Ask Me Anything: People keep expecting me to take pictures for free, what do I do?

This post is for my photographers followers out there. It’s basically a reflection and a few tips about making the hobby-to-career transition and a few of my personal notes on the free-sessions vs. no discounts debate that may interest even the more experienced photographers out there.

Firstly, WELCOME to the Newbies! This is so exciting!

The first thing I would do is look around at some photographers in your area. Look for 2-3 photographers with your same style and business set up. Look at what they do to market, if they have a website, if they have a separate Instagram, separate email account, or even if it’s an @gmail or @personalized account, what specialties they have, if they have a logo, years or level of experience, things of that nature.

Match as much of that to yourself as possible and then see what they charge. Factor any special skills or hinderances you have into that. Once you know about how much you’re worth work from there to see what kind of discount you would give to a friend. Some photographer are very anti-free/discounted sessions because they fear people taking advantage of the but I’ll explain below why this isn’t a problem with my method.

Honestly, if you’re exploring Wedding Photography and it’s your first wedding, especially if you’ve never been a second shooter, I would consider doing it for free. It’s a really good way to build your portfolio and experience fast. This may surprise you but I still do shoots for free occasionally. Typically it’s for a trade or a very specific portfolio or marketing goal. And a key to this, that I’ll explain more later on, is that I let people know this!

If a close friend has a skill, service, or product they offer sometimes it comes off less aggressive when you’re starting out to offer a trade. It’s a good way to establish the “What-I-do-has-monetary-value Position” without coming off rude, weird or downright snobby. I have traded pictures for getting my hair done, getting my lashes done and even for home décor items and handmade baby toys! All these things were things I would have purchases anyway so there was absolutely no difference for me except the fact that it made the interaction of expecting payment for my service for the first time a little less awkward, in my opinion.

Now what about family members? There is always something that you can do to profit without charging. Again this may not be the philosophy of other photographers but it works well for me. I have never personally been approached by a family member asking for free pictures. I have definitely approached them and offered to do things for free. I have never personally had an issue with feeling like people have unfairly taken advantage of me. I think this has some to do with how I set up my expectations and the rest to do with how I view myself. Let me explain…

How I set up my expectations with family members or close friends:

I let them know that I’m now charging for photography. I don’t think I’ve ever done this strategically but it flows quite naturally for me and it took some reflection to realize that I did this and what hand it played in the fact that I don’t get “come-take-pictures-for-free” requests, literally, ever. It looks something like this (just a text in a group chat- by all means feel free to copy paste the exact wording) “Hey, as you guys know I’ve been really concentrating on my photography lately and I’ve decided to start charging! I’m super excited and I just wanted to let you know in case you know anyone who would be interested. Also, I’ve been working really hard on my content so I would love for you to check it out and tell me what you think!.

And YES! I talk like that to my immediate family members in our group text haha. If you don’t feel free to add your own flavor to it. An excellent way to market yourself is to appeal to your family and friends. A text, a call, or a mention when you’re meeting up for lunch.

If I did get a family members request to take pictures for free I would not be offended at all! I would let them know if I had an opportunity for them to help build my portfolio- if I didn’t have one I would find one really quick. I would honestly let them know what they could do to make it worth my time. Maybe even throw in some stipulations (in a kind way) like “I need pictures at this location for my portfolio”. Or “I need you to wear this type of outfit so I can use it for my Style-Guide Samples”. If they’re not up for it then no harm done. If they are, great! I don’t think anyone would not get the hint that you need to make good business decisions and it needs to therefore benefit you. They’re probably not going to approach you again asking for free photography after you’ve done this once and if they do I would imagine it would be more like “Hey, let me know if you ever need me for your Portfolio again”. A lot of professional photographers PAY to have models come in for styled shoots like this so being offended instead of taking advantage of a situation like this is just silly in my opinion- especially if your friend is particularly good looking or fits well into the aesthetic of your target audience.

If your family is anything like mine they are, potentially, your biggest marketing tool, in two ways:

  1. They give word of mouth referrals which is the best way to start marketing on a low budget and even with a bigger budget gives you some of the biggest rates of return in this industry.
  2. They give you opportunities to build your portfolio. They’re basically your personal models! You want people to see you as busy so they want to book you. No-one wants to book a photographer who looks like they’re struggling to get clients. That’s like seeing one lone cookie in the break room for too long. All the others are taken, and it’s just sitting there alone… must be something wrong with it. Gifting free sessions is actually a great investment, in my opinion. IF it’s done strategically. You, of course, want to find opportunities to build your portfolio without having to do everything for free and create that expectation, but you need to start somewhere.

The biggest reason I see that people are taken advantage of as photographers actually isn’t because they gave free sessions in the past but I think is more in line with the following:

(WARNING: This may sting a little if this describes you so proceed with a humble heart and open mind, k, ready?)

The way I see it is that if someone isn’t taking me seriously as a professional then I need to step back and ask myself, Why? What am I doing to actually BE a professional?

If I don’t have any sort of price list or website or social media presence then of course someone’s going to assume I’ll do it for free! If I don’t educate people and act confident of course they’re gonna think it’s just a hobby. If I’m charging for a certain quality of work but my client experience doesn’t match I would expect them to scoff at my prices and ask for a discount. Do you think it’s just an anomaly that some people can book a full seasons of weddings at $10,000 a pop and others struggle to get even a single one for a mere $2,500? Confidence is 50% of being a photographer (the rest is technical skills, style, and marketing… notice Have a Fancy Camera isn’t even on my list), I see a lot of photographers complain about people treating them unprofessionally but then they do the most unprofessional things! They don’t have contracts or liability insurance, or enforce retainers, they don’t amplify client experience or show common business execution knowledge. If you treat your business like it’s a jumbled venture you’re doing with friends for free then that is how people will treat it! BOOM! I said it! And I understand that it takes time to get there but you don’t just get respect because you have a camera in your hand- you earn it!

Do you agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments section!

<3 Alyssa

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