Guest Post: The Illusion of FREE

Guest Post: The Illusion of FREE

Matt’s in London this week and he’s asked me to fill a spot. Rather than touch on the artistic and philosophical side of things, which Matt does so well on his own, I want to bring you in on an on-going conversation Matt and I are having about money. I’ll do that by addressing the issue of FREE.

FREE is a powerful word, and a powerful concept. It’s getting a lot of discussion in the marketplace, some going so far as to suggest it’s a commerce model all on its own. Boiled down, it amounts to this – the market is clamoring for FREE. If you don’t give it to them, someone else will. In our context, they want free photography, free post-processing, free images, free teaching. Turning a blind ear to this is not only mixing your metaphors in a dangerous way, but is a good way to get left out in the cold. We have to listen to the power of free. This blog is free, so is mine. We give, but everyone gains, including us. Free wallpapers cost us nothing but give something to the market. Free prints when you book a sitting – they cost the photographer pennies, but provide a great gain for the consumer and the producer.

But on the other hand giving it all away for nothing is not viable. In some ways, there is no such thing as FREE. It’s an illusion. My wife wants to eat, so do my cats. My landlord comes back each month for a rent cheque, and my cameras are going to need replacing. Doing business cost money. So does living.

You’ve been given only so much time and talent with which to pay the bills. Give it all away and you’re hurting yourself and others. I recently had an email questioning the expensive (?) price tag behind the workshops Matt Brandon and I lead. What my interlocutor failed to realize is that these workshops take a year to plan, market, and administrate. Ignoring the costs, like airfare for instructors, all meals and ground costs, etc., we give 2 weeks of our time, plus 3-4 days of pre-trip planning in-country and at least 2 days of travel. Call it an even 20 days, plus an estimated 10 solid days of planning during the year. 30 days. If we do not charge accordingly, those are 30 days we can’t use to contribute to our annual cost of doing business. So we need to take more from those other clients. In my case, clients working with vulnerable women and children. Not an appealing thought for me.

I can only make so much money in a year, but my costs are pretty static. My overhead doesn’t go away because I wish it would. I still need to pay for my website, my marketing materials, my taxes, my savings, my daily living expenses. FREE will put you and I into bankruptcy so fast it’ll make your head spin.

Working with charities and NGOs you’ll encounter client after client that asks you to give it away for free, and they’ll tell you to your face that they (1) can’t afford you -probably true – and (2) are responsible to carefully steward what little finances they have – also true. The strong implication, however, is that you are somehow responsible for their stewardship. You aren’t. You are responsible to steward your time and money. Your family and your business. This doesn’t mean you can’t find creative ways of doing the latter while working for the client, but it does mean you need to know what your cost of doing business is, and whether you can actually afford to give it away. You need to remind yourself there’s no such thing as FREE.

Failure to do this means you will sit closer to the survival line, take gigs as cheap as you can, undercut the others struggling to make it, and in the end put yourself out of business, which helps no one. You must steward your time and money, and that begins with knowing the true cost of going out for a day or a week, and finding ways to cover that that do not include a line of credit or plastic. Heed me on this. If you do not know your Cost of Doing Business, you need to. In actual numbers. Now, back to FREE.

There is no such thing. It’s an illusion. Someone always pays and in this case it’s you. Those of us that take pro-bono (notice it’s not called free) work often fall into the trap of thinking that “we’re not getting paid for this one.” As if it’s simply a break-even on the books. It’s not. YOU are paying for it. If you need to earn, for example, $1000 for each day you shoot, in order to meet your annual cost of doing business, then that money has to come from somewhere and agreeing to shoot a week for FREE means, not a week without pay, but a week with a $5000-$7000 deficit on your annual budget. How many of those can you afford?

If this is beginning to sound like a hard-assed capitalist speaking, then good. I’m not, for the record. I’m Canadian so I’m closer to being a socialist. I’m wearing a Mao Tse Tung shirt I got in Beijing as I write this and I have a strong affinity for revolutionaries (though I dislike their methods). I digress. The dollar is a tool, not a god. But you have to wield your tools well and most photographers are very kind people who want to give it away, unconscious to the staggering cost of doing this, even as a hobby. I’m not saying you need to make money your priority, but you do need to make the wise management of your time and money a strong priority.

So what have I done to (1) steward my time and money, while (b) continuing to work for clients with shallow pockets?

1. I have strong sponsored relationships with generous leaders in the photography industry. They give my products that I would otherwise pay for, lowering my overhead and thereby lowering my cost of doing business. I can afford to spend more time doing pro-bono work.

2. I have sought alternate means of funding. Someone has to pay for me to photograph child labourers in central asia, but that doesn’t mean it has to be me or the NGO. My last assignment was paid for by a business-man here who wants to make a difference in the lives of children. He cut me a check and said, go shoot. Be creative.

3. I have diversified and sought mulitple income sources from shooting and teaching. I shoot while I am home and charge more to my commercial clients than I ever could to my paying NGO clients. One subsidizes the other. See, told you I was a socialist.

4. I have been blessed to have a couple solid clients who see the value in what I do. One of my projects raises multiple millions of dollars for the organization. They see that emotionally compelling images create exponentially more powerful fundraising and advocacy campaigns, and in the end that means more money. They pay me. But they are the exception. Educating other potential clients on this is important.

I still give it away sometimes, folks, but I do it selectively and with my eyes wide open to the actual cost. All this doesn’t temper my idealism and desire to change the world. It doesn’t make me greedy or mercenary. It doesn’t put a Rolex on my wrist. It means one thing: I can continue to do what I love and feel called to do, without going bankrupt or neglecting my family, or wondering how in the world I am going to replace the camera that just got broken or stolen. It means I can do this longer, and harder, and be of greater good to the world than I could otherwise.


David duChemin is a humanitarian and world photographer, and a close friend of Matt Brandon’s. Together they form the most sarcastic duo of photographers you ever met. Get in on the fun by joining us for our annual Lumen Dei Photographic Workshop and Tour. David blogs daily at, his portfolio can be seen HERE.

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  1. grungemann

    Now, this is a solid article. Straight from the heart & soul.

  2. Rosane

    Great article David!

    I think just the fact that you’re so transparent and so willing to share your knowledge is priceless. That’s probably the reason why you’ve been blessed with food on the table for your wife and cats. πŸ™‚

  3. Rosane

    Great article David!

    I think just the fact that you’re so transparent and so willing to share your knowledge is priceless. That’s probably the reason why you’ve been blessed with food on the table for your wife and cats. πŸ™‚

  4. Bay

    All good points David. It is so hard to balance two such opposing and sensitive issues, but you speak the truth πŸ™‚

  5. Gary S. Chapman

    May we all take this to heart and act on it. Give, but be wise.


  6. Martin McNeil

    An absolutely outstanding post that I found via; you’ve managed to sum up how FREE can crush you, yet also showed ways in which it can, when carefully considered with keen business acumen, still turn a profit for you. Bravo, good sir!

  7. David duChemin

    Thanks y’all. Always nice to know I’ve touched a nerve (in a good way, not in that sharp, searing pain, kind of way.)

  8. Myung Chun

    Wow. Thank you for that great post.

  9. Ian

    Quality post David and half way through reading it I was going to quote you some stuff but you beat me to the punch “The dollar is a tool, not a god.”. Those are such wise words that in a slightly different form mean an awful lot to me. What Gavin wrote about yesterday, words of inspiration, those words are included in my list in a similar form which i’ll link you up to here. You might not like the music lol, but it’s my taste and the lyrics are from the heart

    I will do anything for anyone and happily do it for nothing if I think they’re a decent person or a good cause but, the sad reality of life is that if you don’t temper that with a hard side you’ll get taken for a mug and that’s something I refuse to be taken for. As the lyrics say “Green fields mean more to me than a brand new car” but the first person to try and take advantage of that gets charged double πŸ˜‰

  10. Cooper Strange

    I face this all the time. If you mingle in NGO circles, you are expected to give the word away for free, which as you so clearly stated, is not free at all. It is hard to not come across as somebody who cares only about money and thinks a little too highly of their photographic skills. It is sometimes a strange balance.

  11. Loy66

    What is the social philosophy of the document? ,

  12. Wolf10

    The third is increased efficiency. ,


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