Thursday, April 21, 2011

Friends & Freeconomics


This is Cheryl, a eighteen year old high-school senior. The lesson she'll be teaching you today: Free and the new economy. More after the jump…

So we start here: A friend of mine named Brad coordinates a tutoring program for a non-profit, and he sent me an email looking for a favor. There is a student in his program who is particularly stellar. She’s hard working, serious, and goes to a local private school which is highly academically challenging. Brad has worked to raise some of the funds to make it possible for her to attend this school. Could I, asks Brad, take some pictures of her that he could use in conjunction with hunting for a few more scholarship contributors – figuring that a face with a name is better than a name alone.

Let me be the crotchety old man for just a moment. I hear stuff like this all the time. Not the “great student” or fund rasing part – but the “hey, can you take some pictures for me” part. The addition of “… for free” is so common and so implied most people don’t waste the energy in actually forming the words. Worse yet; it’s always a friend and it’s always for something semi-noble enough to induce the proper amount of guilt (grandma’s hundredth birthday, baby’s first liver-transplant, etc). It’s always something.

Ok, before you (rightfully) try to reach though the Internet and slap me in the mouth let me say this: Of course I’m going to take these pictures. I’m gonna be happy to do it. Hell, I’d probably *pay* someone to *let* me take these pictures. After all, it’s honestly for a good cause – and, let’s face it; at my age I’ve done so many ridiculously egregious things I can use all the good karma I can get.

So – arrangements are made, pictures are taken. Upon meeting Cheryl it takes all of five minutes to realize that everything Brad said is true; she’s sharp as a tack and wise-beyond her years. When I asked her what she liked to do, her reply was “Write poetry. But I’m in high school. Everybody does that.” When I asked her what she wanted to study in college; her: “Art-history” me: “Why? Her (deadpan): “Because I like art. And history.”

Needless to say, charming.

All well and good. But what does this have to do with the global economy in the 21st century? Glad you asked. Let’s recap: Here I am, doing a favor for a friend; spending my time and (arguably) talent and getting nothing in return save for a warm-fuzzy. Or am I?

Turns out, the school has a communications director (cuz it’s that kind of school). To protect the student(s), the director wants to see copies of all my pictures – just to make sure everything is on the up-and-up. Sadly, that makes perfect sense. But while the director and I were talking, a few interesting things come up in the discussion -  Oh, the school is always looking for pictures to put up on the school’s web site. And, oh, and the school does a lot of promotional work; and happens to be looking for a photographer for an upcoming project.

It would be easy to chalk something like that up to just chance. But just last week I shot another freebie gig. Something that I didn’t mention in that post was that, before the night was over, I got two potential job offers. So, two “free” jobs led to three (possible) paying opportunities.

Cheryl, shot with natural light 70mm 1/80 @4.5 is skeptical of my argument.
Now a lot of what I just said falls dangerously close to “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” kind of logic. And that would be a fair assessment. For example: If I ask my landlord that – instead of a rent check this month – what if I just sent a nice picture instead? Well, that’s just not gonna fly. But I’m not talking about the barter-system here (tho that sometimes works, and I don’t discourage it). No, I’m talking about getting my photography in front of people that might (just might) be interested in paying me for my photography.

As photographers we’re always doing things to get our “stuff” noticed. We put our pictures up on Flickr, or Facebook, or a Blog, or any number of other sites. Admit it, you look at every “like” and every positive comment on your photographs the same way Gollum looks at the One Ring. And that’s completely understandable. But it’s probably not doing very much to pay the bills.

One trade photographers often make for "free" photos is photo-credit. Photo credit is great, and it certainly is better that not-photo-credit; but photo credit doesn’t pay the bills either. “Thank you” is good, cash is better. But, especially when you are starting out, getting people to pay (for whatever it is you do) isn’t particularly easy. It’s here that we as photographers have an advantage. We can show people (at little cost) exactly what we can do. “Look! See this thing I just did? Well I can do it again. For you. For money”.

Oh, and when I say “at little cost”; yes, gear is expensive. As is your time. And yes, talent doesn’t just magically appear. I hear you and you are 100% correct. But if you consider all of those things as investments, suddenly the equation changes. Your camera doesn’t know if it’s taking a free picture or a paying one. And the cost of producing those two pictures - at least in the world of digital - is exactly the same.

While it pains me to use this example, think about Google for a moment. Their primary service is completely free. If it went away tomorrow, the world as we know it would effectively end. If Google started charging for their search service, you know you would pony-up whatever jack they demanded. But you also know that their stock wouldn’t be anywhere near the $578.51 it is today.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you give away your pictures for free. Far from it. But if you can show someone (even a single someone) that what you do is valuable, then all that’s left is cashing the check. And if it takes some free samples to do that, so be it.

Cheryl, lit with an SB800 in a 32" shoot-though umbrella at1/16th to match the ambient thinks that I might be full of BS, but is amused by my LOTR refrence.

So, what is the point of all this fine nonsense? Well, if I had the one true answer to that I’d be writing this blog from my Lear jet made exclusively from unicorn tears. But I can tell you a few things.

“Free of charge” doesn’t mean you don’t get something in return. Having just shot a theatre benefit (for “free”) how in the world did I *not* realize that the people attending this event would have money; money that they were literally looking to give away. Getting the opportunity to show my wears in front of that group of people was easily the best deal I could have made. Whatever I would have charged is nothing compared to the opportunity. Pittsburgh just isn't that big a town - and I'm bound to see those same people again. "Oh, your that photographer right? Well my daughter's bat’mitzvah is coming up and.... yada yada yada". I have looked into my crystal-ball and I can assure you this is my future.

Another quick example: I’ve shot a lot of pictures of my friend Robin for her up-coming wedding (at no charge). Robin actively maintains her own blog, specifically about wedding planning. She has used a lot of my pictures; and more importantly links back to my blog. Her blog generates traffic to mine; and because of witchy Google logic, ads for wedding services appear here. The click-through rate for those ads far out weighs that for photo ads – but either way I’m making Internet nickels for each click. Now, it's not unicorn/tear money, mind you, but it's not zero either.

And lest you think it only works one-way: I took pictures for Cheryl... Taking them let to a possible paying opportunity. In addition I got Brad in touch with an organization I’m familiar with, and they are considering some support. Cyclical processes; scary stuff.

Cheryl, lit by an SB800 gridded and gelled to match the florecent, thinks I better study this new economy stuff a little more.

So the next time someone asks you to take photos for free  - don’t immediately assume it’s an attempt to take advantage of you (or your gear, time, or talent). While it’s certainly not going to apply to every situation, there are ways to leverage “free” into “getting something back”. What’s more, sometimes the getting AND the giving can be exactly the same thing.

End of line.


  1. Excellent article. I've had similar experiences as I have begun in photography. You brought up a lot of good points that I and other photographers can relate to.

  2. The whole concept of "there are ways to leverage “free” into “getting something back”--is the very crux of my theoretical career path. In non-profit arts management, even more specifically non-profit arts marketing, your daily challenge is letting various people know what you can't pay them in monies, you WILL get paid in other ways to make working together mutually exclusive (read: my job is not begging for handouts.)

    So obviously, I love this post.

    You have a lot of talent, Louis. And despite your very best efforts, you are also a good person. Thus, good people have wandered their way into your closest circles. Conclusion? You will have this cross to bear for awhile yet, I think. But what I hope you keep realizing and what I hope will keep materializing for you, is that these photo excursions of good ...will beget good. (the second "good" in that sentence = cold, hard cash) I believe your ultimate goal will be realized. You will sleep good at night. In your pimp, famous photographer, mansion bedroom.

    In the meantime, you have incredible photos to add to your portfolio. Like the ones above! Holy smokes, that girl is PHOTOGENIC. These are some of my favoritest photos of yours I've seen in awhile. The classroom one is totally baller. Good work. All around. xoxo