Shooting Photography and Video for Yourself, or Shooting to Make Money?

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.

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Grant Schwingle's picture

Definitely agree with the friends or family bit. I always say "pay me in beer."

Deleted Account's picture

I love being an amateur. I can shoot what I want when I want. And if there are times I don't want to shoot, I don't have to.

stuartcarver's picture

Same here, well said.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

Shoot whatever you don’t hate and good at for money. Have personal projects as your hobby. Plan to merge these worlds some day in the future.

Grant Schwingle's picture


Studio 403's picture

All is good in America. Such freedom to work for free or charge outrageous sums. Or have a reasonable day

Timothy Roper's picture

It may be somewhat unique, but pro/amateur sports are the same kind of thing. Most people are amateurs, but even those who went pro for awhile often still play the sport after retiring (and before going pro obviously). I know both a former pro tennis player, and a former PGA pro who now play just for fun (and some betting I guess). With sports it's a little more clear-cut who's pro and who's not but, but the mind-set is very similar: people like sports regardless of the business end of it.

Gail Fogarty's picture

Totally agree. I am a corporate headshot photographer but the ‘motorbikes’ in my world are dogs!! I love recording beautiful artistic images of dogs looking regal and content. It’s a passion where I don’t always get paid the true commercial worth but creating these images brings me so much more than an entry on the balance sheet. It is a calling!

melinda brown's picture

I am embedded in my clients as I've spent years in the group. My passion is high end show horses. It shows in the shoots I hope. In order for me to give back to the community I have 5 free shoots a year I give out to non profits, as well as deserving horse owners. It is a great feeling to give so thats a win for me. Its is good for my community relations and supports the non profit equine organizations. Putting a limit on the give aways keeps me from giving all my shoots away:)

Grant Schwingle's picture

I like that idea a lot - budget your free stuff!

melinda brown's picture

Thanks it works pretty well for me..... I try and save at least one for later in the year. I have a great core client group. Some I have watched grow up get married and start their own training barns... its hard to NOT say yes to free. I got the idea from a fairly successful makeup artist who of course gets asked all the time to do a days work for a newbie model for free.

Deleted Account's picture

I write for a living. I don't get that much say in the projects that I work on - that's not to say I get no say at all, nor does it mean I can't say "no" when I really don't want to work on them but work? It's not fun. It's not supposed to be. Whenever fun is involved, there's an idiot willing to do it for free... which is why both writers and photographers find themselves constantly under price pressure - in the "fun" fields. Write about travel or take photos of pretty ladies? You're going to struggle to ever get paid something approaching "a living".

Fortunately, photography is not writing. It's my fun time. I buy cameras for fun. I take photos for fun. I share them with my friends (no Instagram for me, thank you and even as a writer, I don't currently operate a blog) and family and that's about it. That leaves me free to shoot for me 100% of the time. I've had a couple of people offer to pay me for some photos, I turned them both down - I don't want my hobby to become work. I could always use more money but not at the expense of my sanity.

If you want to be a "professional" in any area of life, you need to work out how to make money from it and enough money to make it worthwhile. The "starving artist" is romantic in your 20s, when you're 50 and have 2 kids who need their university fees paying? It's not so much fun anymore. It changes the way you approach your life quite substantially...

I think almost all the photography press seems to forget that we're not all professional photographers and that the vast majority of us don't intend to be either. I am tired of seeing terrible photographers advertising their services on Facebook because they just bought a camera. But I am also tired of seeing good professional photographers advocating working for free (or thereabouts). Neither position makes any sense.

Grant Schwingle's picture

Fair points made I think. I can't tell if you're just riffing on my ideas or taking them in another direction, but the distinction I make for my personal situation is that I WANT to do both "professional" photography to make a living and I also want to have personal projects where the product isn't really for a client and thus the demand for a living wage - not as necessary. But I digress - it is a fine line to walk.

Also I think the disassociation of interest and passion with your livelihood is BS. Who says we can't have our cake and eat it too?

Duane Klipping's picture

Do it for yourself anything else it becomes a job and robs you of freedom and creativity.