Okay, so this is a double edged topic for most photographers. Trying to balance out the idea of making money for shooting pictures and also getting the opportunity to shoot pictures in the first place by not charging money for it.
Really this comes up today because of a post on David Hobby's Strobist site. Have a read, and this post might make more sense.
For the last while I've done a lot of pondering about this interesting dichotomy and had been reading some things that helped me form my opinion....
So, here is what I think of it.
YES, it's perfectly acceptable to shoot for free. I would say this even if was pulling down major bucks to shoot on a full-time basis.
The reasons? You ask?
1. I refuse to shoot anything at a discounted rate. The rate I would charge someone for a shoot is the rate that is required for me to meet my basic costs, pay for my skills and training, the maintenance of my gear, storage of final files etc. Discounting my rate hurts me, devalues my work and devalues the industry as a whole. If I'm not going to shoot it at full value then I'll shoot it for FREE. But...
2. Shooting for FREE happens when one of two requirements is met: a.) I've created the project from scratch, b.) I feel the proposed project would otherwise not happen because the person/group is unable to pay for it and that project is worthwhile/will have added benefits down the road.
3. I'm in the process of building my portfolio and shooting what I want for that portfolio means having to come up with the ideas myself = doing it for FREE.
4. Doing things for FREE gives me opportunities that I might not otherwise get if I were to charge people for them.
5. The possibilities that can come out of me setting aside some personal time to shoot projects for FREE are endless.
All of this comes up at a very opportune moment. It makes me really happy to see that my thinking is in line with a lot of photography's heavy hitters and I feel like my plan (yes, still being vague) is right on the money.