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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Previous comments
Jeff Walsh's picture

You aren't losing money by not charging someone who wasn't going to pay you.

Michael Holst's picture

Truth. It only has a negative affect if you're expecting to make money and have other clients that would be willing to pay. That opportunity cost is only important for real professionals.

I love how articles like these point the finger at hobbyists. If a hobbiest can do as good of a job and they don't even care to ask for compensation, then the professionals who are whining need to find another career.

Daris Fox's picture

18/20 years ago I remember the photographer/model forums arguing about this. One thing that stood out was the recurring question what happens when photography becomes a commodity.

TF has devalued the market. Anybody who says otherwise isn't paying attention to the trends over the last two decades. Cameras have become a commodity and Photoshop and other programs have been dumbed down enough to be push click 'fix'. The market has been flooded with people driven by the very industry that cries foul. Workshops, tutorials and more are all on-line saying you can be a professional photographer. People keep saying you can get free models for Tf, your clients hear this and start asking why can't you do portraits for free; there's no difference?

I was a professional retoucher for publications, not a great one but good enough to get a steady income. That imploded mid-2000's when skinfix and other one-fix solutions came on the market. Sure I could get work, but it was no-longer steady or viable. Same with photographers, how many times have we seen crappy model shots? Before with film you *had* to think about what you took. These days, take 2,000 frames at 50fps and pick whatever is best.

There's a reason that most professional photographers I still know pulled out from the industry or have set up new primary/secondary incomes from teaching or other revenue streams.

Geography is a big factor, some countries still value photography others just **** on it. Photography as a whole is a devalued industry, even IPS is becoming a increasingly difficult sell when clients are demanding a USB with all the images on it. For free.

Stoopy McPheenis's picture

There's always a market. Markets change, for sure. Clients change, too. But you don't need to be the number one supplier of photography to make good money. You just need to find a small handful of decent clients and ignore everything else.

TFP hasn't devalued the market. The accessibility of photographic equipment and education is what has devalued the market. It's not a matter of Photoshop being "dumbed down", but photographers as a whole being better than they ever were before because of the ease of learning the craft. Thanks to digital workflows, the feedback loop is faster than ever before and the cost of materials to practice (film, paper, etc.) is no longer an issue. Things that once took years to master in the past simply due to material constraints can now be tackled in a matter of months. When you have more highly skilled people providing a service, prices are going to go down.

You wrote "If you contact a photographer whose work you admire, expect to pay."

A better thing you could have written: "If you contact a creative whose work you admire, expect to pay."

You've framed the article around an interaction you once had with a model and it makes you look really petty.

Edward Blake's picture

The free market is hard.


Paul Juniper's picture

So many disheartening responses here. Large numbers of people offering something of value for free clearly undermines the financial profitability or viability of professional photographers. It is pretty simple. You might be OK with that personally but if you can't see it, you don't understand basic economics.

Edward Blake's picture

Correction: *you* don't understand basic economics. *I* don't give a black rat's arse about *your* business.

Back to the point of basic economics, if your product is not in demand then clearly there is nothing differentiating your product within a saturated market. See: supply and demand.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Possibly, but no business gives away for free just because a market is saturated (apart for photography of course). Look at car insurances, probably the biggest spender in the advertising industry right now, yet no one gets free insurance. Clearly, people want photos, it's a maket or they would not call for it.
I am curious, what other over saturated industries give away their work and products?

You aren't giving away your work for free in a trade. The key word being "trade." You are exchanging your time and effort in exchange for something that you want. If you give away your work and don't get anything in return, by definition it isn't TFP.

If you don't want to trade you are perfectly welcome to pay the photographer of the model or the make up artist for their time and effort.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

What industry do you work for Mark?

Why does that matter?

Benoit Pigeon's picture

For trading, obviously.

I'm not hard to google. But this is a photographers forum after all. I'm sure you can guess.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

You would think so, but this topic alone demonstrate we are "Not" all photographers making a living from it. - Note, after reading this again, I realize I missed typing the important word not. My apology.

This topic demonstrates no such thing.

I'll take this post as a concession that you've got nothing else left to say.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

How will you pay me to keep going? I don't trade, sorry.

"How would I pay you to keep going?" That sentence doesn't even make any sense.

And whether or not you trade (in the context of a TFP agreement) is irrelevant to having a discussion in a public forum like this. If you don't want to participate: then just stop posting.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Correct, I don't take you seriously at all. Now go trade something, go.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

I missed writing not above on a previous post totally changing the meaning of my post and I apologize for that.

Stoopy McPheenis's picture

It's definitely most prevalent in the creative industry-- certainly not limited to photographers, by any means. But, even in more corporate/traditional industries, many people get their foot in the door by working for free.... They call them 'internships.' Any industry from law firms to carpenters take on interns or offer 'mentorships' that basically ask people to work for free in exchange for experience and exposure.

I know a marine biologist who got their start by volunteering for non-profits.... I know a bike mechanics that got their start by volunteering at a shop.... all sorts of people get their start by working for free.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

There is a difference between unqualified working for free to learn and an educated person providing the service for free. In fact paid internship is a common thing. I pay my assistants for example but I choose people who want to learn, never people who ask to assist in order to go after my clients. I'd say those would definitely work for free and typically act weird, while I pay well people I trust.

Stoopy McPheenis's picture

Sure, paid internships are common. But, so are unpaid ones. My only point is that the idea of working unpaid in exchange for what you believe to be education, experience, connection building, exposure, etc... exists in nearly every industry, and especially within creative or trade industries. While I don't recommend working for free (or even for cheap) in most cases, I also don't look down on photographers who get themselves in the door that way.

Michael Holst's picture

I think the difference here is that there aren't hobbyist insurance agents offering free insurance.

Photography is so accessible that everyone and their grandma can enter the market and take work away from people who want to make a living doing it.

Paul Juniper's picture

Value and price are two different things.

Someone may want a photograph or body of work because it has value to them. That value will depend on their use/needs/perception and will be different to the cost of production.

What they are willing to pay, if anything, is the price. Price, as you alluded to, is influenced by supply and demand which is the central point of the article.

If enough photographers give away their work because they have the financial freedom to do so, they lower the 'market price' and in the process harm other photographers who seek to make it their living. There is plenty of demand, but the price has been lowered due to excess supply. Yes, standing out in a saturated market can help, but it sure is difficult for them to compete with free.

Simon Patterson's picture

So what, I don't owe "the industry" anything. You do what's best for your business, I'll do what's best for mine, and "the industry" can worry about itself.

It’s about photo industry...

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