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Published June 26th 2010

Why free can make you money

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Giving stuff away for free can be a very good way of making money. I have written about that before, and the current economic state of the world makes this even more true.

People will spend money even more unwillingly due to threats of downfall and recession. It's not like they won't spend money. They will. In particular if they know that the stuff they buy is good.

The last few weeks there have been a few entries on Danish professional photographer's web sites - mainly on the Photographer's union's web pages. Most of these photographer's are photojournalists who come from a world of stable jobs, regular freelance agreements, strict segregation between amateurs and professionals and magazines and newspapers as the typical customers paying the tariff.

One entry reads "Free images, free newspapers, free stories, free entry. Soon the only thing not free will be the ride to work". This piece and a couple of others on similar photojournalist's sites mainly cover an incident where a newspaper published images taken by an amateur photographer who gained free entry to a concert in exchange. Such an agreement has brought these professional photographers and their organizations on barricades, and I'm not going to bring you further into the debate, but just use this as a starting point for another rant on why free can be good and why free is one of the major directions the world is going right now.

A lot of old school media, old school journalists and old school professionals as a whole are going through a rough awakening right now. We're moving into the world of free.
For each day that passes, I see more and more stuff that costs nothing. Yeah, I know it does cost indirectly. There's no such thing as free. The free newspapers are paid by ads, the ads are paid by the advertisers and the advertisers make their money on... us. The free public TV-channels are paid by taxes. And the taxes? Well... And all the stuff available for free on the web. Well, we don't pay for it directly, but the people who produce it do get a salary or a living from somewhere.

No, there ain't no such thing as a free lunch.

But when it comes to photography, getting a free image has never been easier.
Lots of photographers will work for free - just the opportunity to shoot will be enough for them.
Lots of photographers will publish for free - just the exposure will be enough for them.
Lots of photographers will exhibit for free - just having people see their image is enough them.

The number of good photographers is steadily growing and the number of those who are willing to give away their work is growing even more rapidly. The channels through which material can be distributed are getting wider and smoother. So of course the number of free images is soaring.

And free work can lead to paid work. Giving away "samples" is a great way of marketing yourself. You may succeed and become a sought after and scarce resource and get well paid for each gig you do, but then again: you may fail and never come off the ground.

Being a pro, standing on the sideline yelling "amateurs stay home!" is going to bring you nothing but a sore throat and frustration. The amateurs are coming. If you are good enough you have nothing to fear. The magazines who want free images and won't pay for photo gigs will never be your customers. Sell your work to those who pay. When German magazine Bild cooperates with discount grocery Lidl to sell cheap cameras to people and offer to publish their images... well, there's not much you can do about it. If Bild wants to bring low quality, citizen-shot photographs, it's their choice. If the readers like it and the magazine sells, complaining will bring you nowhere.

If newspapers publish "promotion" shots taken by amateurs who get free access to concerts in exchange for images... well, forget pursuing the matter and make sure you take better and more relevant images, which the newspaper can't be without, and will buy from you at the price you charge.

If bride and groom decide to get their DSLR-toting cousin to shoot their wedding in stead of hiring a wedding photographer... well, that's their choice, and nothing which overpaid wedding shooters can do much about.

Just be better than the free guys and girls. So much better than no one will doubt that you are worth it. Or be cheaper than the best. And if you aren't good enough for either... be free!

PS: David Hobby published this piece on free work after this entry was started - but before I finished it and published it. I don't agree with him on everything, but some of his points just further support what I'm trying to say here.

PPS: And Chase Jarvis followed close after, and emphasized, as always, that being good is the one important skill you need if you don't want to have to do things for free.

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