When I started out as a new model I knew that I needed to book trade shoots in order to build a portfolio, but I hadn’t learned yet that I should be focusing on quality rather than quantity. I started out shooting trade with pretty much anyone and everyone who asked, and while I had several trade shoots I was happy with, I also ended up immensely disappointed after many others. I received way too many images that didn’t represent me or the concept well, weren’t flattering, or were edited to hell and back, and eventually realized that I clearly needed to start being more discerning with what I accepted!
As time went on I began seeing better results from my trades, but I still struggled at times to decide whether or not a particular offer was worth it. Eventually I developed a system that helped me make those decisions confidently – and well informed. Rather than guessing, or hoping that the images will be worth my time, I now go into the few trade shoots I still do as confident as possible that the photographer and I are on the same page and I will receive the type of images I want.
I can’t sit over your shoulder and tell you what trades to accept, but I can share my system so that you can learn to make those decisions as confidently as I do. There are four different types of criteria I evaluate before accepting a trade shoot, with four questions each: the photographer’s portfolio, the proposed shoot concept, their personality, and their trade policies. Deciding whether or not a particular trade opportunity is the right opportunity for you can be as simple as asking yourself the following questions!
Do you like their work?
Since your portfolio should be designed to attract the work you most want to book, if you don’t like the photographers work (however technically perfect it may be) you most likely don’t want it in your portfolio. Don’t feel pressured into accepting a shoot with someone who’s work is great if you don’t actually like it.
Does it have value for you?
If you do like their work, you also want to consider whether it will be helpful to your portfolio. Is it something you like but already have too much of? Is it compelling but not the quality you need for portfolio work? If you really love their work but don’t need it for your portfolio, you may consider trade for social media, Patreon content, or your own enjoyment, but there needs to be clear value for you one way or another, especially if your time is limited.
Is their portfolio consistent?
Do you only like part of their portfolio or the whole thing? Do they have a specific style or are they all over the place? What do you like? What don’t you like? We often hear that an artist is only as good as the worst image in their portfolio, and you need to proceed with that in mind: assume that you will only get images as good as the worst in their portfolio. There is however, one exception to that rule in the next question!
When were the photos uploaded?
I always check to make sure that the images a potential trade partner provides are recent. Sometimes artists will only have work in their MM profile that is years old, making it necessary to request recent examples in order to make an informed decision before accepting the trade offer.
As for portfolios without consistency, if the images you like were all taken within the last year, and the images you don’t were all taken two years ago, it’s safe to assume that their style and skill level has changed – many artists are just resistant to removing old work from their portfolio. It’s crucially important to check the dates rather than assuming that the worst work is old, though, or you may find that the images you like were all from two years ago and end up with images in the style you assumed was the older.
Do you like the shoot concept? Will it benefit your portfolio?
Just like the photographers portfolio and style, you need to like the concept for it to be worth your time to shoot for trade, and it should either benefit your portfolio or be something you find valuable enough to invest time into anyway.
Is it consistent with their portfolio?
If you love their work but they want to test out a new lighting setup, you don’t want to find out once you’ve arrived at the studio ready and eager to shoot their normal style. If you do discover that they want to try something new and aren’t completely sold on it, you may want to consider requesting that you shoot a set in their normal style as well as a set in the experimental style so that you’re both guaranteed a successful trade.
How much input are you getting?
Some photographers (and/or teams) already have a concept completely planned out and intend to have complete control of the art direction. Others will prefer to partner with you to create a concept together that you’re both excited about. It’s up to you to decide whether you have a preference between the two, but even if you’re fine with both you need to know ahead of time which type of shoot you’re walking into.
How complicated is it, and who else is involved? Is the concept likely to be executed well by this team?
Is this going to be a massive undertaking with a huge team, or a simple shoot with just photographer and model? If there’s a team involved, you need to review the portfolios of each team member when possible. Have they done anything similar in the past? Do they show the required skillsets in their portfolio/s? Do you love the photographer’s work but hate the makeup artist’s?
Is there a personality clash already occurring?
Do not be tempted into shooting trade with someone you dislike just because their portfolio is amazing. If you’re going to spend a few hours of your time working with someone for trade, it’s important that you get along. Good communication is essential to creating good art, it doesn’t matter how great their work is if the experience is miserable. And if you really rub each other the wrong way, you may find that they refuse to edit the images (or even that you don’t want to use them once you have them).
Do they seem to like to talk a lot? Do they seem to not want to talk at all?
If you prefer quiet during a shoot, a trade shoot with someone who’s talking your ear off won’t be conducive to creating the best art possible. Similarly, if you hate shoots that are dead silent the whole time and really prefer to have a solid back and forth and develop the concept together, someone who isn’t very talkative or collaborative in the pre-shoot communication may not be a goot collaborative fit for you.
Did they get good references?
It’s just as important to check references for a trade shoot as a paid shoot. In addition to the normal questions, you’ll also want to find a few models who’ve shot trade with them and ask if they received images in the agreed upon time, as well as whether the shoot was pleasant.
Are they trying to push your boundaries while discussing the concept?
However somebody acts during the pre-shoot messaging, that behavior is likely to be amplified during the shoot. Every shoot I’ve ever had with somebody who tried to push my boundaries in the pre-shoot communication has led to them trying to do the same at the shoot, no matter how firmly I thought I had established them. And being uncomfortable isn’t just, well, uncomfortable: it registers the images practically worthless. (Pushing boundaries here means arguing them once they’ve been stated, not asking once if you do something and then accepting a no politely and moving on.)
How long will the shoot be?
I once showed up for a trade shoot expecting it to be short and ended up badgered into staying and shooting for six hours. Obviously I made a lot of mistakes there, but the first was in not agreeing on at least an approximate shoot length ahead of time. If the shoot requires carpooling to a special location, make sure to find out how long the drive will take too.
How long is the image turnaround time?
Can they get you images quickly or will it take a few months? If it’s a longer wait, is it worth it or will your appearance and/or skillset have changed so much by the time you get the images that they’ll no longer fit in your portfolio?
How many images will you receive? Will they be edited?
Nothing sucks more than shooting for 4 hours with five different outfits and only receiving back the photographers one favorite image. Similarly, no one wants to shoot four hours with five different outfits only to be handed a cd with all the unedited images and be told you can do what you want with them, unless you happen to like editing and made that arrangement in advance.
Do you get to choose at least some of the final picks or will they make all the choices?
Will they narrow down the selection and allow you to choose from those? Will they send you 600 images and ask you to sort through them and offer your selections the next day? Will they give you no choice at all? It’s up to you to determine whether you’re willing to let a photographer make all the image choices from a shoot, but you should really know beforehand if that’s the case.
Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide what your requirements are for trade and how flexible you might be with them. It’s important, however, to be asking these questions so that you know the agreement going in, rather than finding out at or after the shoot that the photographer has a different expectation than you do.
While this might seem like a lot to remember, you will find that as time goes on you begin to automatically consider these points without conscious effort. In the meantime, the time you spend evaluating potential trade gigs with these questions in mind will be well worth it as you find it easier to identify and avoid trade work that won’t benefit you.
Remember too that as your career evolves you will have different standards and requirements in what you look for in a trade proposal. And one last tip: I make it a personal policy not to trade with anyone who treats me disrespectfully, no matter how good their portfolio. I recommend you do the same – no images are worth being belittled for.