Business & Clients, Successful Retouching Business

To Work Or Not To Work… For Free

In the creative industries right now, there’s been a surface of a long building outcry against the expectation from some quarters that we as professionals work for free, for the promise of future work, or for that old classic – ‘exposure’.


It’s an issue as old as each profession, particularly for the photographer (and I give special mention to the long-suffering graphic designer), who are frequently asked by friends, acquaintances, small businesses, and friends of acquaintances who want to own small businesses, to provide their best work, and all the time and cost that entails, for mystical, intangible benefits.

The problem of course, is that in most cases these benefits rarely pay off. They certainly don’t pay bills. I know from personal experience that in some cases the result of these ‘inquiries’ can turn exasperated, even nasty in tone, so I wanted to clear something up for anyone experiencing this early in their career; the problem is with them, not with you.

Most people with a small business have a vision they believe strongly in, and in many of these cases, very little capital. It can be frustrating for them if they want your skills to enhance their own project but simply don’t have the resources to employ you. If the occasional inquiring party is outraged that your fairly calculated fees are too high, remember that you don’t cost too much, they simply have too little. Don’t be put off or disheartened if this happens to you, I’ve found in many cases a photographer or business has told me ‘when we’ve got more in the budget, we’ll be back!’


So where do we as retouchers stand in all this? Well the truth is, our corner of the creative industry is a little different than most, and when chosen wisely, that free work, those intangible benefits can actually pay big. The reason is this; in commercial photography we work as teams. Whilst an illustrator is solely responsible for their drawings, a beauty or fashion/editorial shoot is built through the hard work of the photographer, models, make-up artists and stylists, assistants and retouchers. Without those people there is no art, no shoot, no product.

Building a portfolio solely as a retoucher requires testing with photographers and their teams, and although this isn’t paid in monetary terms, don’t think of it as ‘free work’, it’s an investment.

In the early days of your career split your time between unpaid tests and the small fee earners that you’ll pick up along the way.

The truth is that at the beginning of your journey of learning, practicing, networking and development the financial rewards can be slim. If you’re approached by a photographer with a story you know would enhance your book, feel comfortable negotiating down on your fees to accommodate their budget. A salary is a goal that comes further down the line, and it doesn’t come immediately.

Your first goal should be to build a portfolio and a network of contacts.

As your portfolio and retouching skills improve, you’ll find the quality of work available to you increases, and suddenly realistic, even generous retouching budgets are being discussed; your input has become a valuable asset. There’s plenty of well-paid commercial work available for competent professionals.

RELATED: Where And How To Find Clients For Retouching Jobs

Less of your time will be dedicated to ‘free’ work, but particularly with fashion editorial budgets being as slim as they are, don’t be afraid to test or trade your time for a project that will truly enhance your portfolio at any stage of your career. You aren’t sacrificing your morals or undervaluing yourself if the team understands that you’re investing with them.

There’s often talk of market saturation, that ‘everyone is now a retoucher’ and pushing down fees, that it’s hard to compete in that climate. The trick is not to. While a thousand people squabble for apples at the base of the tree, step back from the melee and build a ladder.

Sure, you won’t get the apple scraps from the ground, but the best fruit are in the branches anyway.


Featured image courtesy of Tim Johnson, post-production by Daniel Meadows.

RA INNER CIRCLE EMAIL Join our Inner Circle Email to receive exclusive discounts, early access to new courses and more!

Powered by ConvertKit

Related Posts

2 thoughts on “To Work Or Not To Work… For Free

  1. Ivan Z says:

    There are a lot of people who ask you to do a free “test” (although you already have a portfolio which shows your skills) and then disappear. They just use free labour. Personally I did such “tests” several times, putting a big watermark above.

    1. Julia Kuzmenko McKim says:

      Good call, Ivan!
      Unfortunately, we hear about situations like that every now and then.
      Please do share about photographers who do this in our Facebook Retouching Academy group, so that other retouchers don’t fall victims to their dishonest practices.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *