Sorry this is a long article, but it was written as a resource to explain how Trade For shoots work and why I limit both the number of TF shoots I do and the number of images I provide to my TF team. I hope this article will help you as you deal with other photographers offering TF shoots.

The Definition of "Trade For"

The definition of Trade For (TF) work is a project where each contributor gives their services in lieu of payment and no money changes hands. This is a good way for amateur photographers, models and artists to begin building their portfolios. It's a good way for the same people to gain experience in their work area and try experiment with something new. It's a good way to network with people and make new contacts.

For professional photographers, models and artists, it is a good way to get frustrated, burn out, and quit the business.

When I started out shooting portraits and fashion, I shot a lot of TF work for all of the above reasons. Now that I have established myself and my brand, I have less and less need to shoot TF work and in fact, by shooting too much TF work, it is actually working against me. Why, you ask?

The Problem With TF Work

The appeal of TF work is that by all appearances, it is free, and therefore, it is easy to find resources willing to do it. The trouble with that is that TF work is not actually free. It costs the MUA makeup and supplies. It costs the photographer in equipment wear and tear. And it costs everyone valuable time.

Unless modeling or photography is truly just a hobby to you, you probably desire to at some point, earn a living at your craft, or at least part of a living. As long as you are willing to trade away your services for no cost, you are not only not earning anything, you are paying to play, in materials, maintenance, time or all of the above. Essentially, everytime you do TF work, you are potentially LOSING money.

Now occasionally, you will create an image that will get you more exposure and more work, and that makes TF work a worthwhile risk, albeit a calculated one. You have to know what will sell in your market and cater to that in your imagery.

My Stand on TF Work

All this leads to the question: do I do Trade For work? The answer is yes, in very select circumstances. But I do it in a specific way, so if you want to do TF Work with me, read on and make sure you agree.

When we work on a TF project together, we will do a shoot with all project members in agreement with the outcome of the images we are trying to create at a high level (e.g. bridal portrait, haute couture, fashion editorial, etc.).

At the conclusion of the shoot, everyone's work is done except the photographer (me) who goes home and spends an hour or two going through the hundreds of shots from the day and selecting the best images. From those images, decisions are made by the rest of the team as to what images are fit to be used in portfolios. The photographer will then take those images (generally about 4-6 from the average 2 hour shoot) and do full post processing on them, which can take about 1-2 hours for each one.

Once completed, each team member will be entitled to one of the completed images from the shoot. Keep in mind at this point I have invested somewhere between 8-15 hours in the project for no payment. If each person takes one image from the shoot and goes their way, I have spent 1-2 working days and made nothing. Not a good way to stay in business.

However, if a team member likes additional images so much they are willing to pay for them, they can purchase an additional image for $100 / ¥10,000. If I am able to sell the additional images, I am not making a great wage when calculated hourly, but at least if I need to replace some piece of equipment or fill up my gas tank, I haven't lost any money on the trade. In summary, costs look like this:

  • 1 image - Free in trade
  • 2 images - $100 / ¥10,000
  • 3 images - $200 ¥20,000
  • 4 images - $300 ¥30,000
  • and so forth...

Why I Implemented This Policy

The simple answer is that I love photography and I intend to do it for a long time. If you calculate the hourly rate for my services at these prices, you'll find I make on average about minimum wage from TF work, assuming people buy additional images from time to time. That's not a recipe for getting rich; that is a recipe for just staying in business. I have a responsibility to my family to keep a roof over their heads and food in their stomachs and that doesn't happen if I'm giving away my services all the time. I don't want my wife forcing me to quit photography and getting a job that pays, so this is what I have to do.

There are exceptions to every rule, and I will make exceptions if I approached you about working on a project with me. I won't play any bait and switch games with people and charge them for photos they assumed they would be getting for free. That's not good business or good ethics.

But Plenty of Photographers Will Shoot Me For Free!

Sure they will; I see their offers all the time. And here are a few examples of those:

  • The amateur who has recently picked up a camera, has no clue how to compose or light a good shot, and will shoot anything that moves.

  • The photographer who will sell your glamour or implied shots on the side, possibly representing you in a way that is damaging to your reputation. This is actually perfectly legal since by copyright law, the photographer owns the rights to the photographs. (Since I don't shoot glamour or images of that nature, this will never happen to you with me anyway.)

  • The weekend hobbyist who may or may not be a competent photographer but since photography is not his/her business, it will take months for you to get any images, if you get any at all.

And there are others too.  The question is are you willing to waste your time and risk your reputation to get a few shots for free?

Of course, there are good legitimate photographers shooting TF work to build up their portfolios. I was there too. And I can tell you first hand, if you find these photographers, book them quickly and often because once their portfolios are full of good images, they will stop shooting TF work, or at least limit it to only a few great opportunities. Also good to remember: at this stage, many photographers are still learning too, so you have to be willing to accept not every shoot is going to yield the results you hoped for.

Photographers Should Pay Me To Shoot With Them

Okay, that may be a fair statement if you are an established model. However, if this is true, why are you trying to get free shots from photographers who will shoot Trade For?

If you're an established model, you should be shooting with professional photographers who will be making money from the images they hire you to model for. Not many photographers are willing to pay models to shoot just for the fun of it. There's always an angle, because there's no such thing as free.

There is, however, a sense of fairness in a shoot. If a model has to travel a great distance or purchase something for a shoot, it's not unreasonable to ask to be compensated, but that should be agreed to in advance. That goes for any member of the team who feels they need to be compensated for something other than their services on a Trade For shoot.

So Let's Shoot

I took the time to explain all this because I have grown tired of seeing models and artists with stars in their eyes wasting their time shooting projects that will get them nowhere. I could have summarized this whole page in one sentence: If you want great images, you have to be willing to pay for them. However, that would not have told you the whole story and given you the knowledge you need to make good choices in your career.

When you shoot with me, paid or TF, I will make sure you get images that are useful for promoting yourself. Many models and artists who work with me are using my images as their avatars or prominently featured on their Facebook pages or other websites. That is all the proof I need that I am giving people work they can be proud of. Yes, it may cost you a little money, but this is your career and reputation you are investing in; how much is that worth to you?