How to politely say: "Sorry, I'm not shooting for free."
"It will be really great exposure for you."
There probably isn't a photographer on the planet who hasn't come across this line or something similar.
Many of us began our careers practicing our skills for free on family members and friends. We'd take our camera along to parties and events, shooting everything and anyone to build up our portfolio, or we'd capture those special moments for friends and family because they'd asked us to bring along our "fancy camera." Eventually, you become good enough to charge for your services and use your skills to earn a living. However, your friends and family may not offer to pay for your services because they've become accustomed to receiving them for free.
Freebie requests come from total strangers too. Charity events, low-budget occasions, and people just trying their luck to see if they can wrangle a discount. In a world where phone cameras are getting better and better, and high-res images are available just by pulling out a phone, clients, friends, and family unintentionally devalue our skills. "You're just clicking a button" or "it won't take you that long" are two of the phrases we hear the most.
Many people don't understand how much time goes in behind the scenes — editing, upskilling, travel time, and location scouting, not to mention things like accounting and marketing your business. Asking us to shoot for free is an unintentional implication that:
- Our time isn't worth paying for.
- We don't have a better use for our time.
- Photography isn't a real job.
- Photography doesn't pay our bills or fill our fridge.
Most people would be mortified to think that they'd implied that your time isn't worth anything. Most people are simply ignorant about the implications of their request. They don't understand the hurt, frustration, worry, anger, and insecurity that their request can trigger. These feelings are ten times worse when the request comes from someone who should be a supporter or a cheerleader — a friend or a family member.
It can be tough not to take requests for free work personally and respond without anger or frustration. People who ask for free work don't actually think your time isn't worth it, although it can seem that way. They're just trying to save themselves a bit of money — something we've all done from time to time. It's ok to be upset, but don't let that color your response. By keeping things civil and responding politely, you'll not only avoid burning bridges, but sometimes that unpaid request could turn into paid work.
There are also instances where you may choose to shoot for free. Perhaps it's for a charity that you are deeply invested in, or maybe a very close friend has asked for your help. But whatever the circumstances, you should be able to say no to any request for free photography if you wish to. Saying no doesn't make you a bad person, even if it is for an excellent cause. After all, you're trying to grow your business too, and "exposure" doesn't cover the grocery bills.
We've created a few responses for various situations where people may ask you to photograph for free. You can copy and paste them into your return message or edit them to suit your needs.
When friends and family ask for free photos
Friends and family are among the biggest culprits when it comes to asking you to take photos for free. While there are many instances where you're probably happy to share your skills with those closest to you, there will always be instances where you'd rather say no — or encourage them to pay for your time. We've compiled a few polite ways to let them know that you won't be shooting for free.
"I've finished building my portfolio."
When we're starting out, it's not uncommon to offer free or reduced rate shoots to friends and family — after all, it's a great way to practice our craft and expand our portfolio. However, we all reach a point when we no longer need to offer to shoot for free just to build up a library of images for our website or social media.
Previous free shoots can create an expectation that we'll continue to offer our photography services for free. If you're currently building your portfolio, you can manage your family's expectations by letting them know that your free or discounted services are only temporary. Try saying something like:
"I'm working on expanding my portfolio right now, so I'd love to offer this particular session at a discounted rate/for free."
This outlines that your services are only free in this instance.
Once your portfolio has reached a stage where you are only adding to it with photos from paying clients, you probably don't want to give away too many free or discounted shoots. If a friend or family member asks for another free photo session, you can gently let them know that you're no longer able to shoot for free by saying something like:
"Thank you so much for all your support so far, and I'm glad you love my photos. My portfolio is currently looking great and is up to date, so my focus now needs to be on growing my business which means I'm unable to take on any unpaid projects at the moment. However, I'd be happy to share my rates with you."
"I want to deliver something that you'll love, and that takes time."
Many friends and family don't realize that what they love about your photos is more than just pressing your shutter button. It's the time spent culling, editing, and color grading your images to ensure they are perfect. Not to mention the years spent learning your craft. People looking for a freebie don't take these extra hours into account, which can make it incredibly hard to say no to a family member who's asked you to come to a gathering to "just snap a few photos."
They'd probably be pretty disappointed if you literally just "snapped a few pictures" and sent them straight from your camera as RAW files. Sometimes outlining how much work is involved in creating the images they love so much can help them understand why they need to pay for your time — and all of the work behind the scenes.
"I'm thrilled that you love my images. There's actually a lot more to creating a beautiful image than just the time spent behind the camera. There's a whole lot of culling and editing to make sure each image looks great. I want to make sure the work that I send to people is at a standard that I'm proud of and is something that you'll love. That's why each job is so time-consuming — even if it is just snapping a few photos at an event. The amount of time this process involves means that I have to charge for each shoot because there are no shortcuts. I'm happy to send you my rates if you'd like me to photograph [insert request here]."
"My calendar is full."
It's ok to be too busy. You don't need to keep adding to your workload. Sometimes saying no can be as simple as letting people know that you don't have time in your calendar for free shoots when you're already busy with paid ones. It may seem a bit blunt, but outlining that your camera is how you earn a living and pay your bills can help ensure friends and family value your time. Try saying something like this:
"Thanks for thinking of me. Unfortunately, I'm incredibly busy at the moment, and my calendar is already full with clients, so I'm unable to take on any unpaid jobs right now. Photography is how I earn a living and pay my bills, so I cannot allocate space in my calendar for a free job instead of a paid one right now. I'm currently taking bookings for [insert date here], and I'm happy to send you my rates if you'd like to book a session with me.
When a charity or organization asks you to take some photos for free
There are so many excellent organizations out there, and most of us are happy to donate our time to a good cause. Many reputable photographers will take on personal or charity projects to help them maintain a better work-life balance or to give back to a cause they're passionate about. Unfortunately, it's unsustainable to say yes to every amazing charity that asks for your help. It's always hard to say no in this instance, but we recommend picking one or two projects to support consistently and gently turning the others down. No one wants to be that person who seems like they don't care, and you shouldn't have to make up an excuse about why you won't do it.
"My volunteer calendar is already full."
If you already have a couple of charities or non-profit organizations you work with, you could try saying:
"I currently donate several sessions per year to non-profit/charity organizations that are close to my heart. Because of this, my volunteer calendar for the year is already full."
From here, you could offer a discounted rate (if that's something you're interested in doing), or you could offer to ask around with local photographers to see if any of them would like to take the project on.
This is also a relevant response when friends or family ask for free sessions. If you outline which charities you support each year, you can make it clear that the only way to sustain your volunteer work is if everyone else pays for their photoshoots.
When you're asked to photograph an event for free
While many events provide a level of exposure and some networking opportunities, these are drawcards, not a form of payment. It seems to be a common theme for event organizers to say that they "don't have a big budget for photography" before they begin explaining how the exposure you'll receive will be invaluable. These requests can be among the most frustrating. We all know that the supermarket doesn't accept "exposure dollars" and that, in most cases, you probably won't increase your audience from shooting at events for free.
"My time and skills are more valuable than potential exposure."
While it can be tempting to tell event organizers where to shove their "exposure," maintaining a level of professionalism can ensure that you don't earn a reputation for being rude. Sometimes, a well-crafted response can even encourage the event organizer to reconsider their budget if they really want you there as a photographer.
Try responding with the following:
"While I appreciate you reaching out to me with this opportunity, I believe my time and skills are more valuable than the potential exposure I may get from this event. At this point in my career, I cannot give up my time to photograph at an event that may or may not generate some future work for me. My time would be better spent serving my current clients or marketing through channels that have been successful for me in the past. I hope you will recognize that my time and talents are my livelihood, and my skills deserve adequate compensation. If photography forms an important part of making your event a success, I recommend you re-allocate a portion of your budget towards this. I do appreciate you thinking of me, and I'm thrilled that you like my work — I hope you understand my reasons for declining this offer."
While many clients are respectful of your time and skills, there are always a few that will try to score themselves a freebie. Thankfully, these requests mainly stem from people who are uneducated about how much work goes into delivering a beautiful series of images. In these cases, providing a little more information can make them realize the implications for their request for a free photography session. No matter what the situation, taking a deep breath before replying can often help you respond in a more friendly and professional manner.