Love of photography can cloud your judgement

Nikon D4, Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 DG OS HSM | S, Sigma TC-2001 2x, ISO 12800, ƒ/5.6, 1/1250

There are two things I love to shoot more than anything else: Sports & Humanitarian subjects.

Both of these subjects are like an adrenaline rush for me to cover.

Nikon D750, AF-S NIKKOR 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR, ISO 1400, ƒ/5.6, 1/100

I am not alone and find that both of these subjects have photographers lining up in a row to shoot them for free just to have the chance to do so.

Here is a big clue to your brain cells–ANYTHING that people are willing to do for free requires you to be the very best there is to make a living at it.

The odds of you being a professional sports photographer earning all of your living doing this full-time maybe more difficult than playing the sport professionally. The reason is simple, since so many people want to stand on the sidelines and will do whatever it takes to do it even if it is for free.

In sports we call these jock sniffers. Well that may sound crude but they just want to be close to the action.

Not sure what we call them if they are willing to do whatever it takes to do humanitarian photography for free, but there are so many of these folks out there it is scary.

In a Facebook group there was a comment/question about covering missionaries for church organizations. Here is a small snippet:

The missions organization pays you little or in some cases NOTHING for your work after all is said and done. There are some of us who can walk away with photos worthy of National Geographic. I ask you, is it fair and right for missions groups to get all the benefits of having talented photographers shooting for them while the photographers get little or nothing to show for it? 

Here was my response

There are basically three types of mission organizations. 

1. The William Carey model of mission societies where people give to the society and then the society hires missionaries and pays them as staff is one model.
2. Each person raises their own funds. They have their supporters give to the organizations that endorse them and they take a percentage [usually 10%] but this gives people a tax write-off. So the entire organization raises their own support. Campus Crusade works this way for the most part.
3. There is often a blending of the two models where a small support staff that might be staff but the majority raise their own support.

So if the person who hired you to work on the project is raising their own support then I think you don’t really have a case in the traditional sense in their eyes.

The problem in missions is when everyone is not operating on the same model.

I have a capitalistic freelance business. I find clients who I charge for my services. I either must make enough to subsidize my missions photography or I must charge to cover my costs.

In My Humble Opinion

I think there are way too many unqualified “missionaries” who are able to convince people to give to their cause. They are great fund raisers and not necessarily great “missionaries.”

I think the movement away from the William Carey Mission Societies to each person crowd funding is basically funding those who are fund raisers and not missionaries by skill set.

The problem also has been that many “missionaries” in the William Carey Mission Societies were not good at communicating their work when people visited them on the mission field. Many visiting the missionary would think they were not doing enough. Often the visitor would think they did as much good as these seminary trained missionaries. In some cases this was true, but many times the lack of understanding of cultural differences played into the equation.

You cannot change these models, but you must be aware of them and decide for yourself how you will respond. You can create your own 501c nonprofit and crowd source for example and have people give to the communications efforts of missions work around the world.

You can go and be a tentmaker who makes most of their money like Paul one of the first missionaries and author of much of the New Testament did as a tentmaker/missionary.

You can find those organizations that have set aside budget to hire you because they value true expertise and understand how this will help their missions objectives.

After more comments where people still felt like they should be paid by those organizations who often are all raising their own funds, I thought I needed to add some more thoughts. Here they are for you.

I don’t think you will get very far with feeling people should pay you when they are raising all their funds.

If you need to be paid then just state that and if they want to work with you they will find a way. If they don’t then move on. This is true with even clients who offer you money but it is below your cost of doing business–you must walk away.

There is another aspect to the discussion other than pay versus fund raising.


Those photographers who are able to tell stories effectively and in the process help organizations communicate why they are needed and why they need supporters to give to their cause they will be pursued and paid.

Too many who want to do “missions” or “humanitarian” are more in love with themselves traveling and getting paid to take photos. They are not ones who really believe in a cause. Their work is average and not what people will want to share in social media. They don’t have followings. They are irrelevant with their work, but in their own minds they are legends.


You cannot just be a great storyteller these days alone. You must also be one who connects with the audience. There are photographers that when they “Tweet” they are communicating with more than 100,000 followers. They are a media outlet themselves. The reason they have so many followers is they are communicating in a way that it appeals to the audience.

They have an audience and when they share people get involved and those who are blessed to have them working for them benefit. Many organizations will hire them just for the access to their audience.


You need to have outstanding work today. That is a given. But you need so much more. You must understand the entire process of a crisis needing people to get involved. You understand what it takes to engage that audience and you are part of a team helping them to understand all that must take place with your work to make it successful.

Those photographers who are running successful businesses are more likely to help a missions or humanitarian agency than a photographer struggling to get by. The reason is simple–they know you must make good business decisions for something to be successful.


ANY PROFESSION where people are willing to do something for FREE there will always be those who at the very pinnacle of that profession can earn a living. Here are some professions you find many people doing for free all the time:

  • Music
  • Theater
  • Sports
  • Humanitarian 
  • Photography
To get paid and earn a living you must not just be the best technically. There are many amateur golfers who can out drive many on the tour. There are many musicians who are technical wizards with an instrument. 
Those who get paid are the total package. In photography that means you understand better than your client how you can best help them. You also understand everything that needs to happen for your ideas to create a real impact for the client. You are able to communicate and work with a client to achieve those goals. 
You also understand the business of the profession and understand what you need to charge to make a living. You are able to convince people you are the solution to their problems and that they need to pay you to help them achieve their goals.
You are also a person that exudes a confidence that makes people know you have their back and are on their team.
You can own all the very best gear available. You can have the best portfolio there is in the profession. But if you don’t know what business you are in and what problems you are solving for others you will never make it.
Don’t fall in love with what you get to do in a profession, fall in love with how you love to solve other people’s problems and it just happens that photography is part of the solution.