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Should Photographers Donate Time & Shoot For Free?

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There are some strange things going on now where photographers are paying for “exposure” that’s not necessarily “advertising”.

First, a magazine is asking photographers to pay them for the chance to have the cover photo. Shouldn’t that be the other way around?

And on the heels of that, it was brought to my attention that large Instagram accounts are asking smaller Instagrammers to pay them to be featured on their page. Seriously?

But there is one semi-related, controversial aspect of photography I want to discuss here, and that’s donating time to shoot for free. Reactions to the thought of it are all over the place – both sides have strong opinions – and I wanted to share when & where I think it’s appropriate to do so, and find out when or if it’s okay for you.

A recent example

There’s a non-profit land trust in the Lake Tahoe area that purchases large parcels of threatened land and turns them into nature & hiking trails. A cause near and dear to my heart, one that promotes our well-being.

Last summer I was in a creative rut, so I approached them to ask if they needed photographs of any specific lands. I was looking for hiking trails anyways, so why not get a recommendation? As timing would have it, they were in desperate need of photos for a new property that they were getting ready to publicize.

I woke up around 0430, made some coffee, grabbed my camera bag that I had packed the night before, and drove out for arrival before sunrise. I was very happy with the photos I made that morning.

I donated these photos to the non-profit with some reasonable licensing terms. The photos were soon in all local papers, including the San Francisco Chronicle. I’ve sold prints of photos I made that day and have also sold stock photo licenses of these images. The client who purchased those licenses also asked me if I’d be interested in developing a small photography workshop at that location. They were later used in a feature story for a widely-circulated regional magazine.

While I didn’t charge this non-profit for the photos I made for them, I easily made up the money that I would have otherwise charged them and more.

Now I’m not saying that every project turns out like this, but it’s a great example of some of the benefits of donating photography.

webber lake

My rules for photographing for free

Of course, you shouldn’t just go out and donate photography to everyone who needs it. Would you donate your hard-earned money to causes you don’t care about?

The same goes for donating time for photography. The transitive property of equality tells us that if time is money, and you’re donating time to take photos, you’re therefore also donating money. The IRS sees it differently, but more on that later.

For me, since I’m all about conservation, those are the non-profits I’m willing to work with. If I had any money, I’d donate it to them anyways. The future of our children is also very important, so this is another area in which I’m willing to donate photography.

These organizations should also be proper, government-recognized 501(c) non-profit entities, regardless of whether you can deduct anything. You can check their status at This website will also let you see their tax returns, which can show you if they’ve paid for photographers in the past. If they have paid for photographic services, maybe consider offering your services at a discount instead of just straight pro-bono work.

License the photos, just like you would for any other paying client, and price them like you normally would. Don’t just send them the digital files because the usage could quickly spiral out of control.

My standard licensing terms are as follows:

  • Photos may be for editorial usage in newspapers and magazines (print & digital), newsletters (print & digital), social media campaigns, fundraising promotional materials (print & digital), and on the client’s website.
  • All photos must be credited “Photo: John Peltier”.
  • The term is unlimited (license never expires).
  • The client may not transfer the license to a third party.
  • Any other use must be negotiated with me.

I send a priced invoice to the organization so they know the value they’re getting. The grand total may be out of their budget but then they see the 100% discount.

I retain all rights. This is a non-exclusivity clause. If I want to license those photos later on, or sell prints, I retain all rights to do so. This ensures that I still have options to make money off of these photos that I initially made for free.

Obtain the appropriate model & property releases. This is a necessary step when people or private property is involved. I’d have a much tougher chance of licensing these photos to someone else if the legal bases weren’t covered from the beginning.

Finally, I need to make sure that there won’t be significant personal expenses. I’m doing this for free; there’s no guarantee that I’ll make anything on the back end, so I’m not going to spend much more than what it’ll cost for a tank of gas and a cup of coffee.


Benefits of doing photography for free

Exposure. No, donating photography isn’t about exposure. It’s about helping a cause that you believe in. But with that, you can gain exposure. This shouldn’t be the reason you do it though. Too many photographers use this as their only excuse for doing work for free. But who knows who your work will get in front of!

Access. Offering to do work for non-profits can get you access to people & places that you wouldn’t normally have access to if you were just some dude who showed up with a camera.

Project ideas. Creative slumps happen to everyone. Asking a non-profit if there’s anything that you can help with will not only give you a specific purpose and a project to do, but it could also spark ideas for other projects that may end up defining you as a photographer.

It just feels good. You did your part to change someone’s life for the better, and without the need for financial gain. That’s reward enough.

Disadvantages of donating photography

Image theft. This is going to happen no matter where your photos are. I’ve had a number of images I’ve shot for various non-profits end up on commercial websites. They may assume that since the images are on a non-profit website that they’re fair game for use elsewhere. This is another case for having a proper license! Adding a small watermark signature is one way to fight this.

Future expectations. Oh, you donated photos to my friend’s environmental non-profit? Cool, I’m trying to raise money for my local car club. Can you be there Saturday? Sure, here’s my standard fee schedule. Always remember that you’re donating something with monetary value. Every request must be treated as a separate donation. You’re a pro and don’t work for free.

Cheapens photography? This is probably the main issue that photographers take with others who just willy-nilly shoot for free whenever the opportunity presents. If one person as a favor goes out and takes some photos, then hands them over without any further thought put into it, the “client” will forever expect photographers to work for free. It’s happened to me. A potential client asked me to put in my time to photograph a property for them. As soon as I brought up money they said, “well, the last photographer just did it for free, can’t you?” This is why you must go through the entire process of drafting up an official license, price the photos, and send an invoice that says “Subtotal $XXX, 100% Discount -$XXX, Total Due $0”.

It’s not tax deductible. Sorry, you can’t deduct the value of your time, services, or personal expenses, and this includes time spent photographing for a non-profit. It’s all spelled out in IRS Publication 526.

Even if you could, I still wouldn’t because of the non-exclusivity part. I still have the potential to profit off of that time from someone else. If you can’t deduct anything then why do I advocate working with an established non-profit? For one, they’re legitimate, and two, if I do print & frame something for an auction they hold, that expense can be deducted.

I know there are some strong opinions on both sides of this subject, so I’d love to hear what you think down below in the comments.

And please share with your photographer friends on social media – it’s a conversation everyone can benefit from.

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Gina K Ciaccio

Monday 3rd of May 2021

Thank you for publishing this information! I was asked to donate services for my daughter's golf team but it seems like there's a considerable amount of time and expense that will go into it aside from providing the photographs (they want me to create print packages and an online store for them to purchase these items, and fulfill the orders as well) so I am unclear about how to make sure these expenses are covered. I'm wondering if I should have the parents make payments to me and donate the profits, or do I have them pay the coach and hope he reimburses me after the fact?

Gina K Ciaccio

Monday 3rd of May 2021

Oh, I just figured out my own question after reading the IRS reg - as a sole proprietor, I can't deduct donations on a schd C, so getting reimbursed it is!

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