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Five reasons to photograph for free

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A shot from the dress rehearsal of the Madrigal Dinner, an annual performance and dinner show put on by the First Congregational Church. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • A shot from the dress rehearsal of the Madrigal Dinner, an annual performance and dinner show put on by the First Congregational Church.
A recent discussion thread in an online group for professional photographers raised the question of working for free. A photographer asked if others were receiving calls from assignment editors seeking free photography of people, events or both. While I don’t think it’s a good idea to take on such assignments, I’m not opposed to providing free photography in some cases. In fact, I’m all for it.

I regularly photograph events and people for free — for friends and for causes that we believe in, for example. I’ve found that this free work pays for itself many times over, and often it’s just the right thing to do.

So in this season of giving, I offer you five reasons to photograph for free:

1. Goodwill. Offering free photography naturally generates goodwill towards you and your business. Everyone can use a little goodwill — and it seems to always opens doors to new opportunities. This year was my seventh year photographing the neighborhood kids on Halloween. I offered to email free digital images to families that were very appreciative to have a professional photograph of their children.

2. Free promotion. Photographing events or people for free in return for free promotion is a win-win. Experience has taught me me that marketing like this is often more effective than traditional paid marketing. I have been involved with a non-profit that raises money for needy families that have loved ones deployed overseas for several years, and each year the organization holds an awards banquet that I photograph. Donors — made up of prominent community and business leaders — are recognized and the promotion of my own business at this event has resulted in several assignments and at least one wedding.

3. Referral business. I almost always generate referral business when I practice free photography. This referral business is paying business that might never have happened if I hadn’t done something free to begin with. Every year I donate a free sitting at auction to a nonprofit that serves victims of domestic violence. And each year the sitting has resulted in referrals for additional family sittings and product orders.

4. Return clients. One free photography session can turn into a paying customer who keeps coming back. In fact, a client at a free sitting often brings up a future need for photography during the session. When the time comes, they call us.

5. Karma. It sounds cliche, but it’s true. When you do something for free, with no strings attached, someone else will return the favor. It also makes you feel good about yourself and your business. I would be a photographer even if I wasn’t paid to be. Photography makes me feel good — and giving photography to others makes me feel even better.

So far, I've have done a dozen free shoots this year, with too many to count over the past 10 years. As a result, I’m better off as a business owner, and as a person. To illustrate this post, here are photographs from the dress rehearsal of the annual Madrigal Dinner at First Congregational Church on the invite from a friend.


Sean Cayton is a wedding photojournalist of 19 years and operates a successful, award-winning wedding photography studio in Colorado Springs. He's also an award-winning photojournalist. Sean is happily married to the love of his life (also his business partner) and is father to three beautiful children. When he’s not working, Sean can be found outside flying kites with his kids, hitting golf balls or casting a fly rod to hungry trout.

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