Eric Cheng

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Photographers: when do you give away work for free?

a humorous copyright violation

As a [photographer](/photo), I am constantly asked for free images. Every day, I respond to upwards of 5 requests for free imagery from a diverse array of entities including individuals, non-profits / conservation organizations, companies, buildings, and other organizations. Some photographers get angry when they are asked for free work, but I do not. If the request is ridiculous, I find great humor in the situation, but if it is a serious request by someone who has really thought things out, I will reply honestly.

The most recent request was to "borrow" images for some sort of company event, and compensation was to have my name visible next to the prints. Dave, a good friend (and [successful artist]( himself), wrote commentary about the situation after I mentioned it.

> *If they pick up/drop off, you're visibly credited w/your contact info and there's a lot of traffic it could be good exposure.*

In theory, I agree with his statement, but I've had enormous prints mounted in the lobbies of some of the biggest buildings in San Francisco for months, and do you know how many leads they generated? Zero. Even with my name, a biography, and postcards placed somewhere near the prints, they generated no leads.

Unlike some of my old(er)-school friends, I do understand the value of giving away images without monetary compensation -- but there must always be some sort of return on investment. The better articulated the ROI, the higher chance I will participate. Some requests are so poorly articulated that they become celebrated [for humor](/journal/2010/02/11/how-not-to-ask-for-a-free-image-for-turtle-conservation/), which I suppose is some sort of ROI in itself.

Below are some of situations in which / organizations to which I have given away or lent images for "free":

1. Portfolio or article about me in a web or print magazine. Every photographer loves these, and will probably give you images and an interview for free. Some magazines have given me an honorarium -- reduced article pay -- which I always greatly appreciate.

2. Credited web image with live link, from high-profile website. Exposure is good, but Google search ranking is better and is the best non-monetary compensation I can think of. I've been giving away images like this since I started shooting. I only do this if I like the asking organization. Old-schoolers typically don't understand this.

3. Conservation organization I support (must make an effort to explain the effectiveness and the terms of how my images would be used). It helps if the non-profit is amenable to issuing a donation receipt for the value of the images.

3. Events in which people are there to experience art: galleries, shows, etc. As an artist, I want to support artistic efforts, in general, and to have my work to be seen in the proper environment. There is typically further incentive to do this because many art venues survive by selling art (see #4). Having prints up on the wall of a conference room or a venue where people are meeting for business might seem like fun, but is definitely a situation in which money would have to be exchanged.[^1]

4. Events in which somebody is actively selling my work.

5. Events in which I am a participating member.

I have two standard responses I send to organizations that request free images. One targets non-profits, and the other, commercial entities. Here is one of them:

> Thank you for your interest in my images.

> As you can imagine, it takes tens of thousands of dollars in equipment and travel to capture images like the one(s) you are interested in publishing. I spend a lot of time doing pro-bono work and giving images away to non-profit organizations, but it is impossible to both give away images all the time and stay in business.

> In order to provide images to a commercial entity without payment, I would require significant value in exchanged services. In some cases, I am willing to provide images in exchange for publicity or prestige, but most often, something more concrete is required.

> At this time, I am unable to provide images without payment according to your terms, but if you decide that you have a budget for the use of my images, please let me know.

I highly encourage photographers to try to enumerate the situations in which they might give away work. It will help you to stay rational about such requests instead of just getting mad. If someone asks for an image for "free," there might be a significant non-monetary return on investment (which would eventually lead to more income) by seeing the conversation to the end.