Should You Work for Free in Exchange for Exposure?


As an entrepreneur, it’s easy to walk the line between I’m-fine-and-everything-is-successfully-running-smoothly and Oh-my-god-I’m-on-the-brink-of-failure. I debated admitting this because I fear I’m the only person who struggles with this. Almost nine years as a business owner and there are mornings I wake up and worry my career was a cosmic joke and I’ll end up working in a cubicle again. On days such as this, I’m vulnerable and susceptible to pretty much anything. Want to sell me Magic Business Beans? I’d likely buy and plant them. Or eat them if they were pink.

A few weeks ago–on a day I woke up and worried I wasn’t hustling enough–I received an email from an event producer asking me to shoot an event for free, but promised it would be “amazing exposure”. Whenever someone uses these words, I immediately cringe. While exposure can be a beautiful thing, let’s not fake the funk: I’m being asked to work for free.

If you’re just starting out in business, I’d highly suggest accepting projects for exposure (as I did), because it’s an effective way to build a portfolio and increase demand. But there comes a time in a business when you’ve set yourself up to not depend on those types of jobs. Many of us have spent years developing our craft, trying to stay afloat…we have invested time, energy, and money learning how to be professionals in a competitive industry. So it’s time to own our hard work.

I’m not entirely against working for free (if it’s a unique project, allows me to be autonomously creative, gets my work in a desirable market, or connects me with a quantifiably larger platform, I’ll consider it), but I need to find solace in knowing I’ve proven myself as an entrepreneur and photographer. I want to work with individuals who value my work and time…I wish the same for us all. Without the need of Magic Business Beans.

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  1. Brittany @Brittany Brooke Photography

    May 21st, 2014 at 2:17 pm

    I’m struggling starting out and doing so many free gigs that it’s hard to justify investing in my business when I have yet to see any return! I’ve finally starting pricing myself where I feel comfortable (with ample room to grow) and while I will still do those free gigs for the exposure, now I’m weeding them out based on things that matter to me! Is it in support of a charity or cause I believe in? Is there a potential client base I will be tapping into? Will working with this company or person lead to referrals?
    But I’d totally take some magic beans too!

  2. Arkadiusz Kubiak

    May 21st, 2014 at 2:57 pm

    Well said . Agree!

  3. Todd Kuhns

    May 21st, 2014 at 2:58 pm

    my experience leads me to believe that being the "free guy" is never beneficial. I did free work for an opera guild a couple times a year for two or three years. I worked with some of the cities wealthiest families but when the time came that they had a paid job they hired someone else and never even asked me. To them, I was the free guy.

  4. Stephanie

    May 21st, 2014 at 3:05 pm

    Amen !

  5. Brittany Bekas

    May 21st, 2014 at 3:06 pm

    Jasmine, this is such a great post. Thank you for always sharing your insecurities with us. It helps to know that we are not the only one with these fears. xx

  6. Juha Sompinmรคki

    May 21st, 2014 at 3:06 pm

    Another big red flag is the "there will be paid work in the future if you do this one for free" statement. If that is the case, why not do the 2nd or Nth job for free, but not the first one.

  7. Kimberly

    May 21st, 2014 at 3:12 pm

    Amen! I just went through this same thing yesterday.

  8. Rachel

    May 21st, 2014 at 3:38 pm

    You’re not alone! That is so how it feels. I mean I have been doing it a lot less than you and I am way less successful but no matter it is the same feeling. You want to be real but there are times when you feel lost. Wonder at it all: is this all crazy? Will it all fall apart?

    It is crazy scary to admit the truth… you do it well but that doesn’t make it any less terrifying and I’m sure there are things you keep to yourself cause they are just too personal.

  9. Yuliya M.

    May 21st, 2014 at 3:44 pm

    Thank you for this, I needed to read this today. I’m thankful that you share what’s in your mind and heart! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  10. Emily

    May 21st, 2014 at 3:45 pm

    This is an exceptional point – thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing.

  11. Leon Bailey

    May 21st, 2014 at 4:04 pm

    I HATE that term "exposure." I’ve been in business for four years now (not only weddings) and people still go to my website and contact me with that work for free scam. I can only imagine what your inbox looks like with these e-mails lol.

  12. Scott

    May 21st, 2014 at 4:05 pm

    This post hit home as I’m sure it will for many other photogs out there. I wish I had a dime for every time a friend, relative stranger asked me to shoot photos for them. While I’m grateful they always come to me, most of the time they want such an extreme discount or worse, they want it free. I don’t understand why people do this so much to photographers? They must think we just hit the button with a fancy camera and poof done, therefore little or no payment should suffice?! I would never ask any tradesperson to work gratis, friend or foe. Great write up as always Jasmine!

  13. Nina Reed

    May 21st, 2014 at 9:11 pm

    Thank you for this! I’ve mostly had people respect that I won’t work for free as a photographer, but in my second job I get asked to perform "in exchange for exposure" all the time. While I have done this in the past when an event appears fun enough that I know I’ll have a good time, it also blows my mind a bit that the event organizers usually do absolutely nothing to actually give you the exposure they promised. If they won’t mention me in programs, on their website or Facebook events, or even with a simple microphone announcement during the show, how exactly am I getting exposure?

    I have recently started replying to these requests asking how exactly I will be getting exposure (mentions in programs, online before and after the show, by having them hand out my cards along with tickets, etc), and more often than not it stops at that because they never even thought about it until I asked.

    Working for exposure is fine if you’re just starting out, but make sure that you’re actually getting something tangible out of it!

  14. Elina

    May 21st, 2014 at 9:49 pm

    Thank you for sharing this, Jasmine! I love all your Q+A!

  15. Ruben Nunez

    May 22nd, 2014 at 2:32 am

    I think its important to try to at least quantify the value of that exposure. If its for a completely different market than what you are trying to target, then that supposed exposure won’t do any good.

    Even when it is for the same target market (for example: a baby photographer doing an expectant moms event for free) then its important that your target market will be able to identity you and reach out to you. This can take many forms, such as photo credits, the ability to pass out promotional material, etc.. in exchange for doing a free event.

  16. karen cohn

    May 22nd, 2014 at 2:39 am

    jasmine you were the photographer at my son’s wedding 7-31-10 and every now and then i take another look at your blog. thank you for this message today. I am starting a health coaching business and find that i’m getting requests to give presentations free because of the great exposure. thank you for this message today!

  17. Teresa Gellenbeck

    May 22nd, 2014 at 2:48 am

    Its hard to believe someone as talented and successful as you still sometimes has doubt, but nice to know we are not alone! I struggle with this regularly. I don’t have the confidence to charge certain people (friends, certain community members), but after photographing for 3 yearsโ€ฆ. I’m ready to start believing in myself and knowing my time is worth a fee! Thanks for the post Jasmine.

  18. Mara

    May 22nd, 2014 at 4:43 am

    Cheers and congrats! You are deserving of the very best and I’m so grateful you continue to share your journey with us!

  19. Bryant T

    May 22nd, 2014 at 7:12 am

    Thank you so much for this post. This is something that I truly needed to read because I’ve been presented with a lot of these "proposals" lately and it’s been a bit disheartening to see that people are trying to get over on you because you’re a new face on the block. In these types of situations, I simply make a list (I’m a list guy) and weigh the pros and cons. If my cons list have more than three other factors accompanying the idea of money loss… I just simply gracefully decline. Thank you Jasmine.

  20. Giovanna

    May 22nd, 2014 at 10:57 am

    So true…I think there comes a time that you cant go back in time to when you needed it because you were starting out in your business, the time comes to give yourself the value you really deserve!, however some of those could be considered and i would make it clear the reason i do it is not because i need them but because i decided to do so, i would ask them is they know anything about my work first…and or admire it, same way when you chose your clients ๐Ÿ˜›

  21. Catherine

    May 22nd, 2014 at 11:05 pm

    As if you needed exposure ๐Ÿ˜‰ You are probably booked until 2016 !

  22. reuben

    May 22nd, 2014 at 11:22 pm

    I could say much in this but probably be a worldly statement through experience. My question is that when I read the blog I ask myself as it is written ‘ where is God in this’?

  23. HayleyLane

    May 23rd, 2014 at 3:09 am

    Here I was thinking I was the only one! You’re so not alone Jasmine. Thanks for sharing ๐Ÿ™‚

  24. Ryan Holman

    May 23rd, 2014 at 9:06 am

    I am totally agree with you ๐Ÿ™‚

  25. Curtis Whipple

    May 23rd, 2014 at 4:55 pm

    He promised it would be "amazing exposure" โ€ฆ. ummm.. exposure to a bunch more people who now think that I work for free! Hang in there Jasmine.

  26. Renee CandyStickLane

    May 23rd, 2014 at 5:09 pm

    Thank you so much for posting this! Ive been in business for over a decade and I still have those moments ALL THE TIME! Thank you!

  27. Louise

    May 23rd, 2014 at 6:14 pm

    I absolutely agree hands down, 100%. I used to get this question from established businesses for web design. I’d have to spend a month’s-worth of work to get "exposure" to the potential of other work. It’s not worth it for so much of my time to be involved. As these were established businesses, they just cycled to others that were just starting out when they needed help again. I’d feel more valued with a start-up non-profit that I believed in and felt valued with. On the other hand, I am trying to build up a photography portfolio and include a makeup/hairstylist in the future packages. I’m wanting to ask someone that can do it for free with me to create a portfolio (only if they can benefit from having pictures, too), until there are paid clients in which we’d both be paid. I guess it’s all about intention.

  28. Pamela Reid Hines

    May 24th, 2014 at 1:22 am

    Nice post. Thanks! I do free work for the animal shelter because it is for the pets…not the people…and they deserve it ๐Ÿ™‚ Happy shooting.

  29. Norma Skinner

    June 6th, 2014 at 9:04 pm

    It can be a gruelling, even lonely, trek to get recognition in a saturated market. That is why it is so encouraging to have someone like you, Jasmine, sharing encouragement and experiences.

  30. jess

    June 21st, 2014 at 6:40 am

    i’m just getting beyond working for little to no’s a hard leap. there’s that fear that no one will follow and support you after the gifts stop flowing. i’m ready to own my hard work and held provide for my family!! ๐Ÿ™‚

  31. Devin Hunt

    June 21st, 2014 at 1:30 pm

    I’ve heard many different opinions on this topic. Some say take what you can when you start others say not to give your work away for free because it will brand you as a cheap photographer and you cheapen the work that you and other photographers do.

  32. Melissa

    June 22nd, 2014 at 1:11 am

    I’m at that point where I’m phasing out of working for free. I have asked to trade with other businesses when approached to work for free and sometimes that goes well and creates a satisfactory partnership.

  33. Jessie Dee

    June 22nd, 2014 at 1:16 am

    Thanks for sharing your view on this controversial subject! I think there is a time and a place for everything. Unfortunately, some people will take advantage of a photographers enthusiasm and generosity to shoot to get something for free. It’s unfortunate and sours you for the next project which might have actual benefits, whether they are monetary or not!

  34. Mark

    June 25th, 2014 at 4:53 pm

    I think an important question to ask these potential clients is, "Does everyone donate their time, equipment and expertise to this organization?" and if not, "Why should I?"

  35. Ian Cosley

    July 30th, 2014 at 12:45 am

    Good advice. I worked a lot for exposure, mostly while working in the music industry. The minute I asked band managers to actually pay for the services, they stopped calling, I’m sure they just found another photographer to work for free. While it shocked me at first, it was a really good lesson as to who my real clients were.

  36. Elle Baez

    August 6th, 2014 at 1:10 am

    Excellent article! I think it’s all about balance & personal preference. Thank you for sharing… Always so helpful and insightful!

  37. Brittani

    August 28th, 2014 at 1:55 am


  38. Jennifer Gordon

    January 28th, 2015 at 8:06 am

    Great article. its shows how we can how we can create our market value and then business.