Making any kind of money from photography is hard, so it would seem counter-intuitive to give away your work for free. However, there are times when I have no hesitation in giving away dozens of images free to people. Read on to see why this might help you too.
To start, I want to make it emphatically, unequivocally clear that I'm not talking about studio work, or wedding work, or any other type of work where you're providing a specific service to a paying customer you've organized a transaction with. In no way, shape, or form am I suggesting that you rock up to your next wedding gig, stand around for hours shooting thousands of incredible images, then at the end of the day take your SD card out its slot, hand it over to the happy couple, and walk off into the sunset without a penny in your pocket, even though that's how you put food on the table. That's not what I'm talking about here.
What am I talking about? More along the lines of freelancing and trying to turn your passions and talents into some kind of income. I'm going to use surfing as my example to state my case here, but you can easily apply it and adapt it to any number of scenarios. So let me paint you a picture and give you some context. In the surf world, it's quite common for photographers to stand on the beach with their telephoto lenses for hours shooting all manner of people. Good surfers, bad surfers, and everything in between. Then at the end of the shoot, often times the photographer will approach some surfers they have shot and ask if they're interested in purchasing some prints or sequences. In the short term, this can offer a little opportunity for some income, but it's definitely finite. I've found over time that giving images away free is often far more effective, and lucrative, in the long term.
For example, last year here in the south of Japan we had some of the best typhoon swells to hit the coast in decades. I was out there for days on end shooting and came away with some absolute beauties. Instead of trying to sell these shots to the surfers, I contacted them through social media channels or through friends and offered them for free. Here are some of the shots I'm talking about.
After taking these two shots, I contacted the surfers and offered the whole sequences (about 30 waves each) for free. The first advantage in doing this is that everyone likes free stuff, especially if it's shots of quality waves like these. The second, and more important advantage, is that it breaks down doors for you, as the photographer. Let me elaborate. The world of surfing is typically very territorial and parochial. You can multiply that 50 times when it comes to the big wave surfing community, especially down here in Japan. As it happens, the two guys in these shots are at the top of the hierarchy at this particular location and are very mindful of opening up locations to outsiders. However, by contacting these guys and offering these sequences for free, I was able to strike up a friendship with these guys.
In return, I got a couple cases of beer, which we drank together, and a nice plumeria plant, which is blooming beautifully at home on my balcony.
Now, you might be thinking that they got the better end of the deal, but here's where it gets interesting. Through living in this place for almost 15 years, I know these guys have some sway in the surf industry, and are well traveled, particularly to Hawaii. Thus, when we were enjoying the beers and talking story, I asked if I could get some contact details for some of the editors of surf magazines in Japan and other publishers they might know. They were only too happy to give me a wonderful list of contacts.
Following that, I directly contacted some of the names on the list and told them about some of the shots that I had, and dropped the names of the two guys who'd put me in touch. Through those introductions, I got a number of articles written in well established surfing magazines and published on some of the biggest surfing websites in the world, such as Swellnet, in Australia.
Since that time, I have also been contacted by other surf publications about articles and images from this part of Japan.
Back when I took the original images, I knew I had some crackers from those amazing typhoon swells. I could have attempted to directly sell the images to the surfers but I highly doubt I would have got very far. Mostly because I didn't know them at the time and the idea of an unknown Australian guy appearing out of nowhere trying to hawk images probably wouldn't have gone down very well. I chose not to do that, but instead offered the images for free on a USB stick. The surfers were very obliging and it has led to good friendships, a nice plumeria plant at home, and most importantly to me as the photographer, more work and paid opportunities than I ever would've got had I directly tried to sell a couple prints to them at the time.
Also, now that I've become friends with many of the big wave surfers in the area, they have let me in on some other locations they surf in different swells. In all honesty, I've never seen these places photographed before, and I don't know many people who even know they exist. They are outer reefs with very limited and unshared access points. Naturally, I've sworn never to divulge the locations of these places, but I have been invited to shoot them when they're breaking. If and when that happens, I imagine there'll be many more publishing opportunities that follow.
In closing, we're all trying hard to commodify our photographic passions in some way. Our first instinct is often to try and sell prints directly to people. However, sometimes a little planning and forethought can pay off down the track much more lucratively. When those occasions arise, I have absolutely no hesitation in giving away my images free to people. Do you ever give away images free? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.