When it’s Okay to Pay an Artist in “Experience” and “Exposure”

A lot of artists in so many fields are asked to do work without pay in exchange for “experience” and/or “exposure.”

There are some circumstances where this is good, acceptable, and proper! Here’s a convenient list of when you can ask an artist to work without pay:

  • Students – Students just starting in their field may have an actual need to expand their portfolio, so as long as you allow them to use the work they create for their portfolio. Just remember that they are students, so it would be good of you to offer them food or gas money at the very least.
  • Artists Starting Out – An artist starting out may actually need exposure, especially if they’re switching fields. If that’s the case, they probably will benefit from the experience.
  • If Offered – If an artist offers to work for free, it is acceptable.

These are the only acceptable reasons to ask an artist to do work for you without pay. Barring these, it is extremely insulting to ask for free work.

Some people think that because art is a “fun” career, that it’s worth only little to no money. In reality, artists are extremely specialized. They spend years learning and perfecting their style and craft. Competent artists can take hours upon hours to complete a piece; not because they are lazy, but because of the attention to detail.

For well-established artists, regardless of business conditions, it’s pretty insulting to offer someone work in exchange for “experience and exposure” who would normally charge hundreds or thousands of dollars for the project.

When I was starting out, I did do a free shoot for a model (also starting out) close to downtown Los Angeles, for this, I would normally have charged about $75/hr, plus mileage because it’s so far out, plus $45/hr for editing/retouching. This is pretty variable, so I would have asked how long the person wanted to shoot for (in this case, 3 hours). So when someone says, “Can you come take pictures of me for about 3 hours? A couple outfits, a few poses, some different backgrounds and stuff?” Here’s the math from my price structure years ago:

  • First, mileage. I live 35 miles from the client, and I’ll travel up to 15 miles without charging a fee. That’s still 40 miles to charge for (there and back), and at a standard of $0.15/mi, that’s $6. Not much at all.
  • Next, there’s the hourly fee. $75/hr for 3 hours is $225.
  • After that, we’ve got that editing time. Telling a client that editing is charged on a per-hour basis can seem daunting, because they don’t know what or how much work is going into it. I like to estimate the amount of time. I usually underestimate the amount of time it will take, but that’s just good for the client. I know I get snap-happy, and that isn’t the clients fault either. Knowing they wanted heavy editing and retouching, I can safely bet that I’ll be doing about 4 hours of post-process work. At $45/hr, that’s $180. If I end up going over the 4-hour mark, that doesn’t matter, since I’ve quoted a flat-rate.

So for the whole shoot, the total cost would have been $411. That’s a pretty fair cost as well! But, I did the shoot for free, so I drove the whole way, brought my camera, lenses, and lighting equipment with me.

This is just about the same with other artists, though I cannot speak for other kinds of artists’ processes precisely, many have similar price structures. Web designers don’t design responsive sites for only a few bucks. Illustrators won’t create beautiful works for lunch money.

If you want professional, high-quality work to be done, you will offend an artist by offering them “experience” for their hard work and dedication to a project. So more often than not, it’s a very bad idea to ask artists to work for free.


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