On The Job: Exposure or Exploitation?

Sooner or later every photographer, or really anyone who makes a hobby out of what someone else calls a career, has to figure out exactly where they stand with their trade and ask themselves the question,
“Is my work good enough to get paid for, and is that something I want to pursue?”

How do you transition from hobbyist to getting paid? Everyone needs to gain exposure, get out there, get their work seen. I’ve given away my fair share of work, but at some point it turns from gaining exposure, to losing out on a paycheck. Where is this magical turning point, you may ask. Well… it’s a very, very fuzzy line.

One big trap a lot of beginning photogs fall into, myself included, is the “pics for exposure” trade. In my experience, as soon as you hear the words “it will be great exposure for you” a big red warning light should go off in your head, along with a suitably loud siren… I find something in the “AWWWOOOOOOGAAAA” family works quite well. Pics for exposure, ninety percent of the time means “we’re too cheap to pay for a photographer”.Think of it this way, if the person asking you for pics is such a big deal that getting your name on their website/publication actually IS good exposure, then they probably have the cash to pay you, they just don’t want to. And if they don’t have the cash to pay you, any “exposure” you’re going to gain is probably minimal. Out of all the gigs I’ve done for exposure alone, I can count the actual paying gigs they’ve led to on one hand. And almost all of those gigs came from the same place… charities. Volunteering to shoot events for charities, arts organizations and non-profits is the one exception I make to my never shoot for free rule. A) You’re (hopefully) lending support to a good cause; B) you’re usually not screwing someone else out of a paycheck; and C) this can actually lead to a paycheck. In my experience, people really appreciate a photographer donating their time to a cause. I’ve had patrons of the charity go out of their way to hire me for other jobs and I’m usually treated really well by the organizers; I never feel taken advantage of. But besides that, most exposure work is worthless monetarily. Not only are missing out on time you could use to get paid somewhere else, you’re announcing that you’re willing to work for free and that is something that no one ever forgets. Work for free once, and you’re pretty much guaranteeing that person will never offer you money to work again. And really, think of every magazine, every newspaper, every poster or ad campaign you’ve ever looked at; have you ever bothered to look at the tiny photo-credit-by line, and if you have, can you remember even one? That’s how much your “exposure” is worth. There are many, many ways to gain exposure that don’t entail working for free. Flickr has been one of my best advertising resources, I’ve gotten more paying work from people who stumbled on my Flickr pics and like my work than I’ve ever gotten from exposure gigs.

I don’t want to sound negative, everyone has to start somewhere. Yeah, getting a couple of unpaid magazine or website shoots under your belt can be valuable. It’s good experience and it’s something to put on your resume, even if the exposure you get out of it is minimal. Just be careful about sounding too eager to do it for nothing and think about whether you’d like to get a paycheck from that source in the future. If you do work for free, make sure they understand it’s you doing them a favour, not the other way around. And think about whether you’re taking a paycheck away from someone else. Maybe your Mom’s a hairdresser, or your brother’s a plumber… what would happen if someone went around town giving a away perms and fixing sinks for free? It’s hard for some photogs to wrap their head around this because, now more than ever, unlike plumbing or a haircut, photography doesn’t seem to have a concrete value attached to it. It’s just pressing a button right? Everyone’s got a camera now, and it’s not like it costs anything for film or prints… it’s all just one’s and zero’s on a memory card, it’s not actually worth anything, right? I know many photographers who are absolutely amazing, way better than many pros I’ve worked with, that give away their work because they’re convinced it’s not worth being paid for.

It can be demoralising to get passed over for a shoot because you wouldn’t work for free, or because you think you asked for too much. Do some research, find out what other photographers in your area are being paid. Your time and your skill is worth something… figure out what it’s worth to you, and know what it’s worth to others. You’ll thank yourself in the long run.