The Right Way to Answer a Photo Buyer

Photography: Caro’s Lines

Making money from an image involves two steps. The first is to shoot a picture that someone will pay to use. That’s the fun bit. It’s the step that absorbs most of your effort and it’s the activity that turns enthusiasts into photographers. Get it right, place the pictures where people can see them — on your own website or on a photo-sharing site — and you might just receive an enquiry from a designer, an editor or a publisher asking if they can license your image. Your reply is the next stage. When you’re looking to close the deal, it’s no less important than the first but it’s also one in which photographers invest far less work, putting at risk the rewards their photography has earned.

The goal for a buyer is always to move as efficiently and as quickly as possible from interest to use. Get your reply wrong and you’ll make the deal harder than it needs to be, increasing the chances that the buyer will move on to someone easier and faster to work with. So what should you say when you receive an email from a buyer asking if they can license an image — apart from “yes”?

How Big is That Picture?

Buyers want different kinds of information about a photo they’re considering using. Most important is technical data. Place an image on Flickr and they’ll be able to see a choice of the sizes available but it’s worth confirming the range that they can license and the dimensions of the image they’ve requested. Different sizes will command different prices so the wider the range of size options you can offer, the greater your ability to meet the buyer’s needs. Your answer then should include the size of the image the buyer wants, expressed in pixels or inches with DPI, and a list of other sizes available. (Make sure that those are original sizes though; images that have been stretched or enlarged are of little use to buyers.)

Next to those sizes should be prices, and this is much harder to estimate. It’s unlikely that a buyer will have time to negotiate and with stock sites offering millions of images at fixed prices, there’s little reason to do so. It will be far quicker to continue searching than email a counteroffer and wait for a reply — if there is one.

The easiest solution is to compare your images with microstock, the biggest competition. Even this isn’t as easy as it might look though. Stock sites tend to price their image in terms of credits rather than dollars and those credits are sold at different prices depending on how the buyer uses the site; the more credits they buy, the less they pay for each. You’ll only be selling one image so you won’t be able to offer bulk discounts so calculating the exact amount the buyer would pay if he simply headed to iStockPhoto instead will give a rough figure rather than an exact one.

And it would probably be the wrong one too. One of the advantages of buying a stock image is that the buying process is so simple. Having found the right photo, the buyer has to do little more than click to purchase. And because regular buyers will already have subscriptions, it won’t even cost them any extra. If a buyer is searching away from a stock site then it’s probably because they’re looking for something different, a characteristic that can allow you to charge more than rock-bottom prices for your original imagery. How much more you can charge will depend on the size of the publication — the bigger the company and the larger the audience, the more generous the budget is likely to be — but budgets can vary so widely that you’ll always be shooting if not entirely in the dark then at least in very low light. One option is to look at iStockPhoto’s Vetta collection, an inventory of premium images whose prices begin at 20 credits rather than the usual two. There’s a good chance that that’s where your competition is likely to lie.

Would You Also Be Interested in These?

So your reply should include the size details of the image the buyer was interested in, a list of other sizes available, and their prices. You should also state how you plan to deliver the image: by email or FTP, or do you have a way for the buyer to download directly? And of course, you’ll need to state the terms and the payment details. If a buyer is approaching you, it’s usually because they have one specific use in mind for that particular image so you should be able to charge on a rights-managed basis allowing the buyer to use the photo once.

That information should be enough to make the purchase smooth but if you want to go a little further, you can also point the buyer to other photos you might have showing similar images and provide a detailed description of the photo’s subject. Your reply to an enquiry then might look a little like this:

Thanks for your message and your interest in licensing “Hangzhou Lake.” The picture was shot in 2009 on the northern shore of Hangzhou’s famous West Lake (Xi Hu) and shows the Leifeng Pagoda in the background.

That particular image is 565 x 850 pixels but it’s also available for single use in the following sizes and at the following rates:

283 x 424                        $20

565 x 850                        $30

1129  x 1701                        $45

1807 x 2720                        $65

Payment should be made by Paypal to this email address stating the size of the image you wish to purchase. The image will be delivered by email within 24 hours.

A larger collection of my images from China is also available from my website. If you wish to license any of those images, do let me know!

With all of that information stated clearly in your reply there’s only one more thing that you can do to ensure that your sale goes through: send it fast!

8 comments for this post.

  1. Jeff Colburn Said:

    Excellent information, thanks.

    I have my own stock site and I'm currently going through a change of business plans and pricing, and the info in this article was very helpful.

    Have Fun,

  2. Ken Hurst Said:

    I'd be a hypocrite to be critical of microstock pricing but if your example of pricing in that reply to a potential buyer is for a rights managed image it's extremely low for that usage. In that case I would agree with the traditional stock shooters who accuse microstock of devaluing photography. Microstock is one thing but rock bottom, bargain basement pricing for a rights managed stock image where the user gets exclusive use is ridiculous. Exactly how much experience have you had in selling RM images directly to photo buyers from an inquiry? Is this pricing example in line with your own policy? I think instead of recommending going to istockphoto you should recommend checking with Getty or Corbis or Alamy which handle rights managed images and where you will find quite higher pricing for the image sizes you cited.

  3. Paul Dymond Said:

    I agree with Ken here. Those prices are way too low for an RM price, especially without taking into consideration the usage of the image. Why take $20 for an image if the client might be willing to pay hundreds if not thousands? The idea is not just to make it easier for the client, it's to make it fair for both the client and the photographer. Experienced photo buyers know the true value of a photograph, there's no need to lower your prices to such a point that you seem simply desperate to make a sale at any price. If photographers can't have enough pride in their own work to value it properly then why should they expect their clients to? Seriously folks let's stop racing to the bottom of the barrel and stand up for what we truly believe we're worth.

  4. Dave S. Said:

    I think this was a good article and gives photographers that are new to the experience a good structure to start from. I agree with ken that the prices do seem to be on the low side however in the above example you did not see the images in question or learn how they would be used.

    Now as a former media buyer I have a bone to pick with Paul... he said "Why take $20 for an image if the client might be willing to pay hundreds if not thousands?" then "The idea is not just to make it easier for the client, it's to make it fair for both the client and the photographer." if I was a college student making a website you would sell me an image for less than if I were Pepsi? if both were to be used in a similar way? What as a photographer / artist you have to decide is what you feel your image is worth at any given size for whatever usage rights then charge that amount regardless of the buyer or how much he could spend. If your image is worth thousands, great charge that... to everybody otherwise you will get a reputation as a gouger and art directors / media buyers will circulate that through the photo buying community. remember "fair for both sides"

    I agree you should have pride in your work and always strive to make the best image you can. Yes stand up for what we are worth but humbly accept that our talent may not be on par with Leibovitz, Adams or Cartier - Bresson yet.

  5. Paul Dymond Said:

    Hi there Dave,

    I think we're kind of on the same page. I wasn't talking about taking as much as you can get (although that's the point of capitalism is it not? And isn't that what clients are trying to do every time they try to bargain the price down?) but charging fair market value.

    If an ad agency knows that image usage is worth thousands of dollars based on the percentage of the media buy why would you give it away for $20? Who is that serving? Certainly not yourself and certainly not the ad agency pushing for bigger budgets on projects so they can use professional imagery.

    So in your example of course I would charge a student website less than I would for Pepsi because the usage (and monetary benefits to the client) would be completely different. There is no possible way they could be used in a 'similar' way because a student would not have anywhere near the amount of traffic that a major corporation's site would have.

    It's not about gouging the client but about charging fair market rates based on knowledge of the market. In the case of magazines, knowledge of what it costs to run an ad in said publication. In advertising knowledge of roughly how much the media buy will be.

    As a former media buyer, if you had a budget of $100 for a 1/4 page placement in a magazine and the photographer told you they'd give it to you for 10 bucks would you say to them "Look that's a nice offer but I've actually got $100 set aside for that usage so no need to be so cheap?" That would be fair and equitable would it not?

    I don't think pricing is totally about what you feel your pictures are worth, although that is certainly a part of it. How do you put a value on something without knowing how others value it. It's not an exact science but the more knowledge you have of what the market is expecting to pay the easier it will be to get a fair price for all involved.

    I've often had photo editors come to me and tell me that they have trouble getting the accountants to raise their budgets because they can get so much stock photography for free, or find another cheap photographer willing to do an all-rights assignment for peanuts.

    It actually hurts them as much as it hurts us because they don't get a raise in their budget to allow them to produce and procure better work.

    So I think you misread my point. I wasn't saying to gouge the client and take whatever you could get, I was saying that taking anything you can get without knowledge of what the markets will pay is a sure fire way to make pricing difficult.

    And I don't think the images themselves have the inherent value, unless they're something truly spectacular. For the vast majority of photographs they inherit their value when somebody wants to license them. And that value is determined purely by the usage. So I might have one photograph that might sell for $50 to a tiny website up to a couple of thousand dollars to a corporate usage. It's not that the picture's value has changed, it's just that the usage has.

  6. Larry I Said:

    Not having sold photos myself, I am relatively new to pricing and selling, but I can say that it is common for photographers to devalue their work. The challenge for photographers, I think, is not taking the photos, but making sure they are pricing their work correctly, or high enough.
    From what I have read about all that is included in determining value, these prices are significantly low. I would say adding a zero on the end of the figures would be more appropriate.
    And even that would probably be too low.
    Any photo taken in a foreign country would be a bare bone price of $750 - $3,000 - for limited use, partial rights for a publication. That does not include the photographer's cost of traveling to the country, staying there, traveling back.
    But it depends completely on the client.
    Does the client want an authentic photo taken in China?
    Then for limited publication rights, this higher figure is not unreasonable.
    Does the photographer live in China?
    Did the photographer travel from U.S. to China and back?
    It is really a good idea to get some professional pricing software designed by professional photographers, to assist photographers.
    It is rare the photographer who is better at selling the photos than the client is at buying them.

  7. marty Windle Said:

    I am in a similar situation right now. Somebody sent me an email yesterday having seen my pictures on flickr and wanted to lease them.

    I wrote back and asked them for details. They said they wanted the pictures for an airline inflight magazine. They said they pay $20 per photo

    This seems very low to me . Are they pulling a fast one /trying to get my photos on the cheap ?

    I wrote back telling them that i thought the price was low and asking them what size of photos they will use.

    Difficult to know if I was doing the right thing .

    Selling 5 photos would be $100 against nothing if they don't use them but by accepting this offer would i be spoiling the market ?

  8. Dan Berry Said:

    It's the usage stupid. When I first stated out I had an experienced friend I could call to ask how much I should charge. The price usually sounded high to me, Then I heard that old refrain " It's the usage stupid" He was and is right. it's all based on usage. I had to learn to walk away when the price was to low. Some of them came back to pay my price some didn't. Keep shooting.

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