Behind the scenes as Lilly Red, a photography mentor, photographs an engagement on a mountaintop

Free Photo Sessions: When You Should and Shouldn’t Offer Them! 

This has been one of the most controversial topics in the photography industry for years. And every seasoned pro has an opinion on it! 

We’re talking about free photo sessions. Specifically, we’re talking about whether or not you should even offer them. 

But keep reading – because we have our own hot takes on whether or not we recommend them:

Photographer captures photo of bride in Amangiri Utah elopement

The Two Main Schools of Thought Regarding Whether or Not You Should Do Free Photo Sessions:

If you ask any seasoned wedding photographer (or really, any other photographer in any other niche), they’ll usually be in one of two schools of thought when it comes to free photo sessions. 

Opinion #1: Never should you ever take on any free photography work. Whether you’re getting comfortable by offering engagement photoshoots or couples’ photoshoots, or you’re offering to photograph an entire wedding, it doesn’t matter to these seasoned photographers. They’re firmly situated in their stance that you should always be compensated for your work. 

Opinion #2: Absolutely, you should take on free work when you’re first starting! It’s a way to gain valuable experience. Plus, you can start to build a reputation and get your name out there. Pretty soon, you’ll be getting word-of-mouth referrals! 

For us? 

We’re in a lesser-known third school of thought. 

We believe that it truly depends on the situation. For some newer photographers, there’s no need to take on free photo sessions. For others, complimentary photoshoots are extremely valuable to help build a business! 

That’s exactly why we’re breaking down when you should and shouldn’t offer them! 

When Should You Offer Free Photo Sessions for Clients: 

Yep, we absolutely do think there is a time and place for some new photographers when it’s completely acceptable to offer complimentary photoshoots. 

But it’s not always cut and dry. It might not be beneficial to just jump right into booking photography sessions for free. 

So keep reading to see if it sounds right for you to do this: 

Behind the scenes of Lilly Red Photography, a photography mentor, as she photographs a destination wedding in Amangiri, Utah

You’re Just Starting, and You Don’t Yet Have Any Potential Client Leads:

If you’re just starting, as in brand new to the scene, then you may not have any potential client leads yet. Nobody knows that you’re breaking into photography and that you plan to take it full-time. That means nobody’s filling out the inquiry form on your website at the moment. 

They just don’t know you exist, yet! 

Now, we’re not saying that you should take on any and every single person who pipes up saying they want a free session with you. That’s a fast way to be taken advantage of. 

Instead, try going to them – the people you want to work with. Maybe that’s a couple of friends who are planning their wedding. You can offer them a complimentary engagement photo session. 
No matter who it is, if you can go to them and tell them exactly what the goal is, then you can establish boundaries early on so you don’t get taken advantage of.

You Don’t Have a Portfolio Yet:

This is usually the perfect time to offer free photoshoots. Because until you start photographing clients, you can’t build your portfolio.

But having that portfolio is what’s going to attract more of your ideal clients. 

So, booking complimentary photo sessions is one awesome way to do that! If you still don’t feel like it’s the right move for you, then we recommend checking out our post on how to build a portfolio without any clients! 

You’re Still Learning the Inner Workings of Your Camera and Composition: 

If you’re brand new to not only running a photography business, but also to photography in general, then it may be a good idea to start this way. 

Offering photo sessions free of charge to friends and family is a perfect way to continue learning more about your camera. It’s also a way to hone your artistic skills when it comes to composing every photograph! 

And the best part? Because you’re not charging them anything, you’ll feel a lot less pressure to fully deliver an excellent product that may be beyond your current level (for now!). That’ll give you plenty of time to work up to that level! 

You’re Putting Your Knowledge from Workshops and Lessons to the Test:

Similar to the one above, you might enroll in certain workshops and lessons. Offering sessions to clients for free is a great way to put the knowledge from workshops and tutorials into practice without the pressure of having to get it perfect on the first try. 

So if you’re learning more about guiding your clients through posing, styling and composing masterpieces, scouting the best locations for lighting, or anything else – then offering complimentary sessions so you can practice may be a great option!

You Know the Person Receiving the Free Photo Session Has Even More Connections:

All of the ways above typically involve one of two things (or a combination of both): 

  • Boosting your knowledge and gaining valuable experience
  • Building a stunning portfolio

There’s one other benefit to offering free photo sessions – furthering your business. A lot of photographers get their start with word-of-mouth referrals. Once you create an incredible experience for them and deliver great photos, your clients will be more likely to tell their friends and family about you. 

But sometimes, when you’re starting, you just need to make that one connection. So if you have a potential client that would like to give a complimentary session to who has great connections, then it may be worth it to you! Or even if there’s a local influencer that has a great audience, then you may want to reach out to them.

Lilly Red, a photography mentor, photographing a destination wedding

Something to Keep in Mind If You Decide to Book Complimentary Photoshoots:

If you do decide to build your portfolio by booking photoshoots free of charge, then there’s one major thing you need to keep in mind – 

Your boundaries. 

Lay them out before you even reach out to people. Know them yourself, first. Decide what you feel comfortable with. Decide what your complimentary photography package will look like. 

Then, set those boundaries early (and politely!) when you first book your client. They need to know exactly what the photoshoot will look like, what they’ll get out of it, what they won’t receive from it, and what you intend to do with it (will you put it in your portfolio? Post it on social media?). 

This will also help you keep your relationship with your client, no matter who they are, happy and healthy! 

When Should You Not Offer Free Photo Sessions for Clients:

We don’t always recommend offering photography work for free, though. There are definitely plenty of times when it doesn’t make sense to not charge someone. 

So if any of these sound familiar to you, then it’s probably a safe bet to forego the complimentary work for now: 

You’re Already Getting Leads from Your Marketing Efforts for Potential Clients That Are Willing to Pay: 

If you’re pretty well established in your business, then you’re probably already marketing yourself with a solid sales funnel. And if that’s the case, then there’s a good chance that you’re getting leads into your inbox. 

If that’s the case, and if people are already willing to pay you, then don’t discount your services or expertise! Allow people to pay you for your work.

Your Photography Business is No Longer a Side Hustle:

You may have already taken the jump from keeping your business as a side hustle and taking it full-time. 

If you’re taking it full-time, then your livelihood is reliant on you bringing in money for your services. And if that’s the case, then it’s time to charge your clients when booking photography sessions.

You’ve Taken On More Overhead Costs and Have Monthly Bills to Pay: 

And on that note, owning and building a photography business does involve overhead costs. From the cost of all of your photography equipment to the backend equipment like Lightroom and even client experience software like a customer relationship management tool, you’ll have expenses that start to pile up. 

Once you get to the point where you’re building out more of a photography equipment bag and more client experience tools, then you’ll need a way to pay for those costs. 

And if having a full-time photography business is the end goal, then requiring payment from your clients is a must! 

Something to Keep in Mind, If You Don’t Want to Take on Free Photo Sessions: 

Keep in mind that the ones you’re turning away are people, too. They may not realize exactly what they’re asking (if they come to you for a complimentary session). 

Or they may be a newer business themselves. And they might not have the budget to afford a photographer at the moment – or at least the budget to afford you at the moment. 

But still keep in mind that they’re people, first. It’s a good practice to give them the benefit of the doubt! That way you can leave the door open for a working relationship later on down the line. 

While there are two primary schools of thought on the topic – one being yes, you should offer complimentary sessions, and the other being the complete opposite – we feel it’s not so cut and dry. 

What works for one photographer may not work for another photographer. So it’s truly up to you, your business, and what you’re comfortable with. 

If you feel you’re young enough in your photography career that you don’t balk at the idea of offering free photo sessions, then start that way! Our only suggestion if you do decide to do that is don’t do it forever. 

You may not even need to do it for long! In fact, if you start out booking photography sessions for free, you can easily grow your business within a year. And at that point, you should definitely begin charging for your services! 

And just know – no matter what you choose, there’s no one right way to build a business. So if it works for you, don’t worry about what other people are saying or thinking! They’re not the ones building your business – you are. 

Speaking of building a business, don’t forget that we have a 3-step itinerary to help you build a wedding photography business that has you traveling the world (and getting paid to do it)!

Behind the scenes as Lilly Red, a photography mentor, photographs an engagement on a mountaintop