The business of photography is unique in a specific way like few other careers are. Many people that call themselves professional photographers are also hobbyists that love to shoot whether they get paid for it or not. Is that a gift or a bonus to calling photography your career or is it an affliction?
I personally haul my camera gear to family events, vacations, hangs with the friends, and more. Does a friend need a new head shot? Of course I'll say yes because I love to shoot and to challenge myself. To me, photography is more than a career, it is a lifestyle, and I'm betting I'm not alone in the way I feel about this.
My day job as a corporate photographer is not always blessed with the most interesting experiences, after all it is a job. That being said, I love doing what I do for employment and I have a hard time imagining it any other way. But, because photography isn't just a job to me, I have a tendency to take on a lot of side gigs with more interesting subject matter that my day job doesn't fulfill. One of my many other hobbies is motorcycles. I love the form and function that a motorcycle has to balance and the freedom that riding one gives you. So I end up photographing a lot of motorcycles for customizers, magazines, and blogs. This isn't always the greatest paying work (sometimes not at all), but it fills a creativity hole that I don't always satisfy with my career.
The question is where do you draw the line. Do you demand you get your normal day rate for all jobs or do you compromise because you are shooting the thing you want to shoot? You have to be careful to drive that discussion yourself because in my experience it is too easy to sacrifice your value in order to get the job. I struggle at times to determine which work I want to prioritize for my own personal growth versus as a way to make a livelihood.
Here are a few things I've found help me balance my effort with my compensation and maybe they will help you with your own internal discussion.
Work for Trade
Being interested in motorcycles and working for a number of motorcycle builders has often brought up the possibility of photographing things in trade for parts, swag, or other tangible items that may not be actual cash in hand but are valuable to you in other ways. The first two motorcycles I ever shot as a gig I did not get paid for — instead I opted to be paid with a 1976 Yamaha XS650. To this day I have been working for friends in the industry in trade for parts to make that motorcycle road-worthy. While it isn't cash in hand, or money in my 401k it makes me happy to provide a service for my clients and friends and also feel like I'm rewarded with something tangible.
Work for Access
Many of my hours spent working with motorcycle enthusiasts end up paying in a way with access to an event or other people and communities that I wouldn't be a part of without. I've gotten to attend motorcycle shows before they are open to the public, I've gotten to meet and even work for people I now call friends that I wouldn't have without taking some of these gigs. I've seen and ridden motorcycles that are truly unique and special and since I am an enthusiast, that is in itself valuable to me!
Work for Personal Growth
Getting stuck in a rut without innovation is a hard thing to deal with as a creative. I've found as I've matured, that I have creative muscle that I need to exercise and grow or I end up in a slump. Jobs where you are not getting paid, or are getting paid less than your ideal rate give you a great opportunity to experiment and try new things. I'm not saying forget the brief, but a gig for me is a great place to test a new camera or lighting technique while potentially doing what you love. And while it is a faux pas to say exposure is worth payment, I've found that in many cases exposure can help with total compensation if the day rate isn't exactly where you want it to be. I have been published in multiple magazines without getting paid for the pure fact that I wanted to be published - I traded the potential income because I was happy with just seeing my images in a magazine I liked. Is that sacrilege? Not to me.
The big thing here is to make sure you are not being taken advantage of or that you are not taking advantage of a community. If you are undercutting people who are making a career out of your gigs then you are doing it wrong (that is a whole other conversation topic). All this being said, I think it is very important for creative folk to do personal work outside of their careers unless you are getting 100% fulfillment from your job itself. This doesn't even have to be working for someone else, for example, if you love travel photography, you may spend a lot of time and money to get access to certain locations without real compensation being on the table so to speak. That is okay and I think it is healthy for photographers to have these projects.
Ultimately taking on extra projects helps you grow as a more well-rounded photographer and creative. If you want to do a certain type of photography what's stopping you from trying? Yes, you may fail or have a disappointed client, but in these lower-risk situations the outcome isn't as dire as it would be if you or your family were depending on getting financially compensated for your livelihood.
Do you take on low-paying side jobs that you love doing or are you embedded with an enthusiast community that loves your work? How do you approach the question of getting paid in those situations? I'd love to hear your thoughts below.