Photography: Thomas Hawk
When Matt Pagel received an email from a publication he’d never heard of asking if they could use an image they’d found on his Flickr stream, he was flattered. The message was humble and even though the sender was only promising a credit in return for the use, Matt agreed, assuming that he was dealing with a small online magazine with no picture budget. He just asked that they send him a link when the article went online. A few weeks later, UK design magazine Icon sent him a glossy copy of its latest edition containing his photograph. Above his shot of the de Young Museum in San Francisco, then neatly wrapped and under construction, was the headline “This image didn’t cost Icon anything.”
Not all photo deals turn out to be that obviously bad, and some that look bad may actually be fair. An online publication always has enough Creative Commons options to walk away from a request for payment, and when it has no income, it also has no other choice. For a blog with a small readership — the sort of publication that Matt Pagel wrongly thought he was dealing with — the correct usage fee may well be nothing more than a credit and a link. There are some propositions though that seem fair but often turn out to be worth less than they look.
Bounty shots, for example, look like opportunities. Over the years, a number of sites have come and gone that allow photo buyers to place requests for specific images in the hope that photographers will then go out and shoot them on their behalf. Some microstock companies, too, list requests from buyers who haven’t been able to find the images they need.
It looks like an easy deal. Shoot stock in general, and you can only hope that the image you create will find buyers. Act on a request and you know that there’s a buyer available for the shot.
But you don’t know how serious the buyer is. You don’t know whether he or she has found the image since posting the request. You don’t know how many other photographers will submit their images. And, most important of all, you don’t know how much it’s going to cost you to go out and create that image in the hope that that single buyer will be willing to pay you a few bucks to use it. To a professional, an image request can look like a bargain basement assignment with no guarantee of even a small payment at the end, let alone expenses.
That doesn’t mean that image requests aren’t useful. If you happen to have an image available that fits the bill, then submitting it won’t cost anything. It will just save the buyer a difficult search. And if you see similar requests turning up again and again (such as for ethnic models or more realistic work scenes) then you can get an idea of what’s missing from the market. Image requests are worth following but they’re rarely worth shooting.
Even big sales at fair prices though can sometimes be less attractive than they appear when they come with the wrong conditions. A buyer who pays for a print takes home a picture. Apart from hanging that picture on the wall, there’s little else they can do with it and no more demands that they can make of the seller. An editorial or commercial user isn’t paying for a picture; he or she is paying for the rights to use the picture, something that’s much harder to negotiate, especially when the buyer asks for it with all sorts of complex conditions.
How Much for all the Rights?
Getty, for example, demands a two-year exclusivity from contributors when it accepts images posted on Flickr. The company argues that it’s a necessary requirement, that buyers want to know where else the image is appearing and feel confident that an image isn’t going to be overused. In return for that exclusivity the company offers enthusiasts the opportunity to sell their photos on a rights-managed basis for prices far higher than they’d get from microstock (although lower perhaps than they’d make if they were willing to push the images themselves). Some photographers have found the requirement too limiting; others are happy to let Getty take their pictures and make whatever money they can out of them. It’s not an unfair demand in itself but one that each photographer needs to consider.
Exclusivity does become an unfair demand though when it comes from photography contest organizers hoping to build up their inventory, and when it comes from buyers who aren’t offering enough money to cover all of the lost income. In general, the more rights a buyer wants over an image the, more they have to pay. When even a limited exclusivity limits earnings, buyers have to cover those losses. Anything else is a bad deal.
But perhaps the most obvious bad deal is the one in which photographers are told that they won’t be paid but the picture will boost their portfolio, give them a tear sheet or help them become better known. Use of your image would only help you if the client is well-known and the photo will be seen in lots of places. And if that happens the client should be paying for it. There’s a difference between working as an assistant for low-pay and even no pay to pick up an education, and giving away your photography talents and its results for nothing.
For most photographers, the biggest problem with trying to spot bad photography deals is in the pricing. Usage fees can be difficult to calculate and even when you have picked up a sense of the market rate, there’s still room for negotiation. But know what your images are worth, know what the buyer wants to do with them, and know who you’re dealing with too, and you should find that your sales are always good.