, and that you were requested to shoot other stuff.

    So here's what I do, first of all, I decline any friendly/paid requests to shoot people or events, and I clearly state that they have to find someone else to shoot the event, as I might not bring my camera to the event. Even if I'm 100% sure I'll bring it, and plan to shoot the whole thing. But I want to be shooting with my own style, and picking the stuff I want to shoot, whether I'll be giving those shots away or keeping them for myself. And on the day of the event, when I start shooting I don't accept someone asking me to go and take a certain photo of a certain thing.

    This is the general rule, and there are of course some exceptions, especially if it is someone very close to me, and I really want to do it for them. But even then, I make sure that I will be the one deciding what to shoot and what to do.

    That's why I only accept paid offers for product photography, as I am in total control, and the subjects don't move or speak.

    I hope my thoughts were of help.

    1. Hi Mohammed,

      Thanks for the reply. It is very interesting to see how this is viewed in other cultures. It is also interesting you used the word "humiliating" because that would describe what I experienced as a product of feeling "worthless" and taken for granted. However, I believe that could all have been avoided if we (my neighbor and I) had made plain what our expectations were and the costs involved and had signed a contract for said services since she is the one that brought up payment in the first place.

      For myself, and in our culture, I certainly wouldn't feel any humiliation about going from place to place to shoot this or that if I was being paid appropriately for it. Again, I think that's where having clear expectations and a written, signed contract would help a lot. In other words, if I'm expected to travel here and there and shoot this or that it would be laid out in the contract and I'd be paid accordingly because my equipment and time and talent all have value in the service being rendered.

      I like your stated general rule and then that you mention exceptions because the fact is, there's always an exception to the rule isn't there? : )
      But it is an exception. And I don't want to be hard and unbending or inflexible but I will be protective to not put myself in the position as mentioned in this article.

      I love that last line, "That's why I only accept paid offers for product photography, as I am in total control, and the subjects don't move or speak." Thank you.

  3. With my massage, that was something I made a point to decide on before I even advertised that I was ready to start massaging. Family would be free, and everyone else would have to pay. It can be really, really hard to say that to some friends, but having my "rules" and sticking to them keeps me from feeling used. I am glad that you are putting a value to what you do, you do it really well!

    1. It can be difficult to charge friends for a service but it's even more difficult to be taken for granted. You were smart for laying down some rules right from the start. And thank you for that last sentence.