July 14, 2016

10 Unpleasant Truths About Working for Free as a Cinematographer

Novice DPs often work for free, and if you are getting ready to start your own career behind the lens, you'll want to know why.

Working for free is something most people would never dream about doing, but cinematographers put up with it all the time. Some think this is an unethical flaw in the way the film industry is run, while others see it as a necessary evil in order to get their foot in the door. Regardless of which side you take, there are reasons why so many new DPs are expected to work without recompense. 

Matthew Workman of Cinematography Database discusses 10 of these reasons in his latest video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4KJ5vzxefRw

Before we get too far into this, I highly suggest watching Workman's video about how much cinematographers make at different levels of production. At any rate, here are the 10 reasons Workman gives as to why new DPs don't get paid:

  1. The "barrier to entry" is very low today, meaning that owning a camera and editing software isn't that big of a deal—anyone can own these things. You'll need to give clients more incentive.
  2. Workman doesn't mince words—at the beginning of your career, your work sucks.
  3. While you're learning your craft, can you expect clients to pay you?
  4. Workman has previously talked about 4 levels of production that pay DPs based on experience and other factors. If you fall in the "solo" tier, chances are you're not going to make any money.
  5. If you're starting out and don't have a reel or a resume, clients probably won't want to take on the risk of hiring you (unless you work for free).
  6. If you're trying to "level up" a tier, say from "indie" to "industry," working for free might convince clients to take a risk and reach back into a "lesser" tier in order to hire you instead of a qualified DP in the tier in which they're producing content.
  7. New DPs have to prove to clients that they are reliable. One way of doing this is by working for free on a smaller project (spec project) in order to give your client a better idea if they want to hire you for a bigger, more costly one (for money!).
  8. Being a DP isn't just about your camera and the pretty pictures you make. It's about the "intangibles"—how you work with others, how inspirational you are to your team, etc. Sometimes this means working for free in order to show clients the things your reel can't.
  9. Doing spec work is a major avenue in the industry for DPs to get noticed, but it doesn't pay. 
  10. Workman describes his experience coming up as a DP, and guess what—he worked for free a lot.

So, there you have it. Surely that there are plenty of you who take issue with Workman's stance on this, and surely there are plenty of you who agree with him. I know that I've worked for free plenty of times and have been grateful for the opportunity, but I've also worked for free plenty of times and thought, "These guys couldn't pay me enough to do this again." 

Let us know what you think about working for free in the film industry in the comments below.     

Your Comment

28 Comments

Our industry is in a massive race to the bottom (like a lot of digital goods and services). It's truly our love for the art that keeps us plugging along. Great read. Thanks for the writeup!

July 14, 2016 at 12:44PM

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Although I'm not a cinematographer, I've directed two or three projects now for free to learn, gain experience, and to network and form relationships. Two of them were such terrible experiences that I don't even include them on my resume. One of these scenarios involved me offering myself and my camera package (2K Blackmagic w/ battery, shoulder mount, three lenses, and a terabyte and a half's worth of memory cards) for free, with the promise of making great contacts and future paid work. In the end I handed off the two memory cards we used during the shoot to the producer to hand off to their editor - this was in 2014, and I still have never been given back those two cards, and said producer fell off the face of the earth.

Despite the horror stories, though, I have most certainly had past unpaid work turn up future projects, some paid some not, but it's definitely worth doing your research. As a rule of thumb I don't work, paid or unpaid, for a producer/individual who has no previous work to show, or past contacts that I can get in touch with to feel-out the legitimacy of the individual. If you find yourself working for free, don't be afraid to ask and look into their past work experiences and relationships. You are both doing each other a favour, after all - one providing experience and one providing a free service, so there has to be give and take from both sides.

July 14, 2016 at 2:23PM, Edited July 14, 2:23PM

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Kellen McCann
Writer/Director/Editor
81

I totally agree!! just buying a camera doesn't make you anything, actually only makes an ebay target consumer! Thanks for sharing it and saying the truth!!
These days we don't hear much truth about the film industry.

I worked for AArdman animation in UK for a week than they said "we are going to call you for next job", but I knew still a lot work to do on that job so I decided to come back the week after I finished the internship, so I returned and offer free work until we finished the project, which was 2 weeks later.Than they called me for various projects for them as modelmaker!

I was a modelmaker in Brazil for the last 7 years , but I was moving to a new country, new language, new everything (the job was pretty much the same),
but you have to find a way to achieve a new environment!!
You definitely have to "step in" somehow!
Thanks a lot!
keep brave!!

July 14, 2016 at 3:33PM

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Rodrigo Santos
Filmmaker, photographer, bamboo bikemaker
88

NO. NO. NO. You and all the other filmmaking blogs have been posting this like it's fucking gospel. JUST NO.
This hurts us all. DO NOT, work for free. NEVER EVER do it. If you don't know your shit, then don't work. Learn, and keep learning until you know your shit, then once you do you can offer your services. BUT NEVER work for free. It devalues all of us in this craft. This is just a common story among all creatives. For some reason people think that creatives love this shit so much they are willing to live in poverty and make cool shit for them.

The only time you should be working for free is with your friends or at school.

July 14, 2016 at 4:06PM, Edited July 14, 4:06PM

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Benjamin Carroll
None
131

That's pretty limiting advice to be honest. I wouldn't say definitively yes or definitively no. It really depends on your situation. I, for example, have a job working as a videographer in marketing. But I want to get into film. What's wrong with doing free work on the side that is more relevant to my future career while also having a regular job? I can make money while also working towards what I really want to do. I'll agree that if you have no source of income then don't constantly work for free, but I also wouldn't say NEVER work for free. Personally, I've gotten some pretty fantastic opportunities working for free fresh out of school. If a client asks me how much I charge then I'll generally give a price, but if I am passionate about the project or the opportunity, i'll negotiate all the way down to free if I have to and if it will legitimately help my recognition and skill in the long run.

So. It depends.

July 14, 2016 at 4:46PM, Edited July 14, 4:48PM

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Taylor Mefford
Video Editor / Sound Designer / Music Composer
156

I am an aspiring cinematographer, and am currently in an internship where i am learning a ton, by being a solo shooter and editor. by the end of this year I will likely have spent over 300 hours doing unpaid video work (with friends making a public access tv show, as well as for non-profit organizations). There is a lot I can learn by wandering around my neighborhood with a camera, but being on set, or simply knowing others will critique your work adds a level of urgency to learning, and if the only way you can get that is by working for free, then that is what you should do to push your skills up from "expensive hobby" to "paid work". Do i wish i was getting paid? Of course! My new tactic, after burning a bridge unnecessarily, is to ask a new client for what they think is fair, and negotiate from there. That results in 100 dollars maybe, instead of nothing, because you didn't take the job.

July 14, 2016 at 5:00PM

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Jeremy Kleider
Videographer
142

Matthew...agree with everything you say. However, what I'm seeing in smaller markets are businesses don't see the need to pay for video---that it almost should be a free service. Enabling that thought are the many 'newbies' that went out and bought nice gear and will work for free. I'm finding even my A clients are wanting me to reduce my rate. Quality doesn't seem to matter. Free video works for a lot of clients. They just don't want to pay for it.
The other thing I have heartburn with are the newcomers who call themselves a 'Cinematographer' or 'DP'. You should do a segment on what titles are and who can use them. Example: went to a film group meeting, talked to a young woman who called herself a 'filmmaker'. Asked what the film was about..."oh, we're just developing it now".
I've been in the biz for 27 years now and really, I still learn something new on each shoot. Things evolve too fast so keeping up is key.
Cheers,
Bob

July 14, 2016 at 4:51PM

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Bob Kelley
Professional Videographer/Bobkat productions
74

Yup, this has been my experience too. I have been working mostly for free for 7 years, free work just leads to more free work.

The only way I make money is filming weddings, but in the last year or two the low paid/free shooters have take over that market. Now I'm lucky to make $650 on a 10 hour shoot, feature edit, highlight edit and printed DVD's.

I don't get how everyone is always buying a new camera, I can barely afford my CC subscription. This market makes no sense to me, I think video will be a free hobby for most eventually.

July 14, 2016 at 10:01PM

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Not trying to troll, just want to say that up front.

That is extremely low. We found that raising the prices brought about more clients (granted, we haven't shot a wedding in 4-5 years now) It seems counter intuitive and I was really surprised but...it happened to us. Not sure if it would work for everyone but I think it's easier to shoot 1 $2,600 wedding a month than try to scramble shooting 1 a week at $650. You don't need to book as many weddings to make the same amount of money.

Start up a phantom company (throw together a website, use your reel, post on CL), charge 4x your current price and see if you get any bites. That way you don't miss out on any of the normal bookings?

July 24, 2016 at 11:54PM, Edited July 24, 11:55PM

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Luke Neumann
Cinematographer/Composer/Editor
2689

Free can work out for you but you have to think of the project. If you are working free on a no budget indie film chance are you won’t get much future work from it. Probably don’t do it.

Think about who else is working on it, at what level they are and what the quality of the project will be. You may be lucky and be assisting a young Greg Fraiser (DOP for Rogue One) on a music video in the early 2000’s as a few DOP’s I know did back in the day only to later get a call up to operate or work second unit. That is a million to one chance. Most likely that the free crew are all inexperienced want-to-be filmmakers with no real insights into the craft.

However if a working (TVC, TV Series) DOP needs an assistant for an indie film or music video but has no money to pay, that is a real opportunity. They will run the set like a real production and you will learn a lot. Most big DOP’s don’t own their own camera or lenses, what they bring to the job is their experience and the ability to run a set. So think about what your gaining if you take these free jobs.

Another thing. I’m an editor so I’ll talk from that perspective but this could apply DOP’s and on set professions. Assistants are important. Most great editors were assistants first. As an assistant you lean the craft for someone that knows what they are doing, that is very important. Then you get your first editing jobs from the person that taught you, either because they are too busy, the budget is too small, or the job is crap. That as the case with me and a lot of other editors I know. Why does a top director want to work with you on your first big job? because you’ve been vouched for by your mentor and also the director recognises you from set. They already know you. That is how Jack Green became Clint Eastwood’s cinematographer, listen to this podcast if you don’t believe me https://www.theasc.com/site/podcasts/unforgiven-1992-jack-n-green-asc/

July 14, 2016 at 9:12PM

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Andrew Stalph
Editor
232

I edited one feature for free, then I did another one...free. Now I'm on my third for free...obviously my skill isn't very high, I only have 7 years of experience. How are we supposed to eat while we build the 20+ years of experience needed to get paid? I work 16 hours a day for free and it really is getting to me.

July 14, 2016 at 10:04PM

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Please stop working for free - the people you are working for aren't doing it for free, are they? If they are, then they are 18-21 years old, right? After 7 years, you should be good enough get SOMETHING for your trouble. Just walk away from the people who are taking advantage of you right now.

July 14, 2016 at 11:17PM

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Brett Koren
Camera Operator
1

Working on these features is my only chance of getting into a union and getting decent pay in the future. I would never quit a project I have begun, not my style.

The problem is I truly enjoy my work. I have a fine cut of a feature due Saturday, I have been double timing it to get it done in time. I have so much fun just feeling the footage and letting it guide me, this is my life's passion. If I deny my passion because I'm not being paid I won't work. Plain and simple...and I love the work I need it in my life. I try to charge, but the productions I am able to get on do not have the budget. I have to negotiate credit and a small percentage of the film. That's all I'm lucky enough to get right now.

I wish I could stop, I probably will have to eventually when I am living in my car. But right now I just want to shoot and edit as much as possible.

July 15, 2016 at 12:03AM, Edited July 15, 12:08AM

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You voted '+1'.
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It's true to say that you shouldn't expect to be paid very much for your labor as a DP or technician when you are first starting out. Working for free to learn something can be good for you for awhile, but if you invested $20,000 in a camera package, then negotiate a daily or weekly camera package rental fee, do not just donate it and expect directors and producers (especially producers) to pay you for anything in the future - they will move on to their next production with or without you. Your labor can be free for awhile while you learn your trade, but the camera package has an actual value, and any production worth getting involved in budgeted for a camera package. If they didn't, then they are a bunch of newbies themselves and you wouldn't want to start learning a trade from people who don't understand budgets or pre-production.

July 14, 2016 at 11:05PM, Edited July 14, 11:05PM

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Brett Koren
Camera Operator
1

Work for free is no fun, but there are advantages.
You learn a lot if you pay attention how to progress for a paid gig.
In the old days an apprentice worked for free or nearly free for 4-6 years. Today people think they should be paid as they learn a craft. OK, if that's what you think, next time get a first year doctor to operate on you without practical experience :)
See how that will work out.

You have to be the master of your craft and that takes years and years... with low pay or no pay.

July 15, 2016 at 1:02AM

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P41
241

I think this is great advice.

Like, pretty much everyone I have heard from as a Cinematographer say not to spend $20K on a camera and just get a basic one that work similar to the $20K (but obviously less fidelity) Then just spend time learning the craft.

I have to say #8 is super important.

There will always be people better than you, there will always be people worse than you. But its how you interact with those people that changes you career. Because even though all the people you end up working with could be terrible, its a chance to invest into them and help them see the next level. Cause you never know where they might go from there, that PA that brought the RED and the Primes might go on to join a huge production company and might need someone they trust to help them out. More than likely they are going to call on their good friend that helped them out in the past.

July 15, 2016 at 1:13AM, Edited July 15, 1:14AM

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Kyle Dockum
Videographer and Editor
642

This is complete bull, sorry.
When you start, your price is lower and after a few years your price goes up.
Why should they pay you next time? They just take another new kid for free.
Who's gonna pay your rent and medical care?
If you work for free your'e part of te problem.
This is not good advice for the new kids, always get paid.
Its a job, its not charity.

Richard, 42 Video editor

July 15, 2016 at 4:55AM, Edited July 15, 5:07AM

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Richard
Video editor (Avid)
154

This kind of mentality is the reason there is lack of respect for cinematographers and generally creatives.
What a Logic!!!
For example you bought a car. You start working as Uber. Guess what... you drive just like all other drivers. So having a car and working with it doesn't mean you should get paid. You have to be grateful someone trusted you.
Imagine you rented a shop, you bought a coffee machine and you make coffee for people. Guess what your coffee tastes like all others. You shouldn't get paid!!
If you work for free, you brand yourself as a cheap crew and make your service or product seem worthless. No mather what you do, whether it's cinematography, graphic design, driver,... No one should expect you to do something for them for free, and the first person to have it in mind is yourself.

I love nofilmschool, but this post is disappointing.

July 15, 2016 at 5:46AM

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Ehsan Abbasi
Cinematographer
103

Amen!

July 15, 2016 at 6:03AM

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Richard
Video editor (Avid)
154

I loved this and thanks for bringing it to light. Two of the things that were left out, though, have been two of my biggest headaches for about 30 years now. This started happening in stills(commercial photography) long before it reared its ugly head in film/video. While I agree with most everything in Matthew's video there are those production companies that will hire the inexperienced simply because, no matter what they hand in, it can be fixed in Speedgrade, Resolve and After Effects. That started happening in the commercial/still world as soon as Photoshop came on the scene. Anybody with a camera who lived within driving distance of a rental company where they could rent lights and/or studio space were getting the jobs that people who had been in the industry for decades should have been getting. I had to start cutting my day rate drastically just to stay in the game and ultimately forced me out of commercial photography. Another thing that was not mentioned that has absolutely driven me up a wall, and I've seen it in every artistic medium: There are people out there with mediocre skills who can sell themselves much better than extremely talented people who can't get work even for free. I was lucky enough to get my first camera (Brownie Hawkeye with flash!)when I was seven years old. My dad started letting me play with his 8mm Bolex when I was eleven so I've seen the new waves come and go. Luckily I am now my own boss, shooting my own television series that runs on certain PBS stations. There is a major league headache associated with that because begging for money has never been my strong suit. We are a non-profit production company and we have some very good people on our board who are wizards at that so it's not something I have to worry too much about. So, my point is: Keep plugging along. No matter how long it takes the cream will rise to the top. If you have perfected your craft and your aesthetic you WILL start getting the work and working for free on the front end to get experience is just part of the game we all have to play.

July 15, 2016 at 10:18AM, Edited July 15, 10:26AM

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David Vessey
Director/DP
86

It really just depends. There's a fine-line between free opportunities to get you exposure and people who are just taking advantage of you and don't value your work. I think you really just have decide based on the project. For example, I'm doing a huge amount of planning and work for free, but it's for someone with an extraordinarily large fan-base that I wouldn't reach otherwise. It's gaining me legitimate exposure. So, I don't mind doing it for free. Another brilliant example. I did a trailer for a stage theater production and it ended up getting shared around a huge amount. I did it completely for free, but the people I did it for got it out there and actually caught the attention of the marketing team I'm doing paid work for. So, I would not ever say DON'T work for free ever. There are times where it can be extremely useful to you and help in the long run, especially when you're just starting out and still learning. It really just depends. You have to make the call, but don't let anyone here tell you what you should or should not do because it "demeans" the work of cinematographers. That's not always true. Do what you want, but be prepared to make the choice yourself. Don't ALWAYS work for free, but don't straight up count it out, depending on where you are in your skill and experience.

I would never ever do something like a wedding for free. It's so much of a hassle and work that it wouldn't be worth it if it was free. Plus, the only features I would ever do for free would be ones with a huge attachment or passion in the project.

At some point, you do have to stop doing things for the XP and give yourself credit where credit is due. If you show legitimate experience then start charging for it, but don't be so rigid that you can't work with people.

July 15, 2016 at 11:54AM, Edited July 15, 11:54AM

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Taylor Mefford
Video Editor / Sound Designer / Music Composer
156

What's the difference between a Sound designer and a hairdresser? It's a job! Sorry kids, no food tonight. Daddy is working for free!

July 15, 2016 at 2:29PM

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Richard
Video editor (Avid)
154

Yeah okay, because that's how that works.

July 17, 2016 at 12:52PM

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Taylor Mefford
Video Editor / Sound Designer / Music Composer
156

Digital image acquisition was one of the best things to happen to photography BUT, conceivably, the worst thing to ever happen to the photography business.

Proliferation of digital cameras and software has created an avalanche of people trying to enter the photography/cinematography market.
In any business, over-supply of product necessitates the lowering of price for that product.

In the old days, the barrier of entry was high. That's not necessarily a bad thing.
If you wanted to be a photographer/DP, you scrimped and saved to buy a very expensive camera. To do so meant you, most likely, had invested a considerable amount of time and energy schooling yourself on the pros and cons of this decision... Do I really have talent in this area? Can I really afford this? Does the market seem to hold any potential for me to succeed? Among a multitude of other questions you should have been asking yourself.

Maybe you even attended a school of some note to further your education in design, color, lighting, etc.

Now, ‘becoming’ a photographer/cinematographer (terms tossed around quite loosely these days) seems mostly based on whim.

“I think I’ll become a cinematographer today.
I have no prior knowledge of the subject but, hey, I’ve seen a few movies. How hard could it be?
Cameras are cheap and if I buy a Sony A7s2, I don’t need to invest in any lights. If the image looks like shit, surely there’s some software that will make it pretty.
Looks like a ton of fun. And, all my friends are doing it.
I really don’t know anything about it but, Yes! that’s for me”.

Cheap cameras, cheap media, has opened the door for your Aunt Margaret to declare, “I bought a T2i today and I am a now a photographer!”.

(maybe your mom is a good photographer, hell, I don’t know)

Point is, Jake Keenum, in the first reply to this post said, “Our industry is in a massive race to the bottom…”.

No truer words have been spoken in recent history.

Any upcoming "DP/Photographer” wannabes should really look at that statement and let it marinate for awhile.

On the subject of performing for free or not… pretty simple.
It all depends on the project.
If it’s with good people with more experience than you, do it.
If it’s with folks with little to no experience, if they’re not your best buds, maybe walk away.

Usually, free work begets free work.
On the other hand, working for free with a production ‘higher’ than your abilities, you do it.

At least, maybe you’ll learn something.

July 15, 2016 at 12:45PM, Edited July 15, 12:45PM

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Richard Krall
richardkrall.com
1705

This post is so true, thanks.

This is why I am learning code right now, before that becomes easy in about five years. I think in this age being a creative mind with technical abilities will mean having to transition to other skill sets over and over throughout your lifetime. Markets dry up and then you move on, that is the cycle we have to deal with.

7 years ago when I started it made sense to invest in this craft, today it does not. The payoff is just not there unless you get super lucky. I put myself in the hospital trying to outwork this fact, many of us will work like crazy and have talent but will not have the opportunity to have a career in this industry. It sucks but thats what it is. Some people are lucky and get a Red camera right away and can buy an audi, others like me work themselves sick trying to pay rent.

July 15, 2016 at 1:17PM

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Thank you Richard for a perfectly sensible post that has great points on both sides.

July 17, 2016 at 12:54PM

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Taylor Mefford
Video Editor / Sound Designer / Music Composer
156

Matt Workman said he worked for free but then gave all these examples where he got paid $500 for a music video a long time ago. His advice is stale now, and he was in NYC anyway. Things change. I would rather hear from someone more recent.

March 19, 2017 at 8:59PM

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Mark Pope
Cinematographer
67

I made about $2000 working on a documentary for 20 days. as a cinematographer. Everything was paid for. travel, food and lodging. Do NOT WORK FOR FREE.. .. You can't pay rent or your car note or the electric bill with free work. Yes you should have a demo reel reel and resume to vouch for your current skill level to justify you getting paid. But never work for free unless its with close friends and family. Or is Lions Gate has an opening..then by all means.

July 14, 2018 at 11:10AM

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Alfred Cox
Writer / Director
167