The Exposure Myth

12 Dec 2014
'Hi there, we're looking for a photographer to cover our promotion. We don’t have a budget for photography, but we think that doing this job for us would be great exposure for you.'

For every request I get to quote for a job, I would say I get three asking if I would work for free, from profit-making businesses. The reason given is usually that it would be great exposure for me.
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Expose yourself
It isn't just cheeky would-be customers who use the exposure angle. Young budding photographers will often work for long periods for free, just to get more exposure. My point here is that exposure isn't as valuable as people make out; and it is something of a myth that photographers thrive on it. Well I have a few observations on this phenomenon of 'exposure' that I've picked up over my first few years of running a business that are worth sharing.
  1. Exposure rarely works in the way you'd think, where someone sees your photographs on display and wonders who did them.
  2. Exposure only has a value once you get paid for doing a job that the exposure got you.
  3. Exposure is limited to a pool, if you're in commercial photography then this pool will be the industry the person asking for a freebie works in, if you're in portraits or weddings then this will likely be the person's demographic.
  4. Every time you do another freebie, the pool of people who might actually pay you shrinks.
  5. If more than one person in the same pool requests a freebie then chances are that people in that pool don't really value photography, and no amount of exposure will lead to a paying customer.
  6. Customers may recommend you to others, but people you do freebies for aren't customers and may well forget who you are the minute you walk out the door, and if they do recommend you then they might also mention that you work for free.

What people mean when they talk about exposure, is that lots of people will see the photographs and this will lead to more work. It is true that work can get you more work, but not usually because of the exposure. The photographer might be credited where the photo is used, but it is very unlikely that anyone will notice. There are very few places where exposure actually works, where the kinds of people who see the photographs are likely to want to know who took them. Reputation is important to photographers and word of mouth is a vital source of business, however this comes through people talking to each other, not from people seeing your work. Admittedly most photographers do start out by doing a few freebies, but this is more about gaining experience, putting a portfolio together and learning a little about the industry you're looking to photograph for than gaining exposure; very few come away and say that they did a job for free and other people started hiring them on that basis.

As far as actually assigning a value to any exposure you are able to get goes, you are running a business, and therefore you are going to weigh up whether you'll be financially better off after doing a freebie for the exposure. The maths is simple, it's the profit from the jobs you got as a result of that exposure, minus the cost (including the cost of your time) of doing the freebie. This only works if you're getting paid for those jobs, if you don't then the exposure has no value, it might sound obvious but you have to start charging customers at some point. The next points are all that what will eventually happen if you don't is that the chain of freebies, then exposure, then more freebies becomes a circle. Rather than radiating outwards, building your networks bigger and bigger, all you've done is saturated the network of the person who initially hired you, anyone who would have hired you has already had a freebie done for them, and all that exposure has come to nothing.

Something I have heard new photographers complain about is that where new enquiries do come from the exposure, they’re usually from more people also wanting free photography. People do understand that at some point you're going to have to start charging for your services, but they all hope that they're getting in early enough to still get a freebie, or expect that you'll do one last favour as you did for the person who recommended you.

People generally ask for freebies, not because they can't afford a photographer, but because they don't value photography. They view what you do as not being too different from anyone else with a point and shoot snapping away. They believe you have an inherent skill that makes your photographs better that anyone else's but they don't really consider how much time it took you to acquire that skill, that not many people have it, or that a lot of legwork goes into a photography job beyond just snapping.

Once you have started charging customers, then you'll be getting exposure from these jobs, as well as money; and it'll be better quality exposure too because people who value your work enough to pay for it are more likely to recommend you on. So with all the exposure you're getting from that, you've really no need to keep taking on freebies for the exposure.

There is this shared delusion of photography being the kind of world like entertainment and show-business, where starving artists struggle away, working for free or for a pittance, and then suddenly hit it big and start rolling in dough. The reality for the vast majority of photographers is that their work is much more steady than that, earning an average kind of income and not relying on big breaks to get them along. It's what leads budding photographers to work for free way beyond the point that it helps them to do so, and it's what leads potential customers to believe that the mere fact of doing work is more important than being paid. I want to stress this, that if you're wanting to be a photographer, then right from day one, you're running a business, and the maths on doing freebies for exposure rarely adds up to a benefit for you.

So if you're reading this, thinking about getting into photography then please, for the love of God, do the maths, remember you're a business, understand that freebies are more for things like portfolio building than for exposure, and don't keep doing them hoping that your break will come. And if you're reading this because you're looking to hire a photographer and typed 'free photography' into Google, then I highly recommend returning to my home page over sending out a bunch of emails like the opening paragraph of this post.

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Articles about photography, tips and tricks, insights into the world of commercial photography and the marketing industry from a photographer's perspective, and the occasional humorous rant. Brought to you by Will McAllister, a commercial photographer based in God's own county of Cumbria.