Dear friend,

Never forget — your life and labor is not free.



MODERN PHOTOGRAPHER Marketing, Branding, Entrepreneurship Principles For Success.

Thank you Cindy

My labor is not free essay by Cindy Nguyen. Spread from MODERN PHOTOGRAPHER

Cindy Nguyen inspired me with her essay: “My labor is not free”. Growing up poor, I can relate with her — my family had to hustle just to make ends meet. We didn’t put any value on our labor — we assumed like our time was free, and wasn’t worth much.

Tokyo, 2017 #cindyproject
Tokyo, 2017 #cindyproject

I made the sucker mistake of thinking that whenever possible, I should trade my time and labor for more money. As I’m getting older and my time is becoming more valuable, I’m doing the opposite:

Trading my money for more time.

Your three most valuable gifts

Memento Mori ERIC KIM
Memento Mori ERIC KIM

In photography, life, and everything — our most valuable assets include our time, attention, and focus. These things are non renewable resources – once we lose it, we cannot gain it back.

Follow your heart

Eric Kim black background in Kyoto

If you’re a photographer, realize your labor is not free. Don’t offer to do “free” shoots if your heart totally isn’t in it.

When Cindy and I shot my friend Mark and Isis wedding — we did it as a gift, and we first offered it to them. We had so much joy photographing their wedding, and they also appreciated it greatly — because they acknowledged that our labor wasn’t free — in fact, it was worth a lot.

Your photographic labor is expensive.

Eric Kim with espresso cup.

How many times have you had a family member, friend, or work colleague try to convince you to shoot their … something… for free, but you didn’t want to? You might have objected — but they told you that you already have all the equipment, and it will “be easy”.

But, your labor as a photographer is worth a lot.

Consider all the labor you have to put in for a “free” shoot:

  • Time and transportation to the shoot and from the shoot (labor of your time, gas money, or taxi/Uber fee)
  • The time and labor necessary for you to actually shoot the event (while expending your precious energy entering with the people, and using your creative and mental energy to capture decisive moments, frame, and to frame creatively).
  • The time necessary for you to look through all the photos once you get home (time to import your pictures to your computer from your SD card, the time to choose the best ones, and the time to post process them, and to export the pictures, and then upload or share the pictures with them).

Then also consider the stress of perhaps not being happy with the pictures you shot. Or perhaps, the other people asking you to do more ‘free’ work that “costs you nothing” like photoshopping out pimples, or cloning people out of a scene.

What is your personal goal in photography?

Trifecta between Love, Money, and Your Personal Brand as a MODERN PHOTOGRAPHER
Trifecta between Love, Money, and Your Personal Brand as a MODERN PHOTOGRAPHER

I think if your goal is to pursue photography as your full-time or part-time career, then starting off to shoot free shoots to build your portfolio is a good strategy. However, realize that the time, labor, and energy you will need to invest in building your portfolio will be very expensive, in terms of your personal time and labor.

Calculate the price of your labor


As an exercise, just ask yourself:

What is one hour of my time worth?

If your yearly salary is $40,000 USD, your hourly wage is around $20. Then whenever someone asks you to do a “free” shoot —add up the time you will probably need to invest:

  • 2 hours for transportation ($40)
  • 2 hours for preparation for shoot ($40)
  • 3-5 hours for the shoot itself ($60-$100)
  • 2 hours to to import and organize images ($40)
  • 3 hours to choose best pictures and post-process them ($60)
  • 2 hours to backup pictures, upload pictures, and export pictures ($40)
  • 2 hours for additional work that is unknown ($40)

If you do the math, a small little shoot might cost you more than 18 hours of your labor, or around $360 worth of your labor (assuming you’re paid $20 an hour, this number can be much higher or lower depending on your salary).

Not to say that you should value your self worth in terms of your hourly wage or salary — but just realize, your labor as a photographer is not free.

What should I do then?


If a company or organization contacts you for a “free” shoot to “build your portfolio” or for an “opportunity”, ask yourself:

Are they going to make money off your pictures? And is there anyone on the team who is getting paid for their labor, like the models, talent, or anyone else involved?

Also, as a suggestion: don’t respond immediately. Think about it at least for a day or two, and calculate the time and labor you think it would cost you. And also add 25% to the time and labor you think it will cost you. Why? Because as a psychological fallacy, we always under-estimate the time and labor necessary for projects (this is called the ‘planning fallacy’).

Don’t trade your time and labor for cheap (charge 25% more than you think you should)


And not just in your photography, but realize your labor, and time in life is so so valuable. You’re at best given 100 years on planet earth. Your time is the most valuable thing you own — don’t give it away as if it were free.

And if you are going to trade your time and labor for money, don’t trade it for cheap. Charge a lot of money for your time and labor — I suggest you to charge 25% more for your labor than you think you should.




MODERN PHOTOGRAPHER Marketing, Branding, Entrepreneurship Principles For Success.