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News & Insight

Why Working for Exposure Doesn’t Always…Work

By Jason Marino on October 5th 2015

prescott-wedding-photographersWe’ve all been there. An email pops into your inbox telling you how incredible your photography is, and how there is a great opportunity. It says you’ll get exposure to everyone who’s anyone if you’ll photograph “random event,” “random wedding,” or “random pseudo-celebrity party.” You get all excited and think, “Sweet, I wonder how much this is going to pay?” as you type a response. You get a quick reply from them saying how awesome you are for responding so quickly. You scan through the email and stop at the very last line, “Of course, we don’t have a budget for photography, but the exposure you’re going to get will be HUGE!” Suddenly your stomach starts to hurt, and you find yourself trying to figure out if the exposure is worth the time and effort you’ll undoubtedly put into this random shoot.

News flash! It’s not. Not always, anyway. Now don’t get me wrong, we’ve done our fair share of unpaid work, but I think it’s important to separate unpaid work from working for “exposure.” There is a fine line between being a savvy business person and being duped into working for nothing.

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When we are first starting out, we want to book clients, we want to be shooting weddings, we just want to work. We think shooting a wedding for free (or nearly free) will lead to more clients, but the fact of the matter is, it will often lead to more clients expecting free photography services. When someone recommends your services, they will often be asked how much your services cost, and you will find your phone ringing asking for you to shoot another wedding for “exposure.”

I’m inclined to believe this all relates to the digital age. People look at music as this digital medium, free from cost and lacking in value, and we have evidence of this, evidenced by the collapse of the music industry in the mid-2000s. Record labels devoured each other trying to remain afloat, and now all that is left are three majors, and they own the distribution and publishing to everything. If you want to be a rock star these days, good luck.

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The digital world seems to have played a part in creating the same attitude about photography. Photography is no longer viewed as a tangible thing by many consumers; it’s this line of digital code, 0’s and 1’s floating in cyberspace, free to everyone. Why should they have to pay for something they can find on their computer in seconds? It’s digital; it can’t possibly cost anything to produce! These are real misconceptions the average consumer has.

Could you imagine a bride calling up a caterer and asking them to cater a wedding for exposure? How about a venue? “Hey, if you let us use your space, you’ll book so many more weddings from the exposure!” Yea, not going to fly! But people have no problem asking a photographer to show up and work for exposure. The tangibility of food or table-settings have a perceived value to them.  Sure, we can produce beautiful albums and prints, and giant canvases, but the client isn’t thinking of these when they see us with our digital camera. The fact they can’t hold what we do in their hands seems to strip the value from what we produce.

[REWIND: WHAT IS A ‘PRE-WEDDING PHOTO SESSION,’ AND WHY EVERY COUPLE SHOULD CONSIDER ONE]

Our time and talent have a value. It’s our job, as professionals, to educate our clients, helping them understand there is value in what we do. What we can’t do is try and do that by explaining how expensive it is to run a business. When Valentino makes a gown, they don’t lay out the material, labor and advertising costs to justify why their gown costs more than the gown at JC Penney, and nobody questions it either. Why? There is perceived value in the brand Valentino. So, we must build our brands, regardless of the level we are at so that clients understand the value in what we do. Clean up your images, perfect the copy on your website, show only your best work, show only your best selves. This is how you create a strong brand, a brand that not only has perceived value but is valuable.

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I spoke with several colleagues while writing this article, and many, like myself, have done work for free or in trade, and almost all of them felt comfortable with things afterward. They were able to book great clients from it or were given something of value to compensate for their time and talent.

If you are willing to work in trade or for exposure, you want to make sure there is value in the arrangement for both parties. Nobody should come out of the deal feeling duped. Both you and the other party need to give each other a complete breakdown of what is expected before, during and after the work is done. Each party needs to agree to these expectations, and each party should work to meet or exceed them. If you’re promised the cover of a hot shot industry magazine, you had better have the offer in writing, verified by the magazine. If you’re promising to show up and shoot for 8 hours, you better not leave after 6. You have to respect the deal and do as you agreed to, even though no cash has traded hands.

Ultimately you can work for exposure without selling yourself short, and you can learn, grow, and build a brand along the way. Most importantly, you’re going to have to decide if you want your brand associated with being “cheap” versus “a good value.” I’ll take “a good value” over “cheap” any day.

About the Guest Contributor

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Jason Marino is a wedding photographer living in Kingman, Arizona, a small town just outside Las Vegas. Along with his wife, JoAnne, they travel the world shooting weddings for clients from all walks of life, and always find time for great food, great adventures, and great friends.

Learn more about their work and workshops at these links:
www.imaginephotoaz.com
www.redhotworkshops.com
www.facebook.com/imaginephotoaz
www.instagram.com/imaginephotoaz
www.twitter.com/imaginephotoaz

About

Jason Marino, along with his wife JoAnne, travels the world eating street food in sketchy alleys, making loud noise on guitars, and occasionally photographs a wedding. Check out more of his work at the links below:

Website
Education

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Stephen Glass

    I agree, I’m done with the whole local magazine scene. Even when they pay me it’s never worth it.

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  2. Andy & Amii Kauth

    Yep. Solid points about branding & value.

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  3. Leighton Joskey

    I agree with the article’s conclusions but I don’t think it is because people think digital goods have no inherent value. Rather it’s just about supply and demand – digital has made it easier for people to do photography (for good and for bad in terms of photo quality). This was a step change in supply of photos and one outcome was more people prepared to work for exposure (read free) than before. At the same time people are increasingly exposed to lower quality but higher volumes of images (think blogs and facebook). So peoples’ perception of value changes – if they can get good enough for free why wouldn’t they.

    So for sure educate customers about the value they get from you, but also accept that for some people not very good might be good enough and ignore them.

    But as the article says, so long as you understand what value is in it for you, expose yourself!

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  4. Eric Sharpe

    Great article.

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  5. Branko Sreckovic

    I know the feeling. It never is pleasant conversation. I talk with my f-i-l only sport things…long live soccer!

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    • David Weikel

      I wonder… has anyone had the guts to set their camera at F22, 1/500 sec, and then hand the camera to someone and say, “Okay, let’s see you do it!” I haven’t, but it’s my favorite fantasy when people take the approach that what I do is so easy, an iPhone can do it!

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  6. Branko Sreckovic

    Good article and good response from Paul Empson regarding ‘good camera’.
    Most people tend to build their attitudes toward different things in life upon notorious cliche.
    The most notorious one is ‘everybody can take photos’. Everybody has camera..or phone. You only click once or twice or many times and voila here is photo. The better the camera or the more expensive the camera the better the photos. Well it is not working that way. Person behind that camera matters the most.
    Alas, most people tend to oversee quite easily brainwork seasoned with talent or the talent itself.
    Cheers

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    • Jason Marino

      Ironically, I actually got into an argument with my father-in-law about that a year or two ago. He was insistent that the cameras what a great photo and that it had nothing to do with the photographer whatsoever. It wasn’t a pleasant conversation. Haha!

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  7. Luís Pereira

    Great article and, as it has been stated, amazing writing.
    I must say, the music analogy is something a friend of my parents (photographer) has been saying for the last 5 years when we meet. Digital and image-sharing platforms changed the way people see photography. It’s not Art anymore (at least for the general public). It’s something you can do with your phone and apply some instagram filters. And it’s not easy to change people’s minds.

    Anyway, thank you for the article and keep on writing for SLRLounge!

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    • Jason Marino

      Luis – that’s great that someone else you know compares them. Me, transitioning from the music business to photography, has now lived both. It’s difficult to say the least, but it’s easier to wrap my head around having been through it so long ago! Thanks for the nice words I’m glad you enjoyed reading.

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  8. Leaha Bourgeois

    YES! Great stuff~

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  9. Nasrin Akter

    Great post, I’m appreciate on this post, please keep your post continue.

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  10. Easton Reynolds

    Great article man! Solid points. Shoot 10% of the time, Market and brand yourself the other 90%. Haha! So important. Love the dress analogy.

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  11. Paul Empson

    excellent read.. though I have to admit I was thinking a different type of exposure to start with…

    I agreed to shoot a charity ball the other week, without charge.. and give 10 digital images for their use: media etc.. no problem.. I would cover the event & provide photos of the event… while also setting up a backdrop for guest portraits which I’d sell… I broke even, not a problem it was a worthy cause..

    A slight aside.. a bride at a wedding fayre commented on how she was not having a photographer as she prefers natural photos, not staged.. turn the pages of my albums I instructed her.. ooohh these are nice, I like these.. she thrilled.. she then looked up at me and commented… you must have a really good camera..

    laugh.. I almost did..

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    • Timothy Going

      I agree that shooting charity events can be great, as generally the people at the events are ones who have disposable income and will actually pay for good services. I shot a children’s pageant for free, as all the entrance fees were being donated to a local charity. I did the same thing as you and set up a backdrop for portraits at a low rate. I wasn’t expecting much out of it to be honest, but I made a little money off the portrait sales, though nowhere near enough as I would have charged them for a paying gig. (Pageants are rough!) But I booked about 3 clients at the show, and another five or six once the Facebook images went up. So it all turned out pretty well!

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    • Daniel Ecoff

      very well said. Educating people IS the hardest part, however, the analogies you use are perfect ways to do it. My POV.. “just say NO”

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    • Max C

      Just remember that not all Charities are created equal. Some of them pay their CEO and employees a very high salary. In addition they donate a very small amount of what they bring in. Before you work for free because it’s a Charity, do some research to find out as much as you can about the inner workings of the Charity.

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  12. Timothy Going

    An excellent and well written article. Great job!

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