Should Photographers Ever Work for “Exposure”?

(© Kevin D. Jordan Photography)

If you are a photographer, you have probably been asked, either directly or indirectly, to work for “exposure”.  And if you are a photographer and have never been asked to work for exposure, don’t feel left out—it will happen eventually.

All too often, people involved in creative disciplines deal with a very different business landscape than most other professions.  Photographers, painters, designers, musicians, writers, performers and more are viewed by others, either wholly or in part, not as people who are providing a product or a service, but as a someone who just needs to be “discovered” and “make it”.

The request can come in different forms.  For me personally, the first time I was asked for free photos was because I had posted landscape shots from a national park on my Facebook page.  Someone who represented several hotels in the tourist town outside of the park sent me a message and said they loved my photos and would like to use a couple of them in their in-room brochures for guests.  I would, of course, be credited, and they would prefer that I removed my watermark before sending high-resolution photos.  There was no offer of paying to use the photos.

The iconic Half Dome in Yosemite National Park © Kevin D. Jordan Photography

I had mixed feelings about the request.  At that point in time, it had not been very long since I had started putting my photos out into the world, so even the thought that someone wanted to put my images in a brochure was flattering (which is a sentiment that many companies will try to capitalize on).  However, I was also being asked by a company that represented several of the most expensive hotels in the area to use my photos without payment.  After thinking it over, I responded by thanking them for taking an interest, asking if they were interested in licensing the photos, and that I would be happy to discuss it further.  I never got a response, so I moved on and didn’t think much of it.  It wasn’t until some time passed and I received many additional requests like this one that I realized how common they can be.

What Exactly Is “Exposure”?

When it comes to photography, exposure is essentially defined by the people offering it as the promise of getting your images the attention they deserve and launching you to photographic stardom.  The exposure itself can come in many forms, but it usually involves promises of “being credited” for your work and/or getting the opportunity to be able to network with or show off to potential clients.  The exposure usually doesn’t come with the offer of payment, and if it does it usually isn’t much.

When exposure is offered in exchange for photos, it is often because many people assume that what photographers and other creatives are ultimately seeking is attention.  The logic is simple.  If your work gets exposure, a ton of people will see it and love it.  And if a ton of people see your work and love it, some of them might even want to pay you for it.  Therefore, by the Transitive Property of Artistic Exposure (which technically isn’t a thing but at this point might as well be), exposure leads to money.

Why Many Photographers Won’t Work for Exposure, But Many More Will

There are plenty of valid arguments against exchanging photos or photography services for exposure.  Many people in creative fields just refer to this as “working for free”, because why would you sacrifice the guarantee of getting paid now for the hopes of getting paid later?  If you pursue your photography as a business, especially one that is either your sole source of income or a large chunk of it, the idea of putting off what could be a real paycheck now for a hypothetical paycheck down the road not only seems like madness, but it also seems like a pretty poor business strategy.  When you are running a business, your time directly equates to the money you can make, so unless you have a defined plan and set of reasons for why you are collecting “exposure” instead of a real-life check you can deposit in your bank account, it’s very possible you are doing yourself a disservice.

Photographers work hard to get the shot, so why do so many give away the shot for free?

The problem is that many photographers don’t pursue their craft as a serious business, which means that many of them most likely don’t have a business plan in place that allows them to know how much their product and services should be worth.  In addition, because of a lack of experience, they may not know how much money they could actually get for their work.  Many more just don’t have the confidence to ask for decent pay for their photography.  Regardless of the reasoning behind the decision, photographers work for the promises of exposure all the time.  Many argue that regardless of what type or amount of exposure you may be able to get out of an arrangement, working for free or at severely discounted rate will undercut the market for other photographers trying to make a living, so it should not be done.

But the truth is that the business landscape for photographers has changed drastically over the last 5+ years, and it has turned photography into a discipline that blurs the lines between hobby and profession.  The technological advancements in digital cameras have put the ability to capture high-quality photos into the hands of millions—if not billions—of people.  It’s important not to mistakenly equate that availability of cameras that can capture high-quality photos with the ability of a person with that camera to capture high-quality photos.  However, with the costs of high-quality cameras continuing to drop, the number of people capable of producing a high-quality image continues to climb.  This, coupled with the fact that there are no formal educations or professional certifications required to be a photographer, means that if you have a few hundred dollars, access to a laptop or tablet, and a little knowledge of good lighting, you can provide someone with photos they will be happy with.

What all of this amounts to is that photography supply has caught up with demand.  This results in increased competition.  Consequently, many photographers reduce their prices as a way to convince clients to work with them instead of others.  Add this to the photographers that charge too little because they don’t know any better and the photographers who charge too little because they have no desire or need to make money from photography, and it makes it more difficult for professionals, amateurs, and hobbyists alike to have potential clients value their work as highly.

There is no shortage of opinions regarding whether photographers and creatives in general should work for promises of exposure.  Most of those opinions tend to be an emphatic “no”, and I can’t say I blame them or take issue with that stance.  What I can take issue with is the lack of nuance I see in many of the conversations about working for exposure.

Why Potential Clients Ask Photographers to Work for Exposure

Some may argue that someone who asks you to work for “exposure” doesn’t actually qualify as a client, and I really can’t say fault that view.  However, I do think it is important to consider why photographers are asked to work for promises of fame and glory instead of money and, you know, more money…

There are different reasons why photographers may be asked to work for free, ranging from naivety to deliberate attempts to get a free product.  In the example I gave above about being asked to provide photos for a hotel brochure, I don’t know for sure what the motivation was behind the request.  At one end of the spectrum, the request could have been a benign attempt for someone to try to get photography they enjoyed to a wider audience (which, to an extent, I do appreciate).  On the other end of the spectrum, it could have been an attempt to grab photos for free and save on their own budget.  Regardless of the reasoning, I can’t say that I blame them either way.  The first scenario may be naïve when looked at from a business standpoint, but still could have been intended as a nice gesture.  The latter, which would have just simply been an attempt for a business with plenty of money to get what they needed from me for free, would have been a great business decision for them if I had gone through with it.

There is plenty of middle ground with a scenario like this as well.  Someone who doesn’t regularly work with photographers may not know what a fair price to offer is.  They may not even know how pricing for photography is typically structured (and many photographers don’t know either, which only perpetuates the problem).  This means that a request for photography may not be a charitable offer or fishing for free stuff, but somewhere in between.

So, Should You Work for “Exposure”?

We’ve talked about why photographers are asked to work for “exposure”, why many photographers don’t like that idea, and why plenty still agree to it.  However, none of that changes that, at some point or another, photographers will be asked to work for free.  So, at this point, the more important question is “How will you respond when you are asked to work for exposure?”

When that question finally comes your way, there are essentially five main ways you can choose respond.

  1. Say no and make obscene hand gestures while riding off into the proverbial sunset with your head held high.
  2. Politely decline the offer.
  3. Continue the conversation to see if there is anything you can get out of it before declining the offer.
  4. Accept the offer, but negotiate what exactly the “exposure” and/or compensation will be to ensure that it has the best chance of actually benefitting you.
  5. Say yes, no questions asked.
One of those sunsets you could be tempted to ride off into when turning down working for free (© Kevin D. Jordan Photography)

Of the list above, I don’t recommend choosing Option #1 or Option #5.  While Option #1 may sound fun, I can’t suggest burning bridges unnecessarily, even though it could feel really good in the short term.  And with regard to Option #5, even if you want to accept the offer, you would be doing yourself a disservice not to try to learn if there was anything else you could get out of it, or if there might be anything not immediately mentioned that might be a deal breaker for you.  Option #2 is certainly a viable and respectable way to go, especially if you have too much other paid work to even have time to bother worrying about a job that only promises “exposure,” but my preference is to go with Option #3 or Option #4.

Personally, I’m rarely a believer in staunch rules such as “Never work for exposure” that don’t offer any situational wiggle room.  I truly don’t think that photographers should make a habit of working for free or at a reduced cost, but I’m not willing to say that there are not situations where concessions to that rule could be made.

If you choose Option #3 or Option #4 above, you put yourself in the position to do a number of things.  Best case scenario, you can negotiate in a way that gets you payment for the job instead of exposure.  If the person making the request is just playing the negotiation game and was willing to pay you all along, but was just hoping you would settle for some good old-fashioned “exposure” instead, the door may still be open enough for you to negotiate yourself into an opportunity to get paid.  If the person making the request is naïve and just didn’t know what the market rate for photography is, it’s possible you could educate them and find a way to make some money.  Will those results be common?  Probably not.  But it’s probably still worth making the attempt just in case.  At the very least, you may be able to educate someone who didn’t know that most photographers aren’t necessarily looking for exposure over getting paid, thereby doing a small good deed to improve the market for photographers in the long run.

If you go with Option #4, the next step it to be as knowledgeable and as honest with yourself as possible.  If, for whatever reason, you really want to accept the offer you have been given, you need to be able to explain why the type of “exposure” you will be getting will benefit you.  It could be as simple as “I just want to be on a magazine cover because it will make me happy and I don’t care if I get paid or not.”  And while I completely understand that feeling, if you are running a photography business, it is important to have an educated idea of if and how getting your photo on that magazine cover could benefit you.

The most common form of exposure that photographers accept these days is social media glory.  There is no easier way to get your photos in front of an audience you wouldn’t normally have than by having it shared on social media.  If you agree to this, however, think about how you consume social media.  Do you scroll through, spending no more than a few seconds on each photo?  How often do you examine a photo for longer, eventually looking into the photographer further?  And how many times have you contacted that photographer and wanted to pay them?  For most people, the answer to that second-to-last question is “rarely”, and the answer to the last question is “never”, so how exactly is the exposure benefiting you?  For those who think the number of social media followers alone is enough to bring the money rolling in, you will probably be mistaken.  Those who make a living off of big social media followings these days are few, and giving the algorithms platforms like Facebook and Instagram have put in place to limit reach, the days of going viral and making a boatload of money on it are few and far between.

In addition, many photographers assume that they will be “getting their foot in the door”, which basically means all you need to do is one free job for a company and they will realize how great you are and pay you for every job in the future.  In my experience, and in the experience of most other photographers I’ve talked to, the client that doesn’t want to pay you in the beginning almost never becomes the client that pays you good money in the future.

While it is important to manage your expectations about how much “exposure” will benefit your ability to make money off of photography, I also want to address the idea that photographers and other creatives are the only ones who work for free.  I do think that people in the creative fields are asked to work for free more often than other professions.  (For example, when is the last time you walked into a local store and expected them to give you everything for free in exchange for you telling your friends how great they are?)  However, it would be wrong to think that companies in other professions don’t seek exposure.  It is exactly why food and drink companies do free tastings, why clothing companies hand out free samples to lure potential customers, and why stores and restaurants give coupons to get your foot in the door.  All of these tactics increase a company’s exposure, but do so in a way that is usually considered to be marketing or advertising instead of working for free.

What Type of “Exposure” is Right for You?

(© Kevin D. Jordan Photography)

For some people, no amount of exposure will be enough to offset the request to work for free, and I don’t blame them for that.  For those who want to give themselves more wiggle room, it is important to heavily consider your own future and goals, as well as those other photographers around you.  Lowering your prices to an unsustainable level may make you feel like you are beating out your competition, but in the long run, you are lower the prospects for what anyone will pay for photography, including what they will pay you.  Therefore, it is more helpful to think of “exposure” in terms of marketing instead of in terms of a blind hope that people will see your photography and like it enough to pay you a fantastic salary forever.

If you are a wedding photographer, find a way to use exposure to get in front of your ideal clients.  I once saw a photographer who ran a contest, the prize of which was a free wedding day shoot.  My initial thought was that they were taking thousands of dollars off the table, until I realized that each client who hoped to win needed to get the most friends to vote for them, meaning that their requests to work with that photographer were plastered over Facebook by a handful of different couples for over a month.

If you are a landscape photographer, have businesses agree to hang your work for their sale so that they get free decorations and a possible cut of the sale, and you get your work in front of your ideal clients.

If you are any type of photographer, spend your time focusing on a business and marketing plan in addition to focusing on perfecting your craft.  This way you will have an educated idea of what your photography is worth and put a real monetary figure on how much money you might be leaving on the table when working for “exposure”.

The decision to work for free is ultimately yours, but if you don’t make that decision an educated one, then you are most likely just hurting yourself and others in the photography industry instead of potentially helping.

7 thoughts on “Should Photographers Ever Work for “Exposure”?”

  1. Good thoughts and well expressed. As a 70 something photographer, if they do the printing not a big deal , if I do the printing’
    matting and framing cost of that will ‘HAVE” to be discussed

  2. The all time question. I love to photograph for many of years now and do make decent shots. However sometimes when i look at people who make money of it, it can be a lot of shitty pictures. It ruins the marked but hey, there is a gap to fill and they found it. It is not my main income so i am not depending or anything. I am a all-round photographer with a dislike for potrait ( to common ). Perhaps it is best to be known for some typical subject as landscaping or macro for instance. Be the best in 1 thing, excel. But yet, it is way to much fun to be at all places and just do your best. For now i am aiming for exposure, hoping people like it and may contact. I think it has to grow.

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