Volunteer Photography Do’s and Don’ts


Maybe you’re just getting starting out, perhaps you’ve been a photographer for many years, and lately you’ve thought about giving back to the community, group or organization, and you decided the best way to do that is with photography. While it might seem pretty cut and dry…show up, take photos, don’t get paid, the end….if this is your first time you may be blindsided by situations you did not expect, but don’t worry, I’m here to help you be as prepared as you can.

The first thing we should do it define “volunteer photography.” I feel it can be broken down into three different categories, the first you’ll probably recognize, and that’s doing it completely free.

The one thing that may not be obvious to you is when you volunteer 100% of your time, creativity, and equipment you are actually spending money. But there is one currency you’ll get from it, and oh my god I am not talking about EXPOSURE…more on that too.

The second type you may not be familiar with, or didn’t consider is volunteering at a reduced rate. You might think that’s not volunteering and maybe I am stretching the definition slightly but being fed, paid under min wage and having your gas tank filled is hardly being paid what you deserve.

In my eyes, accepting a gig for a good cause and asking to have your expenses and some of your time covered is still volunteering. That block in your schedule is now full, and if an actual paying gig comes along, it’s lost income. Plus, once you take that time, expense, and wear on your equipment into account it will definitely feel like volunteer work.

The third type of volunteering is the exchange of services. You may or may not be familiar with this one and it’s fairly simple. Do you have a hair stylist that wants photos of their shop or portraits for their website? Trade photos for haircuts. Have a landlord with properties and he needs interiors? Negotiate to have your rent reduced.

The most common phrase we hear is TFP, or time for photos, usually with models and it’s not the same thing. With the model, you’re just getting photos for your portfolio, but with the landlord or stylist, you’re saving money on services you’d use anyway, plus the photos.

In this example you’ll want to charge the your going rate, as well as them. So if their haircuts cost you $50 and your rate is say $300 that’s six free cuts. I would be flexible on this one though, as the business you’re working with has their own overhead just like you, and things may not work out in the wash. The important part is to consider how much it will save you and would you hire them for their services otherwise.

Okay, let’s talk about reduced rate volunteer work. The example I’m going to give is something I did a few years back for The Calgary Homeless Foundation, a project called “Stepping Stone Manor”.

CHF was in charge of a project in which they were going to build a 30 unit apartment building to house those who had been homeless for an extended period of time and give them a new start. When I was hired, an old house still stood, but was slated for demolition. That’s where I came in.

To bring awareness, and to beautify the property while it was abandoned before demolition, I was asked to take photos of a specific area known as the beltline in downtown Calgary.

The photos would first be blown up huge to six feet, and hung from the house. Then, when the old property was demolished, the photos would be transferred to the fence surround the property. It was a huge undertaking requiring a lot of my time, and there was definitely pressure to present my best work as well.

In addition to taking street type photos of the area, I also walked into businesses and asked staff if they’d like to have their photo taken, right there on the spot. Of course there was paperwork, a model release and all that fun stuff. Other artists painted the front and side of the house, and the whole thing took several weeks.

The payment agreed on was $1200 and while that seems like a lot, it’s not when you consider at the time I was paid the same for a single night running a photo booth at a Christmas party. I don’t remember how many hours I worked but it came out to less than minimum wage, which is totally fine because I loved the idea.

If you’re being compensated, you need to consider it a collaboration. What do I mean by that? Well, I came in at the 11th hour, so to speak. They already had a vision in mind, they knew they wanted photos of the beltline, and the people in the community, they knew what size they wanted the photos and ultimately decided what they were being printed on, and here’s the big one: they chose the final photos that were going on the house.

Now to be clear, I made the initial choices. I think I presented them with about 100 photos that we spread over a conference table, but everyone involved had a say and from there it was whittled down to the final 15. And like I said, they chose the format, because they were the ones who had to actually get the prints fastened onto the house, and make sure they stayed there. But I got to choose the printers, as well as handle all communication with them to ensure technical quality was met.

So that’s what I mean by collaboration. I had some creative control but within their parameters. I want to stress that if I was really against a photo, I just wouldn’t show it to them. I could always delete it in camera or somewhere along the way. If I wanted to I could have taken all my photos the same day and said “here”, but I didn’t, I made several outings and I gave it my all.

Calgary’s beltline is a pretty big area too and walking into establishments and asking for a portrait from a stranger, and doing it all in about 20 minutes, was really outside my comfort zone, as well as theirs. There were a couple instances where I had to come back, but mostly this was me walking around with all the gear ready in my bag.

If someone approaches you for a project, and they have a vision in mind, you should be compensated to some degree, and it’s okay to ask. People still don’t realize just how much photography costs, that the equipment wears down. Camera bodies are replaced, at least in an ideal world, every few years, umbrellas and other accessories break all the time, and Adobe charges you for their software every month regardless of how many paid gigs you get.

Volunteering part of your time, or part of your wage depending on how you want to look at it, is a great situation. You feel good for doing something for your community, and they appreciate and respect you, and when that happens, everyone wins.

Now onto the most typical type of volunteer work: where you spend your time, money and effort in exchange for just the photos.

We have all been asked to work for free, and many of us, including myself have given our time and creativity only to be disrespected and dismissed. The first thing I want to tell you is the vast majority of the time, when you volunteer for something that normally a paid photographer would do, it tends to lead to nowhere. The best example of this is Wedding Photography. I could do an entire blog on why this is a bad idea, but essentially, anyone who’s just dropped 10 to 20 grand on a wedding but wants a free photographer does not see the value in your work, and would likely have their uncle or cousin “with that fancy camera” do it if you weren’t there. In my opinion and experience, free work, doesn’t lead to paid referrals, not with jobs that normally pay, and the more expensive the type of work, the more this applies.

For the rest of the volunteer work, where you’re doing something for the good of mankind, or it’s a creative project you’re interested in, make sure one thing is abundantly clear before you start: That you have 100% creative control. If you are there on your own buck, your only currency is creative control. Whoever you’re doing this for should want you because they love your eye, and as soon as they start dictating what the photos should look like, or axing ideas, you’re just a fool with a camera.

The truth is anyone with enough money can buy an expensive camera, but if they have a vision different from yours, they just want to rent your camera and have you there to operate it because they think expensive cameras mean great photos. To that I’ve always said “Does that mean I can buy a $500 pair of scissors and cut your hair?”

For the example I’m giving here I’ll leave out some details because I don’t want to crap on the organization as a whole, as the issue just came down to a single individual. I’m also going to speak, perhaps a little passionately about this, so excuse me if my language gets…colourful.

I had found a listing on a volunteer classifieds website. It was a non-profit looking for portraits of ex criminals for an ongoing ad campaign to bring awareness. These were everyday people who were looking for a new lease on life. The photo would go with their story and shared on social media. I thought it was amazing cause, I still do, and signed up. After a background check and an interview process they picked me. The contract was for a year.

I should have seen the red flags when they asked me if I’d like to do other things for them like cover events, and even run a photo booth for their Christmas party. I liked them, I liked the company, and so I said yes.

When it came to the portraits though, it took quite some time before they had anyone for me to photograph, and it’s understandable. All our schedules needed to align and one of the individuals was still in prison, and was being let out occasionally for a day to work with young people as a mentor.

I started butting heads with the liaison when I’d tell them what my plan was or what I needed for the shot. One situation in particular that sticks out was I said I wanted to include smoke in the portrait. It was shot down immediately. I said, it’s not going to actually look like smoke, it’s just there to diffuse the light behind the subject, it’s not about the smoke, it’s about the mood.

All of these warning bells came to a head when the newest subject really wanted to be photographed at a place called Nose Hill. The only thing you need to know about Nose Hill is that it’s a large park without easy access to open shade. Totally fine, we want people to be shot somewhere that has meaning to them if possible. I said it’s very important we shoot later in the day, the light will be better, more importantly the light mid day is the worst, and there’s no open shade to shoot in without walking quite ways, and I got the phrase that we all cringe to hear “Can’t you fix that in Photoshop?”.

I also learned they’d be coming directly from work and I stressed they should probably go home first and freshen up, change clothes, and make sure they were showing their best self. I was then told by the liaison that they want to avoid working after hours on this project, which was nothing short of an astonishing statement considering they literally said “evenings and weekends were okay.” Just a few weeks previous.

They were outright going back on their word, and not only that but I’m not getting paid, our subject isn’t getting paid, but the idea that the liaison couldn’t spare a hour or two of their personal time kinda pissed me off. That isn’t even the worst part. What happened next was they went ahead with the shoot without me, while we were still debating details. The liaison used what I can only assume was an iPhone, shot them in horrible flat daylight, next to a guardrail by the roadside, wearing a hoodie, with them squinting because the sun was in their eyes.

I knew then anytime they disagreed with me creatively they would pull the rug out from under me and just go ahead with whatever garbage photo they wanted anyway, and the project would be a combo of my well thought out portraits, mixed in with smart phone pics.

When I say this photo was trash, I mean it. It broke every rule. No composition, the subject was squinting from the daylight, bad posture. It was likely they took about 20 steps from the parking lot and just a horrible representation of a beautiful story.

And as I’ve stated before, if I’m being paid zero dollars, my only currency is creative control, and if I don’t have that I’m a glorified camera operator working for less than nothing. This is really important for you, because if you go and shoot something as a volunteer with someone else’s creative vision, any leads are going to want that style and not yours. Worse, if you just take the garbage photo, you have nothing you can use for your portfolio.

When I explained my side, how I’m basically just showing up to press a button and there’s so much more than that, I was told that they have been “very accommodating to all my requests”…………

My contract was over within a couple weeks at that time and I decided not to renew. My mistake at the beginning was not establishing my expectations, and agreeing to jobs other than the portraits.

So to review, here are my tips for volunteering. I learned a couple of these the hard way….I learned all of them the hard way…. hopefully you won’t have to.

Tip #1 is probably the most controversial: but never, ever do a wedding or corporate job for free unless you go to them, and make sure you choose interesting gigs that speak to your personal tastes. People get married everyday, and another opportunity will come along. Say it with me now: exposure compensation is a camera setting, not a form of payment.

Tip#2 is don’t bother trying to convince the cheap skates your value. I’ve seen too many photographers, including me, try and convince the potential client that you have value. My new rule is to ask them what they do for a living and how much that pays, count my total hours needed, add my overhead and then wish them the best. It doesn’t do me any good but it may help the next person they ask. I’ve seen people turn me down for reasonable portrait prices, saying I was too expensive, then post a week later on social media on how upset they were that their Walmart portraits didn’t turn out.

A little sidebar here but I used to work for Xerox and someone would always bust in at the last minute and want 500 copies of something in like an hour, and I’d have to explain over and over that even if a printer was free, they only print so many pages per minute, and no, I can’t bump them to the front of the line. The people who don’t value photography and everything that comes with it tend to be unreasonable anyway, and they are doing you a favour by showing you their true colours.

Tip#3 It’s okay to give discounts and extras to friends and family, but not if they ask for it or expect it. They will be the same people who tell you that you should probably get a real job because photography doesn’t pay enough. The easiest way to accommodate this is to make your rates slightly higher than what you need them to be, so you have wiggle room with pricing.

Tip #4 is do something you’re passionate about. Pretty self evident here, make sure it’s something you love. It will show in your work. Getting paid your full rate is nice but you’ll be doing a lot of stuff by the books, and accepting oddball requests, it’s just part of the deal.

And that’s my advice on volunteering your services as a photographer. You don’t have to agree with me, and maybe your experience has been different.