Gaining Exposure vs. Being Taken Advantage Of

Gaining Exposure vs. Being Taken Advantage Of

We all know that one of the necessary parts of starting as a photographer is working for free in order to gain exposure. Working for free is a great starting point to build your portfolio, develop your technique, and build a name for yourself as a photographer without the pressure or expectations of a client. The hard part is knowing when to accept free jobs and when to start charging for your services.

New photographers can be easily taken advantage of and some clients will try their best to get your services for as cheap as possible (or without payment at all). Here are a few things to consider when accepting free work, and knowing when you should be paid for your photographs.

How Will the Shoot Benefit You? 

Think about what you are getting out of the shoot. A lot of clients throw around the word “exposure,” but are you actually getting any? Is this exposure worth the time and effort that you will put into the shoot? 

A perfect example of great exposure are editorials. Editorial shoots are usually the photographer's own concept and an opportunity to express ideas that one might not have been able to convey for a client. Think of them as an opportunity to be as creative as you wish, while also receiving exposure. Even though you will most likely be working for free, you will benefit from these shoots because you will receive tear sheets and have something to show to potential future clients as evidence that your work is good enough to be published. 

Collaborations with brands or designers are another great way to gain exposure. When I first started fashion photography, I worked with a lot of small labels on small-scale shoots. Through this I gained experience talking to clients and learned how to combine their ideas with my own to create something we were both happy with. As a result of this I got free designer clothing to photograph, and the designer got free images to share on their social media. It was a win-win situation. As I started doing more collaborations I came across a lot of brands who would try and take advantage of these shoots and use the images for free advertising and promotion on their website. Instead of paying for a photographer to capture their new campaigns, they would try and use my photographs for free. This is where you can get taken advantage of. When organizing and accepting collaboration work, make sure that yourself and the client are both benefiting from the shoot equally and are using the images in the same way. You want to ensure that you maintain creative control of the shoot, and aren’t being used by the client to shoot free images for their own benefit. You shouldn’t be putting effort and time into a shoot if it isn’t going to benefit your portfolio, gain you exposure, or provide you with experience. 

How to Avoid Being Taken Advantage Of

Get your facts straight before accepting unpaid work. Ask the client how they intend on using the images and where they will be published. Will the images be used for social media, or advertising on their website? Make sure that you and the client have outlined everything before the shoot takes place. Be clear with how the images will be published and negotiate what each party will put into the shoot and what each party will get out of it. Always put boundaries on the use of the images to avoid the client taking advantage and publishing the images everywhere without your permission. Be clear that the photos can be used for “non-commercial use” only. Also make sure that you do some research on the brands that you are working with. Some brands will promise you the world in order to get free images. Don’t be fooled by this. Take a look at their social media accounts and website and take note of their following and amount of activity they have on their images. If one of the reasons you are taking on a collaboration is because of the promise of exposure, you want to make sure that you will actually be exposed to an engaging audience.

Know Your Worth

A lot of us take on free work (or undercharge) because we don’t feel that our work is as good as our competitors, or we fear that the client will tell us that we are overpriced and give someone cheaper the job. When I first started photography I struggled with charging. If someone approached me with a shoot idea, I didn’t know how to ask them for payment because I didn’t consider my work worthy of payment yet. Avoid doing this. No matter how amateur your photos may be, if the client is willing to publish your photos on their website or use them for advertising then you are worth getting paid or at the least being compensated in some way. If you aren’t confident enough to charge full prices, start by offering clients discounted rates until you gain more experience. I found that the best way to build my business was to take on small work and slowly increase the pricing as my clientele and portfolio grew. If you are comfortable taking on a shoot without payment, that’s fine too, just make sure that you are actually benefiting from it.

Overview

A collaboration or unpaid shoot should always benefit you in some way. Whether that be exposure or portfolio building, don't let your work be ruled by a client who isn’t paying you. Collaborations should be equal and the photographer should maintain creative control, working with the brand or client to produce images that are reflective of both of their styles and beneficial to both of their businesses. To avoid a client taking advantage of you, be clear from the beginning how the images will be used and set boundaries. Don’t be afraid to speak up and know your worth. If you are unsure whether or not to go ahead with a collaboration, ask yourself these questions:

  • Will the exposure/payment be worth my time? 
  • Do I like the style of the brand? 
  • Do I have creative control, or is the client trying to take over? 
  • Will the final images be something I would be proud of and want displayed in my portfolio?
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14 Comments

Felix Wu's picture

Thanks for the great article! Knowing how much to charge for the level you are in the market is very difficult.

Nick Murden's picture

Very good article. I am at this juncture right now, but still lack the self-belief to 'charge', even though I know I should. I don't charge because I always want to be shooting and improving...I can't charge clients that don't exist.

Marissa Alden's picture

Thank you Nick! Hopefully this article can help you in some way. I just took a quick look at your work and its definitely good enough for you to get paid for it. Maybe try advertising the model shoots that you do as a paid model portfolio shoot. It can be hard charging for the first time, but it gets easier once you have done it a few times :)

Nick Murden's picture

Wow, thank you. That's very encouraging to hear from an expert :)

John Smith's picture

Great article. This is and I feel will always be an ongoing issue with photographers. It's not always easy to tell if the risk (free work) is worth the reward (exposure). I've found myself on the short end of the stick. Being persistent and confident with individuals or organizations you work for can help. Insisting on referrals, networking arrangements, introductions or some other form of reciprocity will help ensure projects are mutually beneficial.

Marissa Alden's picture

Thanks John! That's great advice.

William Howell's picture

It is my opinion that you never work for free, that’s not the American way, as capitalists, you must make money.
If you do not know what to charge for services, simply call up a business and ask the hourly rate and a good business to call for that information would be an automobile dealership’s service department, for instance, or perhaps a plumbing company. Now that gives you an idea on the hourly rate for labor, but in a business such as photography you’re most likely going to charge a day rate and alf day rate. Then for expendables tack on at least twenty-five percent to the cost of them. Call up a photography rental house and find out the rental cost of the items you will use on your project, then this will give one an idea as to what to charge for durables.
And then... This is what scares most people, you charge for You, this is yours, this is your reward, and don’t forget that at the time of writing this comment, the economy is looking better. Most people are so surprised at what they can charge, they can’t believe it, so charge lower.
In Monty Zucker’s era, the minimum charge was at $5000.00 to $10,000.00 dollars for a wedding, but Monty had the equipment to justify the price.

Kirk Darling's picture

If the project is my idea, it's exposure; if it's their idea, it's exploitation.

Marissa Alden's picture

I agree Kirk, you should always have creative control for unpaid shoots :)

Joseph Rohrke's picture

Great article. Do you have any tips for attracting new clients? Either paid and or unpaid?

Marissa Alden's picture

Thank you Joseph! Definitely start with social media, Instagram is great! Spend some time searching for potential clients online and try emailing them directly to introduce yourself and say that you are interested in working with them. I would recommend social media as a great place to start :)

Thanks for this article. I got contacted last weekend by a new watch brand with a strong social following to advertise their products as part of their social influencer program - being new to this sort of thing, your article gives a good outline of how to think about it. As a wedding photographer, I view it as a fun, different sort of challenge - but I can see how for different types of photographers they might view it differently.

Marissa Alden's picture

Thanks Sam! Great for you, I think as long as your enjoying the work and are happy with the terms between yourself and the brand then that is the most important thing :)