Exposure is worthless… without compensation

If the title grabbed your attention, let’s make clear it is not that kind of exposure I mean. We’re not talking about exposure in camera, which is essential, but exposure itself as a way to show your work. While it is good to have your work seen, don’t simply rely on it, if you want to earn an income from your photography.

Exposure is worthless, if we’re talking about exposure by itself. The theme is always important in photography, because it is something that photographers — and those whose dreams are shared through visual arts — are confronted with multiple times.

The idea of exposure in photography — and no, we’re not talking about using aperture and shutter speed — always atract people, as a way to get known and… many expect, rich. The problem is that too much exposure can still leave you with nothing. Yes, you might follow all the rules and tips to emerge from the crowd, build a profile as a photographer… and in the end you may even gain a good amount of exposure. Social media is great at that, the only problem being that Facebook “likes” and Instagram or Tumblr appreciation do not help your bank account grow.

Photo contests are, according to some, a fast way to gather exposure. The problem with many contests is that they are nothing else than rights-grabbing machines that prey on entrants who are always too eager to be exposed to read the fine-print. Apparently, no one is immune to that way of treating photographers, and from camera makers to NGOs, photo magazines and others, everybody seems to think that photos are a commodity — which to some extent they have become, with the help of smartphones — and that all photos should be free. Well, they SHOULD NOT!

Thanks for letting me shout out loud at the end of the paragraph above. One thing is to share your photos whichever way you want, through your blog and/or social media (and even there problems exist), the other to have your work used by a third party that grabbed the rights from you. Not all photo contests are bad, though, so you should read the rules before deciding to participate. That’s the best way to guarantee that you have control over your photographs, and stop those who are after them for free. Here is a good link that will keep you updated on the subject.

Even if you do not participate in contests there are multiple ways you can lose control of your photos. There are multiple stories of big companies using photographs, simply because they are available online. It’s really fantastic that companies that protect their assets, think of the Web as the Wild West when it comes to photography. So be warned, even your FaceBook, Flickr, Tumblr or Instagram photos are in danger.

Obviously, photographers always have to find ways to be seen, promote their work, and still protect their rights. Sharing photographs online is so common these days, that we all want to use it as a means to expose our work to others. This, some times, leads to another type of rights-grabbing process, which is called “can we use your photo and credit you?”

The “can we use your photo and credit you?” comes from big and small companies; comes, in fact, from the most diverse sources. The usual question is immediately followed by another comment: “you’ll get a lot of exposure”. I’ve heard that many times, and it still puzzles me. Do people really believe that having my name printed under the photo will be of any benefit to me? I mean, if they know I make a living from selling the right to use my photographs — take notice, I did not write “sell my photographs” — do they expect that I will get some form of payment from that exposure?

After all, exposure should work as advertising. Once a company invests in advertising, it wants to expose a product or service, hoping to get people to buy it. If I give my photos to potential clients, which are supposed to rent them for their needs, how am I going to survive, especially if I only receive “exposure” and no money?. Remember, too much exposure can kill you…

While this is something those living from photography should remember all the time, let me add that amateurs should follow the same rule. If someone approaches you, showing interest in your photographs, and wants to publish them in exchange for a credit line… don’t accept. Don’t believe them if they tell you are an amateur, and that being exposed will help you to make a career in photography if at a later date you decide so. If your photograph is good enough for them to want to use it… ask them to pay for it. A credit line does not give you credit at the bank…

Believe me, if they are really interested, you’ll come to an agreement. It does not always have to be a payment in money, sometimes you can exchange services, if you think there is some benefit for you too. I’ve settled for some agreements that work both ways: I get permission to photograph in specific areas, provide some photos to the company/organization, and in return I can use the space for my activities.

Whatever you do, don’t just accept that exposure is good for you as a photographer. Exposure by itself is worthless, as I wrote. Only when you can control it completely it and get results, does it makes sense.



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Jose Antunes

I am a writer and photographer based on the West coast of continental Europe, a place to see the Sun die on the Sea, every day.