Accepted Photog Truths: Never Give Your Work Away

Here’s an accepted truth that litters the internet, “You should never give your work away or work for free. If you do you’re just taking the livelihood away from hard working photographers.” (1, 2, 3)

The theory behind it is solid; if every photographer stands firm and demands payment for their work, the people who need pictures will have to pay for them. Interestingly this advice is most firmly held by established, professional photographers. The argument seems to be, if you do what I say, you protect my market, and you have the potential to be as successful as me in the future. These established photographers are usually the same people that claim that amateurs have reduced their business from $200,000 a year to $40,000. They are also the ones looking for free interns to work for them and the ones that won’t give you the time of day if you’re unlucky enough to end up in a room with them when they’re commissioned to shoot the event and you’re just trying to grab a few shots. Always question the motives of people giving you advice. Does the advice benefit you or the person giving the advice?

Let’s get one thing straight, we prosumer and enthusiast photographers are not killing the market for professionals with our amateur work. The market is changing with or without us. Yes, there’s more competition in all fields. Yes, the barrier to entry has been lowered. Yes, amateurs can now shoot like professionals. No longer does owning a professional rig guarantee you professional rates.

We can easily make comparisons with changes in the music industry. Digital has changed the music industry. Obviously Napster and the MP3 had a huge effect but the cheap tools available to enthusiast musicians meant that they didn’t have to wait to be signed to a label, to get expensive studio time, to be able to make a record. Affordable digital audio interfaces (fancy soundcards to you and me), cheap and easy to use DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) software, and a plethora of information and support from their internet peers meant that anyone with a sound, an idea, a little talent and a laptop could make a record to rival releases put out by the biggest label. That bedroom, laptop jockey doesn’t have the budget of the large label to promote their work but the internet does provide a way of finding an audience for even the most niche artist. The appeal of this homemade approach reaches to a lot of established artists too which is why you hear of big artists leaving big labels to make and release their own work directly to their audience. Of course the industry is threatened. They were the gatekeepers of what got made and released and that’s no longer true. They controlled the radio stations and they no longer have as much hit-making power.

But, despite this threat and change new, innovative, entertaining music is still being created, released, listened to and, occasionally, bought. Big stars are still making big bucks. At the other end of the spectrum there are now more enthusiasts than ever making and releasing music. Those enthusiasts don’t make 100% of their income from their music; most don’t make 50% and a lot don’t make anything. A lot give their music away - they just want to be heard. A few of the artists who start out giving their music away on YouTube will make it big (Justin Bieber) but most won’t and that’s alright. Just because I give away an electronica track away for free on Soundcloud doesn’t mean that Moby is going to lose any sales of his next album and, even the likes of Moby see the value in giving some work away for free. Moby still sells records - I put my audio doodlings out there - we both get heard (admittedly by vastly differing sized audiences). The music industry has not changed because some people give their work away for free; it was changing long before that.

The photography industry won’t collapse because you allow your work to be used for free. The person who asks to use your work for free is not going to see the error of their ways because you point out how unfair it is that you don’t get paid for your work; they will just move on to the next person until they find someone who says ‘yes’. Is it shameful that for-profit publications and organizations are taking advantage of enthusiasts and are asking for work for free? Of course it is but your insistence that they treat you like Annie Leibovitz is not going to change anything. Like the music industry, the publishing industry has changed. Magazines and newspapers are folding left and right as they struggle to compete in a digital environment. Why would they commission a professional to go on assignment to illustrate something when they can search Flickr and find a dozen people with appropriate shots? One of those photographers will be flattered enough to let them use their work for free.

As a photographer you have to decide if you need financial compensation for your work to be used. But don’t think for a moment that because you give your work away some pro out there won’t eat tonight. Don’t take that on. The market has changed. If you want to let someone publish your work without payment that’s between you and your accountant or god (take your pick). You don’t want to be taken advantage of but nor should you be bullied into how you allow your work to be used.