Opportunity vs Working For Free

Colorado adventure elopement photographer

I hate working for free, but I love opportunity. There are alot of times when one might be disguised as the other and if you are always chasing a $ sign you might miss something amazing. Recently I was reading Charlamagne Tha God’s book Black Privilege   

“Success is a process: there are no cheat codes, no life hacks, no shortcuts, and no half steps. Opportunity always comes before money, but sadly a lot of us don’t recognize it unless there’s a paycheck attached. Don’t make that mistake.”

I know that this post will rub some the wrong way, and I am prepared to have people throw shade and hate on it. But I am writing from experience. As someone who has seen opportunity and taken it, worked for less than I am worth and done things for free so that I could turn that opportunity into a career.

But there are things that I have learned along the way.

  1. Not all opportunity is created equal. In fact 98.5% of it is bullshit.

There are alot of people and companies that want things for free. But can you blame them? We all love free things, it is an enticing word. Multi million dollar companies will ask to work for free, trade, or (the best) exposure. But I also get that so here are some thoughts on that.

Free - If a company is making money they should pay in some form. Which leads to…

Trade - In my opinion is a great form of currency. I have shot for restaurants where I have done cash, and gift cards. Getting part paid in $600 to a rad restaurant is a pretty good deal. If I could do trade for an auto mechanic I would totally do that. Some things are mutually beneficial.

Exposure -  Every creative hates this, and for good reason. Exposure doesn’t mean shit. It doesn’t pay bills, and I have never gotten a paid gig from exposure. Don’t be fooled.

(A word about companies, I work for a large international outdoor apparel company, as of now we do not have a budget for models. So we don’t use them, we use employees and other avenues to get the photos we want. We have used trade if people are interested, but I will never ask someone to do it for free, or to devalue themselves and work for exposure. But it is true, sometimes there just isn’t a budget for things, but in that case they should respect themselves and others and just wait till there is a budget)

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2. My opportunity might not be your opportunity

Everyone’s path is different, everyone’s skills are different. What works for me might not work for you. Maybe it was my style of shooting, maybe it was my personality, or maybe I was just at the right place at the right time. But, it usually is one of the first two. Which leads me to number 3.

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3. You have to make it work

Good things come to those who grind everyday, even when they are tired, even when a client is unhappy. When someone doesn’t like your work, don’t complain in a Facebook post. Assess if it is valid, if it is and it aligns with your vision change it. So let’s break this one down.

  • If someone complains saying that they do not look good in your photos there are a couple ways to look at it. You can get mad, post in a Facebook group looking for validation and dwell on it. Or you can assess what the issues is and possibly change it. Is the client just insecure? Possibly. Or is it that you used the wrong lens, unflattering angle? Some issues are their issues and some are your issues, but learn from them and move on.

  • If someone offhandedly says that there is no emotion in your photos and that is something that you are striving for, then maybe look at what you can do better, experiment and change. But only if that is your vision.

  • Many times I see photographers running at every little red flag from a potential client. The client asks for one small thing and the photographers take that to mean that the client is going to be a nightmare, when in reality it is probably the fact that they are wary of spending $2000-$7000 on someone without asking a few questions. Yes, there are clients that won't fit with you. Yes, you should say no to some people. But use the question period to educate and answer. Listen to what is behind the question. If you run every time there seems to be a red flag, you may miss an amazing opportunity. 

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4. You have to make it work Part II

When opportunity comes that is right for you, you have to use it properly. If you choose to do something for travel you can’t just sit back and think that everyone is going to want to book you because you shot in Iceland, or Santorini, or Columbus, Ohio. You have to figure out how you will hustle and work to make that into something that builds your value in a way that no one can take. Opportunity doesn’t come to those who wait, it comes to those that make it happen and keep working when they are burned out.

If all you do is work for travel you will go broke, unless you are a trust fund kid, but then you don't need someone to pay for travel. If you keep working for cheap, you will get burned out so fast that the craft you once loved will feel like listening to Fran Drescher for 8 hours straight. 

If you don't value yourself others wont either. 

So lets end with a story or two. 

This one is different as I made this opportunity from the ground up, but using your craft for networking, on your terms, can lead to rolling opportunity. I got together a styled shoot, just a small one with a few vendors, and out of that shoot I have booked over $10K of work, and some of that work is regular. 

Another opportunity that has brought me to where I wanted to be when I first started was taking a part time internship. I worked for very cheap, If I had booked these shoots at my commercial rate I would have made $3-4000 more a month. But I put in my time, showed my value and have a job that is others would kill for. 

Remember, Opportunity might not aways pay well immediately, but when you put your time in, show your value, and stay positive. It will pay far more than you could hope for. 

The road is yours to make. So get out there and do it. 


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