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Offering Your Services for Free

This article was written by in Career and Work. 18 comments.

For anyone interested in starting a business, particularly in creative arts, is building up a reputation in the field. I mentioned that my goals for this year include doing two photography shoots each month. Over the past few years, my interest in photography has grown from a hobby to a serious interest to a potential income-generating endeavor, and over the last few years I’ve taken a number of classes to learn from professional artists.

I haven’t had much time to dedicate to photography due to my other responsibilities, but if there comes a time when I have more free time, I will most likely be pursuing professional photography with greater force.

There was a time when there was a delineation between amateur and professional photographers; from a technical standpoint, amateurs used inexpensive 35mm rangefinder cameras and occasionally SLRs, while professionals used high-level SLRs, medium format cameras, and large format cameras (although some did use rangefinders, particularly artists who focused on street photography). Professionals had training from other professionals, while amateurs concentrated on family snapshots.

The advancement of technology introduced more sophisticated cameras and lenses for amateurs, and a new category of photographer emerged: the “prosumer.” The prosumer exists somewhere between professional and general consumer. The quality of image, from a technical standpoint and not necessarily artistic, has given these consumers the confidence that their images are as good as professional work. Also, except to the most discerning clients, it has resulted in the impression that all it takes is a good camera for anyone to become a professional photographer.

With many amateurs acquiring quality equipment and deciding to start business, many are looking to build their portfolios and get practice shooting for clients. A business looking for event photography or a family looking for portraits need only to ask around within their network of connections, and most likely, he or she will find a budding photographer willing to accept the task for free.

As a result, clients expect they can find professional photographers willing to work for free at any time, which devalues the entire photography industry. Some pointed this Craigslist ad to me, a reaction from a photographer who may have been starting out but who’s frustrated that he or she is expected to work for free to build the portfolio.

This doesn’t apply to just photography, but it’s a great example because technology has put high-quality equipment in reach to more people. Should new business owners offering creative services be willing to work for free? Does offering service for free devalue their businesses? If they do offer services for free, how do they transition to earning revenue?

Published or updated October 7, 2011.

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About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 Anonymous

I wholeheartedly agree. I have a pretty good web dev gig right now, and would not have it if I didn’t do a lot of pro bono web work first as so to build up my resume.

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avatar 2 Anonymous

That’s a good point. I think people should do pro-bono work on the outset to build clientele and also to get your name out there. Also, I know that my fiancee and I did not want this particular photographer because she had no website or portfolio. You definitely need to develop both if you want business and if you want people to think you’re a legit company. We ended up going with a more expensive photographer due to her more extensive portfolio.

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avatar 3 Ceecee

I did this by accident. When I started to make handpainted clothing, my items were just priced way under the market. I gradually raised them, with no loss in sales or regular customers.

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avatar 4 Anonymous

I wholeheartedly agree. I am a professional photographer and make my living primarily on taking photographs and selling the prints. With the boom in new ‘photographers’ that work for free or give everything away for $50 it does devalue not just them but the industry as a whole. No to say that I really consider them competition as I do things to set myself apart from them beyond the obvious quality. I also work with organizations to try and educate those that are serious about doing photography as a business and their sole means of income.

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avatar 5 Anonymous

Whether it is photography or some other service, everyone is looking for a free service. It doesn’t make it right. The internet is also free and look at all the free information including our blogs. Everyone is used to this, however they do not appreciate it until they pay for it.

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avatar 6 Anonymous

Yes I think it makes sense to do some free work to build up a portfolio. Its a chicken-egg situation. People won’t pay you cause you aren’t experienced but you can’t get experience unless you get work. So to break that cycle you end up doing some free work to get some experience and a portfolio that will then hopefully build into paid work.

Why would I pay someone if they have no experience, no referrals and no example work to show me? Thats blind faith. The people getting the free service are also taking a risk on an unproven person who is not yet really a professional. The people just starting out are often inexperienced and still learning their craft to varying degrees. This is of course not to say that new photographers can’t do a great job, but they are unproven. And frankly people build and grow with added experience, thats just a fact of life.

I don’t think that the inexperienced people doing a bit of free work devalues a profession in general.

Theres a long history of interns doing free work in some industries. That doesn’t undercut entire professions.

On the other hand I do think its pretty obnoxious to run around asking people for free services.

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avatar 7 qixx

I always provide one free service to any of my customers. I give free estimates of the cost to do the work to any and everyone who uses my services. If you don’t use my services then you are not a customer in my book and i’ll charge you $50 for the estimate. PS most of my services start at $50. Free can be a great business model.

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avatar 8 Anonymous

Interesting. When posing this question to the small business community, I think the right answer is mixed. It is important to offer some aspects of your business for free, to draw people in. However, you obviously can’t spend your entire day offering free services, or you’ll starve!

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avatar 9 lynn

Perhaps offer what ‘appears’ to be free services. Like an estimate. Then put the cost of your time in the job if you get it.

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avatar 10 Donna Freedman

A little pro bono may help you build a business. The trick is to know when to cut it off and start charging what you’re worth (or to start charging in the first place).
Here’s a suggestion: Do pro bono for a cause or organization in which you believe. When people ask you to work for free/cheaply you can reply, “You know, I wish I could afford to do more pro bono work like the stuff I do for Cause X. But I need to make a living so I can’t afford to give anything else away. Here’s a list of my rates.”

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avatar 11 KNS Financial

Our wedding photos were done by a pair of young ladies who started a business but didn’t have much experience or references (they were recommended by a friend). We paid about 25 – 40% of what the “going rate” was for what they gave us. They charged much less because they were just interested in building up their portfolio.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with trying to start out by offering your services for free – especially in an area that takes creativity and isn’t just “cut and dry”.

I think that Donna offers a great suggestion (as always)!

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avatar 12 Luke Landes

How were the results?

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avatar 13 Anonymous

I think that if you work for a larger company, you should be paid for your time. However, if you are just starting a new small business by yourself, it’s probably beneficial to work for free at first to build up a reputation and get experience.

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avatar 14 Anonymous

The arts are extremely competitive, and sometimes if one is going for a professional job in this field, doing some “free” work will help build a portfolio and recommmendations.

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avatar 15 Anonymous

Honestly I think that art is overvalued is nowadays. It should be a hobby for the most of the people – to enjoy yourself and if somebody wants to pay – that is fine too.

Wherever you want to try yourself – movies, theater,…financial blogs and advices – people are doing it for free for several reasons:
– They love to do it.
– There is no certain standard and it depends on your readers to their want to click on the adds or not.
– Competition.

Movies, writing, art, sports – while it is very crowded at the ground level and competition is fierce, at the top there is price. These jobs are paid nothing like average at top.

So it does make sense to compete, for some people. If you disagree and prefer stable hourly income, one needs to join workforce & manufacturing industry.

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avatar 16 shellye

Graphic design is a huge part of my job and I sometimes do freebies for friends (invitations, signs, etc) because it’s fast and easy. Not sure if it will lead to a freelance career but I enjoy doing pro bono work occasionally.

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avatar 17 Anonymous

I think the second you make something free, people assume it isn’t valuable. That’s why I think even amateurs should charge something, if only to make the customer value the work.

That said, in the United States (and maybe other countries but I can’t really speak to that), people don’t value services. Perfect example is a guy who told me he had ‘no money’ to hire me then proceeded to tell me about a computer he just purchased that I know for a fact costs over $2,000. Instead of fighting city hall, service providers like myself just need to work with people who value their contributions. Good post and discussion so far!

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avatar 18 Anonymous

The Wife and I have used 1 professional and 3 somewhere in the middle photographers in the past 10 months (baby stuff). While there is a difference, those pictures done by the middle people weren’t dire and thus if we didn’t get it for near free (we paid for pictures for 3 of the 4, but not the time / and one we paid for time but not pictures) we may not have done all 4 shoots.

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