Life in the 21st century has brought about some weirdly specific problems. Say, really wanting to roll onto your other side when you’re lying in bed, but not being able to cause your phone is plugged into the wall. Or being peer pressured into broadcasting our participation in seemingly random challenges – from round house kicking caps off bottles, through to having a bucket of ice-cold water emptied above our heads. The demands of the modern world are weird and relentless, including ones that make us feel obligated to shoot influencer weddings to stay relevant.
And then there’s the other 21st century question that people in the creative industry are facing:
Is it ever okay to give away your labor for the promise of social media reach and fame rather than cold, hard cash?
We got to thinking about this question most recently when we stumbled across this post, where a social media agent asked a photographer whether he’d be available to shoot the 2021 wedding of an influencer. The photographer was asked to work for free – and to essentially be grateful for the opportunity to do so.
If you do nothing else, be sure to check out the photographer’s snarky reply to this request. It’s a balm for the soul of any creative that has ever been asked to work for exposure and a social media shout out.
But, jokes aside, in times where social media reach is a real currency, the question IS worth discussing. Because there have been cases in the past where a wedding or elopement went viral, catapulting the photographers into stardom – with tons of recognition and exciting jobs following suit.
And it’s an open secret that a lot of people are offering their services for destination work, elopements or particularly stylish weddings at incredibly low rates (or even free), all in the hopes that it will be the shoot they need in their portfolio to get ahead.
For many it’s a hush-don’t-tell topic, but the practice has grown in recent years, accumulating to a point where many creatives feel it’s impossible to get a foot in the door without doing tons of free work first to build an impressive portfolio.
In an ideal world we’d all be charging what we need to run a sustainable business. But it’s an open secret that many photographers are offering services at lower rates or in exchange for travel expenses, hoping to get that one wedding that will change the course of their business.
And yes, in an ideal world everyone would always charge a fair price for their labor. That would make the differentiating factor between businesses in the same industry all about style, experience, service and the like. But no industry works that way anymore. Why would the wedding industry be different?
This post isn’t here to bash anyone who’s worked for free. We’ve all been at that place where we really, really wanted a job. We’ve all undersold ourselves. We’ve all made promises in the hopes of it paying off a little down the road.
The reality is that wedding photography is a really saturated market right now with lots of folks dreaming about making it big. This fact, along with the prominent role of social media, has tricked us into equating ‘good work’ with ‘popular work’, making us question our photography and our worth as soon as the number of hearts on a post doesn’t match up to our expectations.
The formula we tend to apply right now looks a little like this:
Shooting couples styled to perfection + building a massive following x traveling the world = internet stardom and a major career in the creative field.
Looks good on paper, right?
We’ll admit, it’s a nice fantasy. It’s completely understandable how and why everyone is chasing after it like it’s their North Star.
The only problem? It’s a misconception.
People are chasing this magical formula like it’s their North Star. It’s one that is easily sold to newbies entering the industry. The only thing wrong with it: It’s a misconception.
We must not give away our power, believing the key to our big break lies outside of ourselves. And certainly not to any influencer shout out.
Believing that our big break depends on shooting one perfect wedding, receiving one shout out from a major influencer, capturing one single photograph that will go viral – that is the breeding ground on which our insecurities are growing. It’s the toxic environment that’s made the ground fertile for inquiries like the one from the influencer’s agent.
Don’t give up that power. We’ve worked too hard to build this.
Let’s face it, often you’re not just being asked to give up your time for free. You’re also being asked to loan your hardware and software for free. You invest time in a job, maybe traveling, certainly driving places.
All of these factors mean that you’re essentially PAYING to work a job.
Now that doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it?
By saying ‘yes’ to these requests you are not only underselling yourself, but also making it harder for anyone else in your industry to charge fair prices.
Be very aware of the message that not properly charging for your work sends. Signaling that a couple’s wedding provides disproportional value for your business might open the floodgates for a very unhealthy client-photographer relationship.
If you had a guarantee that shooting wedding X for travel expenses would catapult your portfolio to new heights – you might argue that it’s worth it. You could consider that a marketing expense, a little like organizing (and financing) a styled shoot.
But you don’t have that guarantee.
The way a couple structures their wedding day is entirely up to them. And you are at the mercy of their approach, their timeline, the weather. Even if everything works out as you have hoped for – there is zero guarantee that the shots you create will have the effect you are holding out for. Or that a shout out from an influencer couple will actually result in an inbox full of inquiries.
What kind of message does it send to not charge for your work?
Ideally, you always want to be working with clients that are amazed by what you do. Ones who are proud to have you as their photographer.
Underselling your work signals that their wedding provides a disproportionate advantage for your business. This tips the scale towards an unhealthy client-photographer relationship.
Social media makes it seem like wedding photography is on steroids right now. That trend was foreseeable. Because in order to gain attention, our work’s gotta break through a lot of noise. And to do that we gotta go higher, further, bigger every time we post a new picture. Only at some point we have to realize, it comes at a price.
This insta bubble we’ve created isn’t the real world.
Shooting real weddings for a living is an entirely different thing than admiring a sunset desert shot of a boho couple where all the factors intertwined to create Instagram gold.
The reality is that the majority of weddings out there isn’t glorious by Instagram standards. But the meaning of it all, the family members and friends that come together, the promises made that day, the emotions, the history, the legacy created – all these things are just about as glorious as life gets.
Embarking into the world of wedding photography means honoring that truth. It means saying ‘yes’ to dozens of weddings where the joy of shooting lies in the gift you create for your clients: gifting couples with memories that may be ignored by the Instagram algorithm, but that will stay with them for a lifetime.
If you want to create a sustainable approach to wedding photography, this enthusiasm needs to be the foundation of your business.
By shooting fancy elopements and influencer weddings for free, you’re voting for a world where fancy locations and Pinterest gimmicks are valued more than the reason two people get married.
Is that a choice you want to make? Doesn’t the promise of fancy boho dresses and glittery details pale in comparison with the trust a couple has in you to capture their day, no matter what it’s made up of?
The vote is yours.
All of that aside – should you ever be offering your services for free?
It can make sense. In rare cases. Like when you aren’t ready to charge yet and are looking to build experience. Or if it’s about an equal trade of skills (say, you’re shooting a designer’s wedding who in turn will work on a rebrand for you.)
But generally: No. No, you shouldn’t.
No matter how fair the deal is, not getting paid means not being able to put food in your fridge or pay for the roof over your head. Not making an income means that you can’t pour all of your energy and love into the work you’re doing for your couples.
No, if you respect what you’re creating.
Remember, making it in an industry like wedding photography is not about that one big break that will shoot you into social media stardom. It’s about putting in consistent effort, often over years, gathering experience, wowing clients, building a reputation. This ascent is rockier, yes, but once you make it to the top you will be as successful and profitable as you’ve always dreamed – and also have the metaphorical battle scars to prove it.
No, if you care about other photographers.
If we stumble over each other through lowering our rates and promising extras left and right in order to get a job we feel could be our big break – where does it end? And who does profit from it? Certainly not the creatives.
No, if the goal of your business is to build healthy, positive relationships with your couples.
Many celebrities and influencers are very specific about the photographers they want there for their big day. They will happily pay full price for all their services. It’s not about exposure, it’s about meeting people at eye level.
So, if an influencer or a celebrity adores your work and wants you to capture their big day, while compensating you fairly – congrats. This is so exciting.
But by saying ‘yes’ to a request like the one from the agency you’re essentially agreeing to work with people who expect you to drop at their feet because, gasp, they have a following. If you feel you aren’t valued or something doesn’t sit right with you – ‘No, thank you’ is always a valid response.
Rest assured that your true big break lies in the hard work you are willing to put in over years.
And that’s all on you, baby.
Let’s get to it!
Connection is what it’s all about. Feel free to reach out to us with any comments or questions you might have, even if it’s only to say hello. If it wasn’t for our beautiful community, this place just wouldn’t feel the same.