How much should you charge for a photograph?
You’ve taken some amazing photos, and now someone wants to use it. What should you charge for it?
The other day, I received a really interesting question from one of my regular readers. Danielle lives in Ohio, is a Senior in high school, and wants to be a professional photographer. I’ve seen some of her photos, and while she still has quite a bit to learn, she certainly shows a lot of potential.
Her question, in a nutshell, was ‘I want to sell my photos. How much do I charge?’. It’s a question most photographers occasionally come across, but it’s important to everybody who wants to make a career in photography, so here are some of my thoughts on the matter…
Photography is a very strange market to be selling into. The main thing to keep in mind, however, is that your photo is worth only as much as someone is prepared to pay for it. This depends entirely on the market, on the circumstances, on the repeatability of the photo, on accessibility, and on time sensitivity.
First of all, It’s important to understand which elements go into choosing the price for an image…
Some times, you’ll take a photo which nobody will be able to take ever again — such as a capsising oil tanker, a police officer beating up a civilian, or the perfect moment in a rock gig. Because they’re not repeatable, your photo will command a higher price.
About 30 years ago, my aunt was walking along the beach, and saw a ship that looked as if it was leaning sideways quite a bit. That is weird. She took a photo. The ship continued to lean sideways further. She took another photo. The ship continued sinking. She took a series of photos. Then, suddenly, three cars appeared near the beach, and people with cameras started running towards the water’s edge, and started snapping frantically.
She asked them what was going on. Apparently, it was the luxury yacht belonging to some Dutch celebrity. The photographers were swearing, because none of them got any photos of the boat going down.
“I took some photos”, she said, confused. One of the photographers, who was freelancing for the biggest newspaper in the Netherlands, offered her what, to her, was two weeks worth of wages, for her film, without even knowing how many photos she had, nor if they were any good. She got suspicious, and went home. She then called the newspaper directly. They were extatic about the prospect of getting hold of these photos. They told her not to develop the film, but to stay put. The newspaper sent a courier on a motorbike to her house, and the newspaper had her photos developed for her. They subsequently paid her several thousand Gulden (that’s about 3–4 months of wages for her, back then) to get exclusive use of the photos.
Because the photos were completely unrepeatable, exclusive, and valuable in the news market, the roll of undeveloped film became worth a small fortune.
Quite recently, I sold a photo of an up and coming British politician to a red-top newspaper. The photo was nothing special, just the guy standing there in front of a wall. The thing is, there weren’t that many photos of him around back then, and the newspaper didn’t have time to re-shoot the photo, or get in contact with his PR agency to get a proper photo of him. If this was a sunday paper, they would have dispatched a snapper to take a new photo of the guy, instead of using my mediocre photo.
In other words: Sometimes all you need to be is the right photographer with the right photo, at the right time. It was pure chance that this photo editor happened to know that I might have a photo of this politician, of course, and decided to call me to ask, but nevertheless.
Because I knew that they needed my photo, and wouldn’t have time to re-take it, or find it anywhere else in time for the print deadline, I was able to command a higher price for an image.
I know of someone who only takes photos of boats. Yachts, sail boats, dinghys, oil tankers, speed boats, off-shore racers, Sea-Doos. You name it. He loves the ocean, he loves water, and he adores boats. So, some time, about 15 years ago, he gave up his everyday photography business, and started taking photos of boats. Needless to say, business was slow at first. He started delivering some photos to yachting magazines etc, and started making a reasonable wage.
Then, about 4 years ago, something funny happened: He paid someone to scan all of his photos at insanely high resolutions, and put them all on a website. Now, 4 years later, he is the one-stop-shop for shipping and boating photography in the world. Because he has photos of most types of vessel, in most situations, anyone who needs a photo of a boat turns to him. He’s now pulling in an absolute fortune on his back catalogue. I mean a ‘drives a Porsche and only works about 4 months of the year’ kind of fortune.
The fact that he has tens of thousands of great photos, all collected in one place, with a system where picture editors etc. can buy his photos easily means that he gets a high quantity of sales, and he could retire right now. In other word, if people can easily find your photos, you will make more money off them, and you don’t have to charge over the odds to still make a good income.
Of course, most of us don’t sit on a valuable library of photos, but you may be surprised at how many photos you do have. Putting photos on your website is all good and well, but most photo editors and arts buyers are lazy people who only have a limited time to look for, and buy, your photos. Frequently, they’ll go to a few big photo agencies, and they’ll buy a photo from there.
So how do you make your photos accessible? Well, easy, make sure they are added to a photo agency! Corbis and Getty will probably laugh at you if you come to them without a beefy portfolio, but companies like Photo Stock Plus and Alamy will allow serious amateurs to add their photos to their catalogue, allowing you to be part of a massive pool. If you’ve got the right photos (tagged up correctly, of course, that’s important), you are on equal footing with all the other photographers out there!
So, how do you actually price a photo?
It’s incredibly difficult to advice how much you should charge for a photo. A newspaper looking for an exclusive might have very deep pockets indeed, for example, while the proud dog owner would expect to pay a lot less for a photo of their life companion. An idyllic photo of a house in the mountains could be worth quite a bit of money if, say, IKEA decide to buy a licence of it, in order to make huge prints of it and sell it in their stores world-wide, but the same photo would only fetch very little if the owner of the house was your dad, who wanted a photo of his holiday home.
How much you charge for a photo depends on a lot of factors — but if you under-charge, it harms all photographers in the long run…
The pricing world gets even more muddled when you include the world of Micro stock photography — companies like iStockPhoto, which charge only a minuscule amount of money per photo ($1-$10), but rely on the vast quantities they sell of each photo to recoup their costs and run at a profit. Other stock agencies could charge $90-$400 for the exact same image, and they might have other advantages, such as better customer service, assistance with image research, and other perks.
When working on commission for newspapers or magazines, it is worth looking up the freelance rates set by an industry body. For the UK, this list is maintained by the London branch of the National Union of Journalists — check it out here — but be aware that the figures listed are often quite unrealistic. A small magazine or local newspaper will tell you to go do something anatomically impossible if you demand the full NUJ rates. The problem is that with the advent of digital photography, there is no shortage of people who want to do the work, and since equipment is relatively cheap nowadays, the prices are driven down.
When working with people directly — when you are doing portrait photography or events like weddings, for example — the pricing structure changes yet again, and you have to be a little bit careful about what you charge. People expect to play close to £1,000 to have a wedding photographed, but personally, I only do weddings for close friends, and part of my wedding present to them becomes my photos, so I only charge a fraction of that (usually just to cover my travel expenses).
In summary, the same sentence that opened this write-up: Your photo is worth what someone is prepared to pay for it. If you really aren’t sure, try asking them what they would expect to pay for a photo they need taking. Be aware, however, if they say $20, and you then say $400, you might just have insulted them.
Personally, I tend to go based on what I’ve charged in the past, and then consider other things. Say I’ve charged £200 for a set of photos of a building in the past. A new customer comes along, and wants me to do the same for their building. It’s a big company, so I turn up the price a little (£300). It’s a high profile building, so I hike up the price a bit more (£350). It will involve taking a lot of photos throughout the day, and they want some night shots, too (£400). They want to take the photos and use them on billboards, in their annual report, and for advertising (£450). However, as it turns out, they’ve already had a quote from another photographer for £350. I can now choose to drop my price to match their price, or I can gamble that the quality of my photos speaks for itself, and that I would get the job even if I charge full rate. In this example, I’d probably drop the price a little, to show some goodwill and to hopefully pick up the business (£400).
I realise this isn’t as a price list, but that’s just not how the world of photography pricing works. I do hope, however that the issues raised here can help you choose how much to charge for your photos, and perhaps even help you with some of the things you need to think about when you price your photography for sale.