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Model Mayhem and Trade Work: reasons why professional photographers should never work for free.

Updated on March 1, 2016

The net effect has led to lower net incomes..

The internet has created a strange and multifaceted world in which photographers can seek out work. There is no shortage of online directories which allow for creative authorities to network with and contact photographers and talent. Interestingly most of these directories also allow for unrepresented individuals to create free accounts and contact each other directly. A couple of the major sites include:

The presence of untested amateurs in “professional” marketing and work-seeking networks has good points and bad points.

For amateurs and aspiring professionals, sites like Model Mayhem are excellent ways to quickly find people with whom to build a portrait portfolio. And many of them are willing to work for free!


Yes...but no. Nothing is really free. Read on.

Building a portfolio or losing business?

On sites like Model Mayhem, free work is offered under the guise of a working agreement known as “TFP,” or simply “TF.”

TFP stands for “Trade for Print,” and is a blanket term used when photographers and talent agree to work in trade. The photographs are taken, and the final edits are distributed among all parties involved as prints or image files for use in their respective portfolios.

For photographers, it looks like an ideal system for producing personal and artistic work without paying a model or collaborators. It is an easy way to produce work, but it is unfair to all parties involved, especially photographers who want to earn a living through photography.


It's a matter of economy.

When a photographer offers his or her services for free, it de-values the work of every other photographer in their community. For photographers who try to make a living from their work, their job becomes twice as difficult when other “professionals” offer free work on a regular basis.

Speaking from direct experience, models see no reason to pay for professional portfolio work when other people with big, expensive-looking cameras will give them the same thing at no cost. Not all photographers who charge are necessarily better than those who work for simple love of the art, but when the professionals and non-professionals advertise in the same place, a negative trend develops.

When a lot of photographers within the same community are all working in trade at the same time, aspiring models, whose portfolios might otherwise be a near-limitless source of income for many photographers, tend to assume that because some photographers work for free, that it is unnecessary to ever pay for work at all.

Professional photographers are a valid part of their local economy. They are service providers. The best photographers, both in the sense of artistic value and client relations, usually float to the top and are the first choices in their cities. Nevertheless, like every other service provider in the current economy, it is hard to make a living when "friends with cameras" work down the street for little or nothing.

Author Harlan Ellison on getting paid as a writer--very applicable to photography. (Strong language)

Even if it isn't your source of income...

Many horror stories have been recounted of photographers taking advantage of models. This is a very real problem. However, if a photographer allows him/herself to be a dispenser of free images, they are allowing other people to take advantage of them.

If you are a photographer who operates as an artist rather than a businessperson, and photography isn't your source of income, you have the option to continue calling it trade and working as you do. As much as I might not like it personally, it's your prerogative. But be prepared, because you will lose money.

When no one gets paid, photographer or model, no one truly benefits. And on top of that, the photographer ends up doing all of the actual work.

Models who habitually trawl the internet in search of "TF to grow my port" tend to not take things too seriously; they don't view photography or modeling as a business. Instead, it is a weekend activity with the prospect of "getting discovered." Furthermore, inexperienced models needs to be told how to stand, look and communicate to the camera.

In the end, the photographer will spend time coordinating the shoot, taking the photographs, thinking for the model, editing the photographs and delivering them to the model. And the photographs might not go any further than the model's Facebook page.

These are things of which a photographer needs to be aware of when working for no cost.

Working in trade is working at a loss to one's self, and to the photographic community at large.


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    • livewithrichard profile image

      Richard Bivins 

      6 years ago from Charleston, SC

      Steven, you make some very good points on why trade work is bad for professionals and I agree 100%. On that point, those that trade work aren't really professionals at all. These are amateurs that are just getting started and trying to find their niche. I'm in that category right now. I wouldn't even call my self a novice let alone a professional. Though I don't use those services you write of MM or OMP, I mostly use friends and family members and often unsuspecting strangers in the park ( laughing at the model above that asks if a photographer would shoot someone who isn't photogenic) isn't that the true test of a photographer? By the way, I like your photos here. I'm concentrating first of portraits and getting the right lighting. Just read another hub that gave me the idea of Film Noir effect. Thanks for the hub.

    • Steven Gray profile imageAUTHOR

      Steven Gray 

      6 years ago from Pensacola, Florida

      I see and respect your point, but I would ask you also to take pause and be aware of two things:

      - If an article like this one is written to a general group, don't take it personally if you happen to be the exception to the rule.

      - My opinions on photographers apply equally to models. If a photographer approaches you, the model, for a shoot, then he should pay you fairly for your time and work.

      If TFP was less common, I would not have felt any urge to write about it. In the internet age, however, it presents serious problems to serious professionals who try to make a living by providing a service.

    • profile image

      Isabelle Frederique 

      6 years ago

      I like your article but I want to point out something as a model who does TFP. First off, I believe that I am a model who I do this 'fun' yes, but I want to turn it into a career because it's fun. Secondly, isn't like it's free for me either, that is with gas, with the time I put in, make-up, the wardrobe I provide (I bring all my own clothes to the shoot which I spent over 500 dollars or more). Do I wish to be paid? Yes of course I do, however, like photographers there is a girl down the street who will do it for free which devalues models. As for directing the shoot, I have doing this for four years, and every time I go to a shoot, I get given directions. Why is that? Because every photographer has a different style they want in their pictures. What one pose works for one photographer, doesn't work for the other. Sadly, I do not own superpowers that allows me to read every photographers mind. Why don't I pay for my pictures? Well because I just don't have the income to get great fantastic photos, however, when I do TFP. I always bring my best, regardless of whether I am paid or not. Granted I don't just shoot with 'friends with cameras'. I shoot with those who like my work, I like theirs and it's mutually beneficial for both of us. Granted I don't need to be told how to communicate to the camera, but it takes a few shots to get what the photographer wants. Lastly, if the photographer was providing my clothing, hair, make-up (I use Chanel foundation that's not cheap) then I would understand. I choose to go buy my own clothes, make-up, keep my hair nice, my nails done because it's an investment. Just like a camera's a photographer's investment. Would a photographer shoot someone who isn't photogenic? I don't think so, and that takes work.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish MS 

      7 years ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

      I think I quote Harlan Ellison, minus some of the harshest language, every other day! Rated Up!

    • Doru Buzea profile image

      Doru Buzea 

      7 years ago from Brasov, Romania

      excellent stuff!

    • wordmasher profile image


      7 years ago from USA

      Steven, I am very impressed with the way you handled this touchy subject. I can think of no subject among photographers more prone to set off flame wars than this one but I see little danger of that here. A very good balance of clear, persausive arguments for your position with just enough diplomacy to avoid patronizing the other side. Voting up of course.

    • profile image 

      7 years ago

      Good information.


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