Personal Projects: 10 Reasons A Commercial Food Photographer Takes Free Work

Before I continue, let me tell you that this is just my personal experience and in no way do I encourage anyone to commit to free work. I’m a trained ninja guardian of paid commercial work but there are always exceptions.

Not long ago, I was approached by a client who asked in the kindest and most respectful way I’ve heard so far if I could work in exchange for food. I simply replied with a “sorry, I can’t commit to any free work at the moment” as I don’t like the idea of working for free (obviously), but didn’t want to shut the door completely either so we arranged to talk about it at another time.

In the meantime, I started thinking of ways to produce content for my blog, my portfolio and my marketing, and balancing the pros and cons of working for free.

A few weeks later we met again and discussed a few ideas, conditions, benefits, and disadvantages, and I agreed to take it as a personal project.

This partnership involves working together with the head chef of a restaurant, shooting his side projects, and developing his ideas rather than doing standard food and interior portfolios. His cooking skills are extraordinary. The restaurant attracts a lot of attention from the media and my pictures have been published all over the world. They’ve been my client since they first opened and slowly we’ve developed a close relationship and mutual admiration for our work, so these, in my opinion, were very good reasons to take this project onboard.

To explain myself, I’m sharing the key factors and conditions I set to commit to this project:

In no particular order:

Have a Comfortable Relation with Your Client

Talking about free work, budgets, and money can be very awkward–especially if you don’t know your client very well. That’s why it’s good to build a friendly relationship with someone before asking for something. It’s the nature of business to ask for stuff, but there has to be common sense in place more than anything else.

Don’t keep it excessively professional and don’t become best friends either; maintain a balance.

Looking Busy is Always Better Than Looking Desperate for Work

This is a principle I was raised with – first working at my grandfather’s motorcycle garage in my teens, and then later in life working in restaurants. Standing there waiting for work to come won’t get you anywhere and is not what you’re getting paid for. Instead, look busy and get things done, and you might learn something along the way.

While I was finding out how to get paid work and commissions as a photographer, I got in touch with agencies and asked for work. 99% of them ignored me but the 1% that replied had the same answer: you aren’t producing enough work.

First I was frustrated. “How the hell am I gonna produce work if nobody’s hiring me?” But then I realized if work wasn’t coming my way, I should then create that work. I asked to shoot for events, photographed food at places I ate, and kept myself busy. That’s how I built my first portfolio.

Nowadays, when I talk to new clients, I get told they like that I’m always busy and doing things all the time. Getting that proactive impression is quite beneficial.

Creating Content Keeps the Ball Rolling

This comes as a result from the previous point. I keep learning about and evolving my business by creating new and different projects. My mind has this horrible tendency to wander off pretty easily, so I need to stay focused. Also, I get bored of things quickly so having constant tasks to complete keeps the mind, the spirit, the body, and the business healthy.

Committing Only to Extraordinary Work

If I was to commit to free work, it would have to be an incredible experience visually and personally. Something that challenges my senses and abilities.

The Content must be Challenging and Out of my Comfort Zone

It would have to be very different from any “regular” work. No shoot is ever the same and no client has the same needs, but you get the point. It would have to take my potential to the limit and test my abilities.

They’re Fully Aware of the Value of this Commitment

It’s important that the client knows the value of the time and effort we’re putting into the project. Money doesn’t drive me, and I didn’t get into photography with the intention to make a huge profit, but I’m running a business and I have bills to pay. I don’t ask for anything in return but I try to make the client understand what I’m giving up for their project.

Taking free work as a personal project

The Support has to be Reciprocal

Well, there is one thing I do ask for and that is fair treatment and unconditional support. I believe there’s always a 50/50 chance any new work may attract more work. The success of it depends on many factors, but one big chunk is due to the support the client gives us. If they are to mention our business, tag us on social media, write a blog post about our work, or recommend us to a friend, then we have the opportunity to turn that free work into a very powerful marketing tool.

But it’s on us to ask for these things you know? If they had the courage to ask us to work for free, we can ask for the “exposure” in return, right?

Educate the Client about that “Exposure”

We all know what exposure means so I’m always keen on educating my clients about the facts on exposure. There’s no shame in doing that.

Builds a Stronger Relationship with the Client

A very good reason to commit to free work might be to strengthen the relationship with the client. Potentially they could commission us to produce paid work and like I said, they can recommend us to their friends.

There’s nothing wrong with shooting for free but being wise and selective about it is a good way to ease the time, effort, and cost of running a free project.

For more work from Xavier, check out his website.