The Photo Recession, Non-profits, and Requests for Free Photography


The Photo Recession, Non-profits, and Requests for Free Photography

We have all been asked to donate our photography for ‘the cause’ or a non-profit NGO. And in this economy there seems to be an increase in those requests.

I received this email last week:

Hope this finds all going well for you.  I am working on a new visitor guide for the XXXXX County Chamber of Commerce.  They received a grant from Travel XXXXX to put it together so it does not have a huge budget.  You have a number of beautiful images of the XXXX both summer and winter and I was hoping to get permission from you to use a few of them.  We have been working with a few other photographers including Brian XXXXX and they have given the chamber permission to use their images in exchange for photo credit.  Let me know if something like that is possible.
Wishing you and your family the best in 2010!


My first thought was the lousy economy and my own business. The assignments are thin and the stock sales are not much better, just like most photographers these days.

I understand this organization like many is also struggling when it comes to revenues from membership, which are down, but these days I really have to think long and hard about the request and who is asking it.

The whole photographic world is scrambling for business, any business, and requests for donations are up.

In this case, the biggest reason is the client is a personal friend who I have done a lot of photography for and she has asked the same request before. In the times of booming business I agreed.

This time however, I re-read the note a few times and then began to think:

  • The Chamber has a budget, how much is it?
  • Travel guides usually sell advertising so even though they have ‘non-profit’ status from a tax perspective, this is a project meant to generate income.
  • My business does not generate income or benefit from tourism in this area. The only financial reward would be if I got paid for the pictures I am being asked to donate.
  • Brian XXXX is an incredible photographer and very well known in his niche. Why is he giving photography away? Is his business booming?

Not all Non-Profits are the same.

Goodwill’s 2009 fund raising total was $2.9 billion.
American Rivers 2008 fund raising total was $8 million.

As far as I know both organizations use donated photography and both organizations are certainly worthy causes and deserve all the support the public and we can provide. As business owners we have to consider at what cost?

Many outdoor and nature photographers are just trying to hang on. So the real question I ask is “can either pay for the use of a picture, even a small amount?” I don’t know.

None of my monthly overhead or cost of doing business is negotiable with my vendors or landlord. I would be laughed at if I asked for anything free or donated to me due to the recession.

And there are many organizations that are important to me and for which I would provide free photography. So you have to choose what matters to you.

I am trying to avoid becoming a non-profit business!

Here was my reply in part to my friend (minus the “How are the kids?”):


Nice to hear from you! How are things out your way? ………….As far as donating photography, that is a real tough one these days. The reality of the economy for all photographers, including me, has been difficult at best. It’s a scramble every day to figure out how to earn some business.

I have received more requests for donated photography in the last six months than probably from every other year combined. Nobody has any money or any budgets and I certainly understand why, but neither do I. In better times I donated plenty of photography but due to the market conditions donating photography is a hard pill to swallow when the donation has value.

Years ago when a major ad agency asked me to donate photography to a pro bono cause they were working on, I said no problem. Only later did I find that everybody including the ad agency all received payment in one way or another. I was the only one who donated 100%.

Since then I have established a policy that I am willing to donate to various causes if the end client sends me a letter acknowledging that no one will be paid and that it is a project created strictly from donations: including the ad agency, the printer, and even the direct mail company. Otherwise my contribution has value as well. If one gets paid we should all get paid.

So I realize that is not the answer you were hoping for and I apologize for that. I wish it were different out there.

All the best!

Photo Credit has Little Value to the Photographer

The question on whether or not you agree to provide something free for a photo credit should depend on several factors. Photo credits are great for the ego, but are most noticed by other photographers who wish to know who took the shot and made the sale. I have heard that a photo credit has led to a call from a potential client and could result in a sale and maybe it happened to me in the past.

Is the client selling advertising? I recognize that many non-profits do sell advertising as another fund raising method beyond donations. But a Chamber of Commerce’s mission is to bring business to town that supports their members business. I am not a member of that business community.

For me the real issue is whether all other contributors: The design firm or ad agencies, the printer, the paper company, the writer, or any others involved in the project are donating 100%. If they are then so will I. But if anybody gets paid then I feel I should as well.

In the mean time I will certainly continue to support the causes that are most important to me with all the donations I can muster and there are some good ones. There is CARE, Amnesty International, The Nature Conservancy, and of course Goodwill and American Rivers and in particular, The International League of Conservation Photographers. These organizations do great work and many recognize the costs a photographer may incur shooting for them and cover some of those costs. Others don’t.

The decision should be based on which organization you might be passionate about and wish to support and donate your hard earned work. There is great satisfaction in doing that!

27 thoughts on “The Photo Recession, Non-profits, and Requests for Free Photography”

  1. Well said, Charlie. I totally agree with your responses. In my experience, we photographers are looked at as the poor relation in the supplier/client relationship. As volunteers we are giving our time and effort, for what in return? Nothing. When you point out to the charity or NGO that you have other priorities (paying clients) when they are making demands on you, in my experience, they rarely, if ever, see it like that!

    An excellent blog. Well done.



  2. Hi Ian-

    Thanks for your thoughts. I agree with you and am personally tired of getting the least consideration.

    And thanks for the plug on your blog!!


  3. Good one Charlie!
    I also in the film making business have come across the same situations. “we’ll get you on the back end” is a good one.
    Hold your ground, for the clients that pay are the clients who come back and understand the words “professional and quality”.
    Keep clickin


  4. Hey Michael-

    Same stuff happens whether it is stock photography, assignments, or feature film production I guess. But you are right, hold your ground.

    Working on anything I need to rush to the theater to see?


  5. Perfect timing on this post. In the past three months, the requests for uncompensated use, for in-kind donations, and for time and service, have been insane. I would love to be able to support every worthwhile cause but like you have chosen those whose mission and goals are near and dear to my heart. I don’t hold anything against those making the requests. Non-profits are suffering more than most in this economy. Getting things for free is what they do. They look to photographers for generosity because as a group, photographers are compassionate and generous. They have a history of giving of themselves and their work for worthy causes. You are right…it’s time for all vendors/suppliers of product, content, and service to pony up, not just the photographers.

  6. Hi Laurie-

    Good points! I just feel that in these times I have to start being more stubborn on who and what I support simply for economic reasons. Why photographers are expected to throw in so often baffles me because I am sure that the same art director seeking free images is not asking the same for the direct mail company.


  7. Great article and very timely for my own business as well. I liken this to internships – yes, you have to establish some credibility and get yourself established at first. But once you have “arrived” in your career, you cannot keep working for free! My family cannot eat “photo credits” or free tickets to an event in exchange. I cannot run my office or maintain my equipment on a “that’s a nice photo” comment.

    Having in image in a local tourism brochure (as far as I can see) will never translate to a sale of a print – only more requests for the same (free!). I’m putting my foot down from this day forward, having just received another request this morning. Thank you for confirming this in my mind.


  8. Hi Stacy-

    Thanks for jumping and sharing. It is a common problem that many photographers are trying to deal with and we risj sometimes alienating clients in an effort to just make a living.


  9. Charlie,

    I can’t thank you enough. I re-visited this post MORE than once, and finally decided to try the exact technique you described in writing a response to a “free” request.

    Using your letter as a template, I politely explained why I couldn’t put food on the table for my family with “a photo credit line” or free event tickets. Not only did the client come back with a response that I made a very fair point – but then offered me a reasonable, respectable amount for my images – along with photo credit.

    From now on, I will feel confident I can handle these types of requests with dignity, firm – yet professional. Thanks again!

  10. Stacy-

    That is wonderful! I really think that many clients have money that they dont allude to and that when explained as you did, with a human face and describing that licensing pictures is our source of income, brings many around who do understand. Thanks for sharing!


  11. Excellent article and perfect response.

    I have just published a journal on directing and making other photogprahers aware to your article.

  12. Wonderful article! You handled the situation perfectly and I hope the way you did acts as a model for other photographers that give away their work for free without question or thought as to what they are doing to the market in general. If you don’t value your work then no one else will either. The mention you made of being laughed at by your landlord or others you have to pay to cover your cost of operation is something I think about regularly in situations like this. No one would think of asking for free rent, power, water or anything else because they know it won’t happen. Unfortunately people think nothing of asking for free images because more often than not they get them and thus it devalues the market as a whole.

  13. Yes, I have let small organisations use pix for free. On the other hand, other that would have gotten free use, but did not ask and just stole my images have received a removal notice or invoice.

    I noticed that often a very polite request fro free photos is followed by a very abusive reply once not granted…
    Cheers, Harry

  14. Excellent piece, Charlie. This was started almost two years ago, and in my experience, the inclination for all sorts of organizations requesting donated works is now quite deeply rooted. We are also seeing more and more photo “contests” – some with entry fees that generate income as well as a free in house library of royalty free images in many cases.


  15. Hello Charlie,

    Thank you very much for sharing your experience. I had a similar situation, but thought it was even worse. I participated in a local competition, where all you would get was “credit” and a set of greeting cards made out with the winning photos. My work did not win anything, not even an “honorable mention”, but shortly after I was asked to sign out my rights to my work so that it could be used for their brochures and marketing materials. That actually angered me, because I found out that the “winners” were friends of the judges, but then they wanted to use my images for their materials, and as in your letter, it stated that the other “competitors” had already given permission to use their images for “credit”. Your letter is wonderful, and I am saving it as a reference for future requests, as a friend of mine who is a musician said once, it is funny how I never hear of anyone asking a car dealer to donate a couple of cars, or a doctor to donate a few surgeries for auctions, yet artists are always asked to perform for free, or to give up their creative rights so others can profit (as you mentioned, many of the “non-profits” actually have very good salaries for their employees, though our generous donations… either a 100% non payment to all, or equal % – excellent!

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