How I Built My Clientele and Why I Believe in Free Work

Last week I received this question in my inbox:

This is a great question. The journey from hobbyist to sort of professional to full business is tricky to navigate. Artists create because it feels good. Running a business exists on the other end of the spectrum. It’s a weird paradox.

I’m going to answer this by explaining how I did it, what kinds of jobs I started doing, and what helped me go from shooting friends for free to shooting ads for magazines and big fortune 500 companies…. sometimes still for free.

The Beginning: Everything is Free

Let me begin with the most important part of this whole thing. Work trumps all. Your ideas, visions, plans for success aren’t worth anything on their own. When you start shooting, no one owes you a penny. All you should be worried about is shooting. A lot. Use your friends, use your family. Ask your school. And do it for free.

That’s what I did. For the first 2 years, all I did was shoot my friends. Some were conceptual shoots with limited production, but most were me texting them to put on pants and meeting me somewhere to shoot for 20 minutes. Then I reached out to organizations on my college campus. I shot sorority fundraisers and open mic events. I also did a short run with nightclubs. These were paid jobs but it paid shit. At the time I thought this was the most valuable gig for me. I shot celebrities and made some money. Oddly enough, this turned out to be the worst investment for me in terms of the big picture.

The Value in Free Work

As a photographer, you are playing for the end game. The long haul. Your first job is to get your name out there and build a portfolio. Everyone with a phone is a photographer now. What makes YOU different?

Doing free work is valuable for a few reasons.

  • It Gives You Time To Learn. It gets you out into the community and in front of people. Take this time to build your portfolio, make connections, and most importantly, master your camera. Know it front to back. Learn what different lenses do and what kinds of lights you need. Put in the time. Without a portfolio, you are just another instagrammer.
  • It lowers the stakes. If the work is free, then “just starting” is a little more acceptable when the end product isn’t great or something unexpected goes wrong. Both parties understand that there is a mutual benefit at the end of the project with time for print (TFP) as currency. It gives you a little more wiggle room on turnaround and delivery but try to give them their product as soon as you can. The flip side of this scenario is you accept a huge budget job without knowing what you are doing and you fall flat on your face. The stakes are extremely high and these clients are expecting a perfect product. If you mess up, the hope is that you don’t, you just lost a potential lifetime customer right at the beginning of your journey.
  • It lets you find your style: The more you shoot, the quicker you weed out the things that don’t interest you. You can identify what fuels your creativity, what excites you, and what doesn’t. You will naturally find yourself shooting more and getting better at the things you like.
  • I would say that 90% of my paid jobs are a result of free work I did either directly from a returning client or by referral. My sorority photos turned into 4 years (and counting) of recruitment videos and business work for alumni. My campus work and open mic photos introduced me to producers and recording artists and creatives who have ties to large music festivals and influential blogs and start up’s in Seattle, LA, and New York. A friend I shot was dating a dancer who happened to dance for Macklemore. I ended up touring with Macklemore in 2010 and 2011 and helped produce and shoot And We Danced. The Macklorettes are a huge part of my story to this day. The start up’s I invest in and our micro successes with PR, marketing and getting our product on networks like ABC can all be linked back to people I’ve met and befriended through FREE work.

    The 80/20 Rule

    80% of your money/success will come from 20% of your clientele. Focus on customer loyalty and over delivery with these jobs. Email, inform, follow up, and engage, GIVE GIVE GIVE with these clients and within this market and word of mouth will take care of future referrals (as long as your product is good). Try to make these jobs the ones you enjoy the most! Spend the most time doing important work that you love. Of course, sometimes the jobs in your 20% find YOU. Even if they aren’t exactly the most creative or “sexy,” they are loyal customers! Don’t blow it. These people are giving you money, don’t be stupid.

    The other 80% is what helps pay the bills. These are the odd jobs, the referrals that came to you without seeing your work, maybe your schedule was open and you had time to squeeze in a quick project. I’ve done carpet commercials, weddings, events but I’ll never post them. But I will do them. I have bills.

    If you are going to do free/ reduced cost work, do it for the 20% clients. They have a higher lifetime customer value than the one- off’s. There is a higher probability that your work will pay for itself many times over. Try not to do free work for the 80% clients. Here’s why:

    • This work isn’t your bread and butter/ style/ target market. That is more reason to charge money because you probably won’t be able to use it in your portfolio, marketing/ brand content. Don’t sell yourself short. YOUR TIME IS MORE VALUABLE for jobs outside of your market. It’s also okay to say no to these jobs if it’s really outside of your strengths or beliefs.
  • The benefit of doing free/ low cost work is to network, get your name out with high volume, or collaborate with interesting and influential artists. So if you spend a lot of time doing odd jobs and serving off-market clients, don’t be surprised to find that more people in this market will be contacting you. If you shoot a wedding for a friend, you are now the wedding guy. If you give your name at a night club, you are the nightclub guy. Keep this in mind. Try to avoid jobs you know you absolutely hate shooting. Save yourself the trouble of having to say no or getting caught in an off-market job and having to turn down an enjoyable job inquired for the same day.

  • The assumption that you will make a bunch of money right off the bat is just not a reality. You might find a few jobs here and there solely on the fact that someone knew you were a photographer, but some things to consider:

    If they found you via word-of-mouth alone, they may not even know what kind of work you do / your style. This can make the process very difficult. Make sure you know how your performance will be measured before you accept.

    Lack of research done on the client’s end might mean a lack of importance in the project. Make sure your work will be valuable to both parties.

    Final Words

    Be on your game. Free work is not an excuse to lack professionalism. Send timely emails, communicate, prepare for the shoot from top to bottom, and deliver the products FAST!

    When you start, you are a nobody. No one owes you anything and without a portfolio, no one is going to pay you what you think your competition/ local industry standard is charging.

    Shoot, shoot, shoot. Find your style. Find your recipe and replicate it. That is what people will pay for over and over again.

    If you have a question, DM me on Instagram with the hashtag #AskAmir.


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