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Why You Can't Afford to Pay in Exposure

Sadly, it's a common thing these days for professional photographers, such as myself, to run into clients willing to hire us in exchange for "exposure" or name-dropping or (let's be absolutely frank) nothing.  I've had my own rounds of this.  Today, I'm talking about why you can't afford to be that cheap.

Green piggy bank on white background photograph by Cramer Imaging

Recently, I had a potential client use this line on me: "I used to own a magazine and I know several local photographers willing to work pro bono for resumé experience."  Since this line was practically the opening line of the discussion, it set the tone for the rest of the conversation.

Translation:


  • We don't have a very big budget so we can't afford to pay for you properly.
  • I want to knock your price down before we even start talking about price.
  • We don't actually value the time and effort you put into making us look good.
  • You don't really do much other than just press a shutter button.
  • I don't know anything about the photography industry but I still want to sound intimidating.
  • This power drill up some place delicate will be a great learning experience for you and will help add to your irrelevant resumé, which will then attract other clients just as cheap as we are.
*Not all these subtext lines necessarily apply to that particular potential client's situation.

Cramer Imaging's fine art landscape photograph of horses grazing in a field against the Teton Mountains of Wyoming

I realize that each company and individual has budget concerns they have to deal with.  We all do.  To that, I say the following a lot: "Exposure don't pay the bills."  This quote seems to have become a bit of a mantra for the professional photography community as a whole and for a good reason too with messages like these hidden in the subtext.
Photographer's mantra: "Exposure don't pay the bills."  #photography #photographer

You Get What You Pay For


Cramer Imaging's professional quality photograph of a hand holding a one, five, ten, and twenty dollar bill in Pocatello, Bannock, Idaho
To start off with, since you intend to try and make money using these photos as illustrations of your products and services, you are seeking out commercial-use photography.  With that obligatory definition out of the way, let me explain to you why you can't afford to pay a commercial photographer in "resumé experience" or in exposure.

If you're a business hoping to land clients with big budgets and big wallets (either now or in the future), then you can't afford to be cheap (pay in exposure) when it comes to your advertising.  Yes, your website and social media are very much considered advertising if you didn't know already.

Cheap-looking photos in your advertising will make your products and services look cheap.  This kind of illustration will make clients with big wallets move on with their business before you even know they exist.  The reason?  They can't trust the quality of what you have to offer from the quality of photos you use.

Landscape photographer Audrey holding up a camera and taking a picture by Cramer Imaging
The kind of photography you need to sell those high-end clients on your goods or services is the kind of photography generally created by professional photographers.  Professional photographers have honed their skills to a level where they can consistently (that's key) produce a certain quality of photography.

There's a reason why the word professional has become associated with high-end products in general.  You need professional quality photography to PROPERLY represent your goods or services to your potential clientele.  You probably know this too.

Oftentimes, the kind of photographer who would take on a "pro bono" project or accept a shout-out on social media is generally the kind of photographer who doesn't yet have the skills you need in a commercial photographer.  To better understand what I mean by that, compare these two photos below.

In the first photo, a beginner me managed to take a beautiful location and make it look bland and uninteresting.  In the second photo, a much more experienced me managed to take a boring potato field and make it look beautiful and compelling.

Which photo do you think would better represent a business mostly conducted outdoors?

Your Choices


Now, you still have the option to hire a professional commercial photographer for your project or to seek out and hire a photographer for your project willing to accept exposure (or some other form of peanuts) as compensation.

Cramer Imaging's landscape photograph of windmills or wind turbines in a field at sunset in Ririe, Idaho

If you want to attract those high-end clients, you need photography which properly represents your business while looking visually appealing at the same time.  You need a commercial photographer who can CONSISTENTLY deliver this high-end level of photography for your business.

Cramer Imaging's fine art photograph of one colorful hot air balloon taking flight in Panguitch Utah with a blue morning sky

Amateurs (photographers who aren't paid for their photography work) aren't always consistent in the level of photography they create.  Quality varies from photographer to photographer and even from day to day.  Some of these amateur photographers are even willing to take the "budget-friendly" option and work for exposure.

Cramer Imaging's professional quality fine art photograph of aerial view of Eastern Idaho State Fair carnival in Blackfoot, Bingham, Idaho at sunset

One point to note is that these "budget-friendly" photographers are generally inexperienced photographers who are new to the craft.  They need much more practice to develop consistency in their photography endeavors.  They will cost you much more in the long run if you opt for that path in your advertising.

Cramer Imaging's quality landscape photograph of three cows in a picturesque pasture at sunset in Downey, Idaho

Given the example above, do you really want to gamble with your company's future that you'll find a local unicorn needle-in-a-haystack of a photographer who can deliver high-end professional quality photography while still being willing to work for exposure?  I sure would NOT if I were in your shoes.

Cramer Imaging's photograph of two horses attached to a covered wagon for tourist rides in Bryce City Utah

Conclusion


While hiring a photographer for "exposure" might seem like the best way to both get the photography you need for advertising and make points with the boss for keeping the budget down, it will cost you much more in the long run.  Most any photographer willing to accept exposure as a form of payment will not properly represent your products and services in photographic form.

You're much better off taking the quality route and hiring a professional photographer for your commercial photography project and properly representing your business to potential clients with high-end professional quality photography.  The investment will pay off in far more dividends in the long run than your quarterly or annual budget will save in the short term.

Also, keep in mind that if your company leaks out into the photography community as being a cheap client, the chances of hiring a quality photographer for your next project go way down.  Your reputation is everything in the business world.  Don't destroy it with poor illustration choices or bad karma.

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