The Free Exposure Trap

Note: I am finding that I am frequently contacted by photographers asking for advice and it is not possible to fully answer the questions by e-mail. This is the first of a series of articles to answer the questions I am most often asked.

The “Free Exposure” Trap

I may not be in a league with Annie Liebovitz, yet, but I have seen accomplishments I did not dare dream possible when I started my career. Many mistakes were made along the way, the worst of which was believing “exposure” would make my career.

Yes, you need exposure, but it has unfortunately become the lever the bottom feeders of the industry use to coerce photographers into working for free. And while it might seem worth it to allow one of your photos to be used without charge for a magazine cover to “break in”, this underhanded game has reached astonishing proportions and never leads to anything other than more work for free.

Some examples: A publication that wanted me to shoot a 4 day convention in a distant city with two additional photographers, assistants, and set up a portrait studio on premises with a digital capture station and technician to wire photos immediately to the magazine during the day (all at my expense). The pay? Mention in the magazine, which would be distributed ONLY to attendees at the seminar. As the audience consisted of teachers, it would not even reach potential clients. I was left wondering how they even dared ask… yet they probably found someone foolish enough to take them up on the “opportunity”.

Another is a designer who offered me the “opportunity” to pass out business cards at their party for the grand launch of a new line. They paid for catering, flying in industry executives, NFL football players to attend, and took over an entire nightclub for the night but expected the photographer to work free. My answer was that I could pass out the business cards at the entrance to the club and not have the work of shooting the events and touching up all the photos.

The twists to this game are endless. We are, after all, creative people. But they are all played to the detriment of the photographer who goes along. It can be the designer who asks for a discount because he will publish the shoot in additional publications and on blogs (in truth, you should get paid an additional amount for each use of the images), the modeling agency who promises paying work but only after you do some “test” shoots with their girls first (why can’t they look at your portfolio to determine your work quality?) and the ever increasing number of magazines and blogs who have “no budget” for photography, but claim the exposure you get will make it worthwhile. The worst of them happened yesterday when a magazine offered me the “opportunity” to pay them to publish a fashion editorial in their magazine. Of course I would also have had the expense of the shoot on top of the magazines fees!

The problem is when it seems everyone is offering some variation of “free exposure” as payment, just what is this exposure worth? The chance to pay to shoot for someone else?

The irony of the situation struck me hard after one of the more offensive “opportunities” — the convention shoot — was sent my way. It occurred to me that driving to the conference and parking in the convention center parking lot each day the Ford logo on my car would be seen by more people than my name would be in their magazine. Ford would be getting a ton of “free exposure”, yet I still had to pay for the car. The Nikon logo on my camera would be seen by the same number of people, but I still had to pay for the camera. Likewise with my strobes and the rest of the equipment, lots of free exposure given to them when I use their equipment — but I still had to pay for it.

Think about it for a moment. You buy a pair of Nike shoes. They get free exposure as a result of your purchase. Your stereo, free exposure each time friends are over. Every item you purchase has the logo plastered across it and each time someone buys their product, they get free exposure/advertising.

Why then should a photographer be expected to pay to produce the content (yes, it does cost money to do a photoshoot) that a magazine needs to attract readers and advertisers; or the advertisements a designer or corporation needs to sell its products, or the portfolio a modeling agency needs to market its models for “free exposure” in lieu of pay?

I can’t follow the logic. Can you?

Why do so many of us fall for this ploy? It is the mistaken belief of most artists that “getting discovered” is the route to the top. Over the years I have learned that is exactly what it is. A mistaken belief.

Each success I have under my belt came about not as a result of free exposure, but through creating well thought out marketing materials, determining who the right contacts were and knocking repeatedly on their doors. I quickly learned that throwing the coveted “tearsheets” from the free exposure work down on an art directors desk was a big mistake. It’s a small industry, everyone knows who is out there and who the bottom feeders are. Throw down the free exposure work and they instantly know, and tell you, you got played. You have at that moment lost the respect of the person you hoped would hire you.

It is also interesting to note that whenever work is done for free, the recipient considers it, and you, worthless. If he were to do otherwise, it would make him guilty of having taken advantage of you. For this reason, if the promised paying work does eventually appear, it will go to someone else. In their eyes, you are worth only what you charge. If you were any good, you would have demanded payment!

I expect that I will come under criticism from those who defend their right to be taken advantage of. I have seen that oddity over and over on the various photographer forums and it was one of the more difficult things for me to understand. I did however, finally, come to terms with it. It’s just human nature. Some people work to get ahead and help others do the same. Some like to get ahead at the expense of others. Others have given up and seek to pull others down to their level. It is for the first category I write this and I hope that it will help a few beginning photographers avoid the mistakes that could well cost you any chance of success.

I wish you success. I will do my part by sharing with you the lessons I have learned and hopefully spare you some of the same mistakes. Meanwhile, never sell yourself short. Whether you are a seasoned pro, or still learning your way around all the buttons on the camera, if someone wants your images, they have a value. Learn what they are worth and demand it.

19 thoughts on “The Free Exposure Trap

  1. Thank you! Mark I hope it would be possible to promote this kind of thought every where to photography students and professionals.

  2. Very well-written. Thank you- it’s good to see others in the industry (photographers, especially) who feel this way.

  3. I appreciate this article on your blog.
    It still boggles my mind why some people make an assumption that artists don’t know business. Because WE DO.
    Some just don’t understand and expect it.

  4. Indeed, any time you’re working for free/not much look around you and see how many other people are getting paid. The “runners” at a big concert — who just hang around unless someone needs them to hit the wal-mart for some AA batteries– are easily making $100 – $200 for their time. And they are way more likely to meet the important people than you are.

  5. Pingback: Online article - The Free Exposure Trap | Rock Portrait Photography

  6. That was the absoulte best artcile on exposure that I’ve ever read. I’ve repeatedly preached the same concepts to models; “Exposure” is nearly always a scam, it the new way to say work for free, they name drop, they promise the next job will be a “paying gig” but after 15 years in this business, it’s ALWAYS A lie.
    If you don’t learn anything in the photography business in the very first year learn the business aspects; learn to get PAID!

  7. I’d like to thank everyone, sincerely, for their comments on this post. It seems to be more popular than any I have put up and has obviously struck a nerve in the industry. Please pass it on to those you can. Eliminating the games that are played in this industry will not happen without us educating ourselves… and trust me, those who wish to take advantage will not do so.

  8. There are times you have to say no.

    Here’s a recent example of a record label fishing for free photos. On the weekend a record company contacted me about using some photos on one of their artists websites. The email read:

    Hi Richard,

    I work for the record label who manage xxx and I really like your photos taken at the xxx music festival. Would we be able to post some of them to their websites? We would credit you of course.

    I replied with:

    Hi xxx,

    Thanks very much for your enquiry – I’m glad you liked the photos from xxx.

    As a professional photographer I am not in a position to offer photos for credit only but I’d be very happy to work out a licensing deal for use of the images. Could you please detail the exact usage (number of photos, which websites they will be displayed on, image size, period for display etc.)

    I see that xxx is also in the record label name stable – I also have photos of her performance at the xxx festival if you need any shots of her.

    I look forward to hearing from you shortly.


    Richard Sharman

    Her reply was:

    Hi Richard,

    Thanks for getting back to us. If we wish to use your pictures in the future we will get in touch with you regarding licensing, but for the moment we won’t upload them to their websites.

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  10. The double standards in this business are disgusting. I had the owner of a modeling agency ask me to shoot her models for free and submit them to magazines and blogs to get publicity for myself (I believe she meant FOR HER AGENCY). She also wanted me to sign a document saying I would not use or license the photos in any other way. When I said no, she said “Well, if you don’t do it someone else will.” Since when is the “opportunity” to work free a deal we can’t afford to pass up. The problem is that there was probably someone else stupid enough to do just that.

  11. Pingback: A Dangerous New Marketing Paradigm… Blogs, Magazines, Fashion Designers, Agencies and Fools « Mark Stout Photography – Photoshoot News & Models

  12. Great article!

    I need some help please…

    I started a topic on Flickr titled “Corporation with a revenue of $39.1 million CAN’T (wouldn’t) pay for photos.”

    For some bizarre reason, many people in the group “No More Free Photos” don’t feel that magazines should pay us for image use. I’d love to see comments that support payment for work.

    Mark, I cited this article and linked to it from within the discussion.

    Thanks for any support!


  13. Pingback: People Can Die From Exposure | urban bohemian

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