Are TFP Photo Shoots Really a Trade or Is Someone Simply Working for Free?

Are TFP Photo Shoots Really a Trade or Is Someone Simply Working for Free?

Collaborating with models for trade shoots, often referred to as TFP (Time for Print), provides a wealth of benefits to both parties involved. In this type of collaboration, neither party charges for their services, but both receive valuable assets in the form of high-quality images that can be used to build their respective portfolios.

Today, we will explore the positives and negatives of conducting shoots on a trade basis. A successful TFP shoot involves a collaborative effort from the photographer and the model, with each party contributing their skills and expertise while gaining valuable experience and assets. Today, we will be discussing the potential of such collaboration with five arguments in favor and five counterarguments against conducting trade shoots.

Here are several aspects supporting the benefits of trade shoots. This isn't meant to be a fully conclusive list, but rather a starting point to hone in on the merits of TFP shoots. The number of reasons trade shoots might be beneficial to you is likely a more expansive list, depending largely on where you live and what sort of photography work you offer your community.

Skill Development

Trade shoots create a low-pressure environment that encourages experimentation and skill development for both photographers and models. This setting allows photographers to refine their techniques, such as lighting setups, composition, and camera settings, while models can improve their posing, facial expressions, and overall presence in front of the camera. Since there is no monetary investment from either party, both can take risks, try new approaches, and learn from any mistakes without the fear of financial complications. This approach creates a valuable learning experience that can easily translate into better performance on paid assignments, ultimately helping each person make stronger career moves.

Portfolio Enhancement

A diverse and robust portfolio is essential for attracting clients and showcasing the talents of both photographers and models. Trade shoots offer a fantastic opportunity to collaborate with various people to produce a wide range of images that demonstrate versatility, creativity, and adaptability. For photographers, this provides opportunities to capture different subjects, styles, and lighting scenarios that highlight their technical and artistic abilities. For models, this involves working with various photographers and showcasing a range of expressions, poses, and looks. A compelling portfolio is often pivotal in securing paid assignments, making trade shoots a valuable investment of time and effort for both parties.

Networking and Relationship Building

Trade shoots are an incredible way for photographers and models to establish new connections within the industry, developing quality relationships that can lead to future collaborations, referrals, or even paid opportunities. By working together on trade shoots, photographers and models can build rapport, trust, and a professional understanding of each other's work styles and preferences. These relationships can work wonders to find future projects or to expand one's network within the industry. As both parties share their trade shoot images on social media and other platforms, they promote each other's work, potentially attracting the attention of other industry professionals and creating additional networking opportunities.

Creative Exploration

Trade shoots offer the freedom to explore creative ideas and concepts that might not be possible in a commercial setting due to time constraints, client demands, or budget limitations. When conducting trade shoots, both the photographer and the model have opportunities to bring their artistic vision to light, working together to create unique, visually engaging projects that elevate their portfolios with high-quality work. This creative exploration can serve to drive innovation, inspiring new techniques, styles, and approaches that may be incorporated into future paid assignments. Trade shoots can help both individuals discover and refine their personal styles, enhancing their overall brand and appeal to potential clients.

Cost-Effective Skill-Building

For newer photographers and models who are just starting out in their careers or working on a tight budget, trade shoots are a cost-effective way to gain experience and build a solid body of work. Instead of spending valuable startup money by hiring models, photographers, or studio spaces, trade shoots allow both parties to pool their resources and create high-quality images at minimal cost. This approach removes financial barriers that can hinder professional development, allowing photographers and models to focus on honing their skills and producing exceptional work. Investing time and effort into trade shoots can result in many benefits for both photographers and models, including enhanced portfolios and increasing their chances of securing paid assignments in the future.

Portrait photographer Dan Medley gives posing guidance during a TFP shoot.

While trade shoots can offer benefits to both photographers and models, there are valid concerns associated with this approach that should also be considered. Personally, in my opinion, most of the issues that arise with trade shoots can most often be resolved with clear communication. Not every TFP shoot is inherently risky. In fact, most are generally quite positive in nature, but all such shoots do have some element of risk involved. Here are several aspects highlighting the potential drawbacks of trade shoots.

Lack of Financial Incentive

One of the primary concerns regarding trade shoots is the absence of financial incentives for both parties. This lack of financial compensation for either party can lead to a less serious attitude toward the project, potentially resulting in subpar work or reduced effort. Additionally, the absence of financial stakes may not encourage photographers and models to push their creative boundaries, potentially limiting their growth and development. In contrast, paid assignments often come with greater pressure for higher performance, motivating both parties to invest more time and effort into perfecting their skills and delivering the highest quality work possible.

Time Investment and Opportunity Cost

Trade shoots require a significant investment of time from both photographers and models, which can detract from other potentially paid opportunities. The time spent on planning, executing, and post-processing trade shoots could be directed toward marketing, networking, or working on paid assignments that provide direct financial compensation. The opportunity cost of trade shoots may be higher for established professionals, who might be sacrificing actual paid projects in order to participate in trade collaborations. For emerging professionals, focusing exclusively on trade shoots could possibly delay their transition to acquiring paid work and hinder their overall career progress.

Potential for Exploitation

There is always a risk of exploitation in trade shoots, as some photographers or models may take advantage of the arrangement to obtain free work without providing adequate value in return. For instance, photographers may not deliver the agreed-upon number or quality of images, or they may take an excessive amount of time to provide the final product. Similarly, models may not fully commit to the project, delivering lackluster performances or failing to stick to the agreed-upon concept or wardrobe requirements. This type of imbalance could lead to dissatisfaction and frustration on both sides, ultimately damaging the professional relationship and the reputation of both parties.

Limited Access to Resources

Trade shoots often lack the budget for professional resources, such as high-quality equipment, professional makeup artists, or stylists. This limitation can negatively impact the final product, resulting in images that may not accurately represent the full potential of the photographer or the model. That said, it is common enough to bring hairstylists and makeup artists into the collective trade shoot, which allows them the ability to add to their professional portfolio as well. Trade shoots may not offer access to ideal locations or shooting conditions, further compromising the quality of the images. In contrast, paid assignments typically provide the necessary resources to produce polished, professional work that can better showcase the talents of all parties involved.

Perceived Lack of Professionalism

Exclusively participating in trade shoots may create the perception of a lack of professionalism or experience. Clients may view a portfolio filled with trade shoot images as an indication that the photographer or the model is unable to secure paid assignments, potentially reducing their perceived value in the market. Creating a calculated balance between trade shoots and paid work is crucial to demonstrate a commitment to one's career and the ability to succeed in a professional setting. Focusing solely on trade shoots may inadvertently hinder career growth, as it may not convey the level of expertise and experience that clients are seeking.

At the end of the day, trade shoots can be as valuable and influential as you make them. The key to making sure your TFP opportunities are beneficial to everyone is as simple as having clear communication with all parties involved. Set clear expectations up front, have a solid plan just like what you would have for a paid job, set deadlines for everything, including delivery of the final edits. Ambiguity and miscommunication can torpedo an otherwise high-quality collaboration. There's no reason for anyone to exchange money if all parties are benefitting equally. The moment someone stands to benefit far more than the others involved is when the project should be a paid venture. In conclusion, don't overthink it. Just do what makes the most sense for you and your business. 

Rex Jones's picture

Rex lives in Saint George, Utah. His specialty is branding and strategy, working closely with businesses to refine their branding, scale internal structure, and produce high-quality marketing efforts. His photography is primarily commercial, with intermittent work in portraiture, product imagery, and landscape photography for his own enjoyment.

Log in or register to post comments

Mostly though… Photographers are the ones with the real expenses and regardless end up being the ones who pay for the shoot / venue most of the time.

I feel that generally speaking, the assertion is that the Photographer's time is the least valuable part of the equation most of the time unless the photographer is wildly ahead of the model in terms of experience. (and audience). The Photographer is expected to do the bulk of the work, make the bulk of the plans, bear the bulk of the expenses, etc.

That said, personally, I love doing TFP work because as soon as money enters the picture the shoot becomes less creative, more rigid, and less fun. Collaborative work is where my passion for photography shines the brightest.

That said, in my experience these days TFP is getting harder and harder and harder to do because it is becoming extremely difficult to get in touch with new models. 10 years ago I'd send a message to a model on Model Mayhem or Facebook or Instagram and be pretty confident that most of the time I'd get a reply. It wouldn't all lead to shoots but it was pretty easy to fill my available TFP calendar.

These days I find I end up doing TFP with the same models over and over again because I can't actually get ahold of anyone new. No one uses FB. MM is basically dead in my area. Instagram automatically "hides" DMs unless they already follow you. No one posts contact info in their profiles. I feel like TFP is starting to die just because it has become so hard for Photographers and Models to connect.

I'm with you 100%. For the most part, the photographer is the one behind all the technical aspects. They're the ones calling the shots, literally. They're the ones directing the model, the lights, the poses, and of course, handling all the post-processing. Do most of the work but be valued the least. It's unfortunate, but I see it all too often.

Which, like you, is why most of my TFP shoots are with the same people over and over again. TFP shoots are fun, I love them! Super creative and enjoyable, especially when everyone on board is happy to contribute equally.

Yeah, it amazes me how often others will act like its such a huge effort to show up on time and hang out shooting for a couple of hours and then their bit is done. For us the work has only just begun. The shooting is the fun part. ;)

Exactly! I just gotta be careful as the portfolio starts to look repetitive working with the same people all the time. :)


I am 76. My work now is an enthusiast for no cost to model. I can then assist a model building her port and keeps me learning and trying fresh projects. Nice to have the choice now to do what I like. Really not the "good" but this craft gave me goals. Good Post


I have been trying to find someone for a TFP session and have not been able to.

And yes I do view it as someone working for free. I want a model to work for free because I have very little money and could never justify actually paying a model's rates for a 2-3 hour photoshoot. So yes I want her to work for free, or in exchange for some of the digital files that I snap.

I have no interest in ever shooting humans professionally. I market and sell my wildlife photos, but have no interest in doing that with pics of humans. Ever. But I would like to have some fun shooting a good looking woman of color, and it need not be "professional" with hair and makeup or any of that stuff - just a guy having a different photographic experience for the fun of it, and no need to have it cost anything.


Having worked as a model for a dozen years and a photographer for twenty-nine years, I believe that models receive quality images for little to no money on TFP. We have an investment in gear, software and then there's the time that in spent learning the technology, shooting techniques and everything else involved in our careers. How many of us just picked up a camera and got up to speed instantly? I worked as an assistant for years, paid my dues and learned from established photographers. As a model, I paid for most tests, bought or borrowed clothes and paid for a Stylist if needed. Needless to say, the investment was much lower on that side of the camera.

TFP in the classical sense is DEAD!

Most of the models I shot on TFP had an OF/Patreon profile so were earning money of the content.

Initially irked me but once I opened a Patreon page it simply became lets shoot and create content we can both earn money on without an upfront payment. Obviously copyright stays with the photographer.

In the technical sense, it's not dead. Both parties are getting something out of it without the other charging the other.

Agreed. The "P" in TFP is should be changed to an "E". As is "Time For Exposure". In the pre-social media age, printed headshots were a prerequisite for prospective models applying for even entry level catalog or TV ad work. You had to have pro quality headshot prints to hand out at any open call. Uncle Billy and his Pentax weren't going to cut it. Every new model needed headshots from a photographer with enough equipment and experience to shoot and deliver headshots that were worth paying good money for. Models traded their time and more importantly their usage rights to get those shots.

Today, so-called talent scouts are just scanning youtube and tiktok for people to fit whatever demographic is needed to fill a category today. Anyone with a smartphone and an LED ringlight can make a high-key influencer video that will get enough likes to show up in some agents feed.

The irony is that now only more experienced and steadily working models actually need or want real headshots. Most of the time they already have an agent who pays an established shooter to produce them.