Last month Organic Headshots had its yearly booth at Navy Pier as a sponsor of BrandSmart, which just celebrated its 20th year. Way to go, AMA Chicago! It was a fabulous event, as always, and we met some awesome new people, said hello to old friends, and learned a great deal from the amazing speakers.

I hesitate to start the next sentence with the word “but,” since it was SUCH a great experience. But I’m compelled to add a “but,” because something stung. It’s something that cannot be blamed on anyone at the event: not the organizers, not the attendees, and definitely not the amazing Navy Pier union electrician who fixed our power feed in like 30 seconds flat.

What stung is ironically a marketing faux pas at this marketing event that has plagued the photography industry for decades: the “free headshot.”

We’ve all been to a conference or networking event that had a booth for free headshots to update your LinkedIn profile. Our own studio has even hosted them in the past, and that’s what people were instinctively expecting at this event when they saw that a photo studio had set up a table and was displaying some lighting equipment.

I counted eight people who asked if we were taking free headshots at the event, and I watched eight faces turn sour and completely disinterested and walked away when I said no– we were not taking free headshots today.

The free headshot is arguably the worst marketing move the photography industry has cooked up. And it took me, even with my background in marketing, about 14 years to see that and to create our policy of never giving away free headshots at events as a marketing gimmick ever again. Why? Because I discovered a fundamental truth that made me do a total facepalm when I had this epiphany:


I’ve been a headshot photographer for 17 years, and have never, I repeat, NEVER, had one single person who got a free headshot at an event pay for a headshot in our studio later. My last straw was three years ago when someone called me, and we had this conversation:

UNNAMED DEAL SEEKER: Hi, you took my headshot for free at an event a few years ago. I look different now and would like to update it.

ME: Awesome! Let’s make an appointment in our studio for that!

UNNAMED DEAL SEEKER: Actually I was wondering if you’re coming to this year’s event and if you’re doing free headshots again?

ME: No. But we have a partnership with the group that puts on the event and if you’re a member of their organization you get 15% off in studio sessions here.

UNNAMED DEAL SEEKER: I think I’ll just wait for the next free one, bye.

Okay, can I express in just a few sentences how much that hurt my feelings and then move on with my life? Think about it for a second: this person went out of their way to track down a photo studio that took their headshot for free several years ago, to ask them for another free headshot. A small business which employs their neighbors so they can feed and house themselves. RUDE. Thank you for listening.

BAD Exposure vs. Good Exposure

Headshot photographers have been unwittingly duped into thinking that any exposure is good exposure. When they leave an event after spending hours shaking hands with exactly the people who need their services, they feel like their studio’s name will be in hundreds more minds that day and if they just wait patiently by the phone all that hard work will be worth it soon.

But in reality, what they did was create BAD exposure for not only themselves, but for the photography industry at large. They just exposed themselves to a bunch of paying clients and turned them into nonpaying clients. Headshots are now devalued so much in those peoples’ minds that only a sucker would pay even a discounted rate when DAMN BRO, I GOT IT FOR FREE!

Here’s a quick case study: a photographer friend of mine quit the business several years ago. They gifted our studio all of their headshot clients, but for about a year we also got roughly one call a month from various groups, companies, and organizations saying “hey so-and-so recommended you because they used to photograph our event for us.” We would send over our rates and get the same response each time: “oh wow, I didn’t know you charged actual money. So-and-so used to do it for free/a ticket to the event/lunch/funsies.”

Okay, so that’s why so-and-so went out of business. They fell into that trap of giving away free headshots at events and then stood by a phone that never rang.

YES, discounts (even steep ones) sometimes work. But it’s mostly an industry urban legend: we all know someone who knows someone who knows someone who swears it worked for them, but they can’t really prove it.

We wrote about this a few years ago if you want to read more on how to ask your photographer for a discount, but our own policy is no more flash sales, free headshots, or random coupons. Instead, our discount model is based on what we can afford to give and remain in business comfortably and reliably, and in a way that’s mutually beneficial to both the client and the photographer.

For example, when you bring a friend here, you both get 20% off your sessions. You did the work to bring that new person to us, so we’ll give you that finder’s fee. Our clients also receive 15% off individual sessions for life after their first session. Why? Because people don’t usually want to come back for a new portrait when they look older if they can keep using the one where they look younger. (Also it’s because we get it right the first time. 😊)

And if you’re paying a photographer to operate a headshot station at your event, make sure your attendees know that the photographer isn’t there for free and the headshots they take have real value. Add copy to your marketing materials such as, “the Organic Headshots photo station is sponsored by ____,” or, “get an updated headshot on us!”

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