I’m sure my accountant would argue that there’s nothing good about volunteering for a free photography assignment. And, should one wish to pay for such mundane things as rent and food, she would be right. But for me, both rent and food rank slightly below coffee on my list of life’s essentials. So when my friend Mike, who owns Coo Coo Coffee on Davie Street, mentioned that he needed a few photos to boost his business, I jumped all over it.

Mike pulls the best espresso in downtown Vancouver and, because of this, he’s been helping feed my daily habit for the last 8 years. After living for over a decade in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, I’d grown rather particular about my coffee. “Snobbish,” actually. So when I first moved to Vancouver, I was forced to get in my car every weekend and make a special trip to Commercial Drive which, like North Beach in San Francisco, is an Italian neighborhood. The coffee on Commercial Drive was great, but my access to it wasn’t. I had a daily habit to feed, not a weekly one. So, for several months, I attempted to supplement those weekend trips with weekday visits to numerous Pacific Northwest coffee chains. But chain coffee is about as satisfying as a tofu burger to a meat lover. Surprisingly, many of the downtown independent cafés demonstrated absolutely no inclination to improve upon the barely potable brown water served up by the famous chains. Discovering Coo Coo saved me from the indignity of the coffee chain, and it saved me from the withdrawal pangs I felt between trips to Commercial Drive. In fact, I don’t even feel the need to travel to Commercial Drive anymore.

So if Mike’s hurting, then I’m hurting. And, just to make sure no one else gets hurt, I decided not to tell my accountant. After all, what she doesn’t know can’t hurt her, right? Besides, there are some non-remunerative advantages to working for free. For example, your client can’t be even remotely particular about what you shoot. ”Shooting for free” means “freedom of choice.” And “freedom of choice” means you get to pull out all those wacky little photo tricks that you never get to use on “real” jobs.

Mike did have one request: He wanted a shot of his yellow La Marzocco, and he wanted some customers to be in the photo with it. Easier said than done. Since the unit is squeezed into a corner of the shop, there’s really no vantage point from which it can be photographed in its entirety — at least not using any ‘traditional’ means. No problem. Free gig = freedom of choice. So, for the photo shown at the top of this post, I used my widest rectilinear lens, the 17-40 f/4L, and wedged my camera into the corner — its back just inches from the trash, and its lens mere inches from the La Marzocco. This gave me a shot of the machine’s long, sleek lines as well as some context of its placement within the shop. The second half of Mike’s request was that the photo contain customers. But photographing customers to use in an advertisement meant I’d have to secure model releases. No thanks. By the time I’d get someone to consent, my coffee would be cold — and this is, after all, all about the coffee. So, with freedom of choice as my guide, I simply chose to stop down the lens and shoot a 1 second exposure. The long shutter meant that people would become a blur and, thus, unrecognizable. It would also give some movement and life to an otherwise static shot. Working for free gave me carte blanche to solve the problem any way I saw fit. And that’s almost as good for my soul as one of Mike’s Italian cappuccinos.

The above photos are representative of other shots that “the freedom of free” allowed me to take. The left-most photo came about because Mike mentioned he’d like a close-up of his new lighting fixtures. That request was a bit of a head-scratcher for me since Mike sold coffee, not lighting fixtures. So, while I’m scratching my head, I’m thinking “Mike didn’t say the lighting fixture had to be in focus. So there you go. Getting a photo request that made me scratch my head inspired me to create a photo that would make everyone scratch their heads.

The photo on the right was externally influenced. I recently started re-watching Twin Peaks on DVD. The night before I took this photo, I viewed the episode in which Jack Nance utters the classic phrase, “there’s a fish in the percolator!” Inspired, I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be funny to replicate this statement photographically?” So the next day, I simply stuck my fisheye lens so close to Mike’s La Marzocco that the camera was practically inside it. Work for free and you’re free to amuse yourself in any ridiculous manner you see fit.

That’s “the freedom of free.” Just don’t be tempted to partake in this delight too often and, whatever you do, please don’t imbibe if your client is willing to actually pay you for a shoot. “Free” may be liberating, but that doesn’t mean you have to be stupid. There are, after all, accountants to feed.

©2009 grEGORy simpson
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