On Exposure

No Money for Old Rope

Originally posted in May 2011...but still just as relevant...

Photographers are driven by different motives to shoot. But one driver is common across every photographer I've ever met - the desire to have their work seen

There's an extension from that, to having their work appreciated and acclaimed, but the first step in the chain is simply having it seen.

At its most basic, what's the first thing that you do in the pub once you've snapped your friend having his eyebrows shaved off? You show the picture on the phone's screen. "That's a good one". Debatable, but the social pattern is set. The only person who agrees it's actually shit is the bloke with one eyebrow. And even then he means it's a shit picture of him, not a shit picture per se. There you have the digital workflow in a nutshell - identify a scene, shoot it, display it and get instant feedback.

Unless they're shooting for Vice, then the above won't really apply to most commercial photographers. But that basic desire to get their work seen is every bit as important to them.

When you're successfully shooting back-to-back campaigns and commissions with absolutely no down time (and somebody out there must be) then the affirmation of your work is coming from your clients and your client's clients. Not only are you being paid to do what you love, you're regularly getting your work seen by tens, hundreds or thousands of people. You've got half your cake in your hand and the other half stuck in your teeth.

But there's a middle ground (or at least I hope there is, otherwise it's just me) whereby you have enough commercial work to make a half assed attempt at covering the bills but also some 'downtime' to shoot for your book.

You know you should be marketing, networking and updating your ever-increasing list of social media commitments, but you're a photographer at heart so you end up planning a shoot instead. These are the shoots that you engineer to catch people's attention - to shoot what you want to shoot.

These are also the shoots that people realise aren't paid - they're not in a magazine, otherwise you'd link to the publication. They're not client orientated, because as much as H&M might love how you've made a bondage harness out of their belts it's probably just a little too avant garde for their taste. They're not paid for by the designer, because everybody knows that designer doesn't pay photographers (and the dubious images on their site quickly confirms it to anyone in any doubt). They're not for syndication, as the only syndication that sells in any numbers to make it worth while is glamour. People rightly make the assumption that you've shot it 'for free'. It doesn't occur to them that you've shot it at cost to yourself for yourself and at your own discretion.

Ksenija Selivanova by Jay Mawson

Ksenija Selivanova by Jay Mawson

So you'll get the inevitable email, twitter, Facebook wall post or telegram (okay, maybe not the last one) from a commercial entity offering you the opportunity of a lunchtime to shoot something for their brand all at your own cost

About 2/3 of the way down the words 'exposure' and 'great' will make an appearance. The really bright ones will write it as if they're actually doing you a favour by asking you in the first place. And digital photography is free anyway, isn't it?

One of two things happens next, usually depending on how much value you place on your current skills.

Firstly, you might wrestle with the 'opportunity' to work somebody else's brief in exchange for 'exposure' and the temptation of having marginally more people see your work than ordinarily would do before replying "I wouldn't normally, but...". At this point, you've got your coveted 'exposure' and they've got your ass. You've just committed yourself to something you'll inevitably regret. No matter how much you try to reason to yourself otherwise, however much you protest and justify yourself, you hate yourself a little bit for being a whore. Although technically, whores get paid, which puts them a lot higher up the business acumen ladder than yourself.

You'll either be expected to shoot the dismal excuse for a 'model' they've provided - generally their mate's sister who has seen an episode of Britain's Next Top Model and just knows those girls aren't orange enough and could definitely do with some hair extensions from Claire's  - or to arrange the models yourself in order to try and save some face and stand a fighting chance of getting some worthwhile images. In the case of the latter, you're limited. No decent agency will supply you with girls for what is effectively a commercial shoot (at least it is for everybody else except you) so you hit the minefield of internet modelling sites looking for a girl that might pass as agency if you squint hard enough and is also stupid enough to work commercially for free.

Then you do the shoot itself. The 'pimp' (sorry, 'client') will likely be there too, to offer all sorts of advice as to how the model can pose to look like they're actually in mild peril. If you're really lucky, the 'client' won't be there at all, as they're too busy making money.

Afterwards, you have the pleasure of downloading all the images onto the hard drive space that was given to you free by LaCie (they're savvy enough to realise they get good exposure from having their logo tucked away in your office, plus they just got themselves a free link. Buy stock now, 'cos that brand is going to go through the roof) and going through the process of picking out both the good shots. Pointless, because the 'client' will want them all. Retouched. And without your watermark.

Finally, they go onto the 'client's' website - and you get a small credit next to an image you hate of a tangerine coloured 'model' doing her best Zoolander in a garment that's two sizes too big with makeup by Dulux proudly stating 'photography by An Idiot'

What that credit tells anybody who's interested is that the images were likely done for free. If they're lucky, there's a link so they don't even have to look you up to email you even more exposure but this time for their brand. The only time people credit the photographer in a commercial image is when they're either so famous that the brand wants to be associated with them, or when the photographer has demanded credit in lieu of payment. People will probably realise you're not Jeurgen Teller.

A few paragraphs ago I said you'll do one of two things. The second thing you can do is to actually value your work and ask what the budget is. What leads from there is a commercial decision on your part as to whether the budget covers the value of your work. Although at the mention of budget you'll likely just trigger a story about start-ups and struggling artists whilst they move another rung down the quality ladder in search of someone looking for that elusive opportunity for a shafting exposure.

Some Truths

  • I'm guilty - I once used the excuse of not wanting to be paid for my work 'for tax reasons'. Yes - it was vaguely true, but it was also as transparent when I used it as it will be when you do
  • I've worked for final year fashion students for a small percentage of my normal day rate and will continue to do so. But that percentage isn't 0%
  • I've done more test shoots than I can remember. Some of them have led to contacts that have subsequently netted me thousands and prompted repeat contracts
  • I've done a handful of commercial shoots as favours - and learned my lesson. In an extreme case I revoked license to use and had all instances of the images removed by the ISPs. It was gratifying to see the ones that replaced them were awful
  • There are some celebrities that I'd happily shoot at my own expense - if only to meet them. Personal heroes are personal heroes in any line of work and the only brand they're selling is themselves
  • If I'm shooting an editorial test, then sure the designer can have lo-res copies of the images. But not to use commercially - those images won't be on the website advertising that garment. Putting them in the press section or on Facebook is as far as it goes
  • If Mario Testino will shoot a high fashion editorial for V magazine for 'free', then yes, if it came to it, so would I. Working with a fully professional creative team with some of the finest designers in the world using some of the finest models in the world to shoot an editorial that nobody is ever going to get paid to shoot? Oh, go on then. And anyway - it's editorial, not commercial.
  • I shoot for syndication. It's a gamble and it doesn't always pay off. But that's a commercial decision I've got complete control over, and if I don't benefit, then neither does anybody else. The only time it lines somebody else's pocket is when it lines yours
  • I've been on national television in my capacity as a photographer. I've had work published (and credited and paid for) by a handful of national magazines so far. I've had images exhibited at Tate Britain and Leeds City Museum. I get in excess of 75,000 page views a month across my various websites. My Flickr account has had over 1 million views. Now - tell me exactly how much more exposure shooting your T-shirts for free will get me. If you were getting half that activity surely you'd be selling enough garments to pay for your photography. And if you're not, then perhaps paying for decent photography might help you sell more T-shirts?

Somebody, somewhere will tell you a story about how they cracked the biggest job of their life off the back of a punt on some unpaid commercial work. Many more people will tell you they'll work for free because there's no paid work out there.

The reality is there's no paid work out there for you, because you're the man people go to when they want stuff for free.

This isn't a call to arms. It's not a crusade to get all photographers to charge for every last piece of their work. Much of it isn't worth paying for in the first place. Neither is it a wakeup call to the brands that think they're saving money by paying absolutely no peanuts to monkeys. They're not kidding themselves that their brand imagery is 'great for free' because it probably is - great for free. They already realise how much better received their product might be if they showed customers that they cared enough to want to show it in the best possible light and not just the best possible light that money can't buy. They can't think that they've spotted a trick that has eluded the biggest brands in the world. They know that if free images were the way forward then ASOS might look a little less polished, a little less slick - a little bit more like their brand. And to photographers working for exposure in the vain hope of validating their work by getting it seen, the penny will drop sooner or later.

If not it's no skin off my nose - it's not as if you're taking any paid work away from professional photographers.

What I'm simply offering is a shortcut to those that are about to make the same mistake I did a long time ago - if you're serious about ever wanting to make your living from photography, then charge what you think you're worth from the outset. Dropping the tag 'the guy that does it for free' will take you a lot longer than it did to earn it.

And no matter how this works out, one thing is for sure - if it's purely commercial, then it's paid. If somebody doesn't think my work is of value to them I'd hope that they wouldn't contact me in the first place. To contact someone and say...

'Love your work, but not enough to pay for it'

...isn't the best opening gambit.

But if it's simply playtime, then bring it on. And if you're willing to give me stuff for free, then I promise you I can get you good exposure for your brand...