The Price of Free, The Value of Me

Milked for all we're worth. That's the creative business. © John MacPherson

Milked for all we’re worth. That’s the creative business. But there’s a pot of gold at the end of that rainbow….there is…yes there is… © John MacPherson


I came across several interesting blogs and articles on the value of creative work recently and thought it worth pulling them all together.

Before I do that though, how about considering this advert for a work opportunity for “an ambitious artist” to undertake some design work for Sainsbury’s which popped up on Friday 13th May?




Equal opportunity employer too – “all ethnic backgrounds, genders and age groups” may apply. Only don’t expect to be paid. No, this is not an ‘intern’ opportunity, no not at all – it’s much more philanthropic than that – it expects the successful applicant to “share your gift with the heart of Camden”. Awww! Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy doesn’t it?


It sums up all that’s wrong in the creative industries and the need for appropriate recompense for artistic endeavour.

To be fair, having been rumbled and outed on social media Sainsbury’s have hastily corrected the mistaken impression this advert gives. It was an “error of judgment” according to a spokesman. But the basic principle is one that’s all too common. Creatives, so some people seem to think, need providing with lots of opportunities to work for free so that they may show how good they are at being creative, and in doing so learn how to be even more creative, and maybe even gain some “recognition” (also known as ‘exposure’). Which might er…um…lead to that thing called ‘payment’ sometime down the road….maybe….

So here’s what I think Sainsbury’s SHOULD do now – hire an artist, pay them a good fee, get the splendid canteen that the staff need and feel really good that they are supporting the creative industries into the bargain. Make it a socially responsible thing to support local talent, encourage creativity and watch how that raises your company profile in a hugely positive manner. Then watch smugly as your competitors fall over themselves to copy you.  Win-win. Does it get much better than that?

In ‘I Wish More Photographers Were Like Prince’ Todd Bigelow articulates eloquently what many commentators have observed in the untimely passing of musician Prince – that his ‘control’ over his creative work should serve as example to other creatives:

Text © Todd Bigelow

Danielle Jackson, in ‘Can Photographers Restore Their Devastated Business?’ explores the other side of the coin – the creatives whose existence depends on even the (relatively speaking) smallest of payments. It’s an interesting piece in itself, not least because it’s illustrated with a Creative Commons image which use drew some criticism, but the comments section is well worth a browse to get a real flavour of the debate:





I guess the message is ‘look for the new opportunity’ and see where that might take you. Enter stage right Damon Brown writing in INC. ‘Why Working For Free Could Be One Of Your Smartest Decisions’.  I’m not completely buying into Damon’s argument here. His comparisons are not well-considered – there’s a world of a difference between a tech-startsup and a jobbing photographer. Sure if you want to publicize yourself as a business by all means take that unpaid tv or radio gig – I would, and have done so previously having weighed it all up. But, and its a big BUT and one we should not lose sight of – his “shark Tank attendee” might look “amateur” if they asked for payment, but that’s not a ‘problem’ broadcaster ABC wrestles with when it shoves its invoice in front of the advertizers that promote their brands via the show. Money changes hands right through the creative process that brings content to our attention. But the big question is, is it fairly distributed?



I stumbled into photographer Colin Leslie’s newly launched website a few days ago. It’s slick, looks really sharp, contains some lovely work and as a ‘product’ looks inviting and professional. Its called ‘FREE PHOTOGRAPHY SCOTLAND’. As the name suggests the work on it is available for free. Its even got a ‘SHOP” where of course you pay nothing and take what you want. Genius!

Or is it?

Colin’s had some ‘feedback’ about his venture and his FAQ attempts to deal with it, as does his Blog in a post ‘Giving it All Away’. I’m not going to criticize Colin, he’s taken what he considers to be a legitimate business gamble. However I will highlight some of the inherent flaws in his logic.



In launching this site I’d guess (from personal experience) that Colin has probably spent a fair bit of time behind a computer to create it! Welcome to the 70% Colin!

I’d also point out that the ability to “…download pretty much any image for free. Even those folk who put watermarks on their images are only fooling themselves if they think that will stop people taking their images…” doesn’t give you free work.

It breaks the law.

Every month I spend a few hours using various online tools to apprehend users of my work who have not sought permission. I send them invoices and in 99% of the cases they pay me, promptly and in full, without much hassle. These folk may have thought my work had no value. Now they know better.

The Trey Ratcliff example Colin uses to imply that a business can be created from giving work away for free is slightly disingenuous. As I understand it Ratcliff is a successful photographer who actually charges for his services, and from that position of financial security is able to give work away for free.

But I think the bottom line in all of this is encapsulated in Colin’s observation that this site MUST pay for itself, and if money is not coming in as a consequence of his bold venture, it WILL fail:



I guess this is the digital equivalent of busking. You perform for free, and hope some pennies get tossed in the hat. And maybe, if you’re really good you’ll receive enough small change to get by on, and maybe if really fortunate get ‘found’ and be a success. I’m curious though how this might transition from ‘giving it away for free’ to charging for it. Once you’ve established your reputation as “the guy who works for free” it may be quite hard to convince people that giving you money is a really good idea. Time will tell. I do hope it works out, and I will follow closely to see what transpires. Good luck Colin – bold move you’ve made.

Colin’s not alone in believing that “Once you have some equipment, however modest, then photography is essentially free these days, digital imaging costs nothing.”  It might be, to a certain degree. But the cost of electricity to drive a computer, repairs to equipment, website maintenance, broadband access, keeping your car on the road to get to locations, fuel, insurance, liability insurance, and so on all add up. Not to mention your skill – what price do you put on that.

Good question – how DO you price your skill? Or your value?

Well here’s an excellent article by Jory MacKay to wrestle with: “How Much Should That Cost?” on Medium. It’s simple really – you can either estimate your ‘product’ by its ‘cost’ or by its ‘value’. Colin thinks his work is ‘free’ – that’s the cost he puts on it. But its ‘value’? Well there’s the magic – to the end-user who might actually have paid him for the use of his work (but didn’t), its ‘value’ might be much higher.



I’ll close with some opinion (I’ve posted this several times before and no apologies for doing so again): Free stuff has value. And it is good to do free sometimes. I do work for free, and supply images for no cost, and have done this many times over the last three decades, mainly for small charities and other organizations that I know have little or no budgets. A good starting point for providing free work is an invoice. Thing is, if YOU don’t invoice for free work how will the person you work for (for free) ever know what you’re worth?

And also, some organizations (or certain key individuals within them) will often place no value on your work, free is free. And once they’ve got it in their mitts, it’s still free and they’ll treat it as such, which might mean reusing it in other ways or even passing it on to others for them to use. For free. (I’ve had it happen). So it is a good idea to invoice for your time/expertise/value of work. Work out exactly what it costs you to produce the work and send a proper invoice with 100% discount. Why an invoice?

Simple: they see what it’s worth, but they get it for no cost, and if you don’t put a value on your work why should anybody else?

But what this invoice should also carry are the use restrictions so they know exactly what they may/may not do with your work. Bear in mind that this is also a contract, and acceptance of the images for use implies acceptance of the terms, and if they breach that contract by either passing on the work to others or using it in ways not stated in your T&C’s they can be held to account. And the value of the invoice is a very good starting point for compensation. It works, and I’ve pulled folks up several times for misuse of ‘free’ stuff and been paid. Just because my work was given freely does not mean I consider it worthless.

And remember also that although the people you deal with in some organizations may be image consumers they may have no idea at all about the time, costs and expense of image production so you are in fact educating them. That’s something that is well worth doing.

And of course if you ever do subsequently start properly invoicing these companies for your services the cost of your skill should come as no surprise to them – you’ve been shoving it in their faces in your discounted invoices for ages. In fact it may come as a surprise to YOU to actually tally up your costs involved in production, your time, gear depreciation, pension, tax, accountants fees, transport, software licences/subscriptions, insurance for gear, contractor’s liability insurance etc etc etc.

Free is not free. Free has a cost. If you don’t place your value on your work, don’t expect anyone else to. And at the end of the day being a bit smarter about ‘free’ can see real and tangible benefits for you and others you work with.

But the real bottom line? Just expect to be paid. Paid just like the editors, the picture researchers, the ad execs, the web designers, and the office cleaners who clean up after them…………………..and make your feelings clear to those who wont honour your skills and expertise with a just and proper reward. Fact is that 99% of all the users who want your work for free earn a wage from it, directly or indirectly.

Just remember that little detail.

(PS here’s some day-rate pricing guidelines  for visual artists)

Author — John Macpherson

John MacPherson was born and lives in the Scottish Highlands. He trained as a welder in the Glasgow shipyards, before completing an apprenticeship as a carpenter, and then qualified as a Social Worker in Disability Services. Along the way he has cooked on canal barges, trained as an Alpine Ski Leader & worked as an Instructor for Skiers with disabilities, been a canoe instructor, and tutor of night classes in carpentry, stained glass design and manufacture, and archery. He has travelled extensively on various continents, undertaking solo trips by bicycle, or motorcycle. He has had narrow escapes from an ambush by terrorists, been hit by lightning, caught in an erupting volcano, trapped in a mobile home by a tornado, kidnapped by a dog's hairdresser, rammed by a basking shark and was once bitten by a wild otter. He has combined all this with professional photography, which he has practised for over 35 years. He teaches photography and acts as a photography guide & tutor in the UK and abroad. His biggest challenge is keeping his 30 year old Land Rover 110 on the road. He loves telling and hearing stories.

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