Trade or Paid? - Scott Hallenberg, Full-time Photographer | Surf and Snow Country Images (Everyday)

Trade or Paid? Strike your own Balance.

The subject of trade work comes up frequently especially as new CREATIVES are interested in seeing if they got what it takes to make it a profession. For purposes here, trade work is when one party willingly provides services in exchange for someone else's services..no money exchanges hands.  For those living, working or those dabbling in the creative community, this is a tired topic, yet it is an important topic. It’s important because as you navigate your career you will have to make choices that may help or hurt you getting to next level and reaching your goals. However, how people treat it affect others and it’s important for you to know the various perspectives of Trade work, should you have any aspirations to becoming a professional.

Trade work can be a contentious topic, too. There are many “so called professionals” who abuse trade work and set a bad precedence that have consequences for those who behave responsibly and are trying to make a go of it. The goal with this discussion is to shed light on trade work, when it’s good and when it’s bad, and to suggest strategies for advancing from trade work to more paid work that help individuals and the market so there continues to be creative work for those to enjoy for years to come.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a full time working photographer who does do trade work very selectively.  I have written on this topic before where my conclusion was, "when doing trade, do it with a purpose."  I still believe that and this discussion simplifies the decision when making those choices.  For me it makes sense to do trade work when I need  to enhance my technical skills or my my portfolio in such a way I can appeal to more and higher paying clients who value quality work delivered on time.   My agenda is that I would like to see a healthy market for photography where photographers and other creatives can earn a fair wage pursuing their passion where the expectation is that people pay for quality work and not expect it to be provided for free. I do not want to see creatives getting started in this industry being exploited through trade or even free work.  I have ~30 years of business experience and routinely help and mentor professionals advancing in their respective careers, not just modeling or photography.  Now, those creatives who have some experience, know TRADE does mean FREE even though the terms are often used interchangeably.


Here is quick set of guidelines for when it is most advantageous for whether a creative professional should engage in a trade work gig.   Regardless of what you decide, if you care about the results, ensure there is contract that outlines the expected contributions of each party, what each party receives, time frames and the consequences if those are not met.  This not only clarifies expectations for those with good intentions, provides legal incentives for those who may decide to leave others hanging, but it sets a professional tone in which everyone brings their A-game.


Considerations for doing Trade work?

1) Is it a fair trade, do all parties get what they need from the shoot with the amount of costs, efforts, and skill they are willing to bring to the shoot?

2) Will the results from the trade shoot advance my creative and/or business objectives?

3) Will I learn something new or will it give me the experience I need to obtain new clients in my current target market?

4) How will my work be used by me, by others involved in the project?  Will others profit disproportionately than I will?

5) Will it help me get new clients and even appeal to a new target market.

6) Is the trade project the best use of the time I will need to invest in order to make it successful?

7)  Is the trade project important enough that I will not cancel it even if I get a last minute request paid work?   Would I pay a cancellation fee to the other creatives who are counting on me, if the paid work was too good to pass up?


Considerations for avoiding Trade work:

1) Will the trade work devalue my brand and what I stand for as a creative professional?

2) Will another party gain unfairly from my services, exploiting me which damages my professional reputation?

3) Will the exploitation set a precedence that makes it difficult to get paid for future work that is similar. (e.g. if I do a trade shoot for one person/business, can I expect payment from someone else for the same work without it being a double standard?)

4) Are all parties contributing an equal share?

5) If I do trade work, am I blocking another professional from making a fair wage? How would I feel if this happened in return? Do I want this reputation?

6) Am I willing to research the others involved? Am I familiar with their work, their professionalism, their ability to follow through? Are they who they say they are, business license, insurance, Better Business Bureau, etc?


Considerations for Paying for another Creative:

1)  Will paying for this service give me or my clients more value than not?  (e.g.,  receive results much faster, more of it (time, photos, licensing), or with higher quality than the other alternatives?)

2)  Does paying for the service provide guarantees, leverage or contingency plans that I or my client values?

3)  Will Paying for this service give me more of a say in exactly what I or my client needs?  

4)  Would I pay for the service if I knew the next person like me will likely get it for free by this same provider?

5)  If I'm getting paid by my client, am I willing to pay others who contribute to my ability to have a satisfied client?  


Whether you are a photographer, model, or HMUA, your actions and track record matter.  If you are constantly promoting, signing up and advertising that you do free and/or trade work, it becomes very difficult to pivot and expect paid work. Those who want to be paid working professionals may want to consider being more selective about their trade work so they can still grow creatively and technically without devaluing their brand.  Imagine a couple who is about to hire a team for a shoot and scouting these forums for talent and they see you are the king/or queen of trade.  Would they want to pay you top dollar...anything...if you do the exact same work for nothing.  In this business, businesses should expect to pay for creative services if they expect to use the images to sell their goods and services.  If they are starting out, paying in their products or services may be acceptable.  Unless they are a Public Relations or Marketing company, accepting payment in exposure is ridiculous and one of the biggest forms of exploitation.  Learn to recognize when this is happening, if not for your career for your safety.

Researching the others you plan to work with trade or paid is absolutely essential (I have a white paper on that topic specifically):

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