Reasons Why Photographers Cannot Work for Free

Photographers Circle - Haymarket 125
Photographers Circle – Haymarket 125

At the end of yesterday’s post, No – You Cannot Use My Photographs for Free, part 86, I mused aloud about creating a form letter for rejecting future requestors. Noah Vaughn, a Flickr and Twitter pal, kindly left a comment pointing to an open letter posted by Photoprofessionals, which I’m thinking could be adapted to for my usage requirements…

As professional photographers, we receive requests for free images on a regular basis. In a perfect world, each of us would love to be able to respond in a positive manner and assist, especially with projects or efforts related to areas such as education, social issues, and conservation of natural resources. It is fair to say that in many cases, we wish we had the time and resources to do more to assist than just send photographs.

Unfortunately, such are the practicalities of life that we are often unable to respond, or that when we do, our replies are brief and do not convey an adequate sense of the reasons underlying our response.

Circumstances vary for each situation, but we have found that there are a number of recurring themes, which we have set out below with the objective of communicating more clearly with you, and hopefully avoiding misunderstandings or unintentionally engendering ill will.

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I especially like point 7:

Getting “Credit” Doesn’t Mean Much

Part and parcel with requests for free images premised on budgetary constraints is often the promise of providing “credit” and “exposure”, in the form or a watermark, link, or perhaps even a specific mention, as a form of compensation in lieu of commercial remuneration.

There are two major problems with this.

First, getting credit isn’t compensation. We did, after all, create the images concerned, so credit is automatic. It is not something that we hope a third party will be kind enough to grant us.

Second, credit doesn’t pay bills. As we hopefully made clear above, we work hard to make the money required to reinvest in our photographic equipment and to cover related business expenses. On top of that, we need to make enough to pay for basic necessities like food, housing, transportation, etc.

In short, receiving credit for an image we created is a given, not compensation, and credit is not a substitute for payment.

Photographer at Work - Tri X 400

Photographer at Work – Tri X 400

and point 8:

“You Are The Only Photographer Being Unreasonable”

When we do have time to engage in correspondence with people and entities who request free photos, the dialogue sometimes degenerates into an agitated statement directed toward us, asserting in essence that all other photographers the person or entity has contacted are more than delighted to provide photos for free, and that somehow, we are “the only photographer being unreasonable”.

We know that is not true.

We also know that no reasonable and competent photographer would agree to unreasonable conditions. We do allow for the fact that some inexperienced photographers or people who happen to own cameras may indeed agree to work for free, but as the folk wisdom goes: “You get what you pay for.”

Photographing the Photographer part 1840
Photographing the Photographer part 1840

and point 5 expands what I tried to tell Requestor Number 86, and says what needs to be said more forcefully:

We Have Real Budget Constraints

With some exceptions, photography is not a highly remunerative profession. We have chosen this path in large part due to the passion we have for visual communication, visual art, and the subject matters in which we specialise.

The substantial increase in photographs available via the internet in recent years, coupled with reduced budgets of many photo buyers, means that our already meager incomes have come under additional strain.

Moreover, being a professional photographer involves significant monetary investment.

Our profession is by nature equipment-intensive. We need to buy cameras, lenses, computers, software, storage devices, and more on a regular basis. Things break and need to be repaired. We need back-ups of all our data, as one ill-placed cup of coffee could literally erase years of work. For all of us, investment in essential hardware and software entails thousands of dollars a year, as we need to stay current with new technology and best practices.

In addition, travel is a big part of many of our businesses. We must spend a lot of money on transportation, lodging and other travel-related costs.

And of course, perhaps most importantly, there is a substantial sum associated with the time and experience we have invested to become proficient at what we do, as well as the personal risks we often take. Taking snapshots may only involve pressing the camera shutter release, but creating images requires skill, experience and judgement.

So the bottom line is that although we certainly understand and can sympathise with budget constraints, from a practical point of view, we simply cannot afford to subsidise everyone who asks.

I may not make my sole living from photography, but I do make some money from it, and all the money and more is invested in the art. I know my attorney charges me for each and every thing possible, for photocopying forms, for sending letters in the mail, and so on, and I gladly pay. There are lots of small expenses that add up – health insurance, internet fees, L & P fees, you get the idea.

5 thoughts on “Reasons Why Photographers Cannot Work for Free

  1. John Cutting says:

    Okay, how about this. If Chicago isn’t interested in translating your experience into a paid column syndicated weekly or monthly or bi-annually or something, or at least a single paid magazine article – then you can count on me to begin contributing through a paypal portal. I think you’ll be surprised to learn about me, Seth, two things. One, how very little I can actually afford to pay you. And two, how very happy I would be to pay you what I can afford.

    Deal? …….Did you call Oprah yet about this matter? (Does she not cover pertinent Chicago themes?)

    One of the things that’s possibly true about those of us who are less sophisticated but still manage to be a part of your cybernetical-ness of being – is we love you too. We may not know how to $how it, but it’s true. Or maybe a better way to say it is, I would never leave a restaurant without ridiculously over tipping the wait staff even for mediocre service – so, imagine I might be able to learn how to better $upport the arts through some medium you devise. Or, divine.

    No promises, but I hope the seed is planted in your mind. ….Divine away. …and PS — I think the form letter has an air to it that might serve you better if you manage to personalize it a bit. I like your suggestion about making a change or two.

  2. Asking me for my photo for free is not about the money, really, it is the respect that currency is afforded.

    If you are asking me for my photograph for free, you are not respecting my art.

    Imagine a world renowned chef going to his corner grocery store – not a chain grocery store, but a small independently operated grocery store, or even better, a booth at a Farmer’s Market – and asking for free groceries.

    The chef says, “I’m going to create a prix fixe event at my restaurant, and sell seats for $150 each. There will be 13 dishes in all, and I’d like to feature your delicious carrots in one or two. I won’t pay you a dime, but I’ll mention where the carrots were grown on the menu.”

    Would you accept this deal? Would this pay for your growing costs? For renting a booth at the Farmer’s Market? For your crop growing expertise? Granted the chef has put his own labor into the menu, and he could get flavorless carrots from Costco instead of using your carrots, but would mentioning your name be enough compensation?

    I say no, and would politely tell the chef to grow his own damn carrots.

    by the way, Oprah no longer lives nor works in Chicago – she’s moved on, even putting her house on the market. Her studio in the West Loop lives on, barely, but perhaps not for long.

    And thanks, John, for the suggestion about Paypal. I’m lucky to be in a situation where I have free time enough to blog, and to photograph without worrying about paying my bills.

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