Event Photography as Service


In a recent post, I shared my Lightroom Workflow for Event Photography, and I let you watch over my shoulder as I processed the photos from a recent event.

That shoot happened to be a conference—the BIL 2015 LA conference—that I photographed pro bono, free of charge, as a way of donating to a non-profit organization that I support.

And that got me thinking that maybe I should say a few words about event photography as service.  As a way of giving to worthy causes.

Now I’m sure many of you, probably most of you, already are shooting events where you receive no payment.

Kids events at school.  Family events.  Community events. 

We do this all the time without expecting payment.  And that’s great.  It’s something we can offer that others can’t.  It’s fun, and it’s sometimes gratifying to our egos.

But I’d like to suggest going a step further and shooting larger events—even professional events that might be willing to pay for photography—on a volunteer basis.

Why volunteer for something you might actually be able to get paid for?

Four reasons:

  • It spurs you to attend worthwhile events that you might otherwise miss.
  • You are supporting an organization or cause that you believe in.
  • It takes the pressure off.  No one will complain about what a volunteer photographer delivers.
  • It removes the painful discussion of money from gigs that might pay very little anyway.

My recent BIL conference experience illustrates all these points perfectly. (You can view my favorite photos from the event here.)

For those of you not familiar with BIL, it’s the “open source” version of the world-famous TED conference.  Anyone can attend, anyone can speak.  The topics tend to be focused in areas of technology, futurism, human development, and ethics.  BIL is often described as the offspring of TED and Burning Man.   

BIL cofounder Reichart Von Wolfshield, injured in a recent motorcycle accident, attended the conference via telepresence robot.  

BIL cofounder Reichart Von Wolfshield, injured in a recent motorcycle accident, attended the conference via telepresence robot.  

I know the founders of BIL and I’ve supported their efforts from the beginning, although I all too rarely get to actually attend the annual conference.

Well, this year the organizers contacted me, said some nice things about my BIL 2012 photos, and begged me to please return and photograph this year’s conference.  A little flattery goes a long way with me, so I agreed, and I spent three continuous days shooting, coming home with over 1500 photos.

Three hardworking BIL volunteers. I was in very good company.

Three hardworking BIL volunteers. I was in very good company.

The whole process, 3-day event, plus photo editing and delivery, took nearly a week of my life, and it paid nothing. I even paid for my own ticket to attend the conference! 

Obviously if I were looking at this as merely a financial transaction, I lost big-time.  I sacrificed a week of my time, and I paid for my travel, hotel, food, and other expenses.

But it’s not just a financial transaction.  

In exchange for my photography, I got the experience of being celebrated and thanked as the “real time” documentary photographer at the event.  (This was slightly terrifying, as they were taking the photos straight off my memory cards every few hours, choosing their favorites, and uploading them, unedited, to Facebook.  They even made a slideshow to play at the closing ceremonies from my raw, unedited photos.  Without my being able to delete or select or fix any of them! Every photographer’s worst nightmare.  And yet it turned out to be exhilarating to be part of this fast-paced group effort at real-time documentation).

I also got the satisfaction of knowing that I had contributed something worth hundreds or thousands of dollars to this charitable, non-profit organization which I support.

And of course, I had the pleasure of actually attending the event and interacting with some of the most brilliant and talented people in the world.

On balance, I think I came out way ahead.

One of my favorite photos from the event, in which Elisabeth de Kleer has a private conversation with her close friend Reichart, or rather his robot.  For me, catching little candid moments like this, makes carrying a heavy camera for 3 days worthwhile.

One of my favorite photos from the event, in which Elisabeth de Kleer has a private conversation with her close friend Reichart, or rather his robot.  For me, catching little candid moments like this, makes carrying a heavy camera for 3 days worthwhile.

So this little manifesto is my call for you to think seriously about using your photography skills in support of causes, or organizations, or individuals you admire.

Especially when the gig would not be able to pay you very much in the first place.  It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that you should at least get paid “something” even if it’s a token amount, for your valuable service.  After all, you’re a professional (or you want to be).

But I’d argue for exactly the opposite being true.  When I accept a ridiculously small payment for a gig, I don’t feel like a pro, I feel like a prostitute who is not even being well paid.   I’ve found it to be far more satisfying to remove the awkward discussion of small amounts of money from the equation entirely—taking the magnanimous position that I don’t need any chump-change work, thank you—but I’m happy to come and take some photos for free, because I believe in the cause. 

Inventor Matt Elson brought his "infinity Boxes" to the event, which made for some fun photos.

Inventor Matt Elson brought his "infinity Boxes" to the event, which made for some fun photos.

And now you are in the position of power.  Now you can do the work on your own terms—shooting what you want, how you want, when you want—and slipping into the bar for a drink and the latest baseball scores when you feel like doing that instead—rather than dancing like a poorly-paid puppet on someone else’s strings.

Now, of course, we all like to get paid when we’re shooting for a company or organization which has the budget and which sees us merely as a service provider.  By all means, when you’re shooting something boring and tedious for a corporation—or shooting a wedding for a spoiled bride—then charge as much as the market will bear.  

But when you’re shooting for a cause you believe in, it can be incredibly liberating to remove money from the equation and work as a much-appreciated volunteer.

Feel free to share your own happy stories of event-photography-as-service in the comments below.


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