TFP, Time For Print, Time For Photos; All these terms and initialisms can become a bit daunting and overwhelming. What do they all mean? I definitely can’t pay rent with exposure dollars. So why is everyone always offering exposure for compensation?
This article has the capacity to get heated. I am not intending to step on any toes and am certainly not advocating that this is how you approach your photography. Instead, this is simply how I navigate test shoots; in the comments, I’d love to hear how you approach these differently (or similarly) to me.
What Isn’t a Test Shoot?
It’s probably much easier to define what a test shoot is by defining what it is not.
A test shoot isn’t free work. You should be getting something out of it, but that something doesn’t have to be money. In my case, I have an extensive headshot portfolio and a fairly extensive events portfolio. There is no incentive I can think of for me to shoot these things that don’t involve me getting paid. The crux here is that I have enough experience, backed up with portfolio samples, to get paid work in these fields. There is nothing for me to learn or to grow with in creating more images like this. On the other hand, I am shifting my headshot work into more commercial portraiture including beauty work; to this end, I have been testing with models for images. The hair and makeup artist gets images, I get images, and the model gets images. In this situation, as I don’t quite have the portfolio to get commercial beauty clients yet (despite it being a lateral shift from my headshot images).
A test shoot also isn’t commercial work, though this one is tricky. If I make an image for a brand, I expect payment for my work as well as for the brand to use the images; the images in this case are marketing collateral for them to promote their product. The line of thought is “look at this thing” to “and also buy this thing”. In contrast to this, in a test shoot with creatives, we are all getting images to put in our portfolios; and our portfolios show what we can do. What we aren’t doing is “look at this thing” “and also buy this thing”. It’s more of an “I did a thing” to “hire me to do a thing.” So the line from A to B is a bit less direct in the latter case. Additionally, test shoots offer creative freedom to learn and grow; in a commercial setting, the goals are strictly outlined. You’re there to work for the client.
A test shoot isn’t a workshop. I’ve delivered workshops and they are great places to learn. I set up the lights, I share my process. We eat snacks and have a few laughs and it’s a lot of work and a bloody good time. You might even get a chance to use some of my lighting setups to shoot work on your own camera. But don’t use those in your portfolio; they’re not yours. You wouldn’t want to get hired and do exactly what I did and then not be able to troubleshoot it if something goes wrong. Just use the workshop as a workshop; learn from it and use what you’ve learned to practice further in your own time.
A test shoot isn’t for exposure. So many “advertisements” will ask for free labor because of their product being fame-adjacent. “We have this great celebrity.” “We have these huge followers.” “It’s great exposure.” But none of these things warrant not being paid for your labor or creative vision. None of these things lead to a later payment; the only thing that will get you paid work is having a great portfolio of images and then chasing up clients yourself.
A test shoot isn’t an “I owe you.” If someone doesn’t have the funds to pay you now but wants you to work for future paid work, that’s a big red flag. It’s not your job to subsidize their commercial venture. As soon as you do ask for payment; they’ll likely get someone else in.
What Is a Test Shoot?
That’s a whole lot of negativity. A whole lot of “nos”. So what is a test shoot? A test shoot is a shoot where you collaborate with others. You each bring a bit of yourself to the collaboration with shared ideas and a joint vision. And you each should feel like you have some ownership with the final images you’ve created.
A test shoot isn’t usually paid. Last year I was in the running for one of the biggest photography awards in the country. It’s not the first time I’ve been nominated for a national award. Despite this, I’m very much a “starving artist”. This doesn’t mean I take on paid work and treat it as a test shoot; they’re very different things. Paid work needs to be contracted and approached in a way where you very much 110% know you can deliver what is expected. You have one chance and if you mess up you won’t get another. Don’t engage in paid work and offer something that you either haven’t done or don’t have the transferrable skills to do. Instead, create a space for yourself where there isn’t the pressure to deliver something; and use that opportunity to fuel your creativity and growth. What is that something? Why, it’s a test shoot!
But, that doesn’t mean there aren't scenarios where a test shoot can’t be a paid test shoot. A test shoot can be paid on occasion. In this instance, if you’re testing with someone who can offer you something but you can’t offer them an equivalent level of value in return, pay them! So if you’re a new model, hire a photographer who knows what they’re doing. Trust me when I say it’ll fuel your growth much more than working with someone who is also still learning. If you’re a photographer and at a level where you love a fashion stylist’s work but can’t offer them something that is of value to them; hire the fashion stylist. You’ll still get great images for your portfolio and who knows, they may want to collaborate later on down the track for free. As a creative, you can absolutely hire other creatives!
A test shoot is an investment towards your portfolio.