Photographers have felt the effects of outsourcing in surprising ways. Back in the glory days of photojournalism, shelling out thousands of dollars to ship a photographer to a war zone might have been considered as much a part of a news magazine’s expenses as typewriter ribbon, shoe leather and lengthy bar tabs. Today, with subscriptions falling, advertisers turning to the Web, and perfectly good local photographers with top-of-the range equipment available in locations from Afghanistan to Zambia, it makes little sense for a publication to pay a foreign photographer’s per diems, let alone the plane fare. When the war in Iraq was at its hottest, many of the images that appeared in the world’s top news publications were shot by local photographers who were working for the wires. But how has geography affected other aspects of photography, and are the price differences something that smart photographers can take advantage of?
Clearly, the differences in the cost of living around the world offer plenty of advantages for clients. When Grazia, a style magazine originally from Italy, opened its ninth edition in India in April 2008, local assignment and fashion photographers should have been rejoicing. They now had an opportunity to shoot for a prestigious magazine that valued images and would pay a professional rate. The reality though was slightly different.
Major Magazine Publishers See Local Photographers as Cheap Labor
To judge by an ad placed on Lightstalkers.org by the magazine’s photo editor, Natasha Hemrajani, Grazia appears to have seen its location on the sub-continent as a chance to tap into some particularly cheap labor. The magazine was looking for a photographer in Kerala to take a portrait of a Yoga teacher for one of its first editions. The budget for the shoot was 2,000 rupees. That’s about $50.
The request caused a bit of a storm and to her credit, Natasha, a freelance photographer herself, did sound embarrassed to be making it:
“[F]or some reason we’ve been asked to launch on a ridiculously low budget and shoots come to my department pre-expensed,” she wrote. “[I]f this doesn’t work out we’ll have to run with images sent to us by the subject herself but I’m hoping that there’s someone out there who’ll do shoot for us at this price.”
It’s possible that she got lucky. The average income in India is about $66 per month so $50 for a day’s shooting (minus expenses) might not look like such a bad deal — at least to the magazine. But for a local photographer who’s still had to buy several thousand dollars’ worth of camera equipment, it would make more sense to stay in bed.
Or turn to wedding photography, where prices can be more comparable with other parts of the world. At least one Indian photography firm is offering shoots that range in price from 20,000 rupees to as much as a million rupees. $500 might sound like a bargain rate for a wedding shoot, but it’s likely that most customers are taking packages that are much higher. Frank Chen, a photographer based in Shanghai, for example, charges 20,000 yuan for a typical wedding package. At around $3,000, that’s roughly equivalent to the amount typically paid in the United States. (Although if he were in the United States, it’s possible that Frank, a particularly experienced wedding specialist, might be able to charge more.)
It’s likely that other photographers — those who don’t speak English, don’t advertise on the Internet, and who target only local markets made up of people with average incomes — are charging a great deal less. It is clear though that for some photographers it is possible to charge a rate that’s close to the amount earned in richer parts of the world. Whether they actually get those rates as frequently though, is a different question.
Who Cares Where the Stock Photographer Is?
The situation looks a little rosier for stock photographers. While the prices of rights-managed images are set in part according to the location in which the image will be used, in practice, the region appears to have little effect on the fee. Changing the area in fotoQuote, for example, software that generates Rights-Managed quotes according to the industry standard, has far less effect on the price than changing the usage. EnviroSEA, a photography organization that promotes the work of photographers in Southeast Asia, charges up to $149 for prints of its members’ images and uses fotoQuote to generate its fees, rejecting any image priced under $49. Even its royalty-free images start at $69 for a 500 pixel “Web” image and rise to $289 for an “original size” photo. There are plenty of microstock photographers in places more expensive than Thailand who would like to be earning sales prices like these.
But EnviroSEA’s approach makes sense. When it comes to buying images, clients don’t care where the photographer who produced it lives. They only care whether the photo can do the job they want and whether it’s worth the price that’s being asked.
The effect of geography on photography then is mixed. For clients, the presence of a professional close to the location of a shoot can have a dramatic effect on the expenses involved in getting the picture. Natasha Hemrajani wasn’t just looking for a photographer in India; she wanted one in Kerala who could reach the subject of the shoot without incurring more than ten or twenty dollars’ worth of expenses. But the price of the equipment alone means that there’s a limit to how low photographers can cut their prices even in parts of the world with low incomes.
On the other hand, when it comes to selling pre-made items such as stock images on a global market, the location of the photographer has little effect. If a buyer in London or New York is willing to pay several hundred dollars to use an image, he doesn’t look at the photographer’s bio to see where he is. He just pays the fee and takes the picture… and uses it on the other side of the world.
Correction: The original post incorrectly described Amit Bhargava as the photo editor who posted Grazia’s ad. He is not a photo editor at that magazine nor, he says, would he “offer or work for such a ridiculous amount.” Our apologies to Amit.