Entry 221 : Doing Photography For Free

Hey, everyone!

Recently, I was asked to become the photographer for a conference my research group was organizing. At first, I said I would be more than happy to do it - as long as I was paid. But of course, understanding how limited the funds were for the conference, plus the declining economy of the country, and not to mention the sheer disappointment my fellow research group members showed in their eyes upon my request for payment (jk), I agreed to do it for free.

Group photo, 4BIGTC2017

You would think that it was the appropriate thing to do, seeing as how it was my own research group that was organizing the conference; but you have to really think of the repercussions free work would mean. Once you accept a commissioned work without pay, you'll usually find it difficult to ask for payment the next time they ask you to take photos. Mind you me, this wasn't just some "easy" task I was asked to do, it was four full days of photography with next-day turn-over. Simply put, I had to take photos for at least 10 hours during the day and then proceed to 3-4 hours of editing at night. For free.

I knew what was in store for me once I agreed to become the photographer. I've done it before for the Golden Key conference in 2014, where my brother and I were paid a total of RM3000 for three days work, also including next-day turn-over. This time, I would be doing it on my own.

But over the years of accruing a lot of experience doing event photography, I was very well prepared. Of course, there were a few complications leading up to the event, but once it commenced, I did my job, sent in the photos to the organizers and gave myself a pat on the back for a job well done.

Shot for 4BIGTC2017 - science.utm.my/4bigtc2017/

After everything was done, I (as always) reflected back on this experience and realized how enriching it has been to be doing freelance photography for the past 3 years (wow, it's been that long). What was even more gratifying was to look back and realize how much I had gotten in terms of opportunities instead of mere monetary compensation.

So, I thought of writing an entry about doing photography for free and why it's more fulfilling than you might think.

Now, before I start, I have to assert my position in terms of what I do for a living. No, I don't do photography full time. As many of my readers already know, I am a full time student, doing my Master's degree in Mathematics. As a matter of fact, I should be focusing on finishing my thesis right now - but then again, a little (read: a lot of) incubation helps in churning out ideas.

I do photography whenever I can, mostly shooting events - some are paid while most aren't. I also do concert photography and camera gear reviews; unpaid as well. I survive on a government scholarship and stay at home, a wise choice no matter how "easy" people make it out to be - but the topic of not leaving the nest will be brought up in another entry. I pay my credit card bills, my food and my travels as much as I can. I buy my own camera gear and work equipment, and I use my own time and energy to learn, practice and do photography & writing. I don't call myself a "professional" photographer. I would have to pay taxes if I did (jk).

Now that that's out of the way, let's move on to my thoughts & opinions about shooting for free and why they have benefited me so.

I do photography for experience.
I started taking up photography to have photos for my blog posts. Back in 2008, I already had a previous blog that I would use to talk about my travels and experiences. In 2012, I started to get serious in photography because I started going to concerts more and wanted to take pictures of the Korean idols I would so vigilantly chase at the airport. In 2013, my brother and I were asked by our aunt to take photos at her wedding. We would only be paid RM150 for the fuss. In the same year, we went to more concerts with our cameras (we would smuggle them in sometimes), I bought my own DSLR and we founded QZ Photography. This was our first step into taking freelance photography seriously.

All the while, doing all these crazy things for photography, we weren't paid much. We used what money we had from our savings to attend shows and to drive/fly to Kuala Lumpur. At first, like many other budding photographers, we wanted to make money. It was stupid and often times futile. People wouldn't pay for inexperienced photographers, doesn't matter if we were good at it. But we were still determined to keep doing what we did, and slowly realized that we needed to learn a lot more and do a lot more before people can actually take us seriously.

The beginning of it all, shot for Faizah Sarmin

So, we changed our ways and started to do more photography in our travels and odd jobs we'd get from friends or acquaintances. We would make a lot of mistakes on various first time jobs - sometimes huge ones, but we knew that it was our learning period to learn on the job and have practical experience; to gain as much know-how and awareness from various situations; to turn every mishap, hardship or burden into a reason to improve and to learn more. Ultimately, after forgetting about the money and focusing more on the photography, we had a built up a good enough repertoire to accept paid jobs and to inquire people if they needed photographers. We received more media invitations to cover launches, events and also concerts. We were brave enough to take on jobs that required a high level of expertise and were humble enough to accept modest jobs or favors.

Went out of our way to queue up from 10AM to see the
Captain America: Civil War Blue Carpet Premiere, Singapore

Smuggled our cameras into MTV World Stage 2013

Shila Amzah held a public fan-sign at Paradigm Mall

Our first big-paying job

Not only that, the experiences that I've gained through photography also span towards traveling and self-confidence. Because of photography, I went on my first vacation to Jogjakarta, on my first solo trip to Europe and an early morning walk on the beaches of Bali. Of course, one would say that wanderlust (and research) is the main excuse, but I felt that if I weren't someone who did photography, I would only be able to look at a place but not capture my vision and feelings of it - to actually see it.




Abu Dhabi


Experience is very important and builds character. I feel that photography (and this blog generally) has contributed a lot towards my growth as a human being. The things I've seen, the people I've met and the events that I've captured have all made me who I am now. So, in anything that you do,  you have to remember that experience is probably the most valuable thing you could gain.

I do photography for opportunities.
Because of the experience that I had gained from going to a lot of events, shooting a lot of stuff and building a good enough portfolio, I began to search for and create opportunities for myself.

You see, you must realize that people don't really care how much money you've got because they're not paying/choosing you as their photographer for how much money you have. People want you to shoot for them because of how much experience you have AND how good you are. If you can show that you have enough experience to represent a brand or company, people will trust you enough to give you permission for media coverage or equipment loans. What's more, other creators will want to collaborate with you for your ideas, style and knowledge.

Editorial, Gordy's Camera Straps in collaboration with Olympus Malaysia

Editorial, Adidas Tubular X x Penny Skateboards in collaboration with Olympus Malaysia

Leica X (Typ 113) review in the USA, in collaboration with Leica Malaysia

Because I wasn't afraid to sacrifice my own money without getting any back, I opened myself up to opportunities. From shooting one concert, I could gain access to another. From shooting one dinner event, I get to shoot a whole conference. From doing things on my own, I get to collaborate with fashion designers, brands and companies. Most of my work that I showcase to potential collaborators are the ones that I did for free. But it doesn't matter to them. What matters is the work itself, and what contribution I can give to them in return for opportunity.

Look book photos, shot for Nabihah Ridzuan (left) and Anis Sofhea Widuri (right)

I do photography for exposure.
Exposure - probably the most hated word by all creatives/creators/freelancers/people without a real job. It's true, exposure doesn't pay the bills... But does it?

One of the first huge commissions I had was an unexpected one, back in 2014. I had sent an enquiry to the organizer of this huge concert that coincided with another huge event. Initially, all I wanted was a media pass, nothing more. My e-mail was replied with a simple line:
Please call me back asap. xxxxx at xxx-xxxxxxx. Thanks.
Well, okay.

It was 10:43AM and I was waiting for my lecturer to come in. I gave him a call and he told me how he was looking for people to come shoot the press conference of the event for the organizer. The press conference was on a weekday and he offered me the position. I told him I couldn't do it because I had classes (what a nerd I know, but I had a 100% attendance to hold up). He tried to persuade me more, saying that it would be a once-in-a-lifetime chance and that he really wanted my services, even though I hadn't shot anything of the sort ever. There wasn't even any mention of payment or compensation. I had to refuse and ended the call by still asking for media passes for the concert. He said he'll look into it.

I didn't go back to class after that. I stood there, in the corridor of C08, pondering what I had just done. I had just given up an opportunity of a lifetime... to attend a Modern Algebra class that I knew I could ace. I mustered up my last bit of courage, threw away any ego I had and called the person back. I accepted his offer. The next week, I flew to Kuala Lumpur to shoot the press conference for Twin Towers Alive 2014.

At first, I thought I was there only as media. But when I got to the venue, I was greeted by the man on the phone and the first words he said was,

"You are our official photographer today."

Excuse me?

I was shocked. It was my first time on such a job. Thankfully, the people were immensely nice and welcoming, talking me through what sort of shots they needed. I met with the CEO of the company, the Chairman of the organizing committee and most importantly the public relations executives. They gave me free reign to shoot from whatever position I wanted and trusted me with my vision. I felt important. But at the same time, I felt extreme pressure.

After about three hours of the press conference, I gave them the photos they wanted and proceeded to head back. Before I was on my way, the person I had called wanted to meet with me. He asked me how I got there and I told him I flew in the night before. There was a cheeky smirk on his face and he turned to talk to the CEO. He then came back to me and handed me RM300,
"Next time, take the bus."
Was I just paid? Was I actually just paid? I was! It was crazy. I didn't expect to be paid, let alone enough money for my whole trip.

After that job, I was called back again to shoot the actual concert. Unfortunately, the concert had to be cancelled as a sign of respect to the missing plane MH370. Nevertheless, I had gained really great experience and met with some really great people. That first job paved a whole new pathway into doing huge scale events and jobs.

Media, GOT7 1st Fan Meeting in KL

Media, Iskandar Waterfront Carnival 2015

Not only that, I had also been asked by my mom and my lecturers to shoot stuff for my faculty. In the beginning, I don't think I was paid. But after a while, I was officially appointed as the photographer and received payment. Furthermore, I have also done stuff for friends and family. I don't prefer shooting for people I have close relations with because it can get really complicated when it comes to money. But sometimes, when I'm really wanted, I look past the money and hope to gain something else that would be useful for myself; be it experience, opportunity or exposure.

SPS Pre-Raya Photoshoot

UTM International Pre-Raya Photoshoot

I do photography for sanity.
As a creative, photography serves as an outlet to express and confess, to reveal hidden interpretations of a situation or to capture the bare soul of a scene. I have very complex thoughts, constantly keeping everything to myself and feel burdened by the lack of expression. Sometimes I use music to take my mind of things and lose myself in computer games or TV shows.

But every time I'm idle, I feel restless. I feel as if I am not using my abilities or my potential to the fullest. When I'm not writing in my blog, I feel useless. When I'm not out shooting stuff, I get an existential crisis.

However, whenever I hold up a camera to my face, I begin to see in a different way. My mind immediately recalls past experiences, framing techniques, technical know-how and a taste for adventure. Photography is the best workout I could ever get - going 12 straight hours shooting a festival is way more fun than 30 minutes at the gym.

Wouldn't mind going another 12 hours

The sweat, the dehydration, and the exhaustion from shooting make me feel good. There's nothing like it. I walked through the city of Paris hunting for cool scenes and pretty frames, which was almost impossible due to the weather. But still, with my camera on my shoulder, I persisted. At the end of the day, I had walked 39km in total. I didn't even feel a thing (in a good way).

Conquered Champs-Élysées

I have an insatiable urge to create and to share. Being both a writer/photographer and a student/researcher in Mathematics, there is so much to discover and to disseminate. But too much of Mathematics isn't healthy as it draws you closer to insanity. Some people take vacations and breaks to calm their minds. All I need is a good day with my camera. Not to be paid, not to be commissioned, not to be exposed to future clients. Just to be sane.

I do photography for love.
In whatever you do, if you don't love it, you're wasting your time. A lot of time you'll see me complain about my research and how I am always stuck. Or you'll see me complain about difficult clients that don't know what they want or what they're talking about. I'll be put in a very negative mood, mope around for a while and finally just accept things for what they are. But that doesn't mean I don't love what I do.

I love photography. It is one of the most powerful form of art. Stories can be told from a single frame. Emotions can be captured. Memories can be immortalized. People can be reminded of a beautiful time in their life or a dark period in their existence. Photography is both truthful and deceitful, both good and bad. There is a synonymity between photography and our own self, on how we see things and interpret them. Photography is accessible by all people. It doesn't matter how much or how little you know about shutter speeds of f-stops, photography is what you see and capture. Photography is the gateway into your mind's eye.

People who do photography for money eventually lose their love of it; same goes for professionals of any field. It is extremely complicated to love something that brings you constant stress and pain, but if you don't love it, you'll find yourself questioning your life's choices till you die. Same as how I question myself whenever I eat a whole bag of chips in one sitting, but then I remember how much I love chips.

If you don't love what you do, all that time and energy put into it would have been for nothing

Once you've done something you love, you'll want to do it more and more. There is no other feeling like it. You feel good about yourself. You feel fulfilled. You feel happy. And isn't that what we all want in life?

Having a cold glass of iced latte makes me happy, but not as much as photography
Photo by Fariq Yosman

* * * * *

I'm not saying you should do photography for free when you're approached by a client. Ask for all the money! I'm just saying that you have to look at every photographic opportunity as a way to benefit yourself not only monetarily but also spiritually and physically. There is more to one thing than just the one thing. From every shutdown or rejection, you improve yourself more. From the littlest of compensation to the biggest of clients, you know in yourself your own worth and your own purpose. If all you think about in life is money, you'll probably get the money that you want, but not the good life that is supposed to come with it. A full life is a life lived fully, which includes not only money but also experiences, opportunities, connections, sanity, and love.

The lust for money is the root of all evil. These days, a lot of people try to take advantage of people that work freelance. I know - I've experienced it myself. There's so much to talk about regarding the business portion of working for clients in design, photography, writing, performing, fashion, and so much more. In this respect, the creative needs to be wise and aware of his/her choices. If the only thing you gain from a job is exhaustion and self-hate, don't take it. If it pays your bills but you lose your sanity and love for the thing that you do, why bother?

Charity is also another free thing that everyone should do more, including me

There are so many more opportunities and clients out there that will give you most of what you seek in your career, including photography. Don't think of photography as a tool to make money; that is just disgusting to the pure art form that it is. Think of it as creating pieces of timeless art that people will cherish as long as they live. Think of your work as a means for people to reconnect with good times or bad times. Think of the photos you send to your clients as a resume for future work. Think of your photography as your child that you put your heart and soul into perfecting for the outside world to see. Think of photography as a medium for self-healing and self-reflection. Think of what you do as a constant reminder of how good you are and how far you've come in life. Think of it as a picture of yourself.

I haven't earned a lot from photography. The money I get from photography goes into paying for my credit card bills or new gear (the last piece of equipment I bought was a UHS2 memory card to record 4k video; otherwise the last time I bought something was in 2014). I am still very demanding in terms of getting paid for my services, but I always think of the ways I might also benefit from doing work.

If people thought about money less, there would be more opportunities for the youth to explore other outlets and career choices. It's saddening to see people being hindered because they keep thinking of how they would survive. I know we don't live in an ideal world, but we do live in a world where opportunities exist. So create these opportunities, and then get the monies.

Until the next entry, take care.