TFP and Model Photographers: The Truth Behind the Fake Profession

TFP and Model Photographers: The Truth Behind the Fake Profession

The internet has sold photographers the lie that there is a profession to be had photographing models, "model photography." After reading the comments section in a recent article, I thought I would try to shed some light on the matter.

There  was a recent article on Fstoppers about what TFP (Time for Print) is doing for and against the industry. The article set about looking at the pros and cons of it all. What was as fascinating though, were the comments and the online discussion about why models should be paying photographers. This is where I want to pick things up. 

Time for Print

Time for print is an age old tradition where you get a bunch of like-minded people together to collaborate. If you are some big hot shot, you can probably get some big names in on the gig. If you are a local camera club attendee, you are probably not going to have the greatest pool of people to chose from. The benefits for time for print are that with little expense for a shoot you can all come away with something new. The down side is that you will always be working with people at the same level as yourself. The chances of me getting Karlie Kloss to sit for me, are slim to nil. Yet if I do want to improve my fashion photography (I am not a fashion photographer I should add, just an example) I need to be working with people who are the next level up. My personal belief is this: If you need to test a concept, shoot TFP, if you need something for your portfolio, don't.

Why Do Models Always Ask You For Money?

Time for some hard truths. In the comments I saw people complaining that the model always wants paying when the photographer is bringing all this gear along to the shoot at great expense. I can promise you that models are not interested in that, they want to see if you have work that will add to their portfolio and pull them up to the next level. Whether that comes in the form of being signed to their first agent or moving on to a bigger agent. If they are asking for money, it is because what you offer isn't worth them giving up their time. The hard truth is that most of them have a friend with an iPhone who is better than a lot of people who owning $5,000 of pro gear. People's time is of great value. I wont go for a coffee with someone who wants a chat if it means losing time to see my family, so why would they spend half a day getting bad photographs taken of them for free?

It's Time to Pay the Model

I often do test shoots. As a food photographer we have had to hire in hand models, models, stylists, home economists, prop stylists, and assistants. When it is a really important shot then we have to suffer the costs. If I were shooting fashion and I wanted to up my game, then I would have to pay an agency for a good model in order to create the work of the standard I need. At this point you need to dig deep and pay your team. When you are the worst person on set (and we all are at some point) we pay to have those around us elevate us to the next level. 

When the Model Pays You

Once you are established, and established to a point where everyone in the industry knows who you are, you can then charge for test shoots. However, these are slightly more reduced fees than editorial work and usually only to cover the costs of shooting and retouching. Compared to a $20,000 shoot for a fashion brand, we would be talking under $1000 and the work you would be producing in this shoot should be of vogue quality, although obviously lacking in production.  

The Profession of Model Photography

I have no idea where this myth comes from, but there is no profession of model photography, unless you are photographing model trains for a living. There is lifestyle, fashion, editorial work in various genres, ecommerce, and a host of other occasions when a professional model is required. However, there is no business model where a photographer makes a living from photographing models who are paying them. Where does one suppose the models income is coming from to keep paying you?

Sadly, these seems to be a growing hostility online from male photographers toward female models who wont work for free. I noticed this about a year ago and from others who I have spoken to in the industry, they have been feeling it on both sides. A lot seems to come from the misconception that there is a business in here and that models should be paying photographers to be able to afford the gear they want to use to photograph models. In any other walk of life this would be laughed out instantly, but photography as a profession already has a chip on its shoulder about being under valued and ripped off, so to be attacking another profession in a such a way for the exact same reasons is just daft. It is the same as photographers who pirate software and tutorials, but then get on their high horse about image theft and underpayment. 

Models and photographers are both hired and paid by the same people. If you want to be a portrait or fashion photographer then you need to be looking to ad agencies and photographic agencies for your paycheck, not toward the models. 

What Now?

So we are now in a situation where photographers feel that they should be paid, models also feel that they should be paid, but both seem to be looking to one another to float their industries. From the outside, as a food photographer it would be like me trying to get food stylists to pay for for shoots, it just isn't a viable option. There is clearly a need for things to move on and I think the best way to do so is to be clear as to what you are trying to achieve from a shoot. Are you testing a concept to later perfect? Great, TFP. Do you need some new work for your portfolio? You need to hire in someone who is the level above where you are atm. 

Your Ego

Now the above is all well and good, but the problem seems to get a little out of hand when a photographer is told that a model would only work with them for money. You just need to suck it up and realize that it is not worth them giving up their free time to shoot with you. Either you are not as good as you think you are or they just don't need more work in their portfolio atm. 

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Ed Foster's picture

One of the best articles I've read here in a long time, Scott. Thank you!

LA M's picture

LOL oh man...well done.

Deleted Account's picture

All this rings true and jives with my very limited efforts to try and work with models in my area. That led me to the conclusion that it is not worth the hassle. Also what I see, is that not only are there too many photographers wanting to participate in this genre, but also way too many models who believe they can make inroads into a very limited field.

Rob Davis's picture

I was just going to write an article about this about food photographers. Chef’s spend a lifetime learning to make food pleasing and food photographers swoop in there expecting to be compensated so they can buy lights and macro lenses. I don’t know where this sense of entitlement came from.

sam dasso's picture

Excellent article. Does not apply to "model photography" only. Very simple concept. You need pictures for your portfolio - you pay the model or the restaurant chef. If you are hired to take pictures for restaurant window - you should be paid. If you take food picture to post on your Instagram or Facebook - nobody gets paid (but you pay for your dinner.)

Alexander Petrenko's picture

Photographers often spend lifetime too...

David Mawson's picture

> Chef’s spend a lifetime learning to make food pleasing and food photographers swoop in there expecting to be compensated so they can buy lights and macro lenses. I don’t know where this sense of entitlement came from.

You also don't know anything about food photography:

1. The food shot very often isn't food; it's fake

2. Chef's don't pay for it. Big corporations selling a product are the usual customer and they employ both the chef and the photographer.

Rob Davis's picture

The person who wrote this didn’t know anything about fashion photography.

Rob Wolsky's picture

I agree with your larger point, but I don't think the cost of a photographers gear has anything to do with their artistic integrity.

William Nicholson's picture

Rob, I agree with David about the perverts especially these days. It's like the old analogy, one can buy the best most expensive golf clubs and still suck at the game as one who has shitty clubs crushes it strait down the pipe. I understand what David is saying about educating models about equipment. However the price of the club does not make you a better player if you do not know how to use it. So the guy with the $400 Best Buy two lens kit has mad skills and takes top notch photos while the guy who dropped 30k can't get it in focus. Can't always judge people buy their equipment, have to judge them on their skills. So yes Rob, I agree with you on artistic ability.

Tony Clark's picture

I worked as a model for a dozen years back in the late 80's till 90's, so I have a unique perspective on the subject. A photographer friend got me into shooting and I did paid tests that paid my bills for a few years. I read the book, Model: the ugly business of beautiful women by Micheal Gross early in my career and it explained why models paid photographers.

The industry has certainly changed but there are reasons for both sides of the debate. For me, it allowed me to strengthen my book, get my act together before working with large clients and meet others that were pursuing a career in the business. Eventually, the tests turned into Editorial shoots then Marketing and Advertising level projects. I then discovered the Food genre and I haven't looked back.

Ben Ray's picture

I think you paint in broad strokes here. For one thing, I think you are far too dismissive of the community aspect of photography. You point out a few times that you need to work with people who are on a higher level than you are. As if you would automatically become a better photographer if you work with a model who poses better. That's not the case, you become better by working. Sometimes you have the funds to hire a model for a specific shoot, sometimes you don't and need TFP. In either situation you should be aiming to become better and learn just as much no matter who you are working with. I have working with models who were TFP when we met, while working together they progressed as I did. Neither of us on the next level but instead, growing together as a team. When they had a portfolio that justified people paying for their time, we still worked together TFP because we knew we benefited each other. The relationship is what was important there, not who is on the next level.

This article seems to be focused on the top photographers in their field? I don't see Peter Hurley commenting on this thread yet but if he shows up he might use some of your advise. To advise the vast majority of photographers how to conduct their test, paid or TFP shoots doesn't seem to track with me. Could you relay some experiences of when you were up and coming or trying to build your portfolio? You mention only doing certain things when you become a well known name in the industry. How many of this sites readers are at that status or set to achieve it? Or even want it? I think there is a large set of photographers who enjoy photography as a passion, and want to work at their best levels. Some of these people are really good, really really good. But for whatever reason are not full time photographers. These people still need to navigate the TFP vs paid situation like everyone else. To set out hard line rules of what to do and when seems, disconnected.

I think acknowledging that every situation is going to be unique, and that they need to take it one shoot at a time would be more productive. I used my monthly budget on a shoot last Saturday. A model submitted a late entry to my casting call and I informed her that I couldn't afford another model for this month but I would be sure to get back to her. She then said she would do the shoot TFP and we are booked. Each situation deserves attention and an open mind because you never know what peoples motivations are until you communicate with them. Photographers being mad at models for expecting payment is wrong, and vice versa. But it doesn't call for a whole set of rules that dictate how one should behave now and moving forward. Teach respect and understanding for each other, and this can affect every aspect of the shoot, relationship and the work.

Robert Nurse's picture

I mostly stick to modelesque friends and family to help me perfect my lighting and frankly, just for the fun of shooting. I have paid models before: ballet dancers. But, that's unsustainable in my situation as photography is not my profession. I have no ego to bruise as I know I'm on the bottom rung of things photographic.

Mark Fa'amaoni's picture

Bravo. :: standing ovation ::

Ivan Lantsov's picture

OY model ego! 200 hr. plus travel for no experence FEH!

Marc J Wrzesinski's picture

As someone who shoots models, this sums it up perfectly. I've been doing it a while and consider myself decent -- so if you have no portfolio/experience -- yeah you should pay me. If you're an established model that will boost my work and we're on the same level and agree on TFP, awesome. If you're a step above me, well yeah -- I should be hiring you. In the ideal world, we both get paid by a client.

Unsubscribe Me's picture

The cost of the equipment, attractiveness of the model, and experience level of model or photographer is all irrelevant. All that matters is perceived value and the opportunity cost of each person’s time. Some people want some money, a lot of money, or none at all. It’s up to you to negotiate terms and it won’t always work out that you get what you want.

The fact that being a model or a photographer is considered fun by a lot of people means there will be people willing to do it for little to no money. There will also always be greedy, egotistical and unreasonable people out there but they still have the right to refuse to work with you if you won’t meet their price.

Nine out of ten new businesses fail. Buying photography gear is no guarantee of profit, even if you are skilled with artful results. But if profit is your motive, you’ll likely have better results pursuing business that isn’t fun and easy and that generally means commercial work not models or nature.

Dan Howell's picture

Your article illustrates the disconnect between the online photography community and the industry (fashion, catalog, editorial, advertising) of professional photographers working with professional models. But I suspect that wasn't your intention. For the most part, the industry of work with models on professional assignments is highly weighted geographically and the industry draws suitable candidates to a small number of strategic markets. Within those markets there are both paid and non-paid portfolio sessions.

The problem comes when you overlay the blanket of online photographers (and online models, for that matter) which exist almost everywhere with different criteria and different motivations. The problem is when you try to apply standards and practices of one subset to another subset of photographers/models.

I'm not saying that there is a clean or fair way to discern the different between industry-relevant photography or modeling potential. It's ever changing and subjective to say the least.

What I think is also worth bringing up is the subject of model releases. In the 'industry' a TFP or test shoot is typically not governed by model releases. Many agencies specifically forbid models signing releases on test shoots as a practice. This prohibition seems to drive online photographers crazy. Additionally, industry and experienced freelance models typically don't sign all-rights releases.

Conditional releases are so ingrained into the system that they are just called releases with notations for specified usage. All-rights model releases generally send up red flags of warning and are typically called buy-out releases. They are generally rare and typically expensive to get. As a result, you will not see a lot of agency represented models on stock photography shoots -- or at least booked through major market agencies.

When advising models (when asked) I will tell them to not sign any release for TFP shoots. Sign conditional releases whenever possible on paid shoots. Be prepared for worst case scenario when signing unconditional releases. And read all releases carefully.

Dana Goldstein's picture

I always pay models when I’m shooting for my portfolio. I use the standard ASMP Limited Release which outlines that it’s only for my own portfolio use. The agency signs on their behalf if they’re represented, and they sign it themselves if not. I always provide a pdf of the release in advance for them to read, and they’re welcome to say they aren’t comfortable with it, though that’s never happened in my experience. (I would not work with a model without a release.) They get paid and they get images for their book.

David Mawson's picture

> When advising models (when asked) I will tell them to not sign any release for TFP shoots.

I'm not sure that's great advice. Under UK law - and I think the US is the same - then all rights simply default to the photographer. So no release is a worst case. If you're really concerned then a simple "Portfolio use only; no commercial use" agreement is much better - it can literally be those words, two signatures, and a date.

Dan Howell's picture

Not that way here as I understand it and I would advise double checking your laws again. Agency models don't sign releases on test shoots, almost universally. Models, just like average citizens, have to actively consent for their image to be used (licensed) for commercial publication. I would be surprised if it was greatly different there.

Possibly an exaggerated example is photographing any celebrity for an fashion, beauty or entertainment piece. I have not once had a celebrity sign a modeling release and they have people who carefully watch over their image usage. To suggest that here a model, in this case a celebrity model, would have the rights simply default to the photographer in the US is patently wrong.

A similar example would be an actor's headshot. The intent of the photograph is for the actor to use for their audition self-promotion. In over 700 headshot sessions, I never asked nor expected them to sign a model release. Are you suggesting that after the session the commercial rights default to the photographer? I think that would surprise a lot of actors and performers.

Martin Van Londen's picture

Please tell me more about model train photography and how I can make a living doing that.

David Yoon's picture

Blair Bunting has some fantastic train photos he's taken. You should check out his site, it's amazing what he did with the 20 year old Nikon D1.

David Mawson's picture

I have a friend who really does make part of her living photographing model trains for a local manufacturer. (And she's a part-time model: go figure.)

chrisrdi's picture

That's the coolest thing i've ready all day lol.

Jon The Baptist's picture

What’s the zenith of the “professional“ model photographer’s journey?

Kirk Darling's picture

I guess it's when Kim Kardasian gives you a call to take her picture for free.

Glem Let's picture

Scott always pull together an honest point of view and creates original content which is pleasing to see. Cheers Scott.!

Personally I’ve always paid models for their time when I’m shooting for my book, there are several reasons for this.
Firstly he/she is hired talent to do a job, which translates to its your shoot, your direction, the end product you wanted, not theirs.

Secondly once you’ve paid them you DON’T owe them any retouched pictures, at all, ever... you’ve paid them, ‘thankyou, you were wonderful..bye bye for now..’

Also they cannot ‘tweak, adjust and screw up’ your work if you haven’t gifted them any files.

I see a lot of non agency models these days asking to be paid AND then hassling a week later for images.... ‘no... you were paid, many thanks...’

Essentially you are paying this talent to help create what you have planned, not what they want for their book, so stay in control..

I’d add that once you’ve done a few TFP shoots and gone on to paid shoots you should go and talk to model agencies and look to spend your money on experienced models and production (styling).

It seems like a fortune but it’s what elevates your book.

New camera/lens/lights...? Forget it, go spend that 500-2k on a stylist, a model in her 20’s who’s experienced and go shoot in the next state/county/region....

Those images are what art buyers will notice, not some overpriced/hipster lens with smooooth bokeh...

A word on paying for MUA & hair... just pay them, try out different ones and if you feel that you three click then book them again, you have a tried and tested team who will want to work with you again when paying jobs come in..


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