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As photographers, we all know the term exposure. Exposure is an essential part of creating an image - it is the amount of light that reaches the camera sensor or film. It is crucial for how bright or dark the photos will appear. Aperture, shutter speed, and ISO work together to produce a properly exposed photograph. 

There is another use for the word exposure that we (and other small businesses) hear all too often in which clients offer it as compensation for content or services. While this may seem logical to the client, photographers who work for exposure do so at a high cost to themselves.


Photography photographing a couple n the beach with a free stamp over the couple.

What Does It Really Mean To 'Work For Exposure' As A Photographer?

Clients may offer exposure in exchange for a photographer's content and services instead of monetary payment.

What this actually means is that someone is asking you to work for free. 

For example, a publication may offer you the opportunity to showcase your work with credit, but without pay. The idea is that the opportunity to reach more people with your work is enough compensation. Sure, more people will see your name and view your work, potentially bringing in more clients and generating profit, but it still does not replace a payment.

Working for exposure may sound reasonable and even like a great opportunity, but let's dig deeper. 

The offer of exposure in place of payment is like someone getting the outside of their house painted for free in exchange for displaying a sign on the property giving credit to the company that painted it. 

This never happens, and there's a reason for that: Successful professionals do not provide their goods or services for mere exposure because this is not a solid business model for profit. 

People who ask us to work for exposure aren't necessarily malicious or coming from the wrong place. They may honestly believe photographers will benefit from this type of arrangement. They don't realize how much work goes into photography because there is a lot of work they don't see. 

Potential clients don't know how expensive it is to run a photography business. They may harmlessly say, "it's a tax write-off "(which it isn't!), or they may talk about how many shoots you could get out of the exposure they are offering instead of payment. 

They aren't thinking of our bottom line, or considering things like how much time it takes to do their shoot for free, or that we could use that time to work on marketing to get paying clients, or spend that time with family or friends.

At the end of the day, they are just trying to get their silent auction filled or event photographed in a way that helps them achieve their goals. It can be frustrating when you get many of these requests, especially during a slow time in sales. However, it is important to still be polite and professional in response to these requests. 


Woman wearing a volunteer t-shirt with her fingers in her ears.r

How To Respond When Clients Offer Exposure In Place Of Payment


Here are a few examples of what you might come across (or have already experienced) as a photographer, and some polite, professional responses. 

#1Example


Request:

I am putting together a PTA local school event. Would you be interested in taking some photographs for us for free? So many people will attend, and you will get a ton of exposure and lots of shoots from it!

Example Response (turning it down)

Thank you for the opportunity. I am always happy to support my community. Unfortunately, at the moment, I will have to decline because I have reached my yearly capacity of donated shoots.


Example Response (you are interested)

Suppose your target audience will be in attendance, and you think it could be a good opportunity. In that case, you can do the shoot, BUT you still need to get some form of compensation. This will ensure that they value your efforts and work. 

Thank you for the opportunity. It will be a big undertaking for me and my business to photograph your event. I not only spend the time photographing your event, but I do a lot of extensive backend work too. So I would ask for the following in return for my time and efforts:

  •  Can you put my website on your PTA website as an in-kind sponsor? 
  •  Can I get an email blast for your signups? 
  • Can you include an ad or a blurb about me in your newsletter to your members? 
  • Can you put my business card in the goodie bags?

You can use all of these non- monetary forms of compensation, you can add others, or simply pick the ones that make the most sense for you and the request.

#2Example


Request:

 I run a local magazine, and I need images for my publication. In exchange for putting your business as a credit line on the image, I need you to photograph an event / a family. You will get great exposure from it. Sometimes the images make it to the front cover!

Example Response (turning it down)

Thank you for the opportunity. Unfortunately, I will have to decline because I have reached my yearly capacity of donated shoots.

Example Response (you are interested)

Suppose the publication aligns with your target audience, and you think it could be a fantastic opportunity. In that case, you can do the shoot, BUT you still need to get some form of compensation. This will ensure that they value your efforts and hard work. 

Thank you for the opportunity. It will be a big undertaking for me and my business to take on this project. I not only spend the time photographing, but I do a lot of extensive backend work too. Running a photography business is very time-intensive and costly, so I would ask for the following in return for my time and efforts to shoot for your publication without monetary compensation:

  • The dollar amount of trade in advertising credits. Calculate what the shoot would usually cost (don't forget commercial usage). Ask them what would that look like in terms of advertising for my business?
  • Social media credits for the image. 
  • A behind-the-scenes story of the photoshoot with me.
  • An interview with me for the publication. 
  • Can you put my website on your website (backlinks)?
  • Can you include an ad or a blurb about me in an email to your readers? 

You can use all of these non- monetary forms of compensation, you can add others, or simply pick the ones that make the most sense for you and the request.  

Note: you should only edit/release the images used in the final publication. Make sure you are conscious of the time spent on editing the images, and you aren't just giving them all away for free.  If you are photographing a family, you could also let them know that the publication didn't purchase any digital images/prints for their usage and if they wanted to purchase them, they could do so directly through you (so you can make some money from the shoot!) 

#3Example


Request:

I am an influencer, and I have 500k followers. In exchange for you photographing me / my family / my event for free, I will create a post on my Instagram that tags you in it.

Before you get insulted (or too excited), remember that Brands pay influencers to create posts to promote products. Take a look at their Instagram before you respond and ask yourself the following questions - 

  1. Does their target audience align with yours? For example, they are 'cutepuppiesofIG' Instagram account, and you are a headshot photographer. It doesn't matter how many followers they have- your target audiences don't truly align.  
  2. If your target audiences align, take a look at their messaging and branding. Are they in line with your branding? They might have the same target audience, but they might not have the same values as you do. 
  3. If their target audience, branding, values align with yours, look at where they are targeting. If they have a global following and you are a photographer who travels, it might work out. Otherwise, it is just a vanity number that won't impact your future sales. 

Example Response (simply turning it down)

Thank you for the opportunity. I do love your website / Instagram etc., but I will have to decline because I have reached my yearly capacity of donated shoots.

Example Response (politely saying no to exposure but interested in the shoot)

If everything aligns (target audience, branding, location, etc.), you think it could be a good opportunity; you can do the shoot. However, you still need to get some form of compensation. This will ensure that they value your efforts and work. 

Thank you for the opportunity. It will be a big undertaking for me as I not only spend the time photographing, but the amount of backend work I do is extensive. I have an influencer program that works out well for both of us. I charge my regular fee, but as you have so many followers, you can end up earning more money from the affiliate program! 

  • I give you a referral code that your followers will use when they book their shoot with me.  
  • For every shoot that books from your code, I will give you $x cash. 
  • This way, you can not only get your free shoot, but you also can make money!


Example Response (you are interested but for trade)

If everything aligns (target audience, branding, location, etc.), you think it could be a good opportunity; you can do the shoot. However, you still need to get some form of compensation. This will ensure that they value your efforts and work. 

Thank you for the opportunity. It will be a big undertaking for me as I not only spend the time photographing, but the amount of backend work I do is extensive. I would ask for the following in return for my time and efforts (feel free to add more).

  • Film 3 behind-the-scenes shoot videos that I can use on my social media and website. 
  • Go LIVE with me during the shoot experience. 
  • 3 Reels / Tik Toks 
  • 3 Stories 
  • 1 Newsfeed post 
  • Can you put my website on your website (backlinks)?
  • Can you include an ad or a blurb about me in your newsletter to your members? 

You can use all of these non monetary forms of compensation, you can add others, or simply pick the ones that make the most sense for you and the request. You can also think of any shots you need for your portfolio that you need, sometimes that is a win, win too. 

Photographer taking photo of baby in the grass.


Is It Ever Worth It To Work For Exposure?

There are a few exceptions as with most rules- emphasis on few- where it may be worth it for you to work for exposure. In order for exposure as payment to be a great opportunity, the opportunity needs to be supported with actual data (what exactly are you getting out of it.) Ask yourself the following: 

  • Will this reach your target audience?
  • Can you get a backlink to your website?
  • Will you get access to an email database for you to use for marketing? 
  • How will you be credited? Can you trade for an ad? 
  • Will you be able to build your portfolio with images you have wanted to shoot?
  • Crunch some numbers. Will the "exposure" net you significantly more money than you would typically receive for the time and effort invested?

As with any shoot, paid or unpaid, you need a contract that outlines the terms. Check out our blog post on building your portfolio for the best ways to handle this.  

Remember, if you're not benefitting from the deal—it is only a good deal for the other person - you shouldn't accept it.


Sometimes, you want to give back to your community or have a favorite cause you love to support. Make sure it is a cause you want to contribute your time and talent to and not just doing it because you feel pressured. It is ok to say no. 

The bottom line is that exposure doesn't pay the bills. Money pays the bills. 


As professional photographers, we deserve to be paid in exchange for our time, talent, and expertise—not possible money in exchange for free work.



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