Everyone with a photography business wants to make money. Read any photography site regularly and you will see plenty of articles and hundreds of comments telling you never ever do any work for free. However, if you are smart in choosing what to do for free you can book new clients and make a lot of money using free shoots.
So let's modify that advice a little bit to help you take your business to the next level. It's ok to do work for free if you do it strategically, on your own terms, and for the people you want to have as clients.
There are a few preliminary suggestions I want to give you that make these strategies work. First, although these focus on the portrait photographer, I think that with a little creativity, any of these tips can be adjusted to work for other genres as well. Second, if you want to maximize your profits, print sales are a very important component of these strategies. The overall idea is that session fees can be used as disposable incentives to get people in the door so you can make your money on the back end. Get your clients warmed up to the idea of prints from the very beginning by asking them if they have a place in their home they want to hang that epic family photo. Then tell them during the shoot that “this one is going to look great in that spot above the fireplace that you wanted to fill.” If you can do the little things like this then you never really have to play the role of salesman because the clients will be excited to be getting prints and the session fee you gave up to do a “free shoot” will seem insignificant compared to the print sales you can make. Third, all of this assumes you are going to give the client a great experience and produce great photos for them. So make sure you can do that first!
1. Donate a Free Shoot to a Charity Auction
I will admit that I discovered this one completely by accident. I donated a free shoot to a local charity auction and the family that won it ended up spending hundreds of dollars in prints! You also get the added bonus of doing something good for your community (if you're into that kind of thing). It is easy to find local charities that have fundraising events and they always need prizes to give away because that is usually one of the biggest draws for them and they rely on the generosity of local businesses. These giveaways come in the form of auction style giveaways, raffle style giveaways, and many others. The type of giveaway isn't important, the kind of event at which it is being held is very important.
This is where the strategy comes into play.
- First, you need to make (for yourself) a profile of your ideal client. Where do they spend their time, what are their interests, where do they shop, and most importantly, what type of these fundraisers are they most likely to attend? Figure out where your idea client is, and these are the charity events you want to target. If you don’t want to be that specific then simply stick to the charity events that tend to give away more high ticket items and attract donors that are likely to spend more money.
- Next, once you have the event targeted, contact the people running the event and donate a free photo shoot. There are a couple unwritten rules you will want to keep in mind when donating to these types of events. Don't donate something that forces the recipient to pay money if they choose not to. A “free photo session” that doesn’t include any prints or digital copies unless they pay you will not go over well. That’s a quick way to get a bad reputation. Make sure the prize does encourage them to add on. My go to “prize” package includes a free shoot and a credit for prints. I vary the dollar value based on the level of the event itself but it usually ranges from $25 to $75. You want to give them an amount that they can get something decent but that also makes them really consider putting the credit towards something much more expensive like a canvas or metal print. For many people and families, this is just the incentive they need to finally get that four foot canvas print to hang over the couch.
- Finally, just simply give them all the quality and service that you would a paying client. If you laid the groundwork well, then they will be excited and happy to go above the credit amount for more prints. But keep in mind, your goal is not ONLY to sell prints, it is to hook them as a long term client. Families with young children will want photos on a yearly basis, so you are building your client base for the future as well.
When it is all done, whether you made money on print sales or not, if you did a good job then you probably just gained a regular client that will be talking about the generous photographer that helped out a charity that they care about themselves. The goodwill alone is worth it.
2. Offer a Free Styled Shoot
This strategy is perfect for new photographers and veterans alike but requires a little bit of advertising. For this I highly recommend checking out a great article right here on Improve Photography about Facebook Advertising by Bryan Striegler. He explains it better than I ever could. This approach works particularly well with the targeting aspect of Facebook ads and once you get the hang of it, these ads can be very simple to make.
- The first thing you need to do is decide what type of shoot you want to do and/or what kind of client you want to target. Once you see how this works you will see why the finely targeted nature of Facebook's advertising works so well here. For purposes of this example, let us say that you are a portrait photographer and want to bring in clients that are looking to do adventure style shoots, just like the one our friend Nick Page did of a wedding couple on a glacier. It was as epic as it sounds so who wouldn't want to try something like that!
Facebook allows you to target people that may be interested in that kind of adventure shoot. For example, look for people that shop at outdoor stores, people that have been to local hiking areas, and people that follow pages that may be associated with outdoor adventure activities. I recommend being as targeted as you can so you know you aren't wasting your advertising dollars on clicks from people that won't be interested.
- So what should the ad say? Yep, you guessed it, tell them you are looking for adventurous couples that want portraits doing their epic activities. Include in the ad that you are offering this free to five, ten, maybe more couples that fill out your application. As for the free deal, I suggest offering a free 8×10 or more to the couples you choose. Be upfront in your advertising that you will be selecting the couples and that it is not random. Then pick the couples that seem like the best clients for you.
You can pick the number that you feel comfortable giving away. All they have to do is fill out an online form (that you have created already) to gather some information about them. If you haven't already set up a mailing lest, then stop right here and get one started. As much as it looks like Facebook is taking over the world at the moment, you don't know where they will be tomorrow and all your connections on there are stored on Facebook's servers. An email list is an extremely valuable piece of intellectual property that you can build and utilize forever.
- Finally, you simply look through the information you gathered and choose the ones that you think are a great fit for you and set up a time to do the shoot.
You will get two great things from this strategy. First, you will have 5 or 10 shoots lined up so that if you do an awesome job, you can sell a whole bunch of prints beyond the one or two you're giving them (with the added bonus that you carefully chose them from the applicants because you thought they would make great long term clients). Second, you have a whole bunch of new people signed up to your email list that you know are interested in what you do (and you have a lot of information about them). Don't ignore the people you didn't choose! Reach out to them and let them know they weren't selected for the free shoot but you can still offer them a discount for playing along. Some of them may sign up as paid clients and at the very least you have them on your email list for future marketing.
This is a great way to develop a specific niche of your portfolio or get started in a new area of photography without the cost of hiring models to build your portfolio.
3. Offer Strategically Targeted Free Mini Sessions
This is somewhat similar to the prior tactic except that here you are strategically picking out a group that you think would make good clients. Perhaps you have a connection to a local church or school group that you think is ripe with great potential clients but you don't want to just start asking for their business, send cold emails, or handing out pamphlets at the next meeting. What you can do is send out an email to them that you want to thank the group for working hard (or some other flattery that makes them feel awesome) and offer a day of mini sessions completely for free. Maybe even throw in a 5×7 print to whet their appetite for buying more. The goal here, like before, is to do an awesome job, build your reputation and make some photos that they can't say no to. I'm from Jersey so this is just a slight variation on “make 'em an offer they can't refuse.”
That being said, you still run a business and can't give away too much time. So putting some limitations in place to keep this under control will be important. Limit this to a certain number of shoots that you decide is manageable. Get this all done in a single day and preferably in a few hours. Limit the number of photos you will be delivering to each participant. Also, make sure you have a system in place to ensure that you are efficient in getting the photos to the participants. This means basic editing and online galleries that allow them to easily pick some for printing. I use an online proofing service that syncs up with Lightroom to create a unique gallery for each individual or group that participates in the mini-session. It is quick and painless and if you do your best to get the exposure right in camera, you can minimize your post-processing time.
The result will be a bunch of new additions to your client list, potential additional print sales, and likely the moniker of “the group photographer.” Guess who everyone will go to first when they need a family photo?
4. Volunteer to Shoot a Charity Event
You may notice a focus on charities here. There are a number of good reasons for that. First, you are a local small business and there are few better ways to get a good reputation than by doing charity work. Second, people involved in charities are generally more likely to be comfortable spending money for something they deem worthwhile and also they know that putting money into your business will indirectly help their favorite charity. Third, a donation is a better tax deduction than a business expense! So that $50 credit for prints that you donated as a prize…you can deduct the fair market value (in this case $50) not just what you paid the print lab (which is maybe $10). Of course the details of that are beyond the scope of this article, so make sure you consult a tax professional beforehand.
So onto charity events! This one is a little more indirect than the last few and is more of a way to get great experience shooting events and free advertising. Both of these are invaluable to photographers just getting started in their business but I think even established pros can benefit from the goodwill this can generate.
Every charity needs media coverage. Not every charity knows a good photographer. I recently had the opportunity to shoot an award presentation for a local charity here in New Jersey. The award was being presented before a charity hockey game that included alumni from the NHL’s New Jersey Devils and not only did I get to photograph the award presentation, but I also got to meet some NHL players and they let me stay and shoot the game! Now I have shots of former NHL players in my portfolio and the contacts I made just from my time there led to multiple clients. On top of that, the charity that I was volunteering for made sure I got credit for all the photos on their site and added my logo and website link in the “sponsors” section of their website. It has been a great source of web traffic ever since and has led to some bookings. I have a great relationship with the organization and have become their go to photographer. I would have done this for free but with a little forethought and strategy in mind it has benefited my bottom line.
5. Help Out a Local Small Business
This is one that I am planning to implement in the coming months so I cannot give any anecdotal evidence yet, but I think the strategy is sound. I got this idea listening to the Portrait Sessions podcast hosts talk about making sure you build relationships with the other wedding vendors. Now, as a portrait photographer (and someone is has no desire to shoot a wedding!) I don't work with a lot of other vendors.
However, through use of the tips above, I have made connections with some local businesses, many of which center around youth sports and activities. Some of these businesses are fairly new and don’t really have a budget for advertising. But what they do have are lots of parents who would love high quality images of their kids participating in these activities. Additionally, these parents mostly fit in my “ideal client” demographic.
So I volunteered to shoot, for free, practices, competitions, recitals, and whatever else I thought the parents may be interested in. I offered to give the owner a license to use some of the digital images for free in exchange for giving me this access. I will be creating an online gallery where the parents can purchase images from these events. I have it set up so that the print lab will automatically send the print to the client so even though everything they see will be branded with my business, I don’t have to do anything with the prints. Now, I am realistic here, I don’t expect to make a fortune from these online galleries. However, I do plan to take the opportunity to get to know the parents in the community and drive traffic to my website on a regular basis, so that when they need a photographer, they don’t even have to think about who to call because they already have my website open looking at an epic photo of little Johnny breaking three blocks of ice with a roundhouse kick at his karate demonstration (I assume that's what happens at those things as I've never been to one yet).
So the bottom line here is that you can use your camera for business benefits that go beyond simple dollars and cents. Photographers are a very creative bunch when it comes to their images, but seem to lack some creativity in their business practices. Sure, you could get some new clients just by paying for advertising, but then you are in the same boat as every other photographer in your region. But if you use some of the strategies above in place of simple “dollar for clicks” advertising then you will be building relationships within your community that are infinitely more valuable than any cold ad can be. After all, photography is a business that is built on relationships.
These are just five examples of some strategies I have learned or used. It is by no means an exhaustive list of all the ways you can use free work to build your business. I would love to hear some examples with which you have had success with similar approaches. So post your best success story in the comments below. Let's help each other out!