Spec Work with a Twist: “Competing for the Gig”

How and when to do “Spec” work is often a difficult question for all of us.

I received the email below from a emerging photographer in Ohio who is being asked to do spec work with a interesting twist.  The prospective client is also asking three other photographers to do the same and I after which they will then choose the “winner”.  I am using the word winner here in the loosest sense of the word’s meaning.

To presume there are no situations where working on spec makes good sense defies common sense.  The question is always about the conditions of doing so and how to do so. 

We do spec work on rare occasions and only when the conditions are right, in writing, with a commensurately higher upside to the risk we are taking, with close involvement with the client and with all expenses paid in advance.

The most important element in a spec job is the quid pro quo …there has to be a clear, measurable and probable pay off for both ourselves and the client.  Like any good deal there must be mutual consideration even if it is not measured in dollars. The dynamic I most often see when others do spec work is that the quid pro quo is more ethereal than measurable (‘it will be really good for your career’) and no contribution of time, energy and money in the shoot by the client which means the professional photographer is carrying 100% of the risk and all of the investment in its value and success.  This is the main reason doing such work rare.

In most cases, working for free or on spec is going to be a one sided deal favoring the client.  There are many examples of what this can look like…here is one of the more egregious….

Hi Chris,
I had to tell you about this recent event… perhaps you can confirm that I have the right plan.
 A local company that sells Pizzels called me to inquire about some work. When I spoke with the owner she told me that they were working with three other photographers and wanted to 
see what each one could offer… spec work – yep.    I’m suppose to meet with her today and I’m going to decline for four reasons:
 1. It seems like a competition.   
2. My time is very important.  
3. i’m concerned about my creative concepts being used even though I wouldn’t be selected.  
4. I have learned from the last time this happened.
 Would appreciate your feedback about this situation.
DeShawn Scott
Hey DeShawn,I think you broke this down exactly right.On the face of it, this offer feels highly manipulative and a not so transparent attempt to illicit free photography.  Remember that with a unknown/undefined upside with regards to fees, corporate agreement or licensing (which should be at high end market rates under these circumstances), no line of sight to who the other three photographers are so you can really make a intelligent decision about participating, no NDA in place to protect your concept or execution there of, no shot list or AD in place to support your effort (in other words they have no investment in your results at all) this offer is completely one sided with only a vague, low probability upside for you.  Yuck.

Follow your gut on this…politely walk away.



  • http:[email protected] Christopher Oshana

    WOW, thank you Chirs!!!!