No More Free Work and Here's Why

this is as much of an "i've had it post" as it is a public proclamation in order to hold myself accountable as I move forward with my business. it's not meant to plead for your sympathy, but will hopefully give you a little pause to rethink "free work" whether you're the one paying for creative work or doing the creative work. I, personally, am done with free work and here's why :

when we first moved to Los Angeles the saturation of the photography market hit me hard. I, admittedly naive, assumed that because I had a solid portfolio this transplant shouldn't take as long as it did to build my business from the ground up in Ohio. I reached out to a list of creatives offering my services in hopes to collaborate and heard back from only a small handful. I kept making connections and offering free work in exchange for the promotion I'd hope to receive from what I thought were well-picked outlets. 

I'd get an inquiry or response with a non existent budget and reassure myself : well, that's the kind of work I want more of. Or yeah, it could get me more followers which might turn into paying clients.

Wants and mights don't put food on the table for my little one. now as a mama, my time is more precious than ever. if I'm away from my kid not only am I paying for someone else to watch her, but I'm missing out on precious quality time together. I love working and I honestly feel like Ruth and I both do better when we have a break from each other every now and then. I just want to make sure the work I'm doing is worth that decision.

let's talk about the paper. As any freelancer or self-employed creative knows, when that nice check comes in it's easy to think "whoohoo! $400!" But the second that money is deposited, a good 30-40% is shaved off and dumped right into savings for self employment, federal and state taxes. for every hour of shooting it's an hour of editing so let's cut that remaining rate in half again. there's the travel time and the correspondence to book the session. Sometimes as a freelancers things are rescheduled at the last minute which leaves a big gap in the day and no time to fill it with another session. There's insurance and liability, equipment upkeep, website, childcare, image delivery and all the other expenses that go into running your business that whittle away at that once lovely round number. so as with any handmade, well crafted product, there's a lot more that goes into it than the 10 minutes it might take to throw a pot or the price of fabric for a chair or the one hour you see me shooting.

you wouldn't ask a chef to donate food and prep or a painter to paint your portrait in exchange for "promotion."  just because the final format of my work is often digital and intangible, doesn't make it of any less value. I've taken photographs for over 15 years now in a professional setting. you're not just paying for my time and my fancy equipment, you're paying for my experience and expertise. You get what you pay for. 

and to be quite honest, that hustle and offer of discounted work didn't paid off. none of those gigs resulted in paying referrals. if people receive your work for free, they value it as just that : a good deal. they didn't fork over their hard earned money for your time. Besides, you love taking photos right? And when I compromise on my end, I'm doing you a disservice by already approaching the work with a bitter attitude because I'm not getting paid what I deserve and losing valuable time and energy that could have been spent attracting ideal clientele. 

and all this free work devalues my fellow photographers. i'm only aiding to the problem when I offer a highly discounted or free service. The next time someone says "here's my rate," that client just shrugs and says "i can find someone else to do it for free." and then people start coming to you because you're cheap, not because they love the work you do. and soon, you've worked yourself into a rut of less than ideal clientele. 

I admit there are absolutely ways and situations in which a discounted rate can be beneficial to your brand. A few things to keep in mind when offering your services at less than normal rates : 

-always make clients aware of your actual pricing so the value is set as a foundation.

-If you discount the price, discount the final delivery either in coverage, final images or product. They shouldn't receive the same things that a client paying full price will receive.

-if you're establishing yourself in a new city or building your brand, make firm rules for yourself like "only one trade per month."

-when approaching someone that you'd like to collaborate with (someone who fits your brand and in a situation that is mutually beneficial), offer a few specific ideas instead of just saying "If you have need, I'd love to work with you."

-say no. you can do so kindly, while at the same time educating the client and protecting your industry. "Thanks for thinking of me. My typical rate for a project like this is $$$. I've already accepted my limit of free/trade work for the month. if you're able to find a budget for the project I'd love to chat further. Or, I'm happy to recommend some folks just starting out who might have a lower rate." 

-if you do trade or discounted work, make sure you're both benefiting. e.g. I take family photos of a dear friend every few months and in turn she designs my lovely printed promotional pieces. we trade hours and she covers the film+processing while I cover my printed material costs.

-this spring I did a few family sessions for free because I wanted to rebuild my portfolio with images that I wanted to take - not the images I thought the family wanted me to take. I had no problem gifting these sessions to the families I hand-picked because I went into the shoot photographing for myself with the sole intention of amping up my portfolio. You've got to be so intentional with these; it's too easy to lump less than ideal sessions into "portfolio building."

Because I'm a one-gal show, it's hard to remember that I'm actually a business. When people say the rate is too high it's easy to take that personally. I pour myself into my work so if you don't think the highly calculated monetary value I've assigned it is worth it, sometimes it feels like you think I'm not worth it. I know that's not true and it's my job to separate myself from my work and to educate potential clients of it's value. Let's not confuse "hustle" with taken advantage of. You can work your tail off attracting new clients without compromising your creative work and time in the process.