As an urban/landscape photographer, I have my online portfolio on a personal server. There one can read about me, browse my selected photographs and see a list of my references. The latter concerns me: what can be considered a valid photographer's reference?

Example 1.

I am employed to take photographs of a bakery. I send photographs in and get paid.

Example 2.

I am invited to take photographs of a bakery on a free-of-charge basis. So to say, I practice my skills on a real-world example, and the bakery later gets the photographs I made. They may turn out bad, but this isn't my concern in this case, since I do not get paid.

Example 3.

I ask permission to take a few photographs of the bakery. This action is done for my own purposes - practice, photo collection, or even simple fun. I will send photographs to the bakery's direction later, but I am not obliged to do so.

In which of these three cases may I place the name of the bakery and the link to their web site as my reference? And, first of all, may I do so in the third example?


Never, ever use a freebie as a reference unless it was legitimately done pro bono. That doesn't mean "don't put the work in your portfolio"; it means "don't give a potential paying client the idea that you can be talked into another freebie".

The only example on the list I'd use as a professional reference/referral is the first. Your portfolio will speak for itself, so the quality of the finished photographs can be judged on their own merit. What they don't say is whether you were professional in your approach to the work, seemed to know what you were doing, met the clients' actual needs, had any necessary permits arranged for (or were even aware that they were needed), were aware of and insured for potential liabilities, or whether your estimates of time and cost had any bearing on reality at all. More importantly, did you deliver the promised value? (That's really hard to determine if the commercial value of your work was essentially nothing.)

In other words, your references need to be business references (or employment references, if they're coming from a principle photographer you had assisted). Anything else is, "yeah, dude showed up with a camera and pictures happened eventually. They were okay." You'd be better off with a great photographer's portfolio and good references from unrelated work than with mediocre and meaningless references for spec work. (It's okay to be new to the business—every working pro was at one point—but it's not okay to wear a sign around your neck saying "I'm new, please kick me".)

  • you met exactly my point! it is always an awkward feeling when one's list of references is essentially empty. Feb 5 '13 at 15:03

You can use some organization as a reference if they are happy with the work you did for them or if you get permission to use them as a reference.

It's like references for any job, only give someone as a reference if a future client is more likely to hire you after talking to the "reference".


I'm answering as considering your examples but before let me give you details on the subject.

First you need to have a copyright contract with each company you are working with about the images you take. So you can show them as your portfolio or use them contests, exhibitions etc. Don't forget, to protect your work and portfolio, always keep the rights to use the photos at least in uncommercial purposes. The answers below are given according to that.

In case 1. this is a professional job, it is in all cases your reference and your portfolio.

In case 2,

  • if the results is bad: you would not want to use the reference and portfolio.
  • if result is good: since they demanded your help and happy with it, ask them for the reference, even in free of charge have the copyrights for portfolio purposes.

In case 3, you can use them in your portfolio but ask for reference.

So as you see, you always have to protect your work for your portfolio and to act in professional ways, ask for reference of your customer either it is free or not, because if they don't know that you are going to use them as reference, they won't be any good about the subject because giving a reference means that your client is proud of your work and wants to help your possible clients get more info about your working principles and final products.

And as a personal recommendation don't leave any bad photos behind, always find some reasons to persuade your client to redo the session. Because things always get messy and mostly can be fixed but unsatisfied clients are the worst advertising and reference ever.

  • I asked once a company for permission to place their label on my web page for reference, and the answer never came. They later contacted me again in a different case, but when I asked them for reference, they did not reply. That was an intelligent way to decline. Feb 5 '13 at 15:05

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