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Photographer Advice – Exposure

Budding photographers get asked to provide intellectual property in exchange for exposure. Even with over a decade of professional experience, I occasionally get asked to do something just for the exposure. It’s not just photographers who suffer from this type of request. As owner of a professional Victorian caroling group, we are asked to sing purely for the exposure every year. We usually say no. I am going to address this in a somewhat humorous way, but please take the underlying message seriously.

How Did This Exposure Nonsense Start?

To over-simplify the problem, these requests to work purely for exposure are a problem of earlier precedent. In the past, artists have been asked by Company X to do work for Company X’s commercial use. This was on speculation that doing so would gain the artist more work with Company X. Alternatively, because Company X’s presence was so profound, the artist’s work would become more recognized and the artist would gain work.

The basic idea is, if you do work for or give work to Company X, you will get other work from it. First let me say that this is actually true in some cases. For example, as a photographer who focuses heavily on weddings, I give free use of my photos to other vendors and venues, so long as they provide photo credit (and preferably a link to my site). That’s an example where giving my work to someone else for them to use, without charge, can benefit me directly.

I recently was hired by a company to photograph them for a feature in a national magazine. They paid me for the session, but I did stipulate that if the magazine (a third party) wanted to use the images, they had to provide photo credit. I wasn’t asking for additional payment, just photo credit. Given that this particular magazine has no reach into the wedding industry, I was just being nice not asking for more money. I just wanted to have the credit applied to the photographs. Much to my dismay, the magazine completely and deliberately ignored that instruction. I was actually within my rights to sue the magazine for violation of Federal Copyright Law, and let them know as much.

After speaking at length with the magazine I became aware of just how ignorant they are of intellectual property rights. They had no contract, no rate sheet for payment with respect to how the images would get used, no photo credit provided in any of their pages, and no workflow for the intake of copyrighted material. How has no one brought this to their attention before? The magazine made several efforts to correct their mistake and do right by me in the end. While unhappy with the situation, I am at least satisfied enough not to pursue legal action against them. But, it does make me think about the blaring problem of ignorance to copyright law and intellectual property use.

An Education Problem

If a nationally run magazine doesn’t understand that using a photograph without permission is illegal, then we have an education problem on our hands. I find people understand this problem when I use other real life examples for comparison. Zulu Alpha Kilo did a brilliant job of this with their video on Spec Work. I highly recommend you watch it. I also highly recommend you read the article on their web site regarding this problem. I believe it is a problem which has gotten out of control. Most other industries find the idea of working on speculation (spec) simply laughable.

One does not purchase groceries on spec. No one goes to a gas station and says they’ll pay when they’re through with that gas. Some would argue that you don’t pay at a restaurant until after you have eaten. That’s only because the order grows as you go. It would be annoying to pay for the drink, then pay for the appetizer, then pay for the main course, then pay for dessert, then pay for coffee. But, try to leave the restaurant without paying, even if you didn’t like the meal.

It seems to be a problem mostly in any industry where design and art are concerned. Some people think it is okay to ask an artist to do something just for the publicity. Sometimes an artist will donate their services for a charitable cause, but that is not the same thing. Don’t be fooled. Nonprofit does not mean the organization is not profitable. It means that the profits are not split among the company owners. Many nonprofits will say “Hey, can you donate your talents? We’re a nonprofit.” Take a look at and you’ll see what kind of money that nonprofit is making. Use that to guide whether or not they should be able to pay you or not. Just because an organization is nonprofit doesn’t mean they have no money.

Just Say No to Exposure. Stand Behind Your Value.

Artists who are new in the business are often desperately seeking ways to make themselves known. It is an awful temptation to think that a high profile client asking you to work for them is an honor, and that you should do so for free. Unfortunately, in most cases, the client who is asking you to work for free is doing so because they do not value you or your work. A high profile client likely has the funds to pay you. They are just trying to find someone desperate enough to take them up on the offer of exposure.

Company X has a lot of different options to choose from when it comes to finding a photographer. But, you have a lot of different options on companies out there who will value your work. Legitimate companies who value photography will hire professionals with a proven track record. They will pay the appropriate amount for the work being performed. Do you want to know what a photograph in a publication is worth? Do you want to know what to charge? Check out Getty Images. They have a page devoted to pricing photographs for use in publication.

Work with companies who value your work. If you don’t have enough work, make the work for yourself based on speculation. Publish that work yourself. Don’t let someone else use your work for their benefit, without compensating you appropriately.

What They Say, and What They Really Mean

What They Say: “We don’t have a budget for that”
What They Really Mean: “We don’t value that enough to pay for it.”

What They Say: “You’ll get great exposure.”
What They Really Mean: “We’re offering you something with no value in exchange for profiting from your valuable intellectual property.”

What They Say: “You’ll get your foot in the door with us.”
What They Really Mean: “You’ll prove to us that you don’t value your own work. We’ll continue to take advantage of that from now on.”

Don’t Take the Bait

The temptation to bite at the carrot in front of you is strong. Remember, that carrot is on a string that they will continue holding out in front of you as long as they can ride your back, dangling it there. They are looking to profit from the use of your intellectual property. If they don’t want to pay for that IP, then they need to take the photograph themselves.

The actual value of exposure.

Your work has value. You, as an artist, have value. Undercutting the industry hurts the industry. Doing work for free sets a precedent that others will do the same. Don’t be a part of the problem. Be part of the solution. Educate your clients on why your work has value. Insist that anyone wanting to use that work must pay appropriately for its use.

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