What to Consider When Charging for your First Sale

It’s a story we come across time and time again when we talk to amateur photographers who have sold their photos. They’re thrilled to have made the sale. They’re flattered to have been asked. They’re as proud as a peacock to see their photo in print.

But the fee? That’s a whole other tale.

“It was not a lot of money,” Diego Lema told us after his self-portrait appeared on a book cover.

“[T]he photo printing and matting brought my total expense to what I had sold the photo for!” Brandy said about her first print sale. “But that’s okay. That’s part of becoming a smarter photographer.”

It’s possible they’re being coy, but we’ve yet to hear of a photographer who put a picture on Flickr and then received an offer big enough to buy themselves a house in Cancun. More typically, the first sale goes for much less than the photographer would have predicted — and significantly lower than the market rate.

That’s not entirely surprising. Your first photo sale has a value way beyond the numbers on the check. It’s your passport into a select club, it’s approval of your talent and it’s steroids for your confidence.

It really doesn’t make sense to give all of that up for an extra $30 or $40. You’d probably be prepared to pay many times that to be certain of making the leap from hopeful amateur to rising semi-professional.

But that doesn’t mean that your first sale has to be an opportunity to get fleeced by a lucky buyer.

The Market Rate
On the one hand the question of the “right” market rate for is easy to solve. FotoQuote is a piece of software that lets you enter all sorts of details about the image and its intended use. The American Society of Media Photographers has a long list of other tools that help photographers calculate the “correct” rate. You’ll receive a set amount that you can tell the buyer is the right price for the license.

But that doesn’t mean they’re going to pay it.

Many pricing tools are based on the fees paid by big media companies to professional photographers but today, it’s not just big media companies who are doing the buying and it’s not just the pros who are doing the selling. There are plenty of small firms — and even one-man bands — who need images, are prepared to pay for them but who don’t have Madison Avenue-sized budgets.

And there are plenty of photographers who are happy to accept a smaller fee than those demanded by photographers with a studio and staff to support. It might be accurate to say that there isn’t a market rate but rather different rates for different markets.

Who is the Buyer?
So yes, the professional market rate is one factor you need to consider. It can form a good starting point for negotiations. But you also have to consider the buyer. How valuable is this image — or any image — to him? What would he get out of using it and how easy would it be for him to replace it with a picture from somewhere else if you were to charge he price he found unaffordable?

None of those questions is particularly easy to answer. A book publisher is likely to have a bigger budget than a private print buyer — and is also likely to be able to place a real dollar value on the photo in terms of the effect on sales — but without knowing a great deal of information about how much the buyer has paid in the past, you’ll always be setting a rate in some level of darkness.

What are your costs?
One solution then is to come up with your own bottom line. Calculate the costs involved in creating and delivering the image and factor those expenses into the price. Consider, for example, the travel costs of reaching the destination, time spent on shooting and post-production, the price of props, and even renting equipment if you would have needed to do that.

Even if the picture was taken during a trip you were making anyway, with equipment you already own and for no other reason than that it looked like a fun thing to do, the buyer would have had to pay for all of those expenses had he hired someone to shoot the picture for him. They can all be legitimately included in the price… before you add your own fee for your skill and talent.

You should also make sure that you include any future costs such as printing and packaging so that you don’t end paying to put your photo in the buyer’s hands.

In practice, setting a rate for your first photo sale isn’t an exact science. The only fair price is the one both sides accept. And remember, it’s only your first sale. Next time, when the novelty of making a sale itself has fallen off, you’ll be willing to charge more — and more importantly, willing to walk away if the buyer doesn’t pay.

5 comments for this post.

  1. john griffin Said:

    wow. such a great article and resource.

    this is an issue we are tackling at cutcaster. pricing content or finding the correct market price is very hard like you pointed out but creating a platform to determine the pricing based on both the buyers and sellers input and negotiations is what we wanted to do at cutcaster when pricing photos or videos for licensing.

    on one hand the seller can set their own price or use our cutcaster algorithm to find the correct market price but on the other hand buyers can submit a bid for content so they can also find the correct market price if things get out of whack or people price their content too high. also sellers have the chance now to accept or reject a bid and won't lose out on sales they never hear about.

    this platform puts the power back in the hands of the creators as well as the buyers of all different budgets so they can learn from one another and also still do business without losing out on sales bc they don't know how to price their content or have the option to negotiate a price.

  2. Rachel Kenison Said:

    When I sold my first photo off of flickr to a German postcard company I did some research. I think what I got is a fair price for limited quantity/use rights. It has become a more frequent "good problem" to have and I haven't had anything to really help me price my photography. I also have no idea what to ask for when it comes to photo shoots. So, thanks for the ASMP link. That is a great resource.

  3. Chester Bullock Said:

    Good article, and a helpful one. Might be even more helpful if it explained the different types of rights you can sell with the image, which bring different prices. Might be too much detail to go into though.

  4. Corey Scherrer Said:

    This is a great resource, thanks! I suffer a pricing duality personally. I work for a stock photography company, but my personal photography is completely separate. I never really think about a price for my own work since currently I'm not looking to make money from it. In the off chance someone wanted to use my work commercially, and I agreed with the usage, It is nice to have a good reference.

    My advice to anyone out there is NEVER sell exclusive rights to your work to one entity unless they are paying handsomely. Once you have given up rights to your work, you loose all potential future revenue and usage.

  5. steve Said:

    I sold my first flickr "stock" sale for $1000, after I'd initially asked for $1500. It was for a book cover in a run of over 8,000 copies. Slightly below market value from the research I'd done, but still a good price for something of that nature.

    The only other deal I did I was paid $400/photo for 4 pictures to go into a private marketing book for a Casino. That job was solely about location, they needed pics of a locale that is not very photographed, and they wanted it to be genuinely from that area. Not something that you come across on stock sites too often. Sometimes it's about the niche instead of looking at what everyone else is doing. I also took those pictures the DAY AFTER they contacted me to see if I had any pics of the area. 3 days later, POOF! Yes, yes I DO have pictures of that area. Sometimes you have to make the sale happen. $1600 for about a day's work is pretty dang good if you ask me, screw the going rate of reprint rights.

    The funny thing is that these pictures were really the expendable ones in the long run, and the priceless family photos go for $30 per 8x10. Kind of sad, when you think about it.

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