All this talk about working for free, why up and coming photographers and filmmakers should or shouldn’t do it, whether or not it’s hurting the industry, are all great points to discuss. I’m here to share how it’s possible to work for free and not sell your soul or hurt the industry process. Think that’s impossible? I disagree.

Doing free work is a lot like doing a personal project to me– I’ll only accept it if the work is going to be personally fulfilling, among other things that I’ll outline below. Keep this similarity in mind when reading– I DO NOT condone accepting jobs for free, where you perform a service for someone else’s goals or projects. I do however, recommend taking on personal projects, and the mindset associated with a personal project is much more in line with how I feel about “free” work that I provide. I’ve done a couple of jobs lately that kind of blur the line between the two, which I’ll talk about here.

Below I’ll outline six steps, that when followed, should yield work that accomplishes all of your professional goals, while not hurting the industry as a whole by de-valuing the work that we do. Your mileage may vary, but this worked quite well for me on my last project, so I’ll share my recent experience and then expand on each point.

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1. Who are you considering doing the free work for?

I saw an opening in my schedule for late October, so I decided to keep myself busy with a project. My business tries to focus on outdoor-related projects, and if they are for a non-profit, that’s a bonus as well. I recalled an NPO I learned of a few years back who had outdoor roots and worked with participants that have various physical disabilities. I reached out to them directly and pitched a project for an upcoming event of theirs, with the understanding that we would create this project for free, but with a few catches that I’ll note in a moment.

Lesson here: Avoid leeches.

I’m looking at you, craigslist clients. Leeches are those people who will use you for your services to get something they want, for free, but will never do anything for you in return. The more people like this you meet, the easier they are to spot. They will usually try to tell you about all of the people you will meet, how important their project is, etc. All of this is bullshit, and addressed in the “exposure” section.

What I’d recommend is that YOU find someone that YOU want to work for. I typically am the one asking to shoot a free project for someone, not the other way around. This means the project will be something that I care about and want to do, for personal expression, professional growth, or portfolio building– just like a personal project. The difference is that there’s an actual “client,” or business involved.

2. Select project deliverables on your terms, not theirs.

With the NPO I pitched, I already had a project type in mind. I wanted to create a promotional video, disguised as a sort of short-documentary piece. This would mean a final video piece for use on the web, and a handful of still images that they could use for promotion, but that we could also use ourselves on social media for our own marketing purposes.

Lesson here: Create the product that you want to make, not what they want you to make.

If I’m providing thousands of dollars of work for free, you better believe I’ll be pushing for certain deliverables over others. For example, I’m much more passionate about short-form documentary style videos than I am sales videos or hard-sell advertisements. When talks begin about producing a project, I’ll be pushing to create the kind of work I want to do, not the kind of work someone else wants. That’s a huge thing to consider– if all of a sudden a client of a free project started trying to dictate terms, they should be paying. Now I’m not saying that you shouldn’t consult with them and collaborate, but stand your ground if they start asking for things you’re not willing to do for free.

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3. Use the project as a way to further your skills or to experiment with different methods.

For this video shoot, there were a few things I tried for the first time. I used iPad-based model releases, had an assistant who was getting a taste of her first big project, and I was shooting interviews in completely natural light– not even any bounce cards or reflectors. I didn’t stray too far from my comfort zone on this project, but if I had more prep time I would have tried some new camera profiles.

Lesson here: Make the experience more valuable for yourself by having an educational component.

Free work is a great time to experiment with new methods or gear, in a real production setting. Maybe you have an assistant who wants to try shooting? Got a new light kit you want to try out? Maybe you want to shoot more slow-motion in your projects? Whatever it may be, this is a great time to do it.

4. Multi-purpose the work you do to satisfy other goals or get paid in other ways.

For my project, I was satisfying many other goals besides making a video. I’d end up with behind-the-scenes content for a blog on my personal site, some insight to share in a blog like the one you’re reading now, I would be doing some volunteer work (something I personally try to do a few times a year), and I’d get a few stills to try and license to publications and brands (which I did). I even tried to get some loaner gear to use in a few reviews, but things came together so quickly that I wasn’t able to get anything in time.

Lesson here: Make the most of the time you’re going to spend on a project.

If you’re going to come up with a concept, why not come up with one that will get you a couple of great stock clips, so that you can sell them later? Maybe you can do a gear review while on set? Or how about shooting some BTS footage and get featured on a blog like this one? If you’re relatively established, some gear companies will send loaner gear out in exchange for a quick video clip promoting said service/product– this is an easy way to try out new gear, for free. Don’t be afraid to send a few emails and inquire about this, you might be surprised! Companies generally keep demo units on hand for exactly this reason.

5. Will this project or client further your career in the direction you want it to go?

This was huge for me on this video. Outdoor adventure projects are extremely competitive, and it’s hard to get regular, paying work. I really need to get solid content in my reel and portfolio from varied outdoor groups and activities– the chance to work for this Outdoor Adventure NPO would get me plenty of time with important people in that industry, and the more work I have to show with these types, the better.

Lesson here: Work in the niche you want to do more jobs in.

Personal or gratis projects can be pivotal for beginners as well as for creatives who are re-aligning the kind of work they wish to focus on. A few years ago I decided to start focusing on outdoor adventure and documentary projects, taking on less industrial and sales videos. Rather than waiting for someone to ask me to shoot a project for them, I came up with my own projects.

I produced this short doc about an athlete who overcame obesity. It was a really inspiring story and rooted in content that I needed to have on my reel and website. I screwed plenty of things up on this shoot, but still licensed it to a few places and got plenty of views to boot.

I made this video and pitched it to the exact client I wanted to get hired by. Note that I didn’t offer them a free service before it was shot– I made the video on my own terms and my own time and they loved it. A year later they were my biggest client. Had they approached me to make this for free, I would have said no, and then made what I made anyway, and still tried to sell it to them afterward.

6. Working for exposure?

Part of the deal with my recent job was that my business would need to credited and linked to on all Facebook posts with our work, and same went for Instagram. We didn’t take this lightly though– we researched the client’s audience and reach before even approaching them about this project to guarantee that there would be exposure for us. We had a contract and everything. The client was completely understanding and more than cooperative with us to help get more exposure through social media.

Lesson here: Research your potential client and make sure you will indeed gain followers or contacts.

If someone tries to sell you on his or her project by offering exposure, RUN. They should never have to do that, it’s an understood concept that people will see your work and it simply comes with the territory. What I’d recommend is doing your research on a person or business, and making sure you know what kind of social media reach they might have, or what businesses they work with often. Also, who’s the audience for the visuals you’re going to provide? Will they hire you or share the work for others to see?

 

The key to working for free without hurting the industry is by making a project that is as much for you as it is for the “client.” Getting love on social media, tax receipts from NPOs, and owning the assets to license elsewhere are all things that will help, but simply agreeing to perform a creative service for someone where there is little to no benefit absolutely does hurt the industry, so choose wisely.

Disagree? Let me know in the comments below. Thanks for reading.