Free Work

There’s a short (and older) but perfect piece over at DIY Photography by comedian Nathaniel Tapley, “Dear Electricity & Gas Providers…”  What would a comedian have to say in a photography blog?  

Let’s start here: DIY Photography is a great community of photographers, some of whom are established professionals, and others who are self-proclaimed amateurs (in the Old French sense of the word, “lover of.”)  There’s great work, great insights, and it occasionally even inspires me to whip out the power drill and hack myself a light.

One thread that repeats almost ad nauseum is the issue of “free work.”  We’ve all been asked to do it.  Whether it’s a family member or friend (“Hey, you’re good with this sort of thing!”), a young or new-to-the-industry idealist who needs to get a first project under her belt, or a charity that’s trying to scramble to keep its fundraising needs down.  They’ve all asked.

Here’s where Nathaniel comes in:

I’m writing to you because I’ve been given your name by a mutual friend / saw your stuff and really loved it. I’m currently looking for someone to heat and light my house, and was wondering if you’d be interested in doing it?
Unfortunately, there is no pay at this time, but it’s a great opportunity to get in on the ground floor as in the future I hope to be heating and lighting ever-bigger houses. It’s also a great chance to showcase your work to the sorts of demi-celebrities I spend much of my life with.

It’s not an uncommon problem, and it’s not limited to the photography profession.

I’m not saying free work is a bad thing.  I volunteer for charities, help out friends, and occasionally even find a way to support that idealist (mostly through advice).  But I don’t expect that this kind of work will lead to more exposure.  No one has ever said, “This is the most awesome newsletter in the history of newsletters, I wonder who designed it?”  I help because helping is good.  I help for the same reason people donate.  I help because I have something to offer that is hard to come by.


I can’t help everyone.  And I do have time that needs to be dedicated to my business.  Dedicated to turning a profit.  And there’s no shame in that.  So, the next time you’re thinking of asking someone to volunteer their time, think about what you’re really asking.  Think about how much of a financial and hourly investment this person is donating, and be gracious about it.  And don’t forget a thank you note.