Photography students and recent graduates – please read this.

January 11, 2012 at 12:17 am

Here is a cold hard fact:

‘Exposure’ won’t buy you shit.

Before you look away, let me elaborate a little bit. As creatives, we do all need a certain amount of exposure; if you want those people who commission photography to hire you, then you need to get your work in front of them. There’s plenty of ways of doing this while preserving your integrity – there’s a number of good blogs with a wide reach, and you could even (gasp) just pound the pavements with a portfolio or a box of well presented prints.

However. Please, please, please – don’t give your stuff away for free to organisations that should be paying you for it.

Here is a little case study that happened to me earlier this week.

I got a mail in my inbox titled ‘Photo Request’.. this is what it said:


Hello there,

I work for global creative agency XXXXXXX in London. We love your work, and would like to feature your photo (attached) in our printed publication as the title page to our ‘Technology’ section. We just wondered whether we could have permission to use a hi-res version? We can of course give you a full credit. You can see an online version of the publication here (weblink) We distribute 10,000 of our audience surveys globally to our clients (brands ranging from Nike to Hennessy), independent shops, magazines and buyers.

We are on a very deadline with this project so would be great to hear from you ASAP!

Thanks so much for your help!

From the series 'Spin' by Ben Roberts

This was my response:


Hi Xxxxxx

Thanks for your interest in my work. I’d be happy to supply the hi-res version of this image for a non-exclusive single usage fee of £xxx.

I look forward to hearing from you. 

kind regards

Ben Roberts


Of course, I pretty much knew what the response would be to that – and sure enough, the following day i received this:


Hi Ben!

Unfortunately we don’t have much of a budget for this new publication, so were hoping to give you exposure to our clients and brands and a credit for use of the photo. However, if this isn’t suitable we understand.

Thanks for your help!



You know what? I stewed on this for a while. Of course, my expectations had been met; I hadn’t been seduced by the ‘incredible opportunity’ to have my work exposed to ‘clients and brands’. My integrity was intact. However, I’ve received so many of these crappy ‘opportunities’ from tight wadded ‘creative’ agencies, I thought it was about time that I told one of them exactly what I thought of their ‘generosity’.
Dear Xxxxxx
thanks for your response. I’ve been in this business way too long, and my ability is (obviously, or you wouldn’t want to use my photographs) too valuable to just be given away for free. do me a favour and watch this video:


perhaps it will make you and your organisation think twice about approaching content creators like me with frankly insulting ‘opportunities’ such as this;

or maybe not, but hell, sending this email will brighten my day slightly.



Students and young aspiring photographers; Whatever you do with your work, do not give it away for free to goddam leeches like these people. Don’t be seduced by false promises and the tantalising, mystical allure of your name in lights – ‘Jonny Knobhead, superstar photographer‘ – this will not fucking happen unless you are Ryan Effing McGinley. And you’re (probably) not.

Clients who truly value what you do and the content that you create will PAY YOU in ACTUAL MONEY for the work that you do for them, or the work that you have already done that they want to use.

A credit won’t buy you a new skateboard. A credit won’t help you get your film developed. A credit won’t buy you shit.

You can create your own buzz and exposure by collaborating with designers, illustrators and stylists in your peer groups; be your own publicity machine.

But when the big agencies come knocking with their cap in hand, be strong. Insist on payment in a polite, straightforward manner. If they pass this opportunity up, then move on with your head held high and your ass intact. Or maybe send them Mr Ellison’s video.

  • Tracy

    glad to see someone has the same thoughts as me. I get this all the time with charities to which I have learnt to say no – if you are happy to pay the cook, the cleaner and the MC and everyone else then you can damn well pay me for the long lasting images.  Ive learnt to say no and feel so much better and don’t care about exposure I care about being paid for my work so I too can pay my bills!  Thanks for the article.

  • Drum Demon

    Picked up on this blog via an article in Professional Photographer magazine earlier today. It’s about time someone laid things out in an honest way for a change. Refreshing to hear some bite back instead of submission. 

    I’ve worked for free on a number of occasions and ultimately, long term, it creates resentment as opposed to inspiration. Sadly there seems to be a large number of aspiring Photographers out there now with “Use Me, I’m Free!” advertised across their foreheads!!

    This particular post did have me cringing slightly when you referred to “sunsets, run of the mill live photography and bland street scenes” with regards to personal work. If anything it’s made me kick myself up the arse in terms of my approach.

    In these ever testing, changing times, one can only really hope to keep ahead by producing work that challenges and is interesting, as you quite rightly point out, instead of simply blending in with the mundane.

    Cheers for the encouragement!

  • benrobertsphotography

    anna – to be honest i think its just a case of working hard, being patient and striving to make interesting photography. it won’t happen overnight unfortunately!

  • Anna

    My question is – how do you make those agencies come to you?

    I know it is stupid, but for me it seems little impossible

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  • fishballqiaohao

    Reblogged this on fishballqiaohao :D and commented:
    True! I love the video on this post. So Funny!

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  • Jimmy Harmsworth

    This is the video I send them!

  • Shane Ephraims

    Here here :D dam those eye patch having mothr fkrz at warner brothers!!!!!

  • Thomas Ball

    Ben, I’m a bit late finding this, but just wanted to add my thanks for writing it. I couldn’t have put it better myself! Hopefully catch up with you soon.

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  • Viktor

    Still good on you. I don’t believe any bridges have been burnt, at least, not any bridges that lead somewhere worth going. If anything, the client/magazine that wanted to use your content burnt their bridge to an amicable future relationship with someone capable of providing them with content THEY NEED, moreover, content of a professional quality, content they or most amateurs are not capable of creating. Even if they could, if they did have to do the work themselves, they’d expect to be paid for it, unless they see the work as a means to an end, as advertisement for a product they will get bigger money from selling, or as leverage to bolster their image. No, it is the people who, with self-serving intentions, expect they can abuse content creators to do free work for them or to appropriate (steal) their intellectual property (their work) for nothing. It’s unprofessional, unethical, self-serving, thoughtless, and disrespectful. You don’t go to the corner shop and take a loaf of bread without paying the shopkeeper for taking content from his shop that he’s putting money and work into. Not unless you are starving, penniless and have children to feed and no other means. Even then, there is probably a better way to come to an arrangement. But these motherfuckers are not poor. You’re dealing with businesses and businessmen who have millions, would not do their professions for free, but don’t give content creators (people whose work sells their products, people whose work they NEED) the same basic respect you give to the corner shopkeeper by not walking in there and expecting a loaf of bread for nothing. They should be ashamed of themselves!

  • Rodrick Bond

    As much as it sucks that creatives at major agencies are trying these sort of tactics, it’s not an excuse to be rude to a potential client.

    Think about it, someone at an agency liked your work and contacted you – this is already a great position to be in because it hardly ever happens, and instead of saying thanks but no thanks and would it be possible to make a time to show your work in person, you burnt your bridges in an angry email that achieved nothing. Well played….

  • putuekaphotography

    Everyday i find the case like you write, and thats really annoying for all of us
    Good for inspiring someone out there

  • Kai Cem Narin

    This is really inspiring and made me laugh soo much, because the amount of times i’ve been in this situation and i thought they were doing me a good deal, well it’s just crap. It’s coming to a point where i am nearly graduating next year and i actually have to make a living from it and if you want it bad i guess im gonna have to get out there and get noticed but not by giving stuff away for nothing, cos no one gives a shit who you are , there just out for themselfs.

    This has really made me think about how to actually suceed at this profession and to make a living


  • Viktor

    Thanks so much for posting this!!! Good on you!
    I would add that it applies equally to all artistic content creation or scholarship, not only writers and photographers. Professional musicians and researchers likewise should not be abused by moochers/parasites who appropriate intellectual property that may represent months/years/a lifetime of work and expertise that those appropriating it are obviously not capable of creating themselves. (It reminds me of a quote from the film “The Social Network”: “If they invented Facebook, they’d have invented Facebook.”)
    Let’s be clear, using other people’s work by “referencing” who created it does not make such appropriation “appropriate”!!! It’s merely self-serving theft dressed up as “support” or “publicity”. An air-conditioner salesman doesn’t give away free air-conditioners to companies to get his product out there, or because it’s hot and he feels it’s the right thing to do for his fellow man. But the same person has the audacity to think it is appropriate to do that (not even with his own content, but someone else’s, a professional’s content) when it comes to his hobby, e.g. sheet music.
    Harlan Ellison is right: “It’s the amateurs who make life hard for the professionals” because they create a complacent attitude toward low quality, free content (e.g. wikipedia or free online music edited/published by amateurs). They are so used to seeing creative/scholarly content as something to be had for free, something without monetary value (for them), that they are unwilling to pay professionals for content that is of a higher quality and without serious errors, representing professional standards of skill and scholarship. Or, egoically, they recognize the deeper value of the arts compared to superficial business ventures and so want to associate themselves, for egoic reasons, with some creative work, but without having taken the necessary steps to reach the level of insight the professional has within the field. Consequently humanity becomes more and more misinformed by the “good intentions” of the amateur — the blind leading the blind — and more arrogant in its belief in the misinformation.
    Or, in popular culture, consider Hollywood: Rather than paying real writers to create quality, original content the way they used to 30 years ago, in recent years we almost exclusively see crappy, dumbed-down remake after remake; whether 70′s-80′s Hollywood remade or inferior English language remakes of Korean horror and French comedy. I don’t know about you (whoever reads this), but I am not content to waste my money or my time on plagiarized garbage. I refuse to support Hollywood by watching remakes, and refuse to base my understanding of a subject on unreliable internet content “authored” or edited by anonymous amateurs. Moreover, I find it insulting to us as content creators and public alike that self-serving businessmen treat us like orifices they can abuse with already used condoms. That’s how they treat us when they expect us to make them richer by supporting secondhand/plagiarized content or content created with the absolute minimal means in terms of originality/creativity/skill.
    I for one want originality and quality and professionals doing what THEY are talented and skilled at doing. Bless the amateur. We need him. Everybody cannot be a professional. We need him to be an air-conditioner salesman with a hobby and money to spend on it. But let the amateurs stick to selling air-conditioners and financially support the creation of new content FROM CREATIVE PROFESSIONALS if they in fact REALLY love the arts and don’t want them to die out. Producing low quality, free content does not do a particular field or subject any goo whatsoever. And publishing other people’s work by simply “referencing” who created it does not make such appropriation “appropriate” or any less a case of self-serving theft/abuse/parasitism!!!

  •, Clare McCarthy

    I think it is a shame that there is not more public debate around these facts and realities. As a creative director – who is sometimes paid and sometimes chooses to ‘invest’ my own time and skills to help a good cause, I believe that there can be no substitute for learning on the job, but I believe there is a time limit with things like unpaid work experience, because frankly, if you haven’t proven you are worth paying for after say 3 big jobs, you are probably in the wrong profession, or at the very least, are training with the wrong professionals. Any agency who intends to make money from your shots/creative work should be prepared and willing to pay you fairly for it. It’s fine for up and coming creatives to have lower than professional rates, in my experience as a commissioner of creative professionals, you get what you pay for – if you’re unlucky, you learn from your mistakes and set aside a better budget the next time round, if you are lucky, you’ll get some great shots at a lower price, but the one thing you must learn is that the industry, intentionally or unintentionally is just full of false promise. Undercutting is an issue becuase it generally speaking will lower expectations…of what is professionally achievable, and of what creative work is worth ‘commercially’ speaking. I would always encourage people to gain well placed experience, learn from mistakes, don’t repeat them (if you are being taken advantage of, it is usually pretty obvious!) and to value yourself and your skills. Most creative professionals would be happy and willing to work for free if they could live for free. The fact there is more competition should only serve to drive us to develop new skills and niche’s ahead of the next generation of professionals…if everyone reaches ‘average’ then stops because it is not financially viable to keep pushing the boundaries, everything will stagnate. Everyone – from the lowly beginner with a passion and a camera to the high flying multi-million pound agencies need to take responsibility, there would be enough work for everyone if all the work was pitched at an appropriate level and price!!

  • Jez Sullivan

    I think if people value your work, they will pay something. I did some unpaid work to portfolio build and I really regret the decision, I ended up doing some headshots for a plastic surgeon and really she’s minted. So I should have charged, but she knows Im new to this. But once bitten twice shy…

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  • Tim

    It’s not just magazines who are exploiting people stupid enough to work for free. Photographers to it, too. There are many photographers who are now taking on art school students as unpaid interns and have them do their retouching and assist them on shoots. Coming directly from school these ‘interns’ sometime know a lot more about photoshop than the photographer they’re working for so they’re definitely not learning anything. And to be honest, even though I don’t know this for a fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these photographers put ‘assistent’ and ‘retouching’ as a line item on their invoice to the client and then just bag the fee for themselves. Afterall they’re struggling photographers so they can use any money they can get…

    This culture of free has a trickle-down effect and the more everybody suffers from it the more it’s everyone for themselves.

  • benrobertsphotography

    hi adam

    thanks for your contribution. we can of course only hold opinions based (mostly) on personal experience. after graduating in 2006 i did one assignment for a magazine for free, found it really unsatisfactory, got burnt, and vowed never to do it again.

    i did about a weeks total of free studio assisting, weighed it up and thought ‘this is slave labour’ – and never went back.

    after that point, i’ve stuck to my guns, and apart from collaborations with friends and close contacts on non-profit making or charity ventures, have stuck to my principles of not working for free.

    my conclusion would be that for the majority of graduates, working for free will not, in the long term, be a good thing. i would however like to clarify one key point; with assisting, i think it’s reasonable for a photographer to hire a new assistant (particularly if they have very little experience) on an unpaid/work experience basis for 1-2 jobs, but subsequent jobs should be paid. I was first assistant to Zed Nelson for the best part of 3 years; my first two jobs for him were unpaid. I have no complaints about this.

    that you have found another way to make things work for you is commendable, but i don’t think that makes it ethically ‘right’.



  • Adam R King

    HI Tom,

    Im really glad theres one person on this blog who can counter what Ben is Saying as I think he expresses the wrong message especially to students and graduates trying to find work,(no offence Ben.) No one can expect to jump straight out of uni/college and land fully paid work it just doesn’t happen. and why would it! The people that think like that never make it as they give up when it doesn’t fall on their lap. The people that work hard for their passion and take the opportunities (Pay or no pay) are the ones that will go further in the long run.

    So sorry Ben I disagree with you aswell. It is very important to do unpaid jobs! Im a film maker/Photographer and after graduating i worked my ass off for free for two years on any and every production I could find and you know what I learnt a hell of a lot and have met many amazing contacts and companies who have since helped me get funding for my own projects or found me paid work. Yes I have worked with some idiots who are out there for their own ego and have no interest in helping you in the future but I have made some very valuable contacts aswell and also some very good friends. So for me working for free was hard but well worth it in the long run. I now work for a leading company with good pay and shoot my own productions on the side. Yes they are Low budgets but guess what… I have some great contacts who owe me some favours, and are happy to help me out!

    All the best

  • Kate

    I completely agree. Even though a few people told me this when I first graduated I didn’t believe them, I thought I needed to make people coffee for free to gain “work experience”. I think graduates need to pay their dues by learning this lesson themselves and many of them unfortunately will have to.
    Brilliant blog post, can be applied to anyone working in the “creative” industries.

  • benrobertsphotography

    believe me, you’re not telling me anything i don’t already know, and basically it just shows what a rotten industry fashion photography is.

    how dare those kids ask for money for their work from publishers! outrageous!

  • jk

    i work with many high end fashion magazines (not as a photographer) and no one (ie: NO ONE) ever gets paid for the production costs. its just that simple. yes if you work for GQ you might get $250 per page. but if you are shooting for independent publications like self service, its just not possible. and that is fine with most fashion photographers, because it does pay off. and trust me it gets them exposure AND ad jobs later on. of course you should never “sell” your photo or allow it in advertising for free, that is silly. but the elitist attitude of 22 year old kids right out of school, saying they have to get paid $1000 for their 1/4 page portrait in a no name magazine, its just laughable. kills the whole notion of photography being seen as an art. and i know a lot of schools now days are breeding their kids to only see photography as a means of money (RIT, etc)….but I personally disagree with that.

  • benrobertsphotography

    i don’t ‘expect’ anything, and i can’t blame magazines/organisations for seeking something for free when people are stupid enough to give it away for free.

    maybe you should be asking yourself why in the hell you would WANT to work for a magazine that doesn’t pay its photographers? why are people that desperate? of course it’s a recognised route into fashion photography, but given the miniscule chances of success, is it actually worth it? wouldn’t you be better off looking for an alternative route?

  • jk

    i understand your rant…but you are leaving out a big portion of photography, the editorial world.
    do you really expect to be paid by a magazine that has never once given a photographer $ for their work?

  • David Severn

    Thanks to everyone, great suggestions. I’ve acted on MM’s advice this morning and proposed to organisers a trade of a small collection of 10 x 8′s for the access, to which they swiftly replied in aggreement. I know they are also employing their own photographers to shoot commercially for them too so all is well. I think clear and well mannered correspondence is the key. I’m finding that learning how to deal with approaching / being approached is a huge curve of discovery in photography.

  • benrobertsphotography

    of course you are right in many ways, but the fact remains that there are still plenty of photographers producing interesting, self motivated work that is both conceptually and aesthetically a step beyond what the vast majority of technically adept but unimaginative ‘photographers’ will ever produce. so while demand for sunsets, macro photographs of flowers, run of the mill live music photography, cliched photojournalism and bland street scenes will diminish, i’m confident that the need for high quality photography with an opinion will remain.

    there will be casualties, the challenge for photographers will be to produce interesting work and to make it pay; for me, giving work away for free doesn’t fall under the remit of ‘making it pay’. simple.

  • benrobertsphotography

    i think that MM’s suggestion seems pretty reasonable. i’ve had similar agreements with promoters in the past for festivals/club nights etc when I have wanted to make personal work. you might want to consider getting these agreements down in a contract and signed by both parties to save any potential hassle post-shoot.

    i think so long as you’re not compromising the livelihoods of other working photographers then you can make these arrangements with a clear conscience.

  • MM

    If you are wanting to take photographs for a portfolio it is usual for you to offer a print or two as a quid pro quo, Permission to use your work should be a separate matter. Tell them your normal method of operation is to provide the organisation with two different 8 x 10 prints for their archives. If they seek more than that then tell them what your normal fees are.

  • Tim

    I don’t know what Ben Roberts would say but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with you letting them use the pictures in some limited way. You’re not giving away your work for free, you’re trading it for access. You’ve approached them because you want something from them so they’re in a position to ask you for something in return. If they can’t benefit from you taking pictures there in any way then there’s really no point for them to grant you access. This is not a situation where they approached you to get something for free.
    Just my 2 cents.

  • robin gauld

    Great sentiments and good luck if you can get it but don’t hold ya breath. The good old days of the paid professional photographer are vanishing fast. Image making is everyone’s business now and people are actively making a point of NOT employing professional photographers. There is ‘a cultural aversion to employing professional photographers’ 2011 Ibisworld report on the Australian professional photography market. There is less and less money to be made in photography, business models used in the past will not be valid in the future. This is a time of industrial innovation and one of the casualties of the rise of computer image making will be the professional photographer as we know it.

  • Arlu

    Well said! Thanks, Ben! This will hopefully empower our fellow professional photographers to start getting what they deserve. Cheers!

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  • David Severn

    It was really spiriting to read this! It’s great that you’re championing unity and strength amongst photographers as well on this issue. I’m really just starting out on the paid work ladder and have so far not been afraid to ask a fair fee for my services. However, there’s a couple of events coming up that I would really like to photograph as part of a personal project I’m working on. I have emailed the event organisers to ask permission to photograph at the festivals in question and they’ve replied asking if they would be able to use the pictures I take. Of course, I don’t want to give them rights to publish my work for their own publicity without me receiving payment but am afraid if I deny them access to the pictures they will deny me access to the events that are quite crucial in the development of my project. Conundrum! I feel it’s a bit of a snidey move on the part of the orginsers since they know I’m after access and probably think I’m likely to agree to giving them free pictures in return my press access. Maybe I should’ve approached this as a commercial venture right from the start… But I want to be able to shoot in my own style and not to the demands of anyone else. Got any advice?
    ps. I absolutely love your Seventh Zone series and it was a big inspiration for my Thanks Maggie work.

  • Tom Medwell

    I think that, in general, the bigger clients I have worked with have wanted to pay good money for what they get; at a certain level of work the qualitative judgements become purely financial – not for the creatives involved, but for the clients and the people they need to please/impress. I’m all in favour of people trying to take my jobs, paid or unpaid, I like the pressure and I think the mad explosion of photography post-digital can only be a good thing. Ultimately quality work tends to get recognised – there’s always exceptions both ways of course – but my thinking is that, every job I did for free was advertising that got me the work I do now. Of course, one must choose carefully where one advertises and evaluate the worth to their career of each opportunity, but I would estimate that about 75% of the work I get is from recommendation from people I’ve worked with before, paid or unpaid, and the rest from people having seen my work online or in print. At the beginning, the only way to get that personal interaction and recommendation is through working for free – nobody is going to spend £50 on an unknown photographer when they can get one their mates have worked with for a couple of hundred. Again, I’m not suggesting that all work should be for free – I’ve had as much stolen picture rage as the next guy – but picking the right projects to put your time into is always worth it in the long run, because with the success of that project you will own a bit of that success yourself and it will always elevate your exposure.

  • Tim

    I think when you’re starting out there are some situations where you should do work for free. Let’s say you want to be a celebrity photographer and some magazine offers you to shoot *insert A-list celeb* but they can’t offer to pay you. You’d obviously be an idiot to pass that opportunity up. Access and unique opportunities are reasons to do stuff for free. ‘Exposure’ certainly isn’t (unless, of course, they offer to put in a full page ad for you with your smiling face and thumbs up on it.).
    From time to time I test models for modeling agencies for free. They just send me polaroids of their new models and I decide if I’m interested in photographing any of them. If I see someone I want to photograph they have no say in what the pictures will look like. I just do what I want and it’s a take it or leave it deal. While I’m not getting paid it’s also not like they’re hiring me and the use of the images isn’t commercial. Besides, from time to time they also set up a shoot for me with one of their well known models as a favour and suddenly I’m the one getting someone else to work for me for free.

    What I love about the e-mail from that ‘creative agency’ is that they ‘offer’ to give you full credit as if that was optional.

  • benrobertsphotography

    ‘It’s not that the company didn’t have any money, but they had a policy of not paying contributors’

    i have a problem with both the company taking this stance, and people like you indulging them. if you live by the sword, you die by the sword; ask yourself this, and honestly – the work that you do for ICA and the Tate; how much is it valued? if someone came along and offered to do the work for free, or for £50 a pop, and their work wasn’t too much different to yours, would they keep you on or would they go for the other guy?

    when you took the that unpaid work earlier in your career, you unwittingly contributed to photography’s race to the bottom. your contracts at The Tate and the ICA won’t last forever; at some point you will move on, I hope to bigger and better things. But how will you feel if there’s suddenly nothing else out there because there’s a load of wannabes doing it for free?

    its all well and good feeling smug now that your tough years are out of the way, but believe me they can return faster than you would think. try and look at the broader picture, that’s all i’m trying to say.

  • benrobertsphotography

    thanks for your comment Papa – on point.

    btw – your daylight studio looks amazing. wow.

  • andie

    Problem for photographers is that everyone now has the means to take photos in good quality.
    I think this also applies to all other creatives. I joined a ‘contest’ for a singer before. Make logo for him. Then after that no announcement of the winner, not even a reply to say they received our work. I did 4 sketches with simple color studies then chose my best one. I still feel like an idiot for falling for that.

  • Jorge de Araujo

    I love the guy on the video…

    On another note, a common request is from non-profit organisations to use your images. Tell them you’re a FOR PORFIT…

  • Papa Simpson

    I support your point Sir, it is measured only by the amount of blaggers in cities up and down our sceptre’d isle. Agencies and in some cases even photographers wishing to get as much done for free as possible as they are far too insecure to ask their client for enough money to cover all outgoing expenses.

    Competition has been the cornerstone of this industry for over a century, yet now one’s integrity and skill is no longer a measure of how good one is in your chosen craft – it’s how cheap you are, how far you are prepared to jump for that carrot of publicity and exposure.

    By-lines do not pay my mortgage, they do not pay for the food on my family’s table and they sure as hell do not guarantee any future paid work from these parasites.

    I do enjoy a good monthly rant and over 23 years of exposing these fuckwits, I suppose I have made more enemies than friends – but I have enough friends thanks…

    To paraphrase a scene from a very famous film and more recently a well known design agency boss in California – “Fuck you, pay me”

    All together now……..

    Keep it up Ben, I like this blog


  • julia mclaren

    N°1 – most people can’t afford to work for free.
    N°2 – hanging around doing free work on the off-chance that one day you may be paid for the same work is a weird career plan.
    N°3 – there aren’t many people who are good enough photographers to make a living from it. Those that do, should be paid and paid properly.
    N°4 – by offering your work free you are doing a disservice to other photographers by lowering the value of their work.
    N°5 – what other profession would think it normal to give their time and work away for nothing?

  • JustMe

    Very few people can afford to work for free… but the guys who can, and continually do so, make life incredibly tricky for the ones who can’t. There’s no right or wrong about this though. I can identify with the guys that work for free as I did it for so long myself: as a writer I’ve had stories published and never been paid; I worked for newspapers who would fudge the payment discussion but continually used my work and promised payment later. But I still worked for them. Had I not worked for free, I doubt I would have got anywhere at all, such is the awful exploitation of people in creative industries. But now I’m in one of those agencies you talk about and my advice is always to stick to your guns on payment. Definitely don’t work for free. I have seen fumbling idiots get paid huge sums for crap jobs; if you’re good and can turn around quality work (as you clearly can), so guys in agencies can keep their clients happy, you’re sweet. I’ve told every journalist and photographer I’ve worked with, managed or trained: If you don’t value your stock, how can you expect anyone else to?

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  • frompankawithlove

    Ben, now you saved my life. I’m one of them, who actually think exposure is good, since no one would pay me for my work. Now I see, I just have to wait – maybe for a long time, but I’ll be patient. Thanks for sharing this story! :)

  • Lisa Z

    I will be passing this on to my 18 year old son. He called emails all the time asking if someone can use his photos. I think he thinks its cool for people to see his stuff, but now that I read this, I will explain to him what is happening. Thanks

  • Brett Clark

    I wish I didn’t need money for trivial things such trivial things such as rent and food like Tom Medwell above so I could spend my time doing work for free after I have worked to establish a career as a photographer where I don’t really need more work for the sake of practice. Doing free work while you are still working your way up so you can add it to your portfolio, or seeking out personal projects that you are passionate about is a much different story than giving away your work, like the online listing portraits you refer to, so a company can make money on the exploitation of your time and hard work, not to mention equipment cost. Even if you are a terrible photographer and can only shoot on P mode in auto ISO, you basically give them free rental of your personal equipment with no value to your time or skills.

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  • Kat Farrell

    I work as a freelance writer and photgrapher and I am SOOOO sick of crap like that! A credit and a pdf copy of the final print wont buy me shoes. Go Ben!


    very good

  • Jellyfarm

    I have to totally agree with you. I’m a TV/film producer and writer and photographer in Singapore n the same shite happens. We’re either not paid or underpaid because agencies or companies are on a ‘tight’ budget. I believe this is a bad industry practise. For my photographs, I do wish for exposure but I don’t think this is the way to do it. If clients can’t understand the passion and the hard work that goes into creating something, they have no business using it for free or even start a project with no funding. The money that should rightfully be used for a creative campaign or project instead goes to the company’s bottom line or the deep pockets of its CEOs. Nonsense man!

  • Tom Medwell

    Well, for example, a few years back I started doing portraits for an online listings guide, unpaid. It’s not that the company didn’t have any money, but they had a policy of not paying contributors. I kept doing things for it over the years; eventually one of the other contributors who’d been there when I was got a job at an agency, and having worked with me for so long hooked me up with work there. Result – four or five online campaigns for a large and very well-known sports brand, for a decent amount of money. For another example, I was doing club photography for free, just at one place I liked – live music etc. A friend of the promoter asked me if I’d like to take some pictures at her club and I thought why not; one of her friends saw the shots I did and liked them, and I got a job as the in-house photographer at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (London). I still have that job, which led also led me to being the in-house photographer at the Tate Modern for their 10-year anniversary show. Both those jobs came fairly directly from doing free work.

  • benrobertsphotography

    “Do as much stuff for free as you possibly can for as long as you can. It’s the very best way to build a good career.”

    I’d love to know how you define a ‘career’. does a career to you involve earning no money?

    Read my post carefully; I’ve collaborated on my own terms with lots of my peers and developed relationships with them that have led to money making ventures. However I have never compromised when it comes to organisations (or individuals) who for all intents and purposes want to use my ability to enhance their product/image, and have the means to pay for my skills. This stubbornness has served me well.

    I don’t work as a photographer to make a fortune. Heck, if money was my motivation I would have trained as an accountant. My biggest motivation in photography is to pursue my own personal projects, and what better way to fund these ambitions than by doing interesting assignments for great clients who value what I do and are prepared to pay me? Those who aren’t prepared to pay me will get a firm but fair rebuttal.

    Maybe your ‘give everything away for free’ attitude works for you Tom, and if it does I applaud you; However I am sceptical, and don’t believe that this is a good business model for the vast majority of aspiring creatives.

  • Chicago Photographer

    We need more photographers to say NO to companies that think we should work for free. Enough of the nonsense.

  • Tom Medwell

    Wrong. Do as much stuff for free as you possibly can for as long as you can. It’s the very best way to build a good career. Obviously pick your projects but that’s true in any industry. Working for free helps you build contacts with other people at the same level as you; as their careers develop they won’t forget you and the work you did with them. Not doing anything for free was the very worst advice I got when I was starting out; second to that was “focus on one area of your work and try to develop in that area”. The elitist attitude of many photographers who think they have made it and turn their noses up at good projects just because there isn’t a financial incentive are stifling the whole industry. Do as much work as you possibly can, paid or unpaid, and you will develop rapidly and the benefits in the long run will far outweigh the righteousness of only working for money. Anyone who gets into a creative job for the money will never be any good at it; to get paid for something millions of people do worldwide for the love it is is a privilege and the moment you forget that is the moment you can kiss your career goodbye.

  • Jo

    A great read Ben, thank you.

  • Twisted Warlok

    The world would be better off with more people that think like you. Thanks for sharing!

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  • TayabIqbal

    You are 100% correct dude

  • Lucius Svartwulf

    Yes!! Thank you for sharing this. And it goes for everyone, not just photographers. We’re so used to getting stuff for free these days, we’re forgetting the importance of paying for things, and even for getting paid for the things we create!

    Keep up the good work. If anyone is interested, I have a series of posts coming out that might be of interested and related to this subject.

  • namemetuang

    ็HELL YES!

  • benrobertsphotography

    ha, i’ve seen that before and its excellent!

  • loustow

    Good point, well made. I also refer you to the excellent post by illustrator Mr Bingo in answer to the question, “Does Mr Bingo work for free?”

  • ciara leeming

    Spot on Ben.
    And for the record, print journalists get it all the time too, sometimes even from the blogs of well known newspapers.

  • Glenn

    Know What you’re worth and go for it!!!

    That’s how we roll~ :P

  • Pete Repka

    Nicely written, love the video.
    I particularly like the very very end
    “A credit won’t buy you a new skateboard. A credit won’t help you get your film developed. A credit won’t buy you shit.”
    ^^^ True Dat.

  • Uchujin

    In the last few months I have received several requests like the ones you mention (2 from very high-profile American Universities).
    My response has always been the same,

    “Dear Sir/Madam,
    Do you do your job for free?
    I thought not, then please don’t insult me by asking me to do mine for free.
    Yours sincerely”

    On 3 occasions the person has written back offering me a fee for the photograph in question.

    Too many people think it is ok to give work away, devaluing the industry for all of us.

    I for one will never get tired of blog posts like this reminding people of how foolish it is.

  • Sandra

    Not only yes, but HELL yes! I can’t count how many times I have been asked to shoot an event, a party, or do glam shots with the “Well, it doesn’t cost you anything.” It costs me time, effort, it takes my skill, then there is the post processing, more time, more effort and graphics skills. It also costs me ‘camera life’, because every time I use the camera, it shortens the life of the shutter.

    What gets me is no matter how patient I am at explaining this, it gets brushed aside again with the “But it doesn’t cost you anything.” *headdesk*

  • Claire Pepper (@claire_pepper)

    I get a lot of these. Working in fashion, a lot of people genuinely have no money… they are often starting a brand with their life savings. But even then, most of them are willing to pay what they can afford, and give you clothes etc as well (clothes don’t pay bills, but its a nice gesture!) I do always try and do it if I like what they do and its a creative shoot that may give me some portfolio work.
    But then I get a shit ton of big brands (like international, high street stores) wanting really shitty, boring, non creative projects like street style or e-commerce stuff done for free or ridiculously low rates. And that stuff should be my bread and butter! But the thing is… they always find someone to do it. So thanks for the post Ben, hopefully it will encourage some photographers starting out not to be that someone!

  • Duncan Smith

    Spot on, there is VALUE in what we produce!

  • Harpreet Khara

    Value yourself. If you don’t, nobody else will.

  • Shaun Madden

    Great post, up until I have just ignored these requests…

  • Marc Mateo

    Well said!. This should be mandatory reading in every film school for starters. I’m not sure how you’d reach the now burgeoning legions of new :”photographers” – incorporate it into flickr somehow maybe…
    I have seethed like Harlan on many an occasion. And its not just money, craft is another thing that gets sacrificed as the budgets shrink.
    I agree also with MM above but it if you are going to gift your work there needs to be something in it for you. I suspect that might be the “…RIGHT CIRCUMSTANCES…” he was referring to. Pricing photo’s is tricky. There are guidelines but if everyone asked for the fees that Getty calculates then there would be a lot less magazines in the world for one thing. Actually that’s not such a bad thing :)
    I get worn down by the constant request for “a deal” as well. Its never ” a deal” by the way its always a “discount” ! If it were a deal then there’d be something in it for me besides simply the opportunity to just do it in the 1st place. And remember, wherever possible try to retain copyright don’t let your image be orphaned.

  • Peter Langlands

    agree totally !

  • kirstymackay

    Ah, Ben. I love this.

  • Aileen

    nice blog and nice pictures :)

  • Sidhena (@maenadery)

    I find it amazing how loud they blew their trumpet about how big a company they are just before they tell you that ALL of that money is not for you. I get that same nonsense pretty often as an actor, and yeah, I’ve been tempted to punch people in the face, but that doesn’t quite jive with the young-mother-next-door image I’ve been pigeon-holed in.

  • MM

    Unfortunately, our ‘associates’ have always been far too willing to give their material away making it even harder for professionals to earn a living. With the advent of zillions of people who THINK they are photographers just because they can take a snap on their iPad and use Photoshop this is becoming even MORE difficult.

    Whilst I was one who used to slavishly adhere to your comments I think practical photographers need to be flexible enough to give their work away for a byline IN THE RIGHT CIRCUMSTANCES. That means being highly selective IF you do it. There’s always a case for pro bono work if everything else matches up. But when you get vague, unsolicited commendations for your work from nobodies who damn you with faint praise you are right to remind them how both YOUR and THEIR business SHOULD operate and to deny use.

    The only other thing I would have mentioned in responding to the original query would be to suggest that, if the agency were making a profit on their work featuring your image, that you’d be entitled to a fee since you too have contributed to the creative process.

    By the way, love the clip!

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  • jai long

    great email! I’ll use that youtube clip to one of those email’s one day.

  • Danny Tucker (@danny_tucker)

    Very good video. I like this photographer’s idea…

    “You can then respond with this – “He is willing to give us the photo for free if we give him a byline but it has to read – “We shafted Cameron Laird for this free photo”

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  • Kirra Cheers

    High five ben!

  • Jules


  • Pat Polis

    Well said! Absolutely true too! Even on the small side of the photography world, people like myself, who shoot social photos/concert stuff for money, get approached to do things ALL-THE-TIME to shoot things “pro-bono” and are lead to believe that being credited as the author is sufficiant compensation – not true! Thanks for writing this :-)