We’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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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: