Post your work online for long enough (a day, for example) and you are bound to get an email requesting to use your images for free.  This situation is a mixed bag in the sense that it’s always nice to know folks like your work but frustrating to know that they don’t love it enough to consider payment.  No budget.  Sorry!  This type of email is a phenomenon that generally happens more often in the creative fields.  I personally know writers, developers, designers, and artists that frequently get these kinds of requests.

So what is it about the creative fields that make this type of email significantly more common?

The question is simply this:  Why is it so universally acceptable (ie, not considered offensive) for people to ask artists for free goods and services?  

The other day I breeched the subject on Twitter, and to my surprise the topic took off with dozens of people relaying their thoughts and experiences.


The question is: why does this seemingly happen more to creatives than other professions?*  My first thought is that clients simply don’t know any better.  Unless you work in marketing or advertising, creative jobs tend to be considered more of hobbies than actual lucrative paying jobs.  Additionally, as more and more people are taking up design and photography simply as a hobby, the gap between those claiming to be professionals and those who actually are professionals has become blurry from the clients point of view.  But to us working in creative fields, we know that the knowledge and ability gap has only widened between professionals and non professionals.

I think the most tangible point would be that there are more and more people willing to give away work simply for credit and links.  I know lots of photographers flipantly giving usage rights away for free.  The clients don’t realize that credit, link backs, and publicity won’t feed my family. Clients probably assume I work in a tax office as my full time job.  My business cards say ‘Working Photographer’ for a reason!  Additionally, non-creatives don’t understand the licensing market – that my license agreements often require credit and links, but more importantly, money.

I’ll add this.  Do you really want to be promoted by a company that doesn’t have a budget to even buy your image?  There is no marketing fire power behind that kind of deal.  Nine times out of ten, you are wasting your time on empty and budget-less promises with folks that will give you a link but because they of their lack of ‘budget’ no one is paying attention to them in the first place.

I also think it’s possible that we as creatives are a bit more sensitive to this type of thing that other professions – maybe rightfully so.  Our ability, skill, and creativity are directly proportional to our potential for making a living in our field.  However, if you want to enter an industry where there is universal understanding of how your job benefits the client and thus deserves a proportional pay check, find another industry – or be prepared to explain your worth.  We get upset when our work doesn’t speak for itself, but it’s possible that, to the vast majority of clientele, we have to explain it’s worth… in words.  And if the hobbist doesn’t value his work enough to ask for money, why should we?!  Maybe we need thicker skin.

Many clients don’t realize the sunk costs that goes into actually producing a product.  The costs I speak of are not only in gear.  Things like vision, decades of experience, education, travel cost, rental cost, and social investment all play into a creatives ability to work professionally. Most of the times clients can’t see that.  There is no way they could know.

Finally.  Very few mechanics, lawyers, or CPAs are doing work for free… or at least so few that the ‘free’ factor is an extreme outlier.**



My response to free image requests is always a kind, but firm ‘No.’  I’d love to spend time educating them on why I can’t give my work away for free, and it’s something I should consider doing on some level (and will eventually do).  However less than 10% of requests like this turn into the person changing their mind.  I generally never hear from the person ever again (and consequently spend time checking their media to make sure they didn’t steal it in the despite my response)  Those who do respond are offended if I try to explain myself, and the last thing I need to do is spend time NOT getting paid and answering more emails.  We all need less email in our life.

I don’t want to be a jerk either.  Keeping a reputation as a kind and reasonable person is extremely important for creatives and those of us who are self-employeed.  Being a jerk is a good way to ruin that and makes a person more likely to complain about you on social media.  That’s really important to remember.

Beyond all that, there is a good chance that they sent that exact same email to hundreds of other people looking for a similar image.  Requests like this are rarely isolated to just you.  Again, I don’t want to waste time on that type of thing that doesn’t feed my family.  I want to maximize the time I’m doing work that pays and this, in my opinion, is one aspect of my job that I feel isn’t worth spending a ton of time on.



Let’s talk.  After asking this question on twitter, I had writers, developers, designers and photographers all respond.  I’d love to hear your thoughts and experience.

  • Does this happen to you often?
  • Why do you think it happens?  More often than other industries?
  • What is your response?
  • Is educating low-potential clients worth your time?  Is it even possible?



* I have a theory that the ‘free work’ request gets thrown around in other industries more than we know.  Maybe it’s the bleeding heart (and less wealthy) creatives that throw their hands in the air about it.

**Go talk to a pediatrician about what is like to always be working even when you’re off the clock.  Those guys get have it way worse than us creatives.