Freelancers Hate It When You Ask Us to Work For Free

It started with this amusing post from the lord of the internet, the great George Takei. (Note: another, long-time favorite is this one from The Oatmeal as well).

It sounds so easy – freelancers often carry a rate much higher than the average hourly rate that most people work. For a lot of us, it runs well into three figures, and when you extrapolate that over 40 hours and 50 weeks a year, it looks like a lot of money. So why not ask a highly skilled photographer to throw you a few hours for free, right?

Here’s the problem: the hourly rate isn’t just for our time. Here’s a few different things that we do that either (1) costs us money, or (2) takes up our time without seeing a dime in return:

Equipment. This is a huge one. Any legit professional photographer has a couple of cameras that were worth thousands of dollars when purchased new. There’s several lenses that can cost as much or even more. Flashes. Batteries. Cases. Tripods. Computers. You buy it, then you’ve got to maintain it, and even that can cost several hundred dollars a year.

Office Costs. While we’re talking about the stuff that puts a hole in our pocket, let’s talk basic office stuff. If you work in an office, you’re probably using your cell phone, internet, copy machine, printers and so on. All of that, when you’re a freelancer, you’re paying for yourself.

Insurance. My business carries a liability policy that covers me well into the seven figures. It’s not just a good idea, but often companies I shoot for require me to have that to even walk into the building. Oh, and all of that equipment I mentioned before? That gets covered too, you know.

Legal, Taxes and Banks. Then there’s LLC registration papers and fees to make your business “official”. You also have to set up quarterly tax payments, as well as a bookkeeping system. Oh and by the way – how are you going to take in that money once you make it?

Marketing. Here’s a biggie. So now that you’ve spent all this money and time to get your business up and running, how do you get the customers? A lot of it is word of mouth, but that kind of organic growth takes years. In the meantime, how do you generate the business? Are you going to pay for advertising? Cold calls to companies? Going to build a website? How about a pretty email with your name on it? All of this costs money, all of it takes time to set up.

How much time and money freelancers spend on this stuff and even beyond vary wildly by company, industry and even the person. For photographers, I’ve seen estimates that say only around 20-25% of time is spent actually working. The rest is spent doing everything above.

So why do freelancers hate it when you ask them to work for free? After all of this time and money spent getting everything ready, we want and need to get paid.

It sounds so simple – “Work for me for free, and I’ll tell all my friends about you.” The great EXPOSURE. But take a look at everything I’ve listed above. This is yet another investment of time – using our equipment, our insurance, our time – all in the pursuit of something which may or may not pay dividends down the line.

But you know as well as I do: Exposure doesn’t pay for my house. My grocery store isn’t trading me bread, meat or anything else for exposure. My car doesn’t run on exposure, nor does exposure pay for my camera, pay my taxes or my insurance.

It may sound short-sighted to you, but look at how far we’ve come to get to where we need to be to have the opportunity to shoot. Now, we need a paycheck.

Hope this helps.