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Negotiation Tips for Freelance Photographers (Part 2) – PhotoShelter Blog

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Getting approached by a client as a freelancer is always exciting, but when it comes with a caveat – like giving up your copyright or accepting a less than ideal paycheck – the excitement can dissipate quickly. 

So let’s talk about it. Is it ever ok to work for free? What about signing work for hire contracts?

Below is the second part of a two-part series all about how freelance photographers can approach contract negotiations. Taken from the recent virtual workshop hosted by Photoville, Diversify Photo and Leica, find out how David M. Barreda, Senior Photo Editor at National Geographic, and Jared Soares and Emiliano Granado, freelance photographers and the creators of the ​​professional photographic knowledge base F*** Gatekeeping, would advise freelancers handle jobs with smaller brands, limited to non-existent budgets and licensing work.

Note: You can find part one of the series here. The four scenarios and their related questions to consider were taken directly from the presentation, with all credit to Photoville and the speakers. 

Scenario 3: An up-and-coming popular brand inquires about a lifestyle project. The producer is offering a low budget and requests unlimited usage across all platforms.

Think about:

  • Does this brand or type of work align with my interests or creative goals?
  • How hard will it be to get paid?
  • Will this assignment have a higher level of production that will add to my portfolio?

Brands, they’re just like us right? All joking aside, it’s these scenarios when freelancers need to stop and do a bit of personal reflection. Jared encouraged everyone to ask themselves a few things. Is this something you want to do? Does it fit within your aesthetic sensibilities or goals? Is your contact easy to work with? Do their emails suggest they’ll be well organized and ready to go when you’re on set? “If the email is chaotic, then it’s likely to be chaos when you get on set,” Jared advised. Trust your gut. 

It’s here that Jared also returned to the idea of considering the potential a photo or assignment might hold in the long term. Think of ways you can use this smaller brand’s name or the final output to get the attention of a bigger brand or ad agency. 

The industry can often feel cutthroat but Jared stressed how important it is to remember that not everyone is out to get you. Low budgets are somewhat inevitable, like in the case of a nonprofit or small business. Jared shared that he works with an environmental organization that doesn’t pay well but is wonderful to work with. Emiliano doubled down here as well. “There are people out there trying to do good. Yes, you should be on guard for people trying to exploit you… but those are people you should sniff out,” he said. 

Being easy to communicate and work with has its perks too. David also chimed in here, bringing his perspective as a photo editor. “A lot of this is about building relationships,” he said. “It’s the clients and editors who will hire you again and again.”

If you do agree to do the assignment for a less than ideal amount, that shouldn’t prevent you from pushing back in the future. You might hear something along the lines of “Hey last time we did X, can we do that again?” Both Emiliano and Jared agreed that those moments should be viewed as windows of opportunity to outline your worth. Politely explaining the true cost of your photo, noting you made some concessions last time, is a great way to maintain your position and professionalism. 

In the spirit of “there’s always wiggle room,” Jared wrapped up by encouraging freelancers to ask about modifying the license or capping the usage when you’re drawn to a project but budget is limited. “Maybe instead of three years it’s one. Maybe instead of twenty five images it’s ten.” Everything can be negotiated! 

Scenario 4: Work for free. Is there ever an appropriate time to work for free?

Ask yourself: 

  • Am I benefiting 100% from the project? 
  • Is this helping an issue or story I feel personally connected to and invested in? 

Both Emiliano and Jared were quick to share that they have worked for free, even now. Offering a hard truth, Emiliano stated that he thinks “this industry might be for people who will work for free once in a while.” When it’s helping a cause you really care about, like the environment or photographing a friend or community member to help them get ahead, it’s often worth it. 

Another good rule of thumb when considering working for free: don’t work for free if someone else is making money. But if everyone is working for free, then consider agreeing.  

Taking on free jobs where the photos might help you get closer to the paid work or publication you dream of working with is often a worthwhile endeavor. “If there’s a local designer or a local business or friend who is making something interesting and there’s a way we can collaborate so everybody benefits, that’s the type of time I’d be ok working for free,” Jared shared. 

Pragmatically, David made sure to stress that freelancers need to keep in mind personal expenses and the true cost of working for free. Are there transportation expenses you’ll be on the hook for? Is there any risk to your equipment? Are you also expected to edit or retouch the images? How long might that all take? Is that going to take you away from a paying gig? The benefits must outweigh the potential risks. 

An important note: working for free often means there’s no fee up front, but there is resale value. “Presumably if there are some dope images that come out of it, then you have dope images,” Emiliano pointed out. Those are the types of images that can get you booked for bigger and better paying jobs, or licensed later on for a fee. 

Final thoughts:

On how long freelancers should expect contract negotiations to last – An easy rule? “20 [emails] is too many,” Emiliano said. “If we’re two hours and a week deep in negotiating a contract for 500 bucks, it might not be worth it.” Always remember that your time also has a price! 

On how they learned the legal lingo and where they got guidance – David, Emiliano and Jared stressed that experience really is the best teacher. Hopefully you have a little bit of a network but if not, there are free resources out there to get you started. (See our list below.) David added, “sometimes just reading good contracts and knowing what a fair contract is” can shed light on your options.  
On licensing – Counter to what some people think, you can negotiate during licensing too. Does getting this image to a client mean you have to pull out old hard drives? Are you being asked to retouch or edit the image in any way? This is a great time to say something like “Hey this is an old image, can you pay a research fee?” Emiliano noted. “$150-200 is reasonable for an hour or two of your time.” If they’re willing to pay for a research fee, or there’s a case where you’re just sending someone a download link to an existing image and there’s little to no lift on your end, then it’s probably worth it to go forward with a license. But when it comes to going back and forth, or making changes to a finished image, it might not be worth the investment.

Additional resources: 

We are hoping to grow this list over time. Please feel free to share your go-to resource(s) in the comments section below or tweet @photoshelter

Note: At the time of publication the recording for this conversation is not yet available. When public, we plan to add the recording to this post. 



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