Accepting & Declining Work and Whether to Work for Free

Photography Credit: Sacco & Sacco Photography

As an emerging photography business it can be hard to spot the times when you’d be better off saying no to potential jobs. It’s amazing some of the offers than can come your way so how do you gauge the times when it’s not in your best interests to take something on?

Even having been a full time photographer for twenty years, I still get it wrong sometimes.  Shortly after I did the Big Fat Wedding Bloggers Shoot, I was asked by a vet to do some portraits of him in his practice. I don’t get a lot of time for commercial work usually, but this sounded straight forward and it was right at the end of my road. He seemed like a fairly decent chap and when I turned up at the agreed time, he turned up late but I was polite and asked for a detailed brief. I fulfilled this exactly and did what I thought was a decent and quite flattering job portraying him and how he is at work. He was around 60 and a bit windswept, and as I can only assume that how someone presents themselves at a shoot is how they want to be photographed, this is what I did. I delivered the images the next day with my invoice. That evening I received an email saying that he was disappointed with them, that he didn’t look smart enough and he didn’t feel it really captured the ‘essence’ of his work and that now I had got a feel for the business could I come back for a reshoot? He then went on to point out that he had expected it to look more like the Bloggers Shoot…. er WTF?

I responded saying that I had fulfilled his brief and I had even pointed out to him that his tie wasn’t straight but he wanted to carry on. I also explained that the shoot he liked on my site was of girls in their twenties and was achieved with a team of hair stylists, make up artists, stylists and professional lighting. To recreate a similar shoot would cost thousands and had abso-friggin-lutely nothing to do with a suburban vets business. I told my best friend about it and she said it sounded just like her Dad who had his passport photo done 11 times because ‘they just didn’t capture him’. I declined his offer to go back for a reshoot and told him that I didn’t feel I could do the job any better and he was welcome to commission another photographer. I was right to say no as I believe he was never going to be happy because he had very unrealistic expectations.

However at other times it can be difficult to spot when something isn’t right for you. When establishing your business the pressure is on to accept anything that may come your way. Certainly if it’s weddings that you really want to concentrate on, then some portrait and commercial work undertaken during the week can be a good supplementary income. It’s important to ensure that you are getting paid a decent rate for these jobs, especially if they are not something that you want to promote on your blog. So many upcoming businesses think it’s acceptable to try to get photography for free to use on their own marketing material. As if it’s just an honour for you to be asked. I’m not saying never shoot for free because I certainly do, but only if it’s going to promote my business and is mutually beneficial. But if something comes along that’s just not right for you or you feel is beyond your skill level than its okay to say no or at least command a fair fee to do the job.

Another dilemma for wedding photographers and other suppliers is what to do when a friend asks you to do their wedding. I have actually only been a guest at a wedding two or three times as almost everyone I know who has got married has asked me to photograph their days. As awkward as this can be, I guess I am flattered. One of my close friends got married last year in Scotland (photo above) and though she had been my bridesmaid, she asked me to be her photographer. At first I was like ‘Really?’ but she said she would feel weird having anyone else do it and she loved my work, so maybe I was flattered into it! I had to be ready by 10am (no mean feat with two kids in the hotel room!) and she was stressing as she got ready, but as soon as she walked down the aisle I started crying as I knew her so well and had been a part of her life for over twenty years. I tried my best to hide behind my camera for most of her ceremony.

In the end it was an honour to photograph her day and I still managed to have a great time. However sometimes it might not be someone that you are really that close to who asks you to be their wedding photographer and the decision whether to say yes or no is harder. If their date is a Saturday in the summer then it’s even more of a dilemma as there often seems to be an expectation that you will do the job for a reduced rate or even for no fee at all. And while, yes, it is flattering to think they like your work enough to want you to do the job, think about it this way – if you charge, say, £1000 usually and in doing the friend’s wedding means you can’t work that day, ultimately you are loosing out on a potential earnings.  Would you really give that couple a £1000 wedding gift? As wedding photographers especially, we have key dates and times of year in which to make our entire annual income, so asking us to give up a potential days earnings is quite a big deal. I have also come to realise that sadly what often happens in this situation is that because they are having the best day of their lives, they feel you are too and so there is no need to even thank you.

So what can you say when put in this position? Well I think that if it’s a wedding you would attend anyway then you are already giving up that potential days wages so maybe the money isn’t the issue. I now actually offer to do friends weddings for my commercial rate which is less than my wedding rate and agree that my coverage finishes when the meal begins so I get to put my camera away at that point. If they do want more coverage then they can pay one of my second shooters. I then change into a dress and heels so I feel like a guest from that point on and usually manage to have a good time even though I might be playing catch up with my husband!

It can be more than a little awkward to discuss money with friends but stick to your guns and remember that this is your job. They might think that as you are going to be there anyway you may as well take a camera, but being a guest with a camera is very different to being the wedding photographer. Of course then you also have all the post production on top which is something that a lot of people don’t even think about. I usually try and help my friends to save money in other areas of their wedding budget as I know so much about the industry. I can certainly be a very useful friend in the run up to the wedding! Also think about what your friend does for a living. Would you ever ask them to do that for free? Probably not. However a fair trade of trades can work well, I once shot a friend’s wedding and he fitted my kitchen.

Again though it is okay to say no, I have occasionally and they are still my friends. Every now and then it is very lovely to get all dressed up and be a wedding guest and to not worry about the weather, the group shots and the vicar giving you evil stares.

Lisa Devlin is a wedding photographer from Brighton and a regular contributor to The Green Room as well as Photo Professional Magazine. She hosts workshops on all areas of wedding photography as well as the 3-day long Photography Farm on a regular basis. If you are interested in attending The Photography Farm (food and accommodation included), the next event will be taking place from the 16th – 18th July (with guest speaker & stylist yours truly!) For enquiries or bookings email Lisa on lisa@devlinphotos.co.uk or call 01273231047.

All Photography Credit (except where mentioned): Devlin Photos

39 comments

  1. I am still laughing hard at that vet. Am I too mean?
    Great GREAT post by the way, in this green room the right blog posts just come up every time I need some advice on a specific topic, what kind of sorcery is this?
    Thanks Lisa and Kat xx

  2. Ah, its so hard to do sometimes. But you are very right, Lisa. The perception seems to be that because our job is creative, it isn’t really work! Much as I love my job, and I do, its still work. I usually just, very truthfully, say “i love you & I want to celebrate your day with you – if I am working I won’t be able to do that”. Do you want me there as your photographer (which means you have to pay me), or as your friend (which I will do for no money and with much love)?”. So far they have respected me & my work enough to be okay with that, happily :).

  3. Same for me, perfectly timed post as always! Superbly written Lisa, I can just imagine the vet scenario…the big fat vets shoot could have been a very lucrative opportunity!! Really interesting read, thank you 🙂

  4. Such a great post. Turned down shooting my friends wedding last year. Because I told them “I can be your photographer or your guest but not both” They choosed guest 😉
    They hired another tog but I took my camera with me anyway. The huge framed print of them on their wedding day is mine.Win win….

  5. Kat, I do so love the Lisa Devlin posts! 😉
    I had two friends come to me last year about their weddings. Like Lisa said though, I couldn’t afford to give a wedding gift of those two weddings for free… I’d never expect someone to give the equivalent of half a months salary to me as a wedding gift. It’s always good to read these posts though – it either makes me rethink what I’m doing, or it confirms I’m doing the right thing!

    I do remember hearing about a situation where a wedding photographer traded skills with a couple, they built a website in exchange for their wedding photos. Unfortunately, the web designers didn’t value the photographers work as being the equivalent, I think they saw it as “one day’s work” (for the photographer), and didn’t like the pictures. Ultimately they ought to have looked at the photographer’s portfolio and decided on that first, because a “bargain” only exists if what you’re getting is what you actually want.

  6. great and honest post. Someone who has been my friend for the past 10 years, asked me to shoot his Son’s wedding (never met his Son, wouldn’t have been a guest). They picked a peak August Saturday, I gave them a few hundred off. He then found out that I’m shooting one of my ushers weddings for much less (I would have been a guest). After he found that out he ended our friendship, which is a shame but I guess where money is concerned even friends can show their true colours. I wish people really understood the financial awkwardness of shooting friends / friends of friends weddings

  7. aaaaaah, such a great read!! Thank you Kat and Lisa!!
    I’m finding this a difficult thing to deal with, feeling pressured and not wanting to look like a cow for politely saying no. Sadly so many people have little idea of the work involved.
    I’ve shot friends weddings for free quite a few times, and mostly would do it again at the drop of a hat, but it is people I am less close to who expect the same and cant see a problem with it. Sticking to my guns and eduction……. here I come : )
    Thanks a million lovely lady peeps xxx

  8. I’ve done two weddings as gifts – once for my brother, and once for very close friends. I’ve set ‘mates rates’ now, which makes things easier when people ask.
    The difficulty I’ve found though when shooting a friend’s wedding is that I’ve felt I haven’t fulfilled either role (photographer or guest) 100%. I could allow myself one drink, but no more as that wouldn’t feel very professional, but then if I’m talking with other guests, I’m constantly on alert for things to photograph and not being very sociable. Lisa’s idea of having a cut-off time and handing over to someone else is perfect.

  9. Perfect timing yet again in the wise and awesome Green Room. Always a relief to realise others are faced with these issues/dilemas.

    Off I go now to get a backbone and start saying no.

    Thank you Lisa, thank you Kat! X x

  10. Amma – dont know about you but i have a mental picture of a balding old man dressed up like us and posing in front of a wind machine. its slightly (OK a lot) disturbing

  11. great post lisa. Last year I turned down shooting a close friends wedding because it was one that I really just wanted to be a guest at. Although I did still take photos. This year I have two friends weddings that I am getting paid for and will be a guest for the evening part of the do. Im more than happy with this and am excited about recording their special day. Would be lying if I didnt say I was slightly nervous, especially of the brides mum in one of the weddings who has known me since I was 11 and still scares me slightly 😉

    Its a tricky balance, but think your advice is great and maybe going with your gut instinct helps a bit too

  12. Family and friends weddings are always a tricky one! I was asked to do one this year, which I was happy to quote for. However, it turned out that even though I’d given them a nice discount as a ‘present’, they still thought it was too expensive – ‘after all, you’re going to be there anyway and it’s just a couple of hour’s work, isn’t it?’ Er, no!

    Needless to say I’m not shooting that wedding! I certainly can’t afford to give such an extravagant present. Yes, I’m now losing one of the most popular days in the wedding season which I could have filled five times, as I have to be at the wedding anyway. However, I’d rather have the day off than work hard for little reward!

  13. Lots of good points covered, thanks Lisa!
    I’ve had to turn down studio work before because it’s not my expertise, and I really wanted to work with the client to I was gutted. Thankfully she’s hired me since for other projects though which are more ‘me’.

  14. A couple of years ago it was definitely hard to say no to anything, but with experience now it can be a lot easier to spot time wasters and clients who will never be happy, no matter how much you try! Great post Lisa, and some fantastic tips for wedding bloggers! x

  15. I find this so so hard, what a great article. I LOVE photographing weddings (I actually prefer photographing them to attending them as a guest, you feel so much more personally involved in them right from the start) but it’s about what is right and fair. And you are always looking for a shot, not meaning to be rude but just poised ready and it is hard to be part guest, part photographer. I have a general rule, would I be going anyway (ie are they close enough to me that I would be)? If not, then full price. If I would be then mates rates, a set price. It’s all in the way you put it across, gently but firmly.

  16. This is a great post, thanks Lisa! Sound advice as always x

    I am currently building my own wedding photography business and certainly have come across the dilemna of whether to accept certain work. It is a shame that often people don’t realise how much work is completed after the shoot or appreciate lost earnings.

    Still when you get a client who is completely on your wave length it makes up for everything! jbx

  17. Great post – something I really struggle with too – I don’t do free work anymore unless it really benefits me as a business – like really great exposure – I now have to say no to friends that want free portraits etc and I do set ‘mates rates’ for weddings – this year I have a few weddings set as ‘mates rates’ and even that makes a dent in your total earnings for the year. When I first started I did a lot of free work and it really helped me get started, but at the time it wasn’t nice having friends always just expect you to do it for free!

  18. Great to see such sensible advice on here. As for the vet…. what an ASSHOLE!!
    Unfortunately the world is a big place and you are bound to eventually come up against such people… best just to move on and chalk it up to experience 😉

  19. Doing freebies is dreadful for your self esteem and it’s a real eye opener. I was pretty naive when I started and just didn’t realise how much people will take the piss if you let them.
    As Zammo would say, just say no!

  20. excellent post Lisa, really helpful timing as we are currently in the ‘you are coming anyway please bring your camera’ scenario. I guess balance is required and that is something we haven’t yet managed to get right. We are working on it!

  21. Vanessa

    Great post! Shame about the stupid vet! I dont like to do jobs for free, at first i did for family and friends but then it seemed that everyweek another fiend or family member wanted photos so i just have had to charge, at the end if the day i am tying to start a business which is hard enough without doing it all for free. Still i have been charging friends and family barely anything but it makes things awkward especially when they dont pay on time,(i am still waiting for payment from one relative and ive had the session complete for about 6 weeks!) also i have found that friends/family then expect to have photos right away ahead of other people etc. IF I CHOOSE to give a heavy discount then i expect a bit of flexibility, respect and gratefulness (which i havnt really seen) so i am no longer doing them cheaper. Twice i have even had not so much as a thankyou or a i received you package in the mail thanks!!! Do they realise how terrible that makes a photographer feel, not getting a thankyou from a friend. We photographers are overthinkers and then assume they didnt like them (which it turns out wasnt the case, apparently)but either way it was free! As much as i know try to turn down jobs that i dont think i can deliver a great outcome, i didnt always.
    And saying yes when i probably should have said no led to the greatest thing that has ever happened to me.
    I have always loved photography and always loved weddings. But my photography was all fun and games. I thought i was good but when i look back now i had only just got my first half decent camera and i shot in jpeg on P!! (oh how far i have come!!) i was asked if i would do one of my sisters friends weddings as she thougbt my photography was good even though i wasnt and hadnt ever even thought about being a wedding photographer. I ummed and arred over it alot but they only had a tiny budget (photography wise) so i eventually said yes. I was scared but i thought i could do it. ‘Really how hard could it be? ‘ i thought. But it was hard and lots of things i couldnt control. The bride was happy with her photos even though when i look back i can see everything i did wrong.
    Anyway the point of my comment is if you dont take a chance sometimes when it is offered you may never have an opportunity to do something that could change your life! I realised on her wedding day that this is what i wanted to do with my life! It awakened my calling that i had never known. It changed my life for the better and i am forever grateful for the opportunity she gave me! That bride changed my life and i could never repay her (except i am happy to do shots for her for free anytime!!!) lol

  22. Interesting article which strikes many chords with me as I’ve experienced several similar experiences as a Wedding DJ. Delivering a professional service is all about getting to know your client and understanding their expectations. If your not comfortable with either then its worth thinking about whether or not to take their booking.

  23. I’m sure people would take the vet guy seriously if he wore a pretty dress and posed holding some flowers. Haha, oh wow, that is so ridiculous.

    Jose did his sister’s wedding photography a few years ago and it was kind of weird because their mom also had her friend take photos without asking or telling anyone, and that person kept getting in Jose’s way so he was sort of confused about what his role was exactly… communication is important, people!

  24. rae

    Great post! As a musician I feel the same way – if a really loved friend invites me to perform at their wedding then it is obviously lovely to do so – but when vague acquaintances expect a freebie it’s very different. I’m getting better at saying no though!

  25. Hey Lisa, Great post – do you remember we saw the vet in question on the Victoria – Brighton train after Kats party last year?!

  26. Fantastic post – as a musician I can definitely relate to this, although if I play for friends’ weddings it’s not working as many hours as you photographers do!

    I loved your explanation of why we don’t get thanked as well – a wedding ceremony I did last weekend, the toastmaster thanked everyone except me. The registrar came up to me afterwards and said, I’m sure you get this all the time, but thank you we enjoyed your music. I had to explain that musicians and photographers normally get left off the list – the toastmaster overheard and I got a lovely public thank you after I had finished playing 🙂

    Working for free is a tough call – I have found some great tools to deal with this via other musical websites and I have a standard response now. Occasionally I will reduce my prices but it’s always to suit me and I refuse to be browbeaten or guilt tripped now. However, I am lucky that I have a day job to rely on and it must be extremely difficult to turn work down if business is slow.

    PS Silly vet…!

    PPS – Another huge thanks for the Green Room – LOVE this site for so many reasons but this is one of the biggest!

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