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Classic lines when clients want you to work for free

By dpreview staff on Jun 5, 2013 at 21:22 GMT

If you've ever spent any time as a self-employed photographer, you've no doubt heard countless rationales from clients about why you should work for free, or at least lower your rate. posted a pitch-perfect list of five classic lines that not only ring true to those of us on staff with freelance backgrounds, but would be perfect punchline setups in an Aaron Johnson 'What The Duck' comic strip. Do any of these sound familiar? How have you responded when they've been put to you?

'It will mean great exposure for you.'

'If you don't want to do it for free, I know other photographers who will.'

'We could just find a stock photo if you're not interested.'

'My cousin has a DSLR and I think I can get him to do it if you don't want to.'

And finally, my personal favorite:

'If all goes well, it could lead to paid opportunities with our company.'


Total comments: 142
By Photomonkey (10 months ago)

"Clients" who try to get you to work for free are not clients. They are thoughtless people who have somehow latched onto the idea that everything (except what they get paid) is negotiable down to zero.

They continue to bedevil us because someone keeps believing them.

By JoshKline (10 months ago)

It is rarely a good idea to work for free. Typically if the client doesn't pay they won't value the work and it will be hard to get paid decently from them in the future. When you start out you might be eager enough to do it and it might work out but do not count on it. When I was starting out 10 years ago I did some free and some heavily discounted work and none of those clients became well paying clients. You have to learn to walk away from work or you will not progress and get paid well for what you do.

1 upvote
Ronnie Van G
By Ronnie Van G (10 months ago)

When I was asked to do my first 'commercial' shoot in the early 80s I didn't have the foggiest of what to charge. After all, how much money do you ask for to take a picture of a 3" length of wire cable? I told the client (a big international cable manufacturer) that I'd do the shot for free, and if they liked it they could decide what to pay me for any other photography they required.

They liked the shot; refused my free offer; gave me a huge amount of money (for me at the time!); and I then pretty well worked day and night shooting catalogues etc for them over the next four years - while banking the obscenely large cheques which they sent me each month!

So YES, working for free pays. But you have to believe in yourself... and be good enough!!

By Deardorff (10 months ago)

Still get this every now and then. I always let these folks know I don't work for free, and license images for specific usage. New prospective clients are told that I'll work with them for normal rates for the first two jobs and if we do well together I'll see about a discount for the third job as a bonus for a good working relationship.

Those that take me up on it have become good clients while learning the work is not free.

1 upvote
Dan DeLion
By Dan DeLion (10 months ago)

My photography customers aren't looking for the lowest price. They want an excellent product delivered on time, by a photographer who understands what they are trying to accomplish, who understands their product and produces photos their customers respond to. They want someone who is easy to work with, who is friendly, and someone who will help them in the inevitable emergency. They don't want any surprises except getting more and better than they expected.

If every once and a while they disregard my copyrights – I look the other way. Why? Because, I make my money on upfront. Provide that kind of service and you don't have to cut your prices.

For a new customer I'll often offer 25% off on their first shoot. After that first shoot it's full boat. Otherwise, it wouldn't be fair to my other customers.

1 upvote
By LaFonte (10 months ago)

This all sounds dandy, but in today economy, if you ask ten professionals, you will get one that will do it for free.
And if the free work is actually better than your paid work, you may not be called next time even if you do beg them and offer it free.
It is not so easy as a witty reply to few pickup lines.

I see all the time professional people asking to be included in a well known projects where they would work for free and I see it all the time being rejected. Because there is already a line up.
I do also work for free on few projects, only so I can be in eyesight. Once you disappear from the memory you are gone. There is a line up of young people waiting for you to move to curb and once they are there, you are out for good.

It is not only that paid professionals can do excellent work. Non paid professionals do it all the time. It is not a cousin wit Ps camera, that is a delusional simplification of the situation.

Comment edited 3 minutes after posting
Chuck Lantz
By Chuck Lantz (10 months ago)

When I'm asked to provide photos at no charge, I'll ask one question:

"Is everyone else working on this project volunteering their time?"

If the answer is an honest "yes", and it's for a good cause, I'll usually help them out. If the answer is "no", then it's business as usual.

Jeroen Bouman
By Jeroen Bouman (10 months ago)

Much better post on this subject from 2,5 years ago (not by me):

Peter Damroth
By Peter Damroth (10 months ago)

Add:" Since you are here...." and they expect it for no additional charge.
I will negotiate fees, but when I hear comments like those listed I always decline!

Comment edited 5 minutes after posting
By RoelHendrickx (10 months ago)

I do the occasional pro bono job, but under my conditions:
* only for good causes that I support and know don't have the budget
* editorial and creative control
* no fees, but expenses reimbursed
* copyright remains with me: only a licence for a well specified use that is exclusively for the good cause (all commercial use excluded)
* guaranteed exposure (no images for internal use : they must be used for specified publicly distributed ends (book, brochure, exhibition, ...)

Approached like that, pro bono work can open doors and be a win-win.

By laptopsbattery (10 months ago)

Er it is true just because you a a self-employed photographer. But when you a a service company , they do not complain about price but quality.

By fenceSitter (10 months ago)

These pick-up lines are tantamount to slurring "heey gorgeous, wa-wanna have sex with me?" at a woman.

If she's halfway sane, she'll not even look where that noise came from, much less dignify that noise with a response. And two seconds later, she'll have forgotten that it happened.

The photography business is really in dire straits if there are discussions about how to come up with a witty retort.

Comment edited 4 minutes after posting
By DavidPonting (10 months ago)

From an email exchange from earlier this year between a part of my university's administration and me (an amateur who sells the odd print), about an event that they knew I was going to go to (but not specifically to shoot) anyway:

Office: "I am emailing on behalf of X with a request for photos from the Y event. We would be incredibly grateful if you could email us perhaps a selection of 10 of your photos. We would of course accredit them to you."
Me: "I would of course be very happy to [sell] copies of my photos. I can offer you the pictures at [details of pricing]"
Office: "I’m afraid we don’t have any budget to buy photographs and so most of ours rely on goodwill."

- and this from an office that really should have a budget (and an interest in keeping me happy), the Alumni Relations Office!

They don't have any good pictures of the event at all as a result (particularly since professional prices were rather higher than mine). They sent someone from the office with a compact...!

Comment edited 2 times, last edit 14 minutes after posting
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By Deleted pending purge (10 months ago)

... which goes on to prove that the best schools are also the most expensive.

Peter KT Lim
By Peter KT Lim (10 months ago)

If you are a professional photographer know where you stand, you should tell all this great people say : Thank you, but due to our schedule we unable to accept your offer. Walk away with smile & confident, delete their contact & block their call. Without fear. I do,did, done that.

1 upvote
By moviegeek (10 months ago)

Years ago, I got shafted by a "friend" who asked me to take photos for his jazz band that was going on tour. He said that he was putting an addition on his house, so he didn't have money to pay me--he offered me lunch instead. I was naive enough to agree to that. In the following months he kept gushing about how my photos were being posted all over the country and really helping his tour (which he was making money on, of course). :P

By Bendik (10 months ago)

More or less applies to industrial design as well. Classics, sadly!

Low Budget Dave
By Low Budget Dave (10 months ago)

I take photographs as a hobby, and do not charge for it. If I need a photograph with professional lighting, composition, and posing, then I will hire someone who has studied those things. And I would negotiate a rate, and then pay it.

Similarly, if a photographer called me up and asked me to do his accounting for free, I would suggest that they buy an accounting program off-the-shelf, and see if they can get a friend or relative to do it "for the exposure". If they want a professional to do it, I would certainly not be offended if they tried to negotiate a rate.

After all, photography is an art and accounting is merely a trade.

Negotiation is a skill, and if you want to survive as an artist, you need to get good at one or two skills besides just taking great photos.

By f64Craft (10 months ago)


'It will mean great exposure for you.' I am open to negotiating out a fare price for services would you like to have a chat?

'If you don't want to do it for free, I know other photographers who will.' Let me know when you want to stop being rude.

'We could just find a stock photo if you're not interested.' Ok I am sure that that would be the best choice for what you need than.

'My cousin has a DSLR and I think I can get him to do it if you don't want to.' And what will the results be like if you do that? Would you be as happy with them can you trust that he will provide what your looking for?

'If all goes well, it could lead to paid opportunities with our company.' reply: LOL no you didn't.


By Timmbits (10 months ago)

I think that the best line, is: (photographer to nickel-and-dimer) "while you keep my competition busy, your competition will be get better quality (paid) work from me"

Comment edited 3 times, last edit 58 seconds after posting
By Wanchese (10 months ago)

The one I always hear, especially from enthusiast magazines like the BMW Owners Club is "We can't pay you, but you will get photo credit." To which I reply, "When GMAC, AT&T, SCE and USAA start accepting photo credits as payment, I will come shoot for you."

Josh Adelson
By Josh Adelson (10 months ago)

As a marketer in my day job I am often buy creative services such as graphic design and less frequently, photography, so my perspective comes from the buying side of the transaction.

It would never occur to me to ask for free services and if someone were willing to offer that I would worry about the quality.

However, it is common to negotiate prices and it’s often expected by my employers, especially for a large project. Good creative professionals never act offended or defensive in such a negotiation (assuming I initiate it politely). They might hold to their price with some explanation; they might offer a small discount as a gesture of good will, or they might suggest a way to scale down the project to meet my budget. All are legitimate responses that keep open the possibility of business now and in the future.

By khunstuart (9 months ago)

Spot on....

Civility costs nothing. Acting offended or defensive IMHO shows a lack of professionalism.

By DennyD (10 months ago)

reminds me of this..........

By Diopter (10 months ago)

Older news - but well done summary.
At the same time manufacturers of the cameras and lenses increase prices of the equipment which has no chance to pay back.
Also the photography departments of the higher educations system still are recruiting new students who would never have chance to pay off their loans.
Somewhere must be a reason for that ....

Comment edited 9 minutes after posting
1 upvote
Deleted pending purge
By Deleted pending purge (10 months ago)

One possible reason for the first one is that people are still made to believe that only the absolutely most expensive gear gets the optimum results, which is wrong. A high percentage of optimal images can be made with less expensive cameras.
In my pro and analog camera days, I used to do many pictures using Olympus Stylus II, simply because the conditions did not call for the "large camera". No-one ever noticed any difference, even when the slides were used for cover images. There was no EXIF to complicate the issue.
As to the second dilemma: maybe it's because "hope dies last".
Or maybe it is that in both cases, the quality still means 90% photographer and 10% equipment.

By Diopter (10 months ago)

I agree. There is no such thing like "professional" equipment.
Experienced and knowledgable photographer makes decision about kind of tool used. If $100 P&S is enough, using a $10,000 set-up is ignorance.
But most of influential publications (sadly, including DPR) still worship myth of the "professional" hardware and are willing rather over-emphasise high-priced releases than cherish good, honestly priced and designed items.

By Diopter (10 months ago)

Here is a scary example of the "professional" tools in the hands of an inexperienced user:

Deleted pending purge
By Deleted pending purge (10 months ago)

Yes, it is scary, and prompts me to repeat the suggestion to look up the Prey project: . It seems like a good idea, costs nothing, and offers a chance (both to you and the police) to see your gear again.

By Diopter (10 months ago)

Thank you.
But first of all the list show how over-tooled is the photographer for the job.

Silat Shooter
By Silat Shooter (10 months ago)

Enjoyed reading and seeing this post! I have fallen prey to this bullsh*t myself and feel like a fool for thinking there may have been a chance at real money in the future. I've since smartened up and now pass on these "great opportunities" even when they offer "all I can pay you is $150 dollars this time but I'll make sure we take care of you on the next job." Thank you but I have a job that day.

Unfortunately, most people think that if you own a DSLR, you're a photographer and anyone can make nice images.

By Sirandar (10 months ago)

As a side note the value of money is being quite deliberately destroyed and relatively soon everybody will be working for free.

The power structure is changing. It used to be that if you could make money you could have a good life. In the "everything for free model " somebody decides whether you have a good life. This is a inevitable consequence of fewer and fewer people controlling more and more and our shift to a service economy where eventually every service will be saturated and the value of work devalued to a bare minimum.

Career opportunity and not money will be the prime determinant of success by the next or next next generation.

Comment edited 39 seconds after posting
By SemperAugustus (10 months ago)

The new loaded word is "donation"... amounts to the same with the same arguments:
- Good exposure, good marketing
- Networking, etc.
My answer is "not interested", if you donate or work for free you are marketing yourself as cheap/no cost resource. Your work will be appreciated as such.

By RoelHendrickx (10 months ago)

I do not agree, at least not totally.
See my later reply to the article itself.
I don't think using those conditions "cheapens" my work.
And I can tell it is highly appreciated.

Deleted pending purge
By Deleted pending purge (10 months ago)

Well, such clients can always have fun from testing of any among the versions in their favorite restaurant, like:

'It will mean great exposure for you.'
'If you don't want to do it for free, I know other cooks who will.'
'We could just find a fast food if you're not interested.'
'My cousin has a pot and I think I can get him to do it if you don't want to.'
'If all goes well, it could lead to paid opportunities from other guests.'

Oh, and it is always a good idea to have some tuna cans in the fridge. Nice for reducement of swollen blackeye, and also as a quick meal.

1 upvote
By PhotographersSkin (10 months ago)

If this is going to make you feel better, in Italy it's exactly the same, I could just translate!
Anyway I simply refuse with kindnes.

Umberto - Milan

By washyshots (10 months ago)

Best one yet - in my opinion of course: Relates to film reviews but same happens in graphic design.

Comment edited 56 seconds after posting
yvind Strm
By yvind Strm (10 months ago)


By CFynn (10 months ago)


There is a good comment about this by Barney Hoskyns on Facebook:

By Artpt (10 months ago)

Technology has created a commodity culture for products. Service industries are beginning to offer deep discounts to lure new clients, not considering the way aggressive pricing offends personal relationships individually. From these comments, most would seem to agree.

Going forward, I hope the service sector professionals adapt by differentiating our skill sets and venturing into new areas of demand. I don't see this shift stabilizing yet.

1 upvote
By LWW (10 months ago)

Just maybe the demise of the paid professional photographer is imminent. Could it be that it is coming to be irrelevant? It is after all a business model from days long past and certainly not current. If you expect to bounce around and just 'take photos' and be paid for it well you are doomed to fail, because every man, and his digital savvy dog is out to do that, because every man, and the dog, can have a go at it. If you can not take up the complete process from preparation, planning, capture to output, ie, edit, print, frame, sell, display, diversify to all sorts of income making avenues then suffer the consequences.

By cgarrard (10 months ago)

Never irrelevant because skill will always be in demand. You're relevance as a photographer is directly proportional to your skill. Just because there are more photographers out there on average, doesn't mean the amount of skill is also proportional. In fact, I think we all know it isn't.

Model Mike
By Model Mike (10 months ago)

As long as 'good' photography requires expensive equipment, and as long as there is a demand for the 'better' photograph, there will be professional photographers. The problem is that the boundaries are changing.

Comment edited 12 minutes after posting
By cgarrard (10 months ago)

How about "That's a beautiful 13x19" photo, can you lower your fee?"

My reply

"Sure, here is an 8x10 of the same image"

Speaking from experience from the world of art photography sales....


By B E (10 months ago)

Have not seen this one mentioned:

By fenceSitter (10 months ago)

Thanks, I've been remembering that one, but didn't know how to find it :) Classic!

Henry M. Hertz
By Henry M. Hertz (10 months ago)

my usual reply... go fuk yourself.

By Ventil (10 months ago)

My favorite, although not a quote asking images for free:

"Wow, great cameras, sure they have to take good pictures!"
-- "Yes, of course, we've taught them everything we know..."

By RoelHendrickx (10 months ago)

People seldom talk to a painter like this:
"Wow, great brushes - they must make splendid paintings"

By AllanW (10 months ago)

Haven't read this article but it prompted me to find an old Youtube clip that I loved so much. Very funny stuff!

By SonyForNow (10 months ago)

"It will mean great exposure for you."

You're asking me, so I already have exposure.

By mrmut (10 months ago)

I have experienced such behavior before; it changes with good image and seriousness of approach. When you meet with client, he must be perfectly clear on what the positions are, without any additional input.

If you need to say that you won't do something for free, than you need to change the approach. People who want free stuff won't call you then at all, which saves time.

Nacho M Castejn
By Nacho M Castejn (10 months ago)

I guess most photograpers posting here are really great at it, but from a client's point of view, I see much more lousy photographers that just don't realize they have to be really great to earn their wages these days, as you can get technically competent photos for free (or almost) from lots of amateurs.

My company does not need that many photo jobs, but all the latest have been covered by me or any other colleague, with better results than our previous "professional" experiences.

On a personal level, I hired professionals for my wedding, but at the end, only the photos from moments we were alone with them were really not replaceable by the photos from the attendants. With the important caveat that we got their photos much later than anyone elses.

I know there are really great photographers out there. It's just really hard to find them among so much mediocre ones (many of which are really convinced they are top notch, just because thay can focus).

1 upvote
By Anepo (10 months ago)

If someone studied photography and learned everything about the equipment they could still be bad photographers because the eye is your main weapon when it comes to create art.

Branko Collin
By Branko Collin (10 months ago)

Re: finding good photographers. Isn't that just a matter of going through a number of online portfolios?

Gediminas 8
By Gediminas 8 (10 months ago)

Excellent and funny because it is so true...

By stephmerchak (10 months ago)

I don't work in the photography field but those lines sound very familiar. It goes the same way with all artistic fields. I'm a music composer, sound editor and sound designer and it's pretty much the same in my field. Clients always expect us to work for peanuts.

By agentul (10 months ago)

"but would be perfect punchline setups in an Aaron Johnson 'What The Duck' comic strip. Do any of these sound familiar? "

yes, they're very familiar, from WhatTheDuck. repeated at least twice.

By electrophoto (10 months ago)

I'm self employed.... and yes I've heard them all ;) countless times.

people come up with the weirdest reasons why they should be worthy to get work for free or next-to-nothing.
Usual answer: no, but no thanks.

In the beginning 15+ years ago I would try to explain, try to reason, spend the time... these days I just politely, but quickly tell them that they don't get anything for free from me.
otherwise: waste of time.

By Octane (10 months ago)

good point! You want to spend your time with and on the clients that pay you, not with those that try to get you for free.

Adrian Wroth
By Adrian Wroth (10 months ago)

I have had many instances of clients asking for freebies or reduced rates over the years. Being a professional means its your profession, a means of supporting yourself and your family as well as maintaining a level of quality that people can trust, just like a solicitor, architect or accountant.
I never work for free, it is unprofessional, especially to my bank balance and to others in the industry. It never ceases to amaze me when you have a multimillion pound company quibbiling over the cost of a courier or the props bill. Can I go into a supermarket and then negotiate the bill at the checkout?
I occasionally offer my services free of charge to charities or friends and family but that's a whole different ball game. At the end of the day I would rather appoligie once for the fees that i charge than forever for the quality.

1 upvote
By AndyGrogan (10 months ago)

I think the big misunderstanding here is that digital photography has created many more photographers that there used to be. And are desperate to become rich and famous like many aspiring models are. :-(

Also people mistake a photographer for an artist. Most photographers are in business to document events not create art. That's not to say they don't add artistic flourishes to their documentation work where allowed and where it makes sense and that they don't create artwork independently of their paying jobs.

Photographers are not starving artists trying to get-rich-quick. Artists imagined as rich are few and far between, and those almost always have had a special relation with a patron, certainly not because they were pop-culture popular in their own lifetimes.

I say this as a non-photographer with no interest in becoming a professional for money, fame, or work.

Comment edited 3 times, last edit 4 minutes after posting
1 upvote
mr moonlight
By mr moonlight (10 months ago)

I've heard all of those, and more than once!!!! Hilarious!!!... or sad. Funny thing is, is that no matter how far along you are in your photography career, you still get these.

1 upvote
By onlooker (10 months ago)

It reminds me of a saying from the dot com bust era: "We're losing money on each item, but we will make up for it in volume".

Aleo Veuliah
By Aleo Veuliah (10 months ago)

I work as a freelancer on computers and photography, at the beginning I have done some works for free, but not for much time, I think all good work should be well payed. I think the digital times make things a bit more difficult to photographers because almost every one have a digital camera or friends with them and they think they can do the work properly without asking it to a professional.

All photographers should be payed for the work done.

The only thing I do for free now is being a moderator at Dpreview, but that is different and it is made for free will.

I really don't understand why some people underestimate the photographers and try to get the work for free. It is a thing that we photographers must fight , and explain why a professional work is better and should be payed.

By Josh152 (10 months ago)

"I really don't understand why some people underestimate the photographers and try to get the work for free."

Sadly it's because many photographers will do it for free or a significantly reduced rate if the client just pushes hard enough.

Comment edited 24 seconds after posting
By cgarrard (10 months ago)

Exactly Josh152. And low self esteem is to blame for freebies and being haggled to lower rates.


By Josh152 (10 months ago)

Not just low self esteem but many creatives, including photographers have a screwed up felling about charging for their work. They actually feel bad and guilty about it as if it is somehow inherently wrong or like they are "selling out."

Comment edited 13 minutes after posting
By SemperAugustus (10 months ago)

I think that many people feel that they can create the same image if they just had a good camera. I have been asked "where did you take that".. probably thinking "I can just go and take the same photo"... which in many cases is an indication of how little they know about photographing or the effort to take a particular shot.

Recently, few novices created a challenge to imitate some of my work in still lifes. ... one of them acknowledged later, that " is not as easy as to pile and photograph objects in your house"...

It does take more than just the tools.... but many don't see it until they try.

1 upvote
Nishi Drew
By Nishi Drew (10 months ago)

Yes, reality is there are people who would work for free, especially by those that think it's just a cool enough opportunity (I was there) and that doesn't help anyone. That someone who shot for free gets nothing, anyone else he replaced definitely gets nothing, and the opportunity for that shoot is gone, unless the results are stunning. But one can't go far shooting for free, do that and it could let others know that you're "cheap" and competing purely on value is not a good position as opposed to "getting the job done, and with great results".

Too often I cave in to doing a no-pay gig though, but as always, keep a good attitude and I'll do the best I could with the limitations at hand (no pay means no rentals too) and often I'll at least get unexpected food/transportation covered and that's great. Otherwise, only for family should anything be free, for friends it's a choice, but still respectable to pay/be paid some compensation.

Aleo Veuliah
By Aleo Veuliah (10 months ago)

I agree completely with those words.

Wise ones.

By Josh152 (10 months ago)

If you do free work it might be a good idea tol send an invoice showing how much they would have paid and then a one time discount for the full amount so the total due comes out to zero. Then at least they will know the value they have gotten and that you did THEM a favor not the other way around.

By jkokich (10 months ago)

Josh, that's a great idea! Thanks, I'm going to do that!

By riknash (10 months ago)

Doing it free for the family? It doesn't seem fair to work free for a family member if they profit from your work. It's no different than working for free for a friend or a stranger whom you feel you are "helping out" who profits from your work.
Helping a family member by photographing their posh home for a real estate advertisement resulted in a quick sale with a substantial profit. No compensation was offered except to potentially have paid work from the realtor.

1 upvote
Total comments: 142