“We needed a small favor… we need some high resolution shots for a photo-wall for our event.
Please do let us know if you can spare some photographs for us.”

“We want you to attend our conference and photograph it because it will be great for your portfolio.”

“I don’t understand why you charge so much?! The other photographers have quoted only X amount.”

A response to my price estimate for an assignment : “Does it also include air travel to Venice?

This is a small selection of emails – and other modes of communication — I see often and in large numbers. Since I work with a lot of non-Indian clients too, it is worth pointing out that every single one of these emails comes from my own fellow Indians, whether resident in India or abroad.

They point to an uncomfortable truth about the “Free Culture” that many of us suffer but few speak up about or against.


Let’s deal with these one by one.

The “We needed a small favor…” excuse.

If an organisation is holding an event, they have a budget for it. The budget pays for the venue, the fabricators, the caterers, and other related expenses for a successful event. And then as an after thought comes archiving. They then scurry around looking for a professional photographer – I have had calls to cover spectacular launch events for well-established brands by PR agencies scrambling the day before the event – and ask for images for free. Would they get very far if they had approached the venue seeking a similar “favor”? It is doubtful. “Oh but Naina, they’re just asking for digital files! They’re not asking for you to even make prints!” To which I want to say, “You must mistake me for Rumpelstiltskin for I cannot weave pictures out of thin air.” The truth remains that PR agencies, like other service providers, rarely or never push back when a client gives them an improbably small budget. Why don’t they push back? Because they themselves aren’t mindfully present in their roles as advisors nor have the confidence in themselves to disagree with the client politely. They are scared to lose the business, because the client might see disagreement as an affront.


The “good for your portfolio” excuse next.

Yes, I care about my portfolio and I want it to include pieces that I am proud to showcase. I put in hard work and time to create those pieces. Mostly with the help of fantastic clients, and sometimes on my own doing personal projects. But if you like my work enough to come to me to cover your grand wedding or a client event, it goes without saying my approach to building my portfolio has paid off. It would be good if you could show some concern about my not being driven out of business. You can show this concern by paying me. That would also demonstrate your concern about and interest in my portfolio.


The “other photographer / designer / branding person” excuse.
To this, I have nothing much to say. Except to suggest gently that you please hire them since you like their pricing and since in your judgment, the quality of work is similar to mine. Really. I won’t be offended. There is enough work for everyone.


Then there is this: “Does it also include air travel to Venice?

I believe sarcasm is unnecessary. Did you see me invoke unicorns up there when discussing “digital images not prints”? The professional way to deal with a disagreement would be to inform a professional service provider that your budget cannot accommodate their prices. This can be said in plain English. After all we hardly snigger at your lack of research about pricing various components of your events and your not advising your client better, do we? Over time, clients who did not have the budget for me on one occasion have come back to me for a different project and we have since gone on to do more work together. Remaining professional and polite costs nothing but everyone remembers incompetence layered with uncalled-for sarcasm.


Assume for a moment, the same prospects who wrote to me above also wrote the same to a lawyer. Laughable, yes? Or asked a surgeon to conduct a life-saving surgery for free, because the patient would then be a walking-talking advertisement for the surgeon’s skill? No? You won’t ask? What about using the same excuses with your house-keeper and your driver who get to spend their day in the air-conditioned comfort of your home or your car? Never going to happen? Ok, I hear you.


If you believe that my work adds no value to your or your brand, why reach out?

The answer to that is, “Dekho toh sahi, shaayad haan bol de.” [ Translation : No harm in asking. ]. But there is harm. Just that you do not know about it. I lose all respect for you and your brand. While you might think that I don’t matter in the large scheme of things, I do talk about my experiences – with my peers, juniors and seniors. We all discuss. We all draw our own conclusions. [ There’s also this : whopaysindeed.in ]

In a rapidly growing country, we need to consider not just the short term gain but also the long term benefit of creating a market – that has both clients AND service providers. Both need to exist for the sake of the other. Both need to treat each other well for the respect they deserve for doing their own jobs well.


Professionalism is a two-way street. If prospects treat vendors professionally, by offering not to disrespect their trade by asking them to give away their work for free, vendors are inclined to respect their clients too.

I’ve heard this many times, “But can’t you make it a little cheaper? You could do a little less work in return – or maybe not do ‘such’ a good job as with clients who pay you top dollar.” And no. I can’t. It’s not that I don’t want to – I simply can not. It is not possible for me to tell my brain to think slower and not-so-creatively because a prospective client doesn’t have the budget. I still deliver exceptional work and I refuse to be unprofessional.

My business principles are clear : I do not work for free. I know I am good at what I do and I deserve to flourish.


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  1. “The “other photographer / designer / branding person” excuse.”
    You pay peanuts, you get monkeys. One reason I don’t miss freelancing is the frequent chik-chik about “But I’m sure if i ask you often enough, and several times a day, you will eventually PAY me for the honour of doing my work and just maybe, going away to leave you in peace”

    1. [textcol]Rijuta, I hear you on not missing freelancing. I dislike the use of the word altogether because it has come to be associated with someone who is flaky, working only for the money, someone who is not a thorough professional, etc. It is unfortunate but this association has happened over time. As a self-employed / independent professional, I believe, on many levels, that I fit quite the opposite stereotype-definition of a freelancer. I don’t usually write about the constant “chik-chik” because it is ever present and talking about it should ideally only serve to sensitise about it being an issue. Constant cribbing / complaints serve no one. True enough about peace too. But working with other human beings means quite the opposite – whether it is creative dissonance or ego clashes. I would be at peace if professional standards were treated as “standards” and are not negotiable.[/textcol]

    1. [textcol]Great post Guillaume. Thank you for sharing it. I agree about thoughts on collaboration. My post is more about professionalism and how money is a means to an end – not THE end. Money is an enabler that would allow a client to get what they want and for a service / product provider to receive value in return for what they deliver. Both parties benefit, good work gets done and there is minimum transactional friction.[/textcol]

    1. [textcol]Amiy, I’m not annoyed – I am, however, not comfortable with the pervasive “free” culture that is so characteristic of India. We need to talk about it more often – not just amongst ourselves as service providers but also with our clients and prospects.[/textcol]

  2. Well written post. People do forget to give respect and believe they deserve respect. Sarcasm and the “Other Photographer” can just go to hell. People can’t do basic math while planning I seriously don’t understand how they get to stay in jobs which includes such math all the time. Well said Naina.

    1. [textcol]I wish it were as simple as “basic math” Raghavendra. This “free” culture thinking – as I said – is part of our cultural upbringing. It is not easy to change that thinking overnight and it is hard to argue with a penny-pinching attitude even when associating it with professionalism. As clients ourselves, we need to think of the value our service-provider is bringing to the project and how a business interaction can be dealt with professionally. Sarcasm is not necessary yes but as a service-provider, I would rather look at ways to make it work than tell prospects to go to hell :)[/textcol]

    1. [textcol]Thank you for the dissenting comment Satish. The above post is about professionalism and in keeping with the same, I will refrain from discussing our business-transaction publicly. I do provide value to my clients and there are several who would vouch for that when asked.[/textcol]

    1. [textcol]Thank you for the kind words Tarun but I do believe more of us should write about this so it reaches more readers – we are ALL clients to someone or the other and need to practice what we preach as well. Professionalism is still treated as something that can be bypassed unfortunately.[/textcol]

  3. Absolutey true!!
    Loved how subtle was “it is worth pointing out that every single one of these emails comes from my own fellow Indians, whether resident in India or abroad”. I am in a totally different field, and I face it ONLY with indians!!
    I did a high five the minute I read that line!! 🙂

    1. [textcol]How unfortunate is that Sajani? High-five right back at ya! I really do hope we will have different reasons for the high-five soon.[/textcol]

  4. I have been on the receiving end of horrible treatment from FoodHall (Kishore Bayani’s group) after they stole my photographs for a backlit hoarding in their sprawling shop in Palladium. When caught they actually had the nerve to ask me whether I could just forget the matter which they said was a silly error! They in fact offered me to be their representative on social media for a small token, which of course was to be considered compensation. Unfortunately I do not have the resources to follow up the case in court so they got away with it without paying a penny! It has been a year now, but your article just refreshed the pain I went through. Good one!

    1. [textcol]Dear Harini, Sorry to hear about your travails with FoodHall. I would wager that this was an in-store mistake that the store manager wanted to shove under the carpet. Still wrong of course – I’m sharing my experience. Ideally, the way I might have handled it [ and I don’t know the specifics of your case ] – I would have taken photographs of that hoarding – close up and with the backdrop of the store. I would have then approached the manager and given them the details. Sometimes the guilty party is unaware of their error and they are more than happy to take down the plagiarized materials. In your case, the store was not as forthcoming. In the latter case, I would have then gotten back home and blogged about the incident with photographs of the offending material [ keep it factual with minimal adjectives ]. Request people in your networks to kindly ReTweet, Re-Share and spread the word. I would then also email someone at the Kishore Biyani Group with a link to that blog post. You do not need “resources” to protect your basic rights but if it did come to a court case, there are many competent lawyers in the social media space who would have stepped forward to help. In the future, I would recommend that you reach out to others who have gone through similar experiences [ and there are many ] and find out how they handled it and take it from there.[/textcol]

  5. I did exactly that, Naina. My friend had taken photographs and I wrote to the group attaching photogrphs. Two representatives from their human resources department came as negotiators. The incident was tweeted, shared on facebook and brought out as an article in Social Samosa. That was a consolation. Thank you for sharing your views. It was a lesson learnt. 🙂

  6. I am doing photography apart from my Night shifts job and people approaching me for these kind of favors, without giving a second thought or having it in their mind that photographer also have family, bills to pay, he/she compromising with sleep, not giving that time to family ah! how come they can ask …i had a very bad experience with govt. organization a very big name in def. minstry who selected few of my photos from exhibition and when i presented the bill with archival print, frame etc he was surprised and invite me for a tea,, my expectation for 12 framed photos were somewhere around 1.5L and he was giving me 5000 Rs. told him sir thats even not covering my petrol when i go for a shoot.

    But i m sure people will definately change ….good job Naina….

    1. Dear Mukesh, I am sorry you have to face such issues with your photography endeavour and that you still believe that people will change. However, I would recommend using a better tactic to deal with issue – something other than “Pay me because I have a house to run, bills to pay and a family to feed.” Yes you have to take care of yourself and your family but if this was the logic behind why one must get paid, why do we still buy from industries like Reliance where clearly the owner already has more than enough to take care of his family? Getting paid for our work is related to professionalism and it is a business transaction. Best to keep personal survival and family needs away from this.

  7. And in design world the client’s who is willing to pay, most of them got to know about the Crowed-sourcing / Design Contest which makes them believe that they can get anything in any price they want or even sometimes even for free.. 90+% of people ask me to join their contest or work for free or do favors, etc etc. Feel like so anger but most of the time I try not to show it.

    1. Hi Saket, Thank you for sharing your experience. Anger is a typical first-response but you have to understand from a client’s point of view as well. Most of us, in India, are brought up with the “savings” mindset – that no matter what we do or purchase, we much save, pinch pennies etc. We all set out operating from that point of view. From that standpoint, the crowd-sourced solution to design is logical. But that doesn’t mean that as a designer, you have to sign up. How you run your practice is up to YOU. There will always be new things that will attract clients – new services, new service providers, competitors, etc. And it’s good for our business as it keeps us on our toes. I would recommend finding new ways of getting clients to work with you instead of anger at new service models like crowd-sourcing.

  8. Hi! I agree that in India, we are brought up with saving mindset.. However after joining the Industry somewhat I changed my mindset a bit. And about crowd-sourcing that makes many people think that designers got all the free time to design and can sometimes work for free also. And I do love new services, inventions. modules and everything but those things should be ethical and should not destroy the industry. Actually more then anger I feel bad for Designers and for clients also:

    They hardly get time to concentrate on single project.
    Client gets only 10 or less percent of effort, of what they pay for.
    To provide designs ASAP sometimes designers from contest copy/steal ideas/concepts from other’s design.
    There is hardly any direct engagement with client and designers.

    These are few points, I can write a blog post full of points.

    1. Hi Saket, excellent idea about blog post. Please wrote and share link here. I will share it.

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