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Banish the ‘Gimmes’ While Creating Personal Work

We’ve talked before about the five types of photography work, and defined situations when it’s appropriate to pull out the camera when you aren’t getting paid.

But shooting personal work can be tricky.  When most of us do personal work, we need to grab people around us to be our subjects.  And we worry that this will ‘train’ them to expect things for free rather than to hire us to create things for them.  Here are eight ways I avoid this pitfall when doing personal work:

1) Don’t give the files away for free.  This is listed first for a reason.  When people model for me, I absolutely want to compensate them for their time and trouble.  So when I ask them to be models, I tell them they will get “free Facebook images” (i.e. watermarked, low-res images that will go online anyway).  I cheerfully explain up front that if they end up wanting the high-resolution, printable versions of the files, they’ll be available to them at a special rate.  People love sharing great images of themselves on Facebook, so they get something valuable out of the arrangement.  (About half of them end up purchasing the high-resolution files.)  I’ve found that it’s mostly handing out high-res files for free that attracts a crowd who wants things for free.

2) When people come asking you to use them as a model, thank them politely and tell them that you’ll keep them in mind should you have a future project for which they’d be a good fit.  It’s important they understand that you’re not just shooting people randomly – there is a goal with each shoot that justifies all the hard work it takes to do it.  Then sit on it for awhile.  If they really are a great candidate for an idea you have, then contact them and outline the nature of the exchange, and have them sign a contract that includes a model release.  As a rule, I never photograph people who just come out of the woodwork.  I find it’s much more fun to surprise someone with a request out of the blue, and do the shoot as soon as possible after the request.  This delights them, and is less likely to create expectations of free stuff because they’re surprised you did it to begin with.

3)  Always use a contract, even for personal work.  Always.  No exceptions, zero none never.  The ONLY real problems I’ve ever had as a photographer came from circumstances where I worked without a contract.  You don’t want to end up in a frustrating, time-consuming exchange (or worse, small claims court) just because someone misunderstood your agreement.  Outline the nature of your exchange, exactly what they will receive, and include a model release.  An interesting side effect of using a contract is it helps people see that you take your work seriously, you’re not just goofing around with a camera – this is hard work.

4) Don’t shoot exactly what someone would hire you to do anyway.  Shooting a whole family together in a park is what gets people to wait for freebies – it’s what they want anyway.  A big purpose of personal work is to push yourself to try new things that people might not hire you to do,  but things they’d like if they saw it.  If you’re going to shoot a whole family, I suggest it be really out of the box from what you normally do – underwater, rock-climbing, whatever.

5) Try solo shoots.  With a handful of exceptions like senior photos and head shots, people rarely hire photographers to do a full-on, creative shoot with just them.  For this reason, much of my personal work features just one person.   Solo shoots have led to all sorts of other paid work for me, simply because people will get on board with unusual ideas when they see that they are successful.  And solo shoots are a great idea generator for other kinds of shoots, simply because there are few creative or practical limitations when photographing one adult (the same cannot be said for families, kids, infants, etc.)  I’ve had several solo shoot ideas morph into paid work.

6) If your goal is to practice more traditional work, don’t do everything in one shoot.  Try grabbing just a mom and a daughter, or just the two parents.  The resulting images will be representative of your style without creating an expectation of family photo freebies.  If you do a great job, sometimes the model(s) will want to re-hire you to do the whole family.

7) Post a slideshow instead of still images.  If you’ve gotten burned in the past from people taking advantage of (read: stealing) your personal work, consider another format of presentation.  You might be able to steal and crop a posted image, but most people aren’t going to try to make prints from a screenshot.  Plus, slideshows give you a great chance to collaborate with musicians and promote each other’s work to different audiences.

8.) Photograph for charities.  I love what David Hobby wrote about using your photography as currency, and “spending” it on good things.  Photographers can do amazing things by banding together for good causes (like Jamie Delaine shooting for Mercy Ministries, the many photography fundraisers for Thirst Relief International, etc).  Depending on who you are working with, charity work can help you try new things while ensuring that the work is going to end up in good hands.

How do you create personal work without giving things away for free?  I’d love to hear in the comments.

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  1. Melanie Miriam on January 6, 2012 at 6:18 pm


    I was just wondering if you could hint me in the right direction. What should a photographer’s contact include?

    All the best and thanks for all the good info!

    Melanie Miriam

  2. Michelle J.N. on April 17, 2012 at 6:49 pm

    Hello!! I’m so glad I found this because it confirms I’m not crazy when I don’t give away a disc of high res images to models. I had to explain several reasons why it wasn’t a fair trade to another photographer. I actually had one model tell me that she would have paid 4x my regular digital fee for just one image because she loved it so much. But I got in my own way and gave it away for free. So, if I’m experimenting for personal work and the model falls in love with their image they will want to pay for it. It’s not gauaranteed that I will resonate with every model that way but about half will make a purchase. -Michelle

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