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Like many self-employed professionals, photographers never run out of things to do. Operating a business, creating new work, allocating time for friends and family – balancing it all can get overwhelming at times, leaving us with the feeling that there isn’t enough time in the day.

It’s easy to become a bit self-absorbed as a result, which is often what it takes to produce stellar work and a thriving business. Yet the constant focus on our own selves can also distance us from the world at large. One of the best ways I know to gain a fresh perspective, make new friends, and feel as if I’m a part of something bigger than myself is to donate time, energy, and my abilities as a shooter to a worthy cause.

Photographers are in a unique position to help others in an immediate, powerful way. Think of any organization or individual and the chances are, that entity or person could use professional-quality photos whether it’s to help promote an idea, sell a product, or simply to have meaningful images for personal enjoyment.

Also, as we look back in the history of photography, there is something of a tradition when it comes to helping others through image-making. Think of the countless books, magazine articles, television shows, and websites that have used photos to help stop an injustice such as genocide, or to highlight a social cause such as hunger. Photographers are naturally observant people who can bring an issue to light that might otherwise be overlooked by the general public.

Providing your work for free will require sacrifice. The goal of giving back as a photographer isn’t to get rich, nor to make connections, nor even to pad the portfolio with marketable images. The goal is to simply help someone – or something – by offering what you can do.

Although this might sound like an iffy proposition in a time of economic uncertainty, and in a culture where we’re constantly trying to succeed by earning money, remember that not all payouts are in dollars. The pleasure of knowing you gave part of yourself to make life better for another is a form of compensation that deposits good feelings in one’s heart, instead of in the wallet.

Just know that the gratitude you will receive will be off the charts. The only question is who or what you would like to help with your photography, and fortunately, there are so many possibilities that you will have no problem brainstorming worthy candidates.


A good place to begin is to examine your own interests. I have a passion for adventure in the outdoors and I am fortunate to live in a state with many national parks, wilderness areas, and other locales that offer the chance to experience natural beauty.

As a photographer I am often in these places seeking to make publication-quality images that help further my career. At some point amidst my travels, it occurred to me that I should give back to the land because it has given so much to me as a photographer. Suddenly I saw it as my duty to help in some way.

With a little research I found several nearby organizations that worked to benefit public lands and wildlife. I simply contacted them and expressed a desire to contribute photography and learned that there was a vast need for quality photographs from the very places that I had either already worked in or was planning to visit. This made it easy for me.

In addition to providing free photographs to those in need, I have also donated framed prints to organizations that auction them off to raise funds. I don’t expect anything in return except a “thank you” but sometimes the reward can go further than a good feeling. This year I was approached by a wilderness preservation non-profit for a particular image that would be printed for an Arizona congressman as a commemorative gift. In the end I received some photos from the ceremony showing the congressman holding my image, which was an honor.

Of course this is only one example of how to give back. Perhaps your skills emphasize other types of photography such as portraiture. One opportunity that is always available is providing free portraits for people. A professional portrait, as we know very well, is worth the money that we charge but we also know that not everyone can afford it. But almost anyone can benefit from a great portrait of themselves. You could inquire with a local hiring agency for candidates, or contact your local department of economic security for potential needs.

If you’re a pet lover, there is a daily need for photographs at your local animal shelter. Having great photos of dogs and cats who are up for adoption makes it easier to find homes for them. Why not donate a couple hours a week to help their cause? The only downside would be resisting the urge to bring all the pups and kittens home with you.

See more: Pet Portraits on Seamless Paper


Similarly, human adoption agencies also need great portraits to help find parents for children. You could have a direct impact on a young person’s life simply by using your talent as a photographer for a short time. The potential upside could last a lifetime!

If you’re not quite sure how to proceed, there are a number of organizations that exist to bring together photographers willing to donate time with worthy causes. A quick online search for such organizations will turn up many possibilities that will appeal to photojournalists, portrait photographers, lifestyle photographers, and many other types of shooters. There is always a way to give back no matter your particular skill set.

You won’t walk away from charitable photography with a paycheck, but you might find you’ve earned something more valuable and longer-lasting in the end.

Elias Butler

Elias Butler is a professional photographer and writer based in Arizona. He's written a book titled "Grand Obsession" and has been published in Sierra, USA Today, and Arizona Highways among many others. See Butler's website here.


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