Why Photographers Don't Get Paid

Making money in photography is hard — even harder when companies ask you to do work for free that they are profiting off of, and we say yes for the exposure/connections. 

While I am not saying that you specifically do free work for the exposure, some photographers — too many photographers — do. Fstoppers released a video series with Monte Isom all about making money with photography in order to keep information flowing about how much photography is worth and to get people talking openly about our charging practices. In this video from Jessica Kobeissi, she talks about how the biggest problem facing our industry is the lack of unity. 

If I do a job for free, it is not only showcasing the lack of respect for my own work, but also showing the company that free is an okay price to pay. We almost need to band together and take a stand to no longer do free photoshoots for companies and for-profit ventures. People need to know that what we do is worth something. If you ask for a small fee, and they say that their cousin can do it for free, let them. They will either see the quality and come back to you or be happy with the amateur photos and move on, saving you time with a client that didn't care in the first place. 

Obviously, I'm not saying to never work for free. Small charities, causes you support, creatives, general creative expression, etc. are all fantastic reasons to take photos without money exchanging hands (probably 90% of the work I post is not from my paid gigs).

What do you think of the video? Are there examples you have of times when you've stood your ground on pay and actually got it?

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2ndshotphotos's picture

Value, yourself and feed yourself. Man can not live for free, nor should he work for free.

Matthias Dengler's picture

Lol, as if charging 15 or 20$ would help anything. :D
But yes, she has a point. Everyone should charge, not your close friends though.
But seriously, those people who want you to shoot for free are no professional customers.
If a professional wants to hire you, they ask you to put to together an estimate. If it's too low, they don't even see value in it. If it's too high, you don't get hired either.

And well, I tried something for myself a while ago. People said: "Hey, why don't you sell calendars with your work?"
Then I told them what it would cost, how much work goes into it (designing, promoting, ordering, packaging, sending) just to get 5$ for each sale. So I thought, I'd make a give-away, where you had to comment on the post and share it with one friend on instagram. Guess what, no one wanted it, because they didn't see value it.

So yeah, get professional customers and as as said in the video, tell people that you have to charge. Otherwise they can go somewhere else. Last but not least, people are willing to pay if they find something others can't reproduce in their local market. If you can be replaced by a free-booter, you should probably think to make your work more unique.

EL PIC's picture

Smart Photography is Technical Photography!!
Be a Smart Photographer. Major and career in Photographic Engineering.
Then you will reap wisely.
Take pretty pictures as a hobby and don’t expect anyone to value it.

Daniel Medley's picture

Doing free gigs can absolutely be advantageous from a business perspective. Miguel Quiles provides an excellent breakdown of how it can be a great business decision to leverage "exposure" into paying gigs you would not otherwise have: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w5i8vpduNPk

Peter Wheeler's picture

Thanks for sharing. This video is a refreshing change to the negativity that always follows discussion about making a living from photography. A photography university lecturer once told me his response to anyone telling him they want to study photography, to “go study business instead”. He says that if you can’t run a business there’s no point learning photography if you’re intending working for yourself.

David Penner's picture


This is right off the fstoppers YouTube channel...lol

Desmond Stagg's picture

Using mailing lists, looks like an easy life in the US with reference to email marketing. Here in Europe. it is forbidden to send unsolicited emails to companies, individuals etc. unless you have had previous dealings with them. Makes life difficult.

Daniel Medley's picture

Perhaps you missed his second and third examples. Personally I wouldn't go the email list route. I don't think many people would. But Miguel's second and third examples are easily doable.

bill bynum's picture

Big difference in what she is talking about and what he is talking about...

Daniel Medley's picture

She's saying working for free is bad, and that it will "ruin the industry" and that it drives down the money that other photographers can get, and that all photographers should refuse to do it. That's not necessarily true. That's the point of what Miguel is saying.

There is no difference in what they're talking about.

In fact with his second example there is literally zero difference other than the fact she was referencing a fashion shoot and Miguel was referencing a gym. Really, literally the same scenario.

I, myself, have done what he talks about in examples 2 and 3, and they both segued into well paying shoots that I would not have gotten if I had taken her approach.

In fact after watching her video a second time I think she comes off as whiny and entitled, and blaming everyone else for not making money. Sorry, it's a rough world out there in the creative arts. You have to prove yourself in your given niche. No one owes you anything and no one deserves anything.

Oh, well. with 1.4 million subscribers I'm sure she's doing well enough?

Jared Wolfe's picture

Doing free work on someone elses terms to build someone elses value is bad. Doing free work on your own terms to build your own value and portfolio can be great. I started my headshot business with 3 free headshots I offered to people in same building as my studio. Those three headshots brought in a lot of business and allowed me to continually update and improve my portfolio and business. Doing free shoots for random insta-models or vanity magazines taking photos that people don't buy is a money and time loser.

Daniel Medley's picture


The thing is, is that you approached it from a business perspective with long-term, outside of the box thinking.

I've received good benefit from doing "free" shoots that are mutually beneficial. Beneficial for the model in that they got some more pics for their portfolio, or for their agency profile page, and beneficial for me in that the work I did for them directly led to paying shoots that I would not have otherwise had.

It greatly helps when both parties are thinking in long-term business terms.

Dave Terry's picture

#this. I totally agree.

Being strategic with your free (or low-cost) photography has many benefits that can lay a foundation for future paid work, and in some cases lead to some of the best work of your early career. Of course, not all free work is created equally.

Personally, I never bothered with any photo work that is outside of my areas of interest, so I never shot anything I didn't enjoy and feel I could do well (or hopefully better than most of my potential competition). Or, in some cases it was a great challenge that led to better honing of my skills, and pushing myself to evolve made up for the lack of money in those cases.

Many of my "free" experiences resulted in some of the best shots I've ever taken - and I knew they would - because I already had confidence in my skills, but I wanted to unleash them on subject matter I thought was on par with those skills. I treated them as though I was already making loads of money on them, and it showed in the results. I didn't half-ass anything.

This can help you build your skills and reputation (not just your portfolio), but what you do with it (and knowing when and how much to start charging) is up to you, your goals, and your work ethic.

Timothy Roper's picture

Exactly! When/if I do something for someone else for free, I am very clear that I have complete creative control (withing the boundaries of the goal of the shoot). I then get to try new ideas, get things I want into my portfolio, etc. Some people do balk at that arrangement, though, and that does annoy me. How can someone want free, and according to their specifications?

Stephen Holst's picture

That's a very good point. The problem I had with her video is she has no idea why the other photographer worked for free. She only heard the story from the photographer who turned down working for free.

Kirk Darling's picture

Yes. There is a difference between "working for nothing" and working for something other than immediate payment.

My basic rule is, "If it's my idea, you don't pay me. If it's your idea, you do."

I do have circumstances in which I want something out of a session besides immediate money. For instance, right now I'm working on establishing a portrait studio in a new city. Something that has worked wonderfully for me in the past has been to have gallery displays in selected high-end local-proprietor beauty salons. It's a captive audience of my target market--women with money who must sit for hours looking at my work.

I walk in this this presentation to the salon: You make the selection of several of your customers for whom I will shoot my particular style of portrait to display on your walls. I pay the total cost of the gallery. All I want from the proprietor is that they provide my cards and talk about me when they get inquiries. Every quarter, I'll change out a couple of images.

Because the portraits are of her actual customers, I do, indeed get inquires. Because she wants good-looking people on her walls, she steers her best looking customers--displaying her own best work--toward me.

bill bynum's picture

My basic rule is, "If it's my idea, you don't pay me. If it's your idea, you do."

I sorta live by that too!

John Skinner's picture

Perspective is a key missing from this lead-in to topic.

What is being asked here in as much as "making money"? As in supplementing your full-time job? Or, as your main source of income? In addition to... your age and goals, types of images being asked of you, equipment involved and the logistics of doing 'the job'. All of these things being posed as a 'getting paid' part of this are equally important and have to be honestly taken in context.

Deleted Account's picture

This is the same woman who didn't get paid because she didn't have a contract.

Desmond Stagg's picture

Re: ......so I just didn't show up" - THAT is very unprofessional! The client will certainly remember you but very negatively!!

Dan Howell's picture

She is absolutely missing a far more important point. If a photographer is seeking a fee for photography it is their responsibility to demonstrate why they are a value. She only mentions fee, never mentions value. If she or another photographer cannot answer this question for themselves and potential clients, they don't have any business being in business. It appears she has been in the industry for barely more than a minute. If she honestly believes that 'lack of unity' is the biggest challenge facing the profession, she has missed the virtual sea-change that media has undergone over the last 10 years and the 10 years before that. She would do well to talk to more experienced photographers before making these absolute proclamations.

Ryan Luna's picture

Jessica needs a basic lesson on Adam Smith economics.

Darren Loveland's picture

The only type of "client" that has ever asked me to shoot something for free are the same clients I roll my eyes at the most on social media, "influencers." They're basically leeches trying to drain everything they can for free, from both sides. The only thing they spend money on is the fake followers to boost their account appearance.

The influencers call upon a business to provide them with complimentary meals, hotel stays, spa experiences, in exchange for exposure. They call upon a clothing line for free samples, handbags, and accessories to be featured in said influence post, for free. They call a driving service for a complimentary ride in between destinations.

Then the real kicker, they call us photographers to take all of these elements and capture it professionally, for free, in exchange for exposure.

Nobody buys the clothes, most people don't go to the hotel, they just give the picture the ol' double tap for a like because it looks pretty, courtesy of the photographer, who didn't get paid.

I've been asked three different times to do these types of shoots and it brings great joy to myself knowing that my schedule is loaded with paid work and I can happily turn these scams down.

Don't work for free unless it's legitimate charity or something very simple (and a rare occurrence) for family or close friends.

Ryan Cooper's picture

Its really this simple:

There is far more supply of photographers than there is demand for them. Generally speaking. This drives the "general" value of photography down to near nothing. This is just economics 101. This doesn't mean, however, that there is no hope in the business of photography. Rather, you need to recognize that there is an oversupply and provide an innovative approach to image making that the vast majority of photographer can't/don't replicate. This allows you to create a demand for a specific photography product. One that has very little supply and thus much higher value.

Grant Watkins's picture

How to get dumber: watch this video for more than 5 seconds.

Larry Wynkoop's picture

I am an amateur, a hobbyist, and for now I'm very happy with that. I don't look for "clients" to shoot for free, so I'm not taking anyone else's work - I just shoot what I want to shoot but here's my perspective.

The supply and demand pressure on photography is very real. The tools necessary (and even the skills) are much more accessible now than ever before. This can be a real challenge for someone trying to make a living taking pictures. But belly-aching about it and trying to demand that amateurs charge people isn't going to make things any better.

Whatever you do in life, it's up to you to demonstrate your value to others. Whether that's customers, prospects, or your employer. When you're asking someone to hand over their money, you better have a pretty compelling reason why. And with today's technology, just being able to nail the exposure and focus isn't going to put you over the top.

Without exception, every experience I have ever had with a professional photographer (as a customer) has been a disappointment. From senior pictures, to family portraits, to my own wedding. And I'm not talking about the button-pushers at the JC Penney "studios." It has just never been a pleasant experience. I think if you want to demonstrate more value, you have to go beyond just being able to produce a nice image. You have to make it a pleasant experience for the customer. That's what will set you apart from the amateurs shooting for free.

For more than a decade I made a living as an electrician. It's very common for tradesmen to do small jobs on the side for extra money, and I always did pretty well with that. I would have apprentices ask me for advice on getting and keeping side work going. Here's what I would tell them:

First, I don't look for work in my neighborhood. I go where the money is. I look for work in the neighborhoods I dream of living in one day. Because of this, I never had much trouble with my rates (which were pretty high) and I never had to chase invoices.

Second, if you want to make money doing electrical work just do these two things: show up on time and clean up after yourself. That's it.

Notice my advice has nothing to do with the work itself. It's assumed that you can produce acceptable results. What will set you apart are the soft skills.

There is definite value in a pro photographer vs an amateur like me. A pro will have redundancy, backup, an efficient workflow, etc. But the average customer doesn't understand all that. It's up to the photographer to help them understand why those things are important. At the end of the day you're not selling pictures, you're selling yourself.

clark james's picture

it's this simple; photography is a hobby, that people do for fun, and therefore will do for free because its not their job or source of income and they want the experience of doing it, they want the photos for their social media, or they want the access to cool events/behind the scenes etc, only a small fraction of photographers are actually working pro's, most are just weekend warriors and hobbyists, and there arent many industries like that where you have actually talented amateurs doing their hobby at the weekend (we'd call it working for free) in a way that actually hinders professionals working in that same field. i've actually had dental work done for free off a person who was in training, a mutually beneficial service with an element of risk, but ive never had someone do my teeth for free because they wanted to do it for fun. There needs to be a level of competence in the person providing that service, to justify their existence, so as a professional photographer im always trying to earn my position by adding value for my clients, I have to provide something they cant do by themselves with a phone or a low end dslr, I get low ball offers all the time for events/things that ultimately wont be the end of the world if the person shooting it makes a huge mess, but if the event is high profile, or theres no room for error, they're going to pay. I think it's somewhat entitled to think that you deserve payment just because- its like selling antiques, things are worth what someone is willing to pay, not what you ask for it

Rafael Sotomayor's picture

As least in Puerto Rico is Photographer's fault because they don't know how to price for profit their work.