Turning Free Photo Requests into Sales


Photography: laffy4k

The ability to display images on the Web has made it very easy for photographers to put their work in front of buyers. Unfortunately, it’s had another effect too. It’s also made it very easy for buyers to pick up images for free. When a buyer sees a photo he likes, whether it’s in someone’s Flickr stream, on their blog or sliding across their website, the first step is often to praise the image… and ask if they can use it for nothing. Flattery — and the thrill of publication – are often enough to persuade the photographer to agree, winning the photo editor a great image without touching his budget, and no doubt giving him a smile from the boss too.

This Creative Commons-licensed nature shot, for example, was spotted on Flickr and featured in Maxim magazine, a publication that’s certainly used to paying for its photos. The photographer received nothing more valuable than bragging rights.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Many publications, including Maxim, have a budget for buying images. They’d just prefer to get them for nothing if they can. It may well be possible to negotiate a payment with an image user that wants to skip the fee, winning both the kudos that comes with publication and a check too.

Low Res Images are Free, High Res Images Require a Fee

That begins with knowing who you’re dealing with. Different users always have different budgets which is why stock companies offer a bewildering range of rates for different types of usage. Software like fotoQuote can provide an idea of what exactly those rates should be (and it’s possible to pick up ball park figures by looking for similar uses on PhotoShelter, which incorporates the program) but even before you start negotiating, you have to decide if the request comes from someone who has the money to pay at all.

In general, you can assume that a print publication has a budget and the willingness to stump up the cash, while a blogger with a small site is more likely to keep looking than dip into limited funds.

Win a request from a large company then and you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for a fee, start negotiating at the market rate, and walk away if the buyer balks. Publication is nice but being paid for publication is even nicer. And being taken for a ride is certainly nothing to boast about.

One way to lower the risk of losing the opportunity to see your image in print while still asking for payment is to place only a low-resolution of the image on the Internet with a Creative Commons license. When the request comes in, tell the buyer that he’s welcome to use that version for nothing but point out that a higher resolution version is available at a fair price. Bloggers will be happy with the small picture; serious publishers will want the big image.

It’s likely though that most requests will come from websites and Internet publishers without budgets to buy images – there are more of them. But it is possible to earn even from these image users. They might not be willing to pay a fee but small online image users are always willing to supply credit and a link, a demand that’s usually a requirement of the CC license.

It Pays to Advertise

Make sure that the page the image links to provides plenty of information about the photo to build interest in the subject. Then try to monetize the image by offering prints of the photo for sale to the public, and by indicating to buyers that higher-resolution versions are available for licensing. You might not earn directly from that image user, but you can turn the request into a chance to advertise your photos to editors who do have budgets.

There is a good chance that buyers of those sorts of images will see your photo and click through to see what else you have available.

The biggest opportunity though isn’t using a publisher as a billboard for your photos, and it isn’t even turning a request into a one-time payment. It’s the chance to turn that image user into a regular buyer. That’s always going to be difficult and clearly, it will depend on who’s doing the asking. But it can happen. After Diego Lema sold a self-portrait to a publisher for use on a book cover, for example, the authors asked him to supply more images for their next three books.

The hardest part of selling to an image buyer is always making the first sale. Once the deal has been done, trust  has been established, a rate has been set and the buyer understands the type and quality of the images the photographer can supply. Repeat sales should then be easier. Add the buyer to your mailing list and when you produce a new series of similar images, let him know.

And finally, every time an image is picked up by a buyer – even if it’s for nothing – cash in on those bragging rights. The fact that you’ve been published lets other photo editors see what your images look like on the page and tells them that other image users think your photographer is professional quality too. That reassures them about making an approach.

It has become almost a tradition now for photo buyers to begin their negotiations at zero. Too often though, that’s also where the negotiations end. But whether a photo is used by the buyer for free and by you for advertising, or whether you’re able to receive a fee for a higher resolution image, you should get something out of every request.

5 comments for this post.

  1. Portraits Today Studios Said:

    A very good read. One of the best I've read on the subject. Even a small fee is better than nothing. I have four kids to feed, not an ego. 🙂

  2. Brad Said:

    An excellent post with great ideas on how to maximize revenue from your images.

    We just launched snapizzi.com. Snapizzi provides free technology to tag and sell your photos. Digital barcodes automatically capture and manage your photos for sale; you get e-commerce, order, payment and fulfillment with no set-up fees or subscription costs.

    And after PSW in Boston we were featured in Layers Magazine:

  3. Ken McCoy Said:

    Great info. I conduct a Freelance photographers workshop annually and cover some of this info. Keep up the good work.

  4. Erick @ Photocrati Photograph Blog Said:

    Wow. I'm familiar with people allowing free use of images, but for print publication in Maxim! You know they can pay. It's not like Rural Wisconsin Farm Journal, circulation 300 :).

    In any case, I think so much of this comes down to courage and confidence. There's always the fear that if you ask for a certain price, you'll lose the sale.

    But the fact is that in the cases where someone comes out of the blue and asks you for image, however, you're on strong footing. One thing about print magazine editors is that they usually have very specific photos in mind for a given story. If they ask you for yours, that means it's pretty much EXACTLY what they're looking for. You know they want it. So you've got a lot of space to ask for a sale. If you ask a price, and it's too high, they'll negotiate.

  5. Monty Said:

    Amen to that. Yes, it's very flattering when a publication (and a major one at that!) wants to use your photo, but the thrill wears off quickly. I like Harlan Ellison's approach: if somebody wants to use your work for free, ask them if they work for free!

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