Should you work for free is a question that every creative person out there needs to ask themselves, whether you’re an architect, photographer, or what ever else. The standard response out there is generally that you should always charge for your work and that working for free devalues your own services and the industry as a whole. But I have a slightly different view on this. I believe that there are many other forms of value than money, and the secret is to always make sure you are trading something. For example, if an architect has an amazing project that will elevate your portfolio to the next level then photographing it without any dollars is not working for free, you’re gaining status and a rung in the ladder to bigger and better projects. And that can at times be worth more in the long term then the fee you might have otherwise attained. Of course if that project isn’t giving you a step up, or some other value then you’re just working for free and that’s not sustainable.

What you have to do however, is make sure that it is clear that a trade is occurring and that your client is offering you something in return. That may be them just giving you a chance at a project at all, or it might be them giving you their best project, or it might be creative freedom, or a testimonial, or a whole range of other things. What’s important is that you’re not doing this for nothing and it’s probably not a bad idea to compare the trade to the normal dollar values you would charge.

I should note that this approach can also be used for people asking for discounts. If someone tries to reduce your fee, offer to trade them something in return. You would be amazed what favours this can create.

[UPDATE]

There is now a follow up post on this subject called “The Story of Free Continues” where I put this idea into context by sharing the story of one free project that had huge impact on my career.