You may have heard that some photographers will only ever do paid work, while others like to work for free from time to time. This might shock you if you are thinking about photography as a business where profit is the main goal. It might even shock you if you have enjoyed it as a hobby in the past before moving on to a professional status. Surely all the work you do is worth being paid for?

Sometimes, however, doing a test shoot or a trade shoot, where you do not pay any of the other creatives involved and they do not pay you, can also be very valuable. There are times when you might find that a test shoot will further your career more than a paid one could. Let’s take a look at how both types of shoot are valuable, and what kind of focus you should give to each of them. Should you be concentrating more on one than the other? What can each of them bring to your business and brand? Let’s take a more in-depth view.

Photo by Death to Stock

Photo by Death to Stock

Value of Paid

At first glance, the value of paid work seems obvious. You’re getting paid, right? Well, that’s definitely one way to look at it, but there are deeper layers here. The first value, yes, is the money that you directly receive from the job. The second value is in the exposure you may gain from doing the work; you may not be credited directly alongside the images, especially if you sign over rights to the company that commissioned you, but you may see some more business coming in from word of mouth.

When you first start out, paid work gives you valuable experience. However, as you become more established, you may find that this area diminishes: if you are hired to do similar projects all of the time, there will come a point where you are not learning much if anything from each shoot. The same is true of the value to your portfolio – in some cases you may not be allowed to use the images, and in others they may simply be very similar to your existing body of work.

If the pay is low, then the value of the shoot may be low too – it may stress you out or cause you more work than it is worth, thus giving it a negative value even in spite of the paycheck you receive. At the end of the day, the aim of your work is to be paid, but this is not the be-all and end-all. The value to your professional development is also very important.


Value of Testing

As with paid work, many people assume immediately that they know the value of a test shoot: you are not paid, so it is worth nothing. Actually, this is very far from being the case, especially if you get things set up in the right way.

Most agencies are happy to send their models on test shoots, and you may only be expected to provide travel expenses at the most. This can give you the chance to work with a premium model at very low cost – so if you look at their normal fee, you can imagine that you are getting this value in free work. The same is true for any other team members who come on board for free, such as make-up artists and stylists. This can add up to a high value. Indeed, the point of test shooting is often to bring together a group of people who are good enough at their work to command similar fees, thus making it nonsensical for any of them to be paid.

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Test shooting can also lead to the opportunity to creative collaborate in an artistic sense. Making art is a way to develop your personal style and concepts, to hone your craft, and even to make a name for yourself as a creator of stunning images. This is very valuable indeed, and could even lead to future work.

Imagine that you create a test shoot which captures a certain style, very different to your professional work, that you have been wanting to try out. You add this work to your portfolio, and perhaps even get it published in a fashion or art magazine. You could even end up exhibiting the work in a gallery. Now a client comes along and sees that work, and they love it – and want to try creating a lookbook, advertising campaign, or other series of images using that same style. Who do they hire? Well, they come right to the source, and hire you.

When this happens, the value of a test shoot can be almost infinite. But of course, this is not always going to be the case: some test shoots may not gain you much at all, if things go wrong or you do not get the images you were looking for. Still, it seems that at least the value of more experience or a working relationship with an agency can be gained.


Weighing Your Options

So, it seems that there are two sides to this story. Paid shoots can be very valuable where test shoots are not valuable at all; and test shoots can be very valuable where paid shoots are not very valuable at all. So what do you do?

The best way to move forwards is always with an informed view. You can see above how to make a paid shoot more valuable, and also how to make sure that you get the most value possible out of a test shoot. The important thing is to apply this knowledge to be sure that you are getting as much value as you can, no matter how you shoot.

Paid shoots should normally (though not always) be a priority, with test shoots coming second as a way to build your paid network but also develop personal projects. Test shoots should be used to build your style, figure out new ideas, and develop relationships, while paid shoots are a way to leverage all of that into a bigger fee. It’s all about growth – and so long as you are shooting in an informed way, you should be able to continue growing for the length of your career.

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