It’s one of the toughest challenges a photographer ever has to face. You’ve handled poor light, mad models, bawling brides and portrait subjects who just can’t smile. And you’ve still managed to produce pictures good enough to sell.
So good in fact, that a buyer is now asking how much you’d charge to let him use your image on his website, in his book or on his company’s office wall.
And that’s where the trouble begins.
What’s the most a buyer would be willing to pay? How do you put a price on your art? What should you consider as you tot up the figures…and what should you ignore?
The range of factors seems almost endless. FotoLibra, an open access picture library, starts by looking at “medium, print run, size and territory”… then considers scores of other options to produce one of the 1,447 different prices that it might charge a buyer.
For professional photographers handling the negotiations themselves, the issues can actually turn out to be simpler than they appear. Expenses are one factor that have to be included in the price, and people who shoot for a living can measure the amount of time involved in creating an image and the costs involved in traveling to the location, hiring the models or buying the props. They might not expect to cover all of those costs in their first license (stock photographer Ron Chapple has talked of images taking a year or two to pay for themselves) but they know that taking bottom dollar to close a sale just isn’t worth it.
When you know how much you’ve spent to create the product — and when experience has shown that there are buyers willing to pay a fair price – there’s little reason to accept amounts that, if repeated, would take decades to make an image profitable.
The Kelly Blue Book of Photography Pricing
The price charged by the competition is vital too. Industry pricing software such as Cradock’s fotoQuote can provide a guide to the amount that other photographers are charging, and – no less importantly – stand as an objective foundation on which to base quotes without pricing yourself out of the market. You can think of it – and use it – as a kind of Kelly Blue Book for photographers.
Even if you choose not to charge exactly the amount that fotoQuote recommends, it can provide a useful starting point for direct usage negotiations. And even enthusiasts who only make the occasional sale – and who don’t generally use the software – can still benefit from it. Photoshelter incorporates fotoQuote into its service, allowing anyone to search the site for images similar to theirs and enter the purchase details to receive a professional quote. The service doesn’t always work quite as smoothly as you might like; many of the images on Photoshelter are only available as JPEGs so you can’t always find quotes for print magazines, for example, or for book covers. But when understanding the competition is so important, it is worth investing the time in searching around to discover exactly how much you could be charging.
It’s when you begin to move away from fotoQuote’s baseline that things can start to get a little more complex. There are factors involved in setting a price that are much harder to quantify than a magazine’s circulation or the difference between a trade magazine and a consumer publication.
The most common is probably pride. For enthusiasts who shoot for pleasure, the idea that someone is prepared to pay for one of their images is a huge endorsement. Receiving a positive comment on Flickr is nice; receiving a request for purchase is proof that you know how to shoot professional-grade pictures.
Those bragging rights may even feel more valuable than the fee itself and are often considered as a factor when setting the price.
They shouldn’t do. You might be willing to allow a blogger or a small website to use your image for nothing in return for credit and a return link (the competition in situations like these will be dollar microstock images or free Creative Commons pictures) but if a commercial user likes your photo enough to use it, he should like it enough to pay for it too.
The Real Value of a Big Portfolio
And he should like it enough to pay the full price. Accept less and in effect, you’re paying for the right to publish your picture in his publication – and the right for him to make money out of it.
The pride that comes from being published might feel like an important reward when considering the price of an image – and the desire to close the deal can often lead enthusiasts to demand less than the image deserves – but the level of admiration you receive from other photographers is actually connected directly to the amount the buyer is willing to pay.
If you’ve agreed to accept a lower price in return for the thrill of publication, how can you be sure that the buyer wants your picture because it’s the best he can find… or because you were the only person willing to supply it at that bargain rate?
Bragging rights might be fun but they aren’t worth enough to be factored into the price of an image. Neither is promotional value. Far too many buyers quote a padded portfolio as the only reward they’re offering.
Being able to show potential buyers that you’ve been published in reputable magazines is useful but unless you know that one job will definitely lead to another, higher value sale, then you’re giving away real money in return for the small chance of making a similar amount in the future.
If one buyer has been impressed enough to make an offer on the basis of your current portfolio, you can expect other buyers to do the same thing without giving your images away for less than the right amount.
It’s that fair price then that’s the most important factor to consider when you’re asked for a quote. If someone is making money out of your picture, you should be making money out of your picture.
And if persuading them of that is a challenge, then you should be waiting for a better buyer.