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10 Ways for Photographers to Barter, without Getting Burned

If you read business blogs, you might get the impression that bartering is a groundbreaking alternative to cold, hard cash. But if you spent any of your formative years playing Oregon Trail, you know bartering has been around for hundreds of years (probably thousands, but let’s skip the history lesson). And quid pro quo deals can be an easy way to live large by leveraging your skills. Follow these simple steps, and you’ll be on your way to a successful trade-off.

1. Think outside the frame.

Swapping family photos with a fellow photographer may be the most obvious exchange, but don’t rule out the possibility of bartering for other services – you can offer your photography services in exchange for haircuts, tax returns, personal training, piano lessons, vacation rentals, and more. Not sure if a business would be willing to barter? As mom would say, “Until you ask, the answer is no.” Reach out and see what happens. Who knows? That house cleaning service you’ve always wished for might be looking to update the images on their website.

2. Make a list of things you want.

You know when you stumble across an amazing sale, and you end up spending a ton of money on stuff you don’t really need because the bargains are just so good? Bartering can be like one big clearance rack. To avoid agreeing to every opportunity that comes your way, make a list of services you use regularly (or would like to use). Remember, you’re probably going to pass up a paid client to fulfill your end of the bargain, so make sure whatever you get in return is worth your time.

3. Determine your value.

Remember when you spent a million hours building your portrait collections? Somewhere along the way, you probably made a spreadsheet where you assigned a price to every element of your packages. Use this info to put together a custom package that’s a fair trade for whatever service they’re offering.

4. Recognize their value.

Few things are more annoying than someone who says, “If pixels are free, why are your digital files so expensive?!” Likewise, when bartering, look at the value of the service you’re receiving and ignore the cost of goods. For example, if you’re trading some food photography for a free meal at a fancy restaurant, don’t get hung up on the fact that the steak only cost them a few dollars. Like you, your barter-buddy is providing a specialized skill or service, and its value is whatever a typical customer would pay. Undervalue not, lest ye be undervalued.

5. Put a timeframe on it.

No one likes being stuck in limbo. So if you trade a headshot mini-session for a free facial and massage, don’t wait nine months to get to the spa. Cash in on the trade while they’re still basking in the glow of your services, and everyone will be much happier.

6. Set restrictions.

It’s completely fair to put a few limitations on your end of the deal so you don’t end up feeling put-upon. For example, you may want to stipulate that their free family portrait can’t happen on a weekend during your busy wedding season.

7. Barter your slow-moving inventory.

Got a gorgeous gold frame that didn’t sell? Do you always have empty spots in your schedule on Tuesdays? Do you need more corporate headshots in your portfolio? If there’s a blank space…fill it with a mutually beneficial barter. (Did you think we were going to make a Taylor Swift joke there? Sorry.)

8. Run your books.

Bartering isn’t completely free. For starters, the service you receive in return is technically “income,” and there’s a good chance you’ll need to report it on your taxes. (Not sure? Ask your CPA. Don’t have a CPA? Barter for one.) If you sign up for a bartering network, watch out for fees that can chip away at your perceived value. Track your trades the same way you’d track a client session – break down the time invested, the cost of goods, and the payment received, even if the payment is a series of yoga classes.

9. Obey your intuition.

If it’s been a hassle just to get this swap started, don’t assume it’ll turn into a bowl full of cherries once you start working together. Trading services is one thing; but if you also have to answer a million emails and phone calls and haggle about what is and isn’t included, you’ll quickly start to feel like you’re getting the short end of the bartering stick. Trust plays a big role in a successful trade, so heed any red flags.

10. Legalize it.

We’re talking about your bartering agreement, obviously. Design Aglow offers a lawyer-approved agreement you can use to make sure you have all your legal ducks in a row and don’t get scammed or swindled.

If you do it right, bartering can allow you to “splurge” without spending a dime. Just make sure you know your worth going into the deal and don’t get roped into every opportunity that comes along. As with every gig, you have the right to turn it down if you don’t think it’ll be a good use of your time. Above all, keep it professional – and put it on paper, just in case, to ensure you get what you give.


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