The Exposure Trap

There is something that used to be very clear to everyone buying and selling photography. It was a hard and fast rule upon which the value of a photograph in the commercial market was based. Here it is: The More People Who Will See A Photo, The More The Photo Costs To License. A photo appearing on billboards across the country is worth more than a photo that will run in a half page ad in the local paper. Simple, right?

Or maybe not. We’ve entered an era with a complicating circumstance. We, as digitally literate artists, have come to realize that much of our perceived value comes from building a brand and associated online presence; the bigger the better. So we share photos online, post videos of our shoots, write blog posts about our techniques. We organically grow modest but potent audiences, but we look around and see artists, athletes and celebrities with exponentially larger brand footprints. We start asking ourselves, why don’t I have that kind of following? What do I have to do to get there?

These questions are blood in the water. Swimming nearby are for-profit enterprises in the form of companies, magazines, websites and other big fish. They’ve got the audience you want. They have thousands or millions of people in their audience hungrily digesting every tasty bit of content they can toss out there. They always need more. So they call you. They call you because you are a great artist. You have beautiful images or great videos. They need your work, and they are willing to compensate you for it…with eyeballs. Yes, these are the very same eyeballs that used to cost the companies money in image licensing (see paragraph 1). Now they are using the eyeballs as the compensation. And it’s so tempting…

I’m not going to be grumpy and old-school and tell you that you should never engage in one of these transactions. I have happily handed images to certain entities for the opportunity to reach their audience. But at the same time, I think we all need to remind ourselves what exactly is taking place.

  1. These companies and brands are making money directly or indirectly with their social marketing, and our work is creating the value.
  2. The bigger the company and the larger their audience, the more money is being made with our images.
  3. Big brands who claim that they have no budget for this kind of marketing are being insincere. They just don’t want to pay.
  4. The more we say yes to the images for eyeballs deals, the weaker our position and the lower the perceived value of our work.
  5. There are brands that have a conscience and are willing to pay for this content that they use to make money.

I’ve been fortunate to have been able to experiment with some different arrangements to produce and share media with such brands as REI, Black Diamond, Instagram, Powder Magazine, Gizmodo and Olympus.  I can say conclusively that despite the large audiences that each of these brands brought to the table, none of the arrangements resulted in any earth shattering new numbers of fans or associated dollars to my business.  Instead, each has provided a modest and incremental bump in my online presence and I have learned to view them as such.

So the next time you have a larger fish than yourself offer to put your picture on their Facebook page because you’ll get amazing exposure, remember that they are making money, you’re not, and you better be able to justify it to yourself in a legitimate way (I’m talking about nuts and bolts, dollars and cents, business kind of legitimate), or you’re just being eaten. And little fish that get eaten never grow up to be big fish.

As always, you can fine me online at: Facebook, Google+, 500px and Twitter

13 thoughts on “The Exposure Trap

  1. Scott, interesting post, and thanks for sharing your experience.

    I submit that if the notion is your business will grow via the reach of the brands you work with, you / your business need to be prepared to squeeze every last bit of momentum from of those arrangements.

    Your photography is stunning and authentic, but the peaks (no pun intended) in views, visits, etc., you record when a brand shares your work online will always only provide incrementally small gains to your own audience until you establish an online presence that can do more with what comes, and have a programmatic approach to building upon that with your own devices.

    I’d also add that what you try to accomplish with your online presence is dependent upon your business model, and the ways in which you earn a living from photography. Commercial is different from fine art, etc. etc. Stuff you know, but also that bears mention here.

    Huge fan of the N Cascades and your work!

  2. Great post Scott, it’s a pretty fine line to tread, and is made even more difficult by the “McStock” world that we live in. Unfortunately, many of these big corp’s marketing teams are run by people who don’t see the difference between the value of a random stock image compared to a high quality photo of an accomplished climber or skier in a remote location. It’s just a picture to most people.

    Full disclosure – I work for one of these marketing teams that builds campaigns for a major multi-billion-dollar, international corp… it is always an uphill battle attempting to explain to the executive team why it costs money to get quality commercial work done by a professional, rather than just throwing together a bunch of stock. The payoff is when the perfect symbiosis of photographer, art/creative directors, and concept come together and create something amazing.

    Keep posting stuff like this Scott, it’s great insight, and i’ll be sure to forward it along to some of the other members of my team for their benefit.

  3. If ever there was a photographer that deserved remuneration for his art, for that’s exactly what it is, it is surely you.
    Trust in that – and stick to your principles.

    … and thanks for all the imagery along the way. Don’t think there’s been a single shot you’ve released (in the wild) that I haven’t marvelled at.

    In awe and appreciation… Tony

  4. Scott, great read and very relevant to my position now. There are many posts out there about this very topic and I’ve come to a conclusion that your approach is realistic. You could win a popularity contest and look cool, but can you eat that? Can you pay your ipone bill with it? Nope. Keep clicking and living your photography, it’s more inspiring than you know to so many:) EE

  5. I found your photography via facebook’s feed first, I believe. I’ve enjoyed following your content directly ever since, though to follow your analogy, I’m just a bit of plankton. Whales eat plankton, though…. so maybe there’s a tipping point out there yet?

    1. Barry, without divulging the details of my contracts, I have had multiple brands mentioned in this article pay for individual pieces of content or a retainer for ongoing content. This is becoming more and more standard as metrics continue to develop tying real revenue to social marketing.

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