Why I stopped offering test shoots and why brands shouldn't be asking for them
Sometimes, I get asked if I offer test shoots as a commercial photographer and creative agency owner. Well, here’s how I see it. I made $100 for my first professional photography job, mere months after picking up a real camera for the first time. Then, for the next job, I made $150, and from there, the next gig was $650.
I remember these three projects distinctly (a portrait session, a family session, and a wedding) for a couple of reasons.
First of all, those three clients believed in me, as a 15 year old, and gave me a chance to cultivate my skills. Secondly, because those three clients valued my time and my work, and paid me for it.
However, I have also photographed a lot of content without being paid over the years, especially as I transitioned from weddings and portraits into commercial work. Sometimes, a client would ask me to do the commercial shoot in exchange for product or exposure, and promised that it would lead to paid work (spoiler alert, it often didn’t), and sometimes I would shoot the product on my own time, send the images to the potential client for free, and hope that they would like them and want to hire me someday (again, you guessed it, a lot of the time, I never heard from that brand, even when they used the content I sent).
Over the years, I came to realize that money, real tangible cash in hand, has magical powers between a creator and their client. When real money is exchanged between a client and creator, a few things happen:
1. Trust is initiated between the creator and the brand.
When a brand pays a creator, they are communicating that they trust the creator to follow through and that they believe the work will get done.
2. The brand is empowering the creator to do the work to the best of their ability.
Money makes people feel good, and it gives people the freedom to live their lives without burdens. By removing a financial burden from a creator, you release them to be able to deliver incredible results.
3. The creator feels valued and respected, and in turn, offers that value and respect right back to the client.
So much of a creator/client relationship is dependent on the relationship itself, and not only the deliverables.
And that is why I don’t offer to do work for free as a commercial photographer and agency owner anymore.
What about offering test shoots as a creator?
Another kind of unpaid project is known as a “test shoot”.
First of all, what is a test shoot? A test shoot is when a client wants to test a creator before actually hiring them by having them shoot a small project for them that gives the client the ability to assess the creator’s skills, their ability to problem solve and take directives, etc. Test shoots are typically presented as a precursor to long-term, paid work.
I have done a handful of test shoots over the years, and some of them have landed me excellent paid projects, and others led to nothing in the end. I am sympathetic to brands who ask for them, too! I understand that there can be fears when working with creators, especially if you’ve been burned in the past. Maybe the investment feels daunting. While there may be excuses to justify them, ultimately, there are so many reasons not to do test shoots, so allow me to share a few of those reasons with you.
Why I don’t offer test shoots
1. Money has power.
Back to what we discussed earlier in this article, money has power, and when you don’t pay a creator for a test shoot, you limit them significantly. Some test shoots may be paid, but in my experience, they are not compensated as a valuable project, and usually have unrealistic deadlines attached to them, making the project, once again, limiting and burdening for the vendor.
2. Clients can do their research.
Asking for a test shoot communicates that you haven’t done your research on the creator, and that you do not fully understand the value that they bring to the table. While not every creator will bring the kind of value you’re looking for—and that’s okay—if you’ve taken the time to speak with the creator, ask them questions, review their previous work, and see what they are capable of, you should not need a test shoot.
3. Test shoots don’t allow creatives to showcase their full potential.
Any kind of content creation for businesses, whether it’s a 15-second Reel or a 3-day on-set photo and video shoot, takes time to develop and strategy in the execution to have any sort of impact for your brand at all. A test shoot is ultimately not the best judge of a creator’s skillset, as they have likely not been given the time, space, and information to craft a really meaningful deliverable. And, if they have been given that time, and asked to do that level of in-depth and strategic creation, they should be paid for it, and it would not be considered a test shoot.
Should professional photographers offer test shoots?
At the end of the day, it is up to a creator to decide whether or not they will work for money, not for a brand to assume that they can get content for free.
It may be advantageous to a new creator to do test shoots or unpaid gigs, at least until they’re feeling more confident as a photographer and ready to increase their rates, and that is totally okay if that is their choice. In our content-saturated world, this is certainly a controversial topic, but I am a firm believer in people being paid for their skills by the brands who profit off of those skills.
What are your thoughts about and experiences with working for free or offering test shoots? I’m curious to know! Follow me on Instagram and give me a shout.
Written by Marika Adamopoulos, our Founder & CEO