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When “Trade For” Costs Too Much

Richard Charpentier Notes from Rich 3 Comments

Many photographers starting out will do trades with the folks they’re photographing.  If you’ve ever paid a visit to ModelMayhem you’ll find many photographers offering to do trade for shoots with models, and you’ll find many amateur models offering trade for time as well.

So, what is “Trade For”?  Well, rather than getting paid the photographer will shoot a model for free in order to build their own portfolio.  And the model, rather than charging for their time, will accept prints or a CD for their own portfolio.  So, win win?

Not really.

The value of your time and product

Beyond portfolio building when photographers initially put themselves out there, little else can be gained in the Trade For market place.  I’ve recently stopped accepting trade for requests via ModelMayhem.  Does that mean I won’t do them at all?  Of course not.  If I have a particular project in mind, like last week’s shoot in the Vermillion Cliffs, then doing a trade may have some value.  But beyond my own personal projects I really have to value my time.

Before I made the decision to no longer accept these requests I had a final one come in that I decided to say yes to.  A model starting into commercial work had contacted me for a trade.  The shoot was going to take place at a gym she’s involved with.  It sounded interesting.  And I thought it would be a good opportunity for Jodi to go beyond just assisting with lighting, and help run a shoot and participate in it.  So, a deal was struck.

In speaking with the model I found that the images were to be used for some small advertising work on behalf of the gym.  I agreed that if the images were used at the gym only, not in any other print publication for advertising purposes we could stick with the trade.  Beyond that we’d need to talk licensing fees as the images would be used to generate revenue in a “for profit” business.

What business isn’t for profit?  Aren’t we all trying to make a living?  It’s funny though, many small businesses feel that they are entitled to ask for free work from other businesses.  Clearly they value their own time and product, but not the time and product of other professionals.

Cutting to the quick, this morning I’m supposed to be on location doing the shoot for the model.  Unfortunately I wasn’t dealt with honestly.  The images were to be used for larger marketing purposes, and the model’s husband decided that licensing fees would be too much.  So last night I received a call cancelling the session.  Unfortunately for me I blocked the morning out to do this work, so did my lighting assistant.  I told my paying clients “no” for the morning, and that decision has cost me actual money.

In the case of my business (as with most) there is an opportunity cost for choosing to do one thing over another.  If I go to do a shoot I’m not available for my print clients.  Days booked with print clients exclude the possibility of shooting for portrait clients.  I have to actually sit down and ask myself what the value of a 2 hour portrait session is versus the value of 2 hours of print client bookings.  By blocking out time for one thing I’ve excluded the possibility of the other.  Pretty simple.

Blocking 4 hours out to travel to the shoot, do the shoot, and return here today has cost me 2 print client slots easily.  We’re looking at a few hundred dollars in loss.  Not complaining, just working through the process for readers so you understand the process.

“Trade For” and the starting photographer

For folks looking to build their portfolio trade for shoots might work out well.  But please keep in mind the value of your time.  It’s not just the shoot.  After you’re done it’s the post processing, creating DVD’s, and the opportunity cost of not doing something else.  You’ll find quickly that one of these sessions costs you a lot more than just the actual shoot time.

A final note for people trying to get into this business.  “Exposure” doesn’t pay your bills.  And often people will ask you to do a free shoot, and that it will get you more “exposure” to the public and lead to new clients.  That’s true.  When you do work for free you will get a ton of new clients who all want you to work for free as well.  Please gang, value your time and the industry you’re in!

Comments 3

  1. Good post, Rich, and I think you’re spot on with the part about exposure, particularly. The one circumstance I know of in which TFP is a win-win is in the case of using the model as a free subject for microstock shots after getting the shots the model wants. This requires a model release, of course, but it is one valid way of directly monetizing those shoots…

  2. Post


    You are dead on with the micro stock. But that is about it where it could generate more value. In my experience though, “trade for” models 9 times out of 10 aren’t comfortable signing a release where you could use it for micro stock unless they get a cut of it as well.

  3. That’s good to know; I’ve done a little bit of microstock, but none with models, so I wasn’t aware of that tendency. I’m glad to learn from your experience!

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