Many freelance photographers keep a close eye on the creative gigs section of Craig’s List and similar sites for potential freelance photography jobs.  Although it can be hit or miss, and if you are relying on these ads for your income you are probably going to be in trouble, if you pay close attention every once in a while a gem comes up.  However, if you monitor these postings frequently you have undoubtedly also noticed the occasional (sometimes frequent) post looking for photography services for free or in exchange for permission to use the photos in your portfolio, a link to  your site or “exposure.”

I am not talking about the one where an up and coming model is seeking an up and coming photographer to work with so they both can get some practice in and end up with images for their portfolios.  Instead, I am talking about the businesses, and sometimes individuals, looking to get their photography needs met for free.  The requests include everything from product photography to corporate head shots to wedding photography.  And it is not just limited to photographers, but you see similar ads for graphic designers and other creative fields.  The advertisers often make statements about “no money in the budget this time, ” or “there may be more work down the road.”  But the bottom line is they want something for nothing.

The question that is often debated in regards to these postings is “Are these businesses and the photographers who accept non-paid jobs hurting the photography industry as a whole?”

The heated debates that have been going back and forth in the craigslist postings have centered around taking advantage of creative professionals and expecting it to be for free.  One post snarkily requested free surgery in exchange for mentioning this surgery to help get future surgery jobs and the potential for more surgeries in the future if the patient liked your work.  The point being of course, that you would not request a freebie from other professionals, why from creative professionals?

The argument among professional photographers is that when others take these jobs for no pay they are diminishing the photography industry and lowering the standards and pricing for photography as a whole.  Not to mention devaluing themselves and their skills as a photographer.  In addition, it puts the photographer at a lower status in the mind of the consuming public, be it businesses or individual consumers, compared to other professionals they deal with who would never give their services away for free.  But as long as someone is willing to work for free someone is going to take advantage of it.

But for many of these up and coming photographers they are in a bit of a catch 22.  They want to build a professional portfolio in order to be hired for paying gigs, but they need the gig to build the portfolio and the portfolio to get the gig.  So what do they do?  They often turn to working for free without even realizing the potential consequences thinking that getting the images for their portfolio is payment enough.  What many photographers, and especially these advertisers, may not understand is that as soon as you take the photograph you own the copyright to it.  You are free to use it in your portfolio regardless.  You do need a model release to use someone’s likeness for advertising or commercial purposes, but you still own the rights to that image.  So they are not really giving you anything in exchange for your work other than maybe the subject to shoot.

There are some alternatives to working for free to build up a portfolio however.  Alternatives that can serve both your needs and keep the photography profession at the same level as other (paid) professional services.

1)  Volunteer your photography services to a non-profit that you support and believe in.  This can be a a win-win for both; the non-profit gets their photography needs met and you get images for your portfolio.

2) Ask your friends, family, neighbors to be your subjects.  For the aspiring portrait photographer you probably have an abundance of subjects all around you.

3) Go out on your own and shoot.  If your interest is product photography, look around your house.  Photograph the milk, the laundry detergent, your iPod, anything.  Want to photograph architecture?  It is all around us, jsut head out and shoot it.  You can build a good portfolio of images just by shooting for yourself.

4) Try charging.  Not every potential job is going to require a portfolio (although some idea of your photography skills is going to help).  Put your own ad up for your photography services and see who bites.  You might be surprised.


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