Is free advertising an acceptable form of payment in exchange for your photography?

Every day, hundreds, maybe thousands of drivers see one of the portraits I made for a local insurance agent on a billboard along a highway in my county.

The leads aren’t rolling in.

Apparently nobody is asking, “Who took that amazing picture?” And apparently nobody is telling anyone, “Joel from Joel Nisleit Photography made this amazing picture for me. You need to book a session with him today!”

Free exposure is free exposure. It’s nice, but it doesn’t pay the bills. In my experience, it doesn’t generate the leads you want either.

When I started freelancing as a photographer in 2012, getting my images out there seemed like the best way to get new leads. In 1980, when nobody had a smartphone that could find 1,000 photographers in 0.3 seconds, it might have been.

But in 2019, after seven years of freelancing, people offering to publish my work for free feels like more of an insult than a business proposition.

When I go to my dentist, mechanic, or to the store, money seems to be the currency of the trade. When I go to the checkout, I see where I can insert my Visa, MasterCard, cash or hand over a check, but I don’t see a place to insert “Free Advertising” as a form of payment.

I believe free advertising offers come from a good place, and I appreciate that people are interested in my work. They probably think the same thing I did: Why wouldn’t someone want free advertising?

Recently a venue updating their website wanted some of my wedding pictures for promotional use. In exchange, they offered to display my pictures on their site.

Well duh. The images would be used to promote the venue, so of course they would be displayed on the website. That’s not compensation. That’s me providing a valuable product.

For most photographers, including me a couple of years prior to this article, getting images on venue websites is a priority. However, when the venue made this offer, I was de-focusing my business on weddings at the time and didn’t want any extra wedding leads.

Most importantly, based on previous experience, “free” exposure like this doesn’t really do anything. It may generate a few inquiries, but it had never generated a booking for me.

Besides, I’m used to getting published. I had thousands of photos published over the nearly seven years I was a newspaper photojournalist. It’s nothing new.

I politely said I had enough exposure and that I needed some form of payment and suggested a few rounds of golf every year that the pictures were on the website.

They agreed, but I never sent the pictures. I didn’t feel like contacting clients from years past to see if they wanted to sign a commercial release to put their images on a venue’s website.

As a business, you don’t need to take every opportunity. I’ve talked with other professionals who’ve had similar experiences with “free advertising” and who don’t accept it anymore.

Art is hard. Really hard. Making art that please people is even harder. Making art on command that please paying clients is professional excellence and personal sacrifice.

As a freelancer, don’t feel guilty asking for money for your product or service. It’s not selfish. It’s straightforward business. It’s how every other business treats every other business, and it’s how other businesses demand you treat them.

To those offering free advertising to artists in exchange for their work, please respect that we’re not all just getting started. We don’t all need free advertising. We do need money for the services, products and sacrifice we provide, just like your business does.

For charity, causes that are important to me, friends and family who I choose to help, yes I would consider doing work for free and have done that. But if you’re a business using my work to make money, please expect to pay. (With money).

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