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.