This topic is widely discussed in the photography community and although my ideas may not be earth shattering - I still feel they are worth sharing - so here we go.
As a photographer, we ultimately want to create something we are genuinely proud of. This reaches from our images captured, the business we create, to the brand we cultivate. We dream of working in bigger cities, larger platforms, or maybe just in a larger capacity, meaning booking more in our current market. While none of these are lacking their own unique qualities, the end goal is the same: to be successful. So I would challenge you to first describe what that is for you? What do you see when you think SUCCESS? Write it down.
Once you have jotted your definition of that, please comment your notes below so we can all share in your goal. Then - how does shooting for free, or not, play into that success? It may not. It may not help book that corporate contract you're chasing or that wedding that you've been marketing to for weeks, but it may benefit in ways that are more meaningful in the big picture.
Ok, so shooting for free clearly won't put Benjamins in your savings account and there is zero guarantee that it will lead to those elusive Benjamins ever, but what if I told you that's ok?! Its ok if something you're truly dedicated to doesn't afford you the new equipment you're drooling over (on Amazon, B&H, or Adorama). Because what if the rewards are so much more than a tangible objective?
I know what you're thinking- "I need to make money to succeed as a business" and yes, that is true, but what if you dove into something you are truly passionate about and saw it to completion? The feeling of doing something for someone else is a wonderful experience to have. If anyone has ever bought your coffee in the drive thru before you got to the window, I bet you smiled. I bet that feeling was a pleasant feeling. We as photographers have the opportunity, responsibility even, to capture moments in time. Moments to record of joy, sadness, surprise, love, etc. No one makes us passionate about our craft, we are drawn to it for our own personal reasons. So in the end, you can do whatever you want. You can donate your time and skill anyway you prefer. I love volunteering at our Church anytime they need another photographer to capture events, or just the typical Sunday morning service. I dream of taking a missions trip with my Church and doing just that. Capturing the need of others in a way that someone else would be lead to do more, be more than they are. I also love having my camera with me when out in public and strive to capture moments and objects I see that catch my eye or that make up the world around us -- you never know when those images are going to change in meaning or value. Imagine after 9/11 having been able to log into your computer and see images that you'd captured of the city in years past while you were just enjoying your world around you while walking the city...we, as photographers, have the privilege of snapping and archiving the wonderful things around us, but if you only wait to do so once you've been hired or told what to do, you miss this opportunity.
Now, am I talking about hired pro bono work here too? Maybe, sometimes yes. You don't have to simply give your time away to some event if you choose not to, however. There are lots of benefits to choosing to do free work for yourself (so much creative freedom!) -- You could also start a photo project that means something - a project that speaks directly to you. By doing so, you may challenge others to do the same, or share a story that helps someone who really needed to hear that particular story. One of my absolute favorite photographers is Ryan Muirhead. His work is hauntingly captivating, but his approach is as well. I'll never forget the video he posted where he is sitting in the floor with his subject and so engaged that when he realized he had the shot he couldn't pass up, he couldn't take his eyes off of her long enough to even reach for his camera and found himself blindly reaching for it. He wanted to capture exactly what he was seeing, that moment, that expression, that emotion and I want that almost-hypnotized-experience.
I'm challenging myself to create for myself as well as others. I challenge you to do the same. Life is far too fragile and far too fleeting to not make today different than yesterday was. Maybe for yourself, your clients, or someone that stumbles upon your work some day.
Working for free may pay more than we are capable of calculating when we open our eyes to the possibilities of it.