If You Shoot TFP, You Are Killing the Industry

If You Shoot TFP, You Are Killing the Industry

Today, we are going to have a debate! And the subject is TFP (trade for print), something which I have had a fair few debates on already in photography groups on Facebook.

Every photographer at some point in their career will do some TFP work; it's like a rite of passage. I'm sure in her youth, Annie Leibovitz did her fair share of TFP. It is how many amateurs hone their craft and gain some experience. But like everything else, in this day and age, are we overusing and abusing this once time-honored tradition? Is it creating more harm than good? How will our beloved photography cope? I know what my opinion is, and I have voiced it many times, but this is a debate, so let me don my debate hat and put forward both an argument for and an argument against. Just remember these are only my opinions; I am not saying they are gospel.

The Argument for TFP

Ladies and gentlemen of the court, let us put forward the case for TFP. Above everything else, TFP helps you grow as a photographer, which on its own is probably the strongest argument. As creatives, we need to experience, learn, and evolve, and TFP facilitates this brilliantly. I have greatly benefited in this way; if it wasn't for all the experience in the early days, I would still be taking photos of birds on a stick or close-ups of flower petals, unsure how to communicate with models correctly and plan shoots.

Another point of the case is that TFP keeps costs down or helps those with no budget to create images they wouldn't normally be able to afford. We live in an age where everything costs too much, prices are high, and wages are low. So, being able to get that talented MUA or pro model to work with you and take your work to the next level doesn't have to break your bank.

If you take money out of the equation, what is it doing? Well, it is bringing together creative folk who wouldn't normally have the chance of working alongside each other, and that can only be a good thing! TFP helps build connections within the industry; makeup artists, models, costume designers — these are the people you need to help take your work to another level. If you all collaborate on TFP, you do not have to be rich to get that great photo!

Test shoots benefit greatly from TFP. Even the most professional of photographers do not have money to throw away on a shoot that will never make it to a portfolio or to test some crazy "let us throw colored paint at someone's head" shoot. Paying for every test would either make you bankrupt or at least give your accountant an aneurysm. Again, in this situation, both models and photographers benefit: the model gets some experience and maybe some usable images, and the photographer gets a free subject.

So, how do all these factors work towards the overall goal of TFP? They help you build up or grow your portfolio. Photographer, makeup artist, model, or designer, this is always your aim. Eventually, if you precisely worked the system as it should be worked, all your collaborating (a fancy word for TFP) should lead you to the point where you start to get paid. This then means you can open your wallet and pay people to use their services. The world is in balance; you are now part of the cycle, which keeps the flow of money in this industry turning. Well done, pat yourself on the back.

The Argument Against TFP

Where to start? Let us begin with this statement. TFP is like The Force: it can be a gift or a curse. TFP gets thrown around often these days. In Facebook photography group,s it has pretty much become an institution, with models no longer paying to build a portfolio but posting a group status along the lines of "got a new outfit, want to shoot some images?" This then proceeds with a tidal wave of photographers bursting into the comments all offering their services for free, while the photographer at the top who posted his rates gets washed away in a sea of guy with cameras. Anyway, not so long ago, any aspiring model would have had to pay a photographer or a series of photographers to build up a portfolio. It was like a small investment. You get a solid portfolio of images, which then could lead to paid work or an agency. The cycle was in balance: photographers made money, models made money. As social media grew, so did TFP, and over the years, it has been diluted down to the point where now, it has become the modern-day currency. Who needs cash when you have TFP, and guess what, TFP costs nothing.

So, common as it is now, people, mainly models, automatically think that if they contact you, you will be offering TFP from the get-go! How many times have you had this conversation?

Model: Hey, love your work.
Photographer: Thank you very much. I appreciate the kind words.
Model: I would love to work with you; I love your style.
Photographer: Cool, let's book something then.
Model: Wow, yes! (gives dates)
Photographer: Brilliant, here are my rates.
Model: Rates!!?? I thought we would be shooting this TF.
Photographer: Unfortunately, I don't offer TF, but my rates are very competitive.

The model then proceeds to be rude, defensive, or you never hear from them again. Or they try to explain that they don't pay for photographers, but photographers pay for them (this has happened far too often)

If you contact a photographer whose work you admire, expect to pay. You wouldn't walk into your local butcher, proceed to tell them how delicious their beef is, then pick up a steak and a few slices of bacon and walk out without paying. No, no, no. And the same should apply to photography. And before I get an army of models with their knickers in a twist, marching upon me, covered in war paint like a scene from "Braveheart." I am not solely laying the blame at their feet. No, photographers are just as much to blame for this current climate. If you constantly offer everyone and their grandma TFP, then you are as much the problem as anyone else. Be selective! That goes for models, makeup artists, photographers, anyone. You need to be selective with your TFP.

The issue that worries me the most, though, which I have seen happening more increasingly in Facebook photography groups, is the general public has now somehow stumbled upon TFP. Recently, I have seen non-industry folk posting in photography groups asking for someone to shoot their family photos TFP. If that is not alarming enough, only last week, I saw a posting for a couple looking for a wedding photographer to shoot their special day TFP. The public should not get images for TFP, not now, not ever! If you are one of the photographers taking up these offers, you are only harming the industry that you are hoping to make money in later down the line. Break the cycle; you will only have yourself to blame when you cannot get paid work once your TFP days are over.
 
I have shot many TFP images and still shoot TFP on limited occasions for unpaid personal work. It allows me to collaborate with experienced models, makeup artists, and designers, who in turn get professional images. It is a beneficial partnership where everyone gets a piece of the pie. And even though there are no written rules, I guess that is what TFP should be about. It should be used for the correct reasons and in the right manner. In my eyes, it shouldn't be used as a tool to get free stuff. If an amateur model contacts me about building a portfolio, they get my rates. If I'm deemed too expensive, I pass on another photographer's details who can do it cheaper. I would rather another creative get paid. We need to keep the cycle of money flowing and the industry turning.

Which side of the fence do you stand on? Is TFP friend or foe?

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92 Comments

LA M's picture

Popcorn....

and Hyperbole.

TF/Free work isn't killing the industry.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

So, GWCs are great in making portfolio worthy images for models?

william hicks's picture

As far as the models know. They're not selling their talents they're selling taking off clothes

Daris Fox's picture

Even then, there's dime a dozen for models who're willing to get their clothes off for 'fame' or to show off I'm a model.

Unless you're one of the top 10% models who have a regular contracts with major adult sites you're not going to get an income. Even the low bar of Only Fans is hard to make money from due to rife piracy and the influx of models who think it's easy money.

I've worked with a lot of models over the years, and they've got it just as hard or worse than photographers due to the rising numbers of photographers who think it's OK to sexually assault models. It's always been an issue, but one professional model said she's had 12, yes 12, photographers improperly touch her in the last year. Once at a workshop, and the instructor just shrugged it off. It's so bad she's quitting after 6 years being an art nude model, and a damned good one with her skill sets.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

Probably we work with different types of models...

LA M's picture

Again...hyperbole

TF work has been a staple in this industry for decades. Many professionals got their start doing trade for work to build experience and portfolios.

A GWC isn't worried about paying mortgages with their camera. Or saving for retirement.

TF work has always been balanced with making sure their is some tangible benefits for all parties.

Free work is entirely another thing. If the "client" can pay for the work then they should pay for the work. If you are creating something that is in turn going to generate revenue for others, you should be getting PAID.

It's the disposable nature of photography that is changing the industry. Clients are shifting to social media advertising/promotion. Instagram earned much more than Youtube...so we can dispel with the myth that photography is dying or dead. Adapt or find a new line of work.

Brook Brown's picture

The internet, technology and China have made quality photography cheap and accessible. Many photographers are already vested in other, more lucrative, professions, and aren't particularly interested in getting paid.

This is the way it is. Deal with it. If you can't compete with the folks doing it for free, you probably should find another way to earn a living.

Mister Aeb's picture

Couldn't have said it better.

Scott Choucino's picture

Models still pay good photographers for test shoots at their test shoot rate.

Purple port people don't pay GWC for photographs though. There is a really big difference in the two scenarios.

Brook Brown's picture

I'm so sick of hearing "professionals" whine about having to compete with enthusiasts, I'm thinking about advertising my services for free in my area just to see if I can steal the critical mass of clients that allows them to get by.

Da'gummit!

Benoit Pigeon's picture

You should really do it. I dare you, but you won't, that much I am pretty sure of. Where does your income come from, you did not mention.

Brook Brown's picture

I'm a supervisory professional engineer in an international engineering firm. Photography is my hobby. I can afford to do it for free. Others who can't, will. Deal with it.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

Nope. It’s your engineering firm who pays...

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Sounds like a great job. How does the firm trade with you? Of course they don't, you expecta pay check. I personally don't think you should get paid, but that's just me.

Deleted Account's picture

He gets paid because it's not as easy to get someone else to to the job as well. There are probably not many supervisory professional engineers who they could get a lower cost/free. Completely different situations and levels of competition/scarcity.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

That's beside my point Michael, but I'm with you otherwise. A lot of people want to start a photo business, but the reality is that it has nothing to do with random shoots for the family or buddies or buying gear. I have much less camera gear than most advanced amateurs and I've been doing this for 20 years. I would love to see how long this engineer's free photo service would last and that's why I am asking him to go for it. Like I said, he won't and he can deal with it. See the problem is that self imposed assignments are not what we do.

Deleted Account's picture

Totally agree but I guess I see him as one of those people, like myself, that use photography for creative passion projects with no intent on ever making a real business out of it. We will continue to exist as an option for cheap/free services because we enjoy it. It's most certainly undercutting other photographers in our markets but that's more of an industry wide issue since photography is so accessible.

I assumed that Brook's OP wasn't a serious plan to take over his market with free services and more of a jab aimed towards pros who complain about hobbyists but maybe he's actually planning on it. If so, then I agree fully with you.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

To tell you the truth, I don't shoot models and very few portraits and I don't have an issue with people who start and don't price properly. I am actually in the product photography industry so I'm not as affected as other branches of photography. This said, I have recently noticed that the market with small clients is growing again for in studio work. Last month a new client was totally surprised that I had a studio and not shooting from my basement. That was kind of weird, but not that much of a shock. So I am definitely working on promoting my services as in real business with proper equipment and full size studio. That’s kind of strange to me as I saw advertising the studio it self theses days as kind of a cheap way to bring in clients, but proper equipment and proper space seem to still have added value despite what people seem to say.

liliumva's picture

I wouldn't say TFP is the issue, or that it is bringing down the industry, nor is it solely for newer photographers. The issue, for me, would be that there is no separation from career models and those that just want photos. Much like there are dozens of lower cost photographers, new photographers or what have you, there are dozens of unsigned 'models' that are not making a career of it and really that's ok.It's ok because they're not the people you want to work with or the people that will pay you. Not your ideal client. Not everyone wants to do it professionally, not everyone has the aspirations to get to the next level. You shouldn't concern yourself with what someone else does with their time, money or business. After all, you should be marketing, networking and working with the right clients of your caliber. Right?

To also add. I shoot mainly TFP now by choice. I'm working on my MBA, and my work is not typical . So my choice to shoot fine art shouldn't affect you. ;)

Ryan Cooper's picture

What if a photographer loves to shoot but has no interest in shooting professionally. As soon as you introduce money and a client into the shoot you immediately build expectations of delivery, creative direction, deadlines, feedback, etc. Shooting TFP to build a portfolio is one thing but what if you want to shoot TFP because you want to be YOUR OWN client? You are shooting for you, to do what you love, with full creative control.

I spent years working on photography as a professional pursuit. I eventually realized that the introduction of the business aspect completely ruined my desire to shoot. Everything about it from sales to billing to the changed expectations completely transforms the dynamic into something I simply have no interest in doing. It changes photography from a "creativity-first" pursuit to "customer service above all else" job.

Now I only shoot TFP, for me and I am far happier for it.

That said, I don't think I'm having any impact on the industry. I'm not competing for clients and I work with amateur models who never had to work with a professional photographer anyway. It is important to remember that shooting random shots of amateur models has virtually no business value, to begin with. If you are looking to build a business around doing that sort of thing you are already hunting for a holy grail that only a few photographers ever find.

Always remember, the sort of work that is TFP, is NOT the sort of work that is business-friendly. It is creative, it is exploratory. It may have some value as a shot posted on social media but companies just aren't going to pay you to make those images because random beauty shots don't sell anything.

TFP is the equivalent of an illustrator drawing something that is inspiring to them and posting it to social media. It doesn't have any negative impact on the value of illustrators working commercially.

Now what really is ruining the industry is oversupply. Compare to say a plumber, after learning the very basics that plumber now has value in the industry, even if it is low. They can expect that every job will pay at least something. Whereas in comparison, a portrait photographer, even if they have reached an advanced level of skill in their craft will enter into any given market with the presumption that the value of their work is nothing. This is because the ratio of mediocre portrait photographers to potential clients willing to pay for portrait work is really bad. It has devalued that form of photography.

If you are one of those portrait photographers, this leaves you with three choices:

1: Elevate your work to an elite level that makes is more valuable than what an average portrait photographer can make so that people are willing to pay you for the exclusivity of your unique expertise.

2. Become an incredibly adept salesperson to the degree that the quality of your work is not relevant anymore, just your ability to convince a potential client that it is worth more than it actually is.

3. Start shooting in a genre that actually has commercial value. (Because that is where the majority of the actual demand in this industry lives)

Sorry for the wall of text, got a little carried away hahah. ;)

Teresa Oldenbourg's picture

I like your work. I can see that it is more for you and what you get out of it.

ronnie yeoh's picture

That's what I was gonna say and then I read your post. You've explained it all. I run a large photography Meet Up group in Hong Kong, like 6,600 members. Only 2% (100 people) likes to shoot portraits and fashion just for fun and learning. Fashion photography is my day job and some of my members like to do what I do, but not at a professional level. After 10 years of taking them on some of my shoots, arranging many mock-up fashion shoots for them, only 1 of them wanted to do it for a living. The rest just do it for fun to post on social media. However, they do secretly hope that one day, some model or client would call them up to do a job. Never happens. By the way, about 60% of members are expats or non local.

Matt M's picture

You finally figured out there's only a certain subset of photographers capable of making an income shooting models and you're not it. Congratulations for the self-awareness. Come shoot weddings with the rest of us.

Deleted Account's picture

I’m the one asking for TF, so I have no context where getting paid by a model is even remotely expected. I would love to have the opportunity to help ruin the industry.

Nils Decker's picture

Hahaha, so rude these models whose job is to get paid for their time, asking for money!!!

Benoit Pigeon's picture

TFP is suicidal as business. Ignore the weekend warriors and the models who want free stuff all day. If your goal is to succeed, you do your work, ignore the competition what ever it might be and, #1, stay true to yourself. I think it can be okay to do some free work if there is a meaning and especially a plan behind it but that should be limited. As a business you have to be confident that you can do the work under stress and pressure. That's to me the best way to learn and perfect your business. Clearly you can do the work for free but where is the challenge that will build your identity and bring paying work?

Jeff Muller's picture

Maybe... just maybe some of us already have good jobs and only want to pursue photography as a hobby, and that should factor into your decision whether to be a professional or not?

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Absolutely. But it does not mean not paying the model is the way to go. I mean I'm sure, some of us may get free gear but for the 99.99% we do pay for it. Why would models time and knowledge be worth just a print or a file then? See my logic?

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