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
Dana Goldstein's picture

When it comes to models, you generally get what you pay for. I *always* pay models (and makeup artists), and although of course I'll crowdsource on FB groups if it's something for my own portfolio, I'll do a lot of research on whoever responds. If I see a portfolio (or more likely, an Insta) full of the exact same expression and the exact same pose, or something that looks like it's more suited to a porn webcam, l'll move on. I'll say in the post that I want ONLY full links, so if they just leave their handle in a comment, I'll ignore them, bc they have already shown me they can't follow basic directions.

There's no harm in working with someone new to the business *IF* you're patient and willing to explain more than you would have to with an experienced model. It will take them longer to warm up on set. They won't understand light as well. They won't move as smoothly or make sure to change it up for each shot. You'll have to be a teacher, but you'll be passing along knowledge that once upon a time you had to learn too. Their time also has value, they're taking some form of transportation to get to you, they might be bringing changes of clothes along, and they're putting in their best effort for the time they're there. Why shouldn't they get paid?

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Exactly! If you ask them to help you, you understand the value they represent to you and treat them respectfully. I have two assistants I use from time to time. They get paid very well even when there is actually not that much to do some days, but they show up on time and no client has ever complained. I get repeat work from my services, no cheap trade would bring me any work ever

Chase Wilson's picture

Everything I’ve shot (for myself) in the last 4 years has depended on trade.

Stoopy McPheenis's picture

Not to be a jerk.... but, I'm so glad I don't work with models.

Dana Goldstein's picture

Why? It's a legit job. What do you have against models?

Stoopy McPheenis's picture

I never said it wasn't a legit job. I totally respect people that can work with models, I just can't do it. I did work with celebs for quite a while and found it..... less than enjoyable. Nowadays, most of my subjects are inanimate objects. :)

I think what is killing the industry is the “Instagram Model”. They post photos simply for “likes”. When you contact them about collaborating on a shoot, they will either agree to do TFP or they will want to hit you with their rates. I had one just the other day tell me her rate is $100 an hour with a two hour minimum! I was like so you want me to pay you $200 as if my camera, lenses, expertise, location for the shoot, etc don’t mean anything! It’s crazy how they want you the photographer to pay them but they don’t want to pay you and you are the one lugging all the gear, coming up with the ideas and poses and composing the shots, and lets not forget doing the editing! Many of these “Instagram Models are using sites like “Onlyfans” and “Patreon” to post their photos and videos from shoots and are making money from people that are willing to pay money to see them half or fully nude. So think about that, you are doing a free shoot aka TFP and the model posts those images on a site for them to make money and you get nothing. Probably won’t even credit you as the photographer either. I’ve done a bunch of TFP shoots over the years and I never really had an issue with doing them. You really aren’t going to make money shooting models unless you are a sought after published photographer and your work is all over the place and/or you are connected with an agency. I would never do someone’s wedding TFP! That is downright disrespectful and if people are doing stuff like that, then yes that will hurt the industry big time. That said, if a photographer doesn’t have much experience and wanted to do something like that for free then that is a decision they need to make but I hope there aren't photographers in masses doing TFP weddings.

TFP is fine... Sure, I see people in IG looking for photographers to "collaborate" with, but they're not suddenly going to start paying photographers if nobody responds. They're not a real market where doing a fun project here and there is taking away from photographers who are doing real work. If we're going down that route, I also see plenty of photographers looking for models to photograph for free. If instagrammers and models starting out should spend money getting their photos to build their portfolio, shouldn't photographers have to spend money on models and make-up artists to build theirs? These arrangements are supposed to be mutually beneficial situations for the parties involved because it's a real PITA to hire people when you're just starting out whether you're a photographer, model, makeup artist, hairdresser, etc.

Graham Taylor's picture

I think it's easy as an old-sweat sometimes to talk down on people who are offering free work as "harming the industry" while ignoring the irony that we all did it when we were starting out. It didn't kill the industry when we did it and it won't when the new generation do it. There are lots more staffed jobs for photographers than there ever have been and with that, a wider need for imagery than there ever has been so lots of freelance opportunities too.

As a photographer, the reality is that it's on you how much you earn and whether you earn it. Changing your prices for every customer? Fobbing them off with wetransfer when the jobs done? You're only harming yourself. I've got more work since taking myself seriously as a business and no amount of people offering to do the same work for free has changed that. In several cases I've had people actually go ahead and shoot the subject, then still been paid to shoot it after. That's because I offer something that is worth more than some half decent images. I offer a business solution to an existing requirement. The fact that it is in photography is almost irrelevant. I can buy a Fiesta much cheaper than I can buy a Ferrari, but which one would I save up for?

There is also an assumed arrogance that photographers should be paid and models shouldn't, as if one is a valuable and earned skill and the other isn't. I shoot models commercially through agencies and they are generally paid around 8x the day rate that photographers are. They earn an absolute fortune by comparison. The assumption that the sum of a good model is simply being attractive is as ignorant as assuming that a good camera equates to a good photographer.

Scott Wilder's picture

TFP is not the issue. Camera technology is excellent across the board. Cost is no longer a barrier into taking phenominal photographs. Photography Education is no further away than a YouTube search. Thousands upon thousands of hours of tips, tricks, techniques and demos that are just if good and many times better than the training they would get at their local university.

This is nothing more than welcome to supply and demand. You have an growing abundance of supply (decent photographers) and fairly steady demand. Maybe even shrinking demand if you take into account that people are waiting longer to get married, or not get married at all. And as time goes on fewer and fewer print magazines are around to give all photographers paying work.

Rates are simply going to go down.

Michael White's picture

I’m curious about one of the previous comments. You are new to photography and you need to build your portfolio so you have a body of work that you can use to find paid work. Seems simple enough. So, you approach a model on IG or MM and asked him/her if they would be willing to do a shoot to help you build your portfolio. You don’t mention money, you just indicate that their look is a good fit for your type of photography.

If they tell you that their rate for their service is $200 minimum and if you agree to pay that fee, wouldn’t that be the end of the transaction? The model is in business to provide this professional service of being a model (hair, makeup, clothing, and posing skills) and you happily pay them for this service because there is value: you get some great shots for your portfolio.

Where does it say that you have to GIVE THEM FOR FREE digital files or pints? Why would you spend hours culling, editing, formatting, sending out/picking up prints, and delivering FOR FREE? Wouldn’t it make more sense to CHARGE the model FOR YOUR SERVICE of providing professional digital files and prints?

Seems a little lopsided to me.

Nils Decker's picture

What makes a great photographer? 100% personality. Good photographers will always find paid work. Whether you spend your free days promoting your business, discussing about tfp work on fstoppers, or get better by doing some tfp work is extremely irrelevant. There are more photographers and cheaper cameras and better software for retouching, sure, but my mom now also takes about 5 photos per week so there are more people wanting photos taken. And even untrained eyes can distinguish between a “sick shot braaa, there’s so much bokeh it’s insane”, and a professional photo. I shoot every opportunity I get. When no one pays me, in shoot for free. I guarantee you Annie hasn’t lost a single cent of income because if it. I have, on the other hand, become better at the craft. Lionesses don’t lose sleep, over the opinions of sheep.

Catherine Bowlene's picture

Seriously? If you shoot tfp you gain more experience. Inexperienced "pros" are the ones who really kill the industry. Plus one should remember that any free work can bring you money, you just have to think a little bit. Since tfp photos belong to you (as they should) you may make an ads for yourself using them. I remember a good Techtimes article about it, they even had a list of the programs to use for that (https://www.techtimes.com/articles/244986/20190813/what-s-the-best-choic...). The key point is that everything is up to you, whether you decide to work for free with some facebook girls and then complain about it or to use this free works for yourself in the future.

Saturation is what is killing the industry. Technological advancements is a double edge sword. Everybody is a photographer now. It’s so much easier to learn with digital. The cost of film and the learning process weeded out the weak.

Clarity and split toning - is what really kills the industry, IMO.

krohenzo's picture

I saw some models asking money to shoot them, I am glad I can shoot birds and close-ups in my backyard. They actually should pay me for not shooting them at all.

Birds flake out easily...

krohenzo's picture

Not if you have to catch them first....

Tom Reichner's picture

For the unestablished photographer with sub-par skills, who wants to shoot a model and not a friend or family member, there are two options:

1: Do TFP (actually, "time for digital files").
2: Pay a model for the privilege of shooting her.

For many, this is the reality. There is no option available that involves getting paid. So, for the thousands of below-average photographers with sub-par work and unappealing portfolios, what do you suggest they do? Is it better to pay a model cash, or to give her prints?

(Of course, these days it's a digital file, not prints)

Studio 403's picture

The new Samsung smartphone may do us all in.....I am forecasting a purge of so-called professional Photographers in the next 3 yrs. The low budget folks like me ( mostly retired now) so this won't affect me like the younger folks. I see a major decline with expensive wedding photographers. For sure many will do well. Savvy marketing, quality work, professional standards will do well. The rest of the "herd" will fight for the balance of the business. The democratization of camera gear, hight quality "cheap" cameras will struggle to "make a buck". Step up your game young folk. I was late to the photo party. But so love the craft. An art form. The ability to express my camera work in a way I had not known. From a guy who was so ashamed to show anything, wow so grateful. My suggestion? Price yourself as high as you can go. Get rid of low hanging fruit. Be bold, assertive, gentle and kind. Show respect to your clients even when they don't deserve it. Endeavor to not be critical of fellow photographers. Cheer each other on. Look for any jealousy in your heart and mind about your craft. I think excellence overcomes jealousy. Rejoice with the TFP folks. When I look back on my life it is to see how I failed in many projects. When I go to the mirror each day I ask one question. Is there anyone else in my mirror I can blame for my business decisions? My grandfather started a business 75 years ago. My father built on his shoulders. Walmarts of the world aided in our family's small-town closure. But in reality, I was not cut out for that business and in some ways, I was woefully lacking in skillsets to navigate the Walmarts skillful strategy to outsmart them. I met and knew the Late Colonel Sanders as a person in my small town. His chicken enterprise was a simple idea and it made him a fortune. But when he had come to his limit, a young lawyer from Kentucky bought it and took it national. He was a kind man, and generous. He gave stock in his company to early employees. They retired wealthy.

Adil Alsuhaim's picture

TFP means Time For Prints (or Photos). Time is money. But If an amateur/hobbyist/enthusiast that do photography in their free time can put a "professional" out of business then they should look for another job.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

I think the author was very clear. It’s not about the principle of TFP, but the way it is becoming a “market” or trend of it’s own that people come to expect and for some expect professional photographers to provide. So it’s not about one person putting another one out of business, but really diluting the value of the service.

Tom Reichner's picture

I think that because we are photographers we tend to have a one-sided view of this issue. I can only imagine that on modeling forums, there are threads warning models never to work for free - that if a photographer wants to photograph you, then you need to make hime pay for your modeling time. And this view is JUST AS VALID as the view that says that models should pay photographers for their services.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Absolutely they should be paid. I would understand trading a couple times if both sides are new, but past the basic experiments and experience both should be on their own and entitled to some actual compensation. What I mean by this is after a warm up, a photographer should hire an experienced model who knows the job. I don't see how it would not be extremely valuable for the rookie photographer and a much more powerful learning experience.
Now doing photography as a hobby is another thing, but I think an experienced hobbyist not paying the model is yet another story. Do you think that guy above who pretend wanting to start a "free service" to show the pros how it's done would or has ever paid a model. He wrote money is not an issue for him, but I highly doubt he ever paid a model.

Tom Reichner's picture

That guy above that you mention - he is a jerk. It seems like he actually wants to hurt photographers who are eeking out a living at photography.

It's like he's jealous of them and resents the fact that he has to work at an engineering job while they get to take photos for a living, so he wants to bring them down.

You would think that anyone who enjoys photography would want others to be able to be successful at it, and be able to make a living at it if they choose to do so. That's what a happy, kind, unselfish person would feel.

Anyway, I can't believe I'm having a serious conversation with someone who refers to themselves as a pigeon. That is definitely a first for me. This makes me feel a bit silly and foolish, but you make some good points that I wanted to respond to, despite the ridiculous username.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

That's my last name Tom and believe me it has been played with since kindergarten. I hope you can do better than kindergarten! The other aspect of my name is that it's pretty easy to remember. If I try to remember yours in a month I may not be as successful.

Tom Reichner's picture

Well if that is your real surname then it makes sense, and is not ridiculous at all. Please forgive me for the misunderstanding.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

No worries Tom, and thanks.

Sam Morgan's picture

Okay, I took some popcorn to read the comments and never regretted it. LOL.
TFP doesn't kill the industry (and so do not you if you shoot it) unless it is wisely done. I look at TFP as at something that gives me opportunity to grow as a photographer. For example, just recently I saw an Ephotozine article about some new picture editor for PC (https://www.ephotozine.com/article/photoworks--photo-editor-for-pc-packe...) and decided to try it but I didn't want to ruin my payed photo shoot so I booked a TFP one. 2 birds were killed with 1 stone: I had some new material and tested some new software (appeared to be rather good).

I have a great portfolio and deliver quality photos for free ever since I started. This post is only going to make me do it more.

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