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When Working For Free Might Just Pay?

I had several emails yesterday and re-tweets about being asked to work for free, including one from a young guy just starting out. Working for free to gain experience, as he was suggesting, is nothing new and indeed in recent years has been discussed frequently by some well known photographers including Chase Jarvis and Vincent LaForet, both discussing when and why they would work for free. Here’s an example of when I have ‘worked for free’ in the past and how it worked out for both parties. It was written in 2009 but nothing changes in my view.
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Standing on a frozen lake for free? Parhaps..

Way back in 2009, I wrote about Strobist’s blog entry on working for free and the flurry of comments it created. At the time, I said that I’d find the time in January to write about a time when working for free has worked out for me, so here’s one…. Back in February 2004, when my pro-photo career was still young, I had a call from a race instructor pal of mine who was working in Norway, telling me all about driving on frozen lakes and the great time he was having in the unique environment. The business owner at the time was looking for some photography, but the usual ‘no budget, hoping to get something for free’ mentality was prevailing. He would pay for my travel and accommodation, but no chance of wages, he’d just continue to struggle on with the shots he had. “You’ve got to get yourself here, mate”, says Andy on the ‘phone, “You’ll love it.”

He was right, I would love it. I’m lucky enough to make a living doing something I enjoy, but that doesn’t mean I have no bills to pay and ultimately, that’s what it’s about. Time for a checklist:

  1. Is there really no budget? No. It’s a brand new business and as usual, the owners didn’t consider the value of photography in their plans
  2. Is it a teriffic assignment that could be a career builder? Quite possibly. Back then, the work was appearing for me, but there were several magazines that I thought might just run with the story, but would not pay for the cost of sending someone specifically.
  3. What rights would they need? They were happy with rights to use in connection with promoting the business. No other uses, editorial, commercial etc were needed.
  4. Any other reasons it needs to be done? My gut feeling. I’ve learned to trust it over the years in my working life and I’ve always regretted when I’ve ignored it, or been overruled by others.

A discussion about what was needed by both parties followed, together with a bit of education on rights management and we had a deal.

Winter rally car testing - photogenic, fun, but still work

OK, We’re on. One VERY rough North Sea ferry ride later, I’m driving on the narrow roads of Norway, heading for the venue. The following days we shot all day long, as I tried to cover everything I could think of. I’d never used my Canon 1DS in such a cold climate, but it never missed a beat as I hiked out into the middle of a frozen lake in -20C plus wind chill to shoot cars blasting by a few feet away.

At the end of it, I was pretty much exhausted and thankfully the ferry ride home was as smooth as the back seat of a Lexus.

So did it work for me? You tell me.

  • The story ran in two different magazines – a motorsport mag and a men’s lifestyle publication.
  • While I was there, two of the rally car owners gave me their contact details to discuss work. One placed a VERY large order for prints and canvas wraps for their workshop and office reception areas. The other commissioned me to help with his marketing materials that year.
  • Around two weeks after I returned, the business owner called to ask if I’d shot any video. I had shot literally just half a DV tape, as I’d thrown my camcorder in my bag as an afterthought. Two days later, I had a large Jiffy bag full of other peoples tapes and the job of editing it all down to a couple of promotional videos, for which they paid.
  • Two years later, my mate, Andy, decided to set up a bigger and better operation using a venue in Sweden. I’ve been working with him in Sweden each year since, shooting photography and working with guests

So yes, working for free worked for me that time because of several things:

  • I retained the rights to the work
  • I could see another market that would pay to use the material and sold the rights they needed for their uses
  • My picture library holds the images and we get regular requests for pictures of motorsport cars in winter environments
  • It was a portfolio / career builder and enhanced my reputation as someone who doesn’t just wait for the ‘phone to ring, but finds interesting stories and opened the door to several new clients, both commercial and editorial.

It was a win/win situation for all concerned. The winter rally school owner got a one-off deal to use the work to enhance his business. I retained the rights to uses he would never need and made my income that way.

Corolla WRC car

And finally, I’m a big believer in the saying, “You can never tell who you’re going to meet next”. But that’s the subject for another post.

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