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?