You Can’t Run Any Business On Free

“Help. I’ve been trying to build up my photography business all year, as I was laid off from my job last winter. I’ve done some free shoots for a few groups around town. And family and friends are always looking for free portraits with the promise of helping me find paying customers. But so far not much is happening. I can’t keep shooting for free. What do I do next?”

Do you see yourself in the above paragraph? Many photographers do. In fact it’s a common way for photographers to start out. And it may take a while, but everyone eventually realizes one thing.

No business will ever make it for the long term if they don’t charge for what they do.

It’s simply a fact of life. You can’t do what you love if you don’t make money at it. You can photograph for fun AND have a full time job to support your lifestyle. Or you can photograph AND get paid well for it. That’s really your only two options. (Okay, unless you have a significant trust fund.)

So if that’s the case, the only reason to be in business is to make a profit. Without a profit, you can’t pay yourself, your bills, enjoy any kind of a lifestyle, and live a life without worry. It can’t be done – period.

(Yes, I know people will say there are a ton of reasons to be in business. Passion, loving what you do, making a difference, etc. But when it comes down to it, none of that is possible if you don’t make a profit to keep the passions going.)

Start With Free

Yes, it’s okay to start for free. You have to gain experience somewhere. And you have to grow your portfolio to show future clients. The problem lies in how many you shoot for free.

  • You take images of your sister’s kids for free.
  • You take images of your best friend’s kids for free.
  • Your best friend’s sister wants images, so you shoot them for free.
  • Your sister’s friend wants images, so you shoot them for free.

And so on. Where do you draw the line? How can you charge your sister’s friend – won’t your sister get mad?

Stop the cycle early on. Shoot three or four for your portfolio, then draw the line.

Have A Comeback

I’ll be the reason you keep shooting for free is you don’t know what to say. When they approach you and say,

“I saw your sister’s images and they were beautiful. I don’t have a lot of money, but I would love to be your model. I’ll show my images to everyone and try and get you some business.”

Now what? Have your comeback ready, and it will be that much easier.

“Thanks so much for the offer, and I would love to photograph your family. I love what I do for a living, and happily share it with everyone. However because I do this for a living, I really can’t offer my services for free or I wouldn’t be in business very long. I am offering a special, which might help you out. Would you like to book an appointment?”

You are acknowledging what she said to you, and explaining why you can’t give away your services. You’re also listening to her budget, and offering her a special. It doesn’t matter what it is – if you have packages lined up, you’ll know about your “special” offer and can quickly tell her about it.

Sharing Knowledge Can’t Always Be Free

When I was researching a few things the other day, I came across a site where a company offered some videos for free – and some you must pay for. And the comments on the page were amazing.

“I won’t be following you any more. How dare you charge for videos that should be free.”

“Unbelievable. If I were better at photography, I would offer advice for free just to help out a fellow photographer. I would never charge for help videos.”

Really? Yet that’s what was written in the comments.

When I was first starting out, we jumped at the chance of learning from a ton of people: photographers, business people, marketers. Why struggle and try and learn something yourself when you can pay to cut your learning curve in half?

With the Internet, people expect free. They want to search and find anything and everything, and never pay a dime for advice. Yet the same thing the Internet is great for – free – is also its curse. There is so much for free, how do you find value in it? Sometimes the best advice is streamlined, step by step processing, and you pay to have your hand held along the way. If you could cut down you learning curve at building a business to a Six Figure level, how much would that be worth?

Action Step Now

So if you see yourself in any of the above, what is your next step?

Stop giving away what you do for free. There is a time and place for free, but it should be on your terms, not theirs.

Know how many “free” portraits you are willing to do, and choose who you want to offer them to. The rest must pay.

Create your pricing structure, and stick to it. Have a “family discount” offer ready to go if you have trouble charging close friends. But keep it reasonable and profitable, and don’t budge on the overall cost once you’ve spelled it out to them.

Follow your own advice. Be willing to pay for the things that mean the most to you. Bartering can work on occasion, but sometimes the best way to get what you want is to pay for it.

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clientexperience@todaysgrowthconsultant.com' About Virtual Photography

We're the co-founders of VirtualPhotographyStudio.com and have been writing on this blog since 2004. We started Virtual as a way to help photographers stretch beyond a part time income, and develop strategies to become a Five Figure Photographer or a Six Figure Photographer. Ultimately its all about lifestyle, and if your goal is to live as a photographer 24/7, we think you should have the knowledge and the tools to do so. Welcome!

  • Zoie

    Brilliant Advice. Thank you 🙂

  • Great advice, just you know that’s what happen to me but I change the way I approach my business and now I have multiple pay shoots including two weddings in the near future.
    If it ain’t working change it up you might be surprised with the results.