I Often Give Away My Photos for Free. Here's Why You Might Want to Consider It, Too

I Often Give Away My Photos for Free. Here's Why You Might Want to Consider It, Too

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.

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Tim Gallo's picture

yeah, sometimes "localism" in japan may be pain the ass... its sad that you need some type of connections to enjoy proper waves. during covid they even wont let you park your car at some places. i have a few i am fine.

i got even a guy coming to me asking me if i am local and where i am from in the sea. funny thing I was more local than him. people take their pride and greed everywhere, even in the sea. so sad.

as for the "snaps" of surfers... same as paparazzi stuff. unless there is a "talent" there on a wave - there is no picture. so letting them use it for free is a "nicer" thing to do...

as for magazines. just contact them, you dont need an introduction in most of the cases here in japan. call the magazine, send them your portfolio, or go personally to show it(maybe not during this times).

Iain Stanley's picture

Localism has its place at times but only in a way that is friendly but fair to all. Getting the contacts I did certainly hastened the progress to getting published - and paid. Where are you in Japan?

John Ricard's picture

I'm not sure if the headline here is intentionally sensationalistic, but I think the important aspect here is relationship building. If the photographer were just creating images and giving them away and then going on about his business, I don't think anything positive would result. Instead, this photographer is spending time with his subjects and building real relationships. In the course of that relationship building he is sharing images with these people and asking them for information. While it would not be a dramatic, an alternate title for this article might have been, "The importance of relationship building in photography."

Iain Stanley's picture

As is the way of the world, we have barely a nanosecond to grab a reader’s attention these days....

Pedro Calado's picture

Liked it a lot Iain! That's what you call an investment! Congrats!

anthony marsh's picture

Interesting comment "take thousands of images". A famous film photographer GEORGE ZIMBEL once called digital photography "digital diarrhea". Thousands of images at one wedding bolsters his opinion.

Iain Stanley's picture

It was just a random number......

anthony marsh's picture

Thousands is not a number never mind random.

Mark Harris's picture

I went through the same process with pics of local runners and dogs. I made a few bucks selling, but upset everyone else by watermarking my images till they paid. Then I started giving them away, and got big projects and new clients out of it.

Iain Stanley's picture

yeah, I think people get hit from so many angles these days online and offline that they tend to be a bit guarded with strangers trying to sell immediately, particularly photos that might not come cheap....