The pricing game

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Just your regular headache.

Following on from an earlier article on understanding licensing, I thought it’d be instructive to spend some time on the remaining elephant in the room for any photographer – especially newly-minted ones – is the question of how much to charge. Attached to that comes the mechanics of it all: invoicing, accounting, collecting payment, and the big one: licensing. Oddly, I find that this part of the business is something that seasoned pros are the most reticent to discuss; perhaps it’s part self-protectionism, perhaps it’s the cultural omerta towards money (at least in Southeast Asia, everybody seems to judge you by how much you earn, but to ask outright would be a major social faux pas*) or perhaps it’s because some of us are afraid to admit how little we’re actually charging.

*Nobody is likely to tell you the truth anyway; culturally, it’s like asking a lady her age in the West. It’s the age-old dilemma of one’s ego wanting to show their success, but simultaneously being afraid of being a target of jealousy. Whilst boastfulness is never a desirable trait, I think we need to be proud of our work and position as professionals and craftsmen – like every other form of social posturing, others tend to judge your implied relative value on external appearances.

And here’s the dilemma (or is it a trilemma since there are three options?): if they ask, do you tell your competition – remembering that you may well be competing for the same job – what you’re billing, in order to maintain rates across the board? Do you not tell them so you win the job, but potentially at the expense of eroding rates for everybody? Or do you give them wrong information – for any one of a number of possible reasons? Let’s consider the last situation for a moment: perhaps you give a false answer because you simply don’t want anybody else to know. It could be higher or lower than the other guy – in the end it probably averages out to no harm, no foul. You could deliberately give a higher number – all other things being equal, that would win you the job at the expense of long term sustainability. Or you could lowball and hope the other guy just backs off without submitting an even lower quote, in which case you’d lose the job and affect future rates.

The problem with all of these scenarios is that none of them are win-win situations for everybody. The only situation that’s sustainable is complete transparency and meritocracy in selection – and we all know that not only does this not happen, it’s pretty much impossible to be objective when judging the relative artistic merits of photographers. Here, client opinion is law – if they don’t like your work, there’s no point in trying to argue otherwise. (In fact, there are plenty of reasons not to pursue the job – but that is another topic for another day.) As a photographer and industry member – this situation is concerning, to say the least.

Like it or not, the reality is that the professional photographic industry – perhaps to a greater extent in Asia than elsewhere – is a numbers game. Education plays a big part in this: even relatively savvy clients will choose a photographer on price as one of the primary considerations. If the difference in image quality or output is say 10%, but the price is 50%, diminishing returns never wins. This of course means two things: firstly, mediocrity thrives because it’s cheap and easy; secondly, it’s very, very difficult to perpetuate and promote a premium product and service because the incremental cost to do so far outweighs any potential returns. And in the end, if you’ve got to charge the same or close to it to get the job and the client doesn’t really appreciate the difference, then all you’re doing is running at lower operating margins than the competition. This will not be in your favor in the long run. This is also one of the reasons I decided not to switch to medium format even though there was definitely a clear jump in image quality. I’d have to spend north of US$30,000 just for a basic kit, and even then I’d still have to retain the Nikon for some things – it simply didn’t make sense in our economy.

This brings us back to the core question: pricing. You can’t charge more just because you’re using a more expensive camera, or at least it makes no sense that it’s justified; I’ve said it time and again: your equipment is in no way indicative of your skill level. And if anything, if one photographer requires less equipment to achieve the same results as another, then it should be clear that the deficit is being made up through skill. But how does this translate into money? How much better qualitatively is a $100 image vs a $1,000 one?

Ultimately, it’s down to the client, of course. But it’s important to have at least some internal scale of charges you use as a baseline to start from. Although ostensibly getting a rate quote from a photographer should be fairly simple, it’s not. Let me explain why by starting with a list of things we have to consider:

  • Physical shoot time required
  • Retouching
  • Travel costs, if any
  • Complexity of setup
  • Whether we have to bump or reschedule other things – you might do this for a large project, but not for a small one – this of course comes at the expense of other things and potentially written-off revenue
  • Permits and planning
  • Any additional things we might need to hire or buy – props, talent, lights, location, equipment, makeup artists
  • Volume
  • The client – both ability to pay, and how much you want to work with them
  • License model

In practice, the last two items are the ones that invariably provide us with the largest headaches. Let’s look at three examples, and calculate cost on a per-image basis.

  1. Photojournalism/ reportage style assignment for a corporate client, one day of shooting. Let’s say it’s documenting a new production line process or something. Final delivery of 50 images, for internal PR and comms use only.
  2. Commercial shoot for an ad campaign for a large international brand, five images of a couple of watches, some of which involve props. Has to be done on-location at the factory in Switzerland. Images will require heavy retouching and compositing, and be used worldwide for a period of two years across multiple media.
  3. Whilst on job 2, another one of your existing clients calls you up and says they heard you were in Switzerland; would you mind coming over and shooting a couple of watches for them? They don’t know how many images they’ll need, but it’s two watches and you can do your usual thing of shooting first, sending over a contact sheet and they’ll pick what they need from there. You happen to have a spare day, and the necessary equipment.
  4. A new client calls up and says they got your name from a friend, they’re opening a restaurant and need some photos of the food and interior. How much do you charge?
  5. You get an email from a small agency who would like to use one of your images they saw on Flickr for an advertisement in Peru. There is no indication or offer of payment.

Life is suddenly not quite so simple, is it? Day rates go out of the window for #3, 4 and 5. And yes, I’ve had all five situations happen to me. In the same month. For 1., I’d go with a day rate – let’s say 100 units**. That number of images and the scope of what I have to cover sounds like about a day of work; the retouching/ postprocessing should be relatively minor since it’s documentary rather than commercial work – perhaps another day at most. I generally assume a day of shooting translates into a day of processing; this is mostly true except for the most demanding commercial work, where it’s higher. This might seem counterintuitive, but if you’re shooting fewer pictures in the first place, chances are a) you’re getting more of it right in camera, and b) those images are going to need increased amounts of individual attention. So for the most part, it’s accurate. I price retouching in with my day rates – I’ve found it easier than to split the two out; if you do, clients tend to ask ‘would it be cheaper without retouching?’ The answer of course is yes, but there is no way any halfway serious commercial photographer worth their lenscaps would even contemplate releasing unfinished images. As for licensing, in this situation the images probably have zero value to anybody but the original client, so the license model doesn’t affect pricing – I can’t make any more money off them, so whether it’s single use or worldwide unlimited exclusive makes no difference.

**I’m playing coy Asian now. Of course, how you determine what 100 units translates to in real dollar terms depends on several factors in itself: your skill level, your credentials, your client list – clout and experience, if you will – prevailing domestic conditions like cost of living etc – and how much you personally need to survive off. I figure there are two ways to do this: either make it a low number so you’re billable and busy for a relatively high portion of each month – income will be consistent, but you will be tired and not really able to grow – or assume you’re going to shoot only about 1/4 of the time or less, and extrapolate from there. The reality is that I average between four and six shooting days a month. The rest of the time is retouching, planning meetings, client pitches, producing content for the site, teaching etc. This allows for both variety and expansion: if suddenly I’m shooting 10-12 days a month, my income doubles – success means that I spend less time pitching and meeting, and more time planning and shooting because people come to me. 

So, in situation 1., we have a per-image cost of 2. In situation 2, we’ve got travel costs, props, rental of stuff over on location, possibly location rental itself and permits, and in this case, either a day rate or a per shot rate. I’m guessing it’ll take two days to shoot, but given that it’s for a global ad campaign, even a raw per shot cost of 40 is on the low side. Here, I’d probably start with say 100 per shot, add incurred expenses at costs – travel – I dunno, perhaps another 200 – rentals etc – another 100. Now we’re up to 800, for a total of 160 per shot. Would the license model make a difference here? Oddly, again not directly: you can’t use the images for anything else, but what it does give you an idea of is the scope of use, and how much money they’re throwing at the overall campaign – and thus its relative importance, and the relative importance of your images. If your work is helping to sell more expensive product, why shouldn’t you get a larger portion of the proceeds? It seems like a win-win to me.

Scenario 3. is a tough one. You can’t charge travel costs because they  know you’re already there and your costs are being covered by the other client – and it’s important to find out if they mind or not for the longevity of your relationship – and you can’t charge a day rate either, because you know the end images will be used commercially and require similar levels of work to the campaign images. But you’re also going to have to shoot a lot of raw material because the client hasn’t given you a shot list or have a concrete idea of what they need. In this situation, I have an idea of what these kinds of images cost – let’s say 30-50, on a relative scale compared to situation 2. – so what I’d probably do is say it’s 50 per image for x images, then if you pick more, I’ll give you a sliding scale discount down to 30 per image. You’ve already done half the work, so if for not much more incremental work you can increase your revenue, then you might as well do so. At the same time, if you’re the client, you need some incentive to buy more images – especially if they’re ones that that are ‘nice to haves’ rather than critical. I see this situation as an incremental opportunity rather than a new one – so the rates tend to be dictated by  preserving the relationship and long term sustainability.

Scenario 4. happens more often than you might think. If the brief has that little information in it, chances are you’re dealing with a client that has absolutely no concept of IP, licensing or even retouching. They’ll ask you to do things like ‘photoshop in people to make the place look busy’. With jobs like this, I will usually ask for an estimated number of shots and assume unlimited use since they’ll probably be no good to anybody, and explaining any other kind of licensing model is near-impossible; if they can’t even give me that, then it’s a day rate and a guess based on what they need. If the number works, then we go ahead. If not, then I don’t touch it with a barge pole: I’ve been burned in the past. Convincing people isn’t the problem; it’s the disconnect in their expectations and yours. Never underestimate how much of a headache the inability to communicate your artistic requirements can be. Many years ago, I once had a fashion client that insisted he didn’t want the model looking at the camera; I warned him that the images would look distant because of a lack of direct viewer engagement; he insisted; and then complained afterwards when ‘the model isn’t even looking at me!’. Ugh.

The final scenario is also fairly common. I start off by informing them that I’m a commercial photographer and images are available for license; rates depend on the usage. If they come back after that, then usually we’re good to go – name a number and if it’s reasonably in line with prevailing rates, then you’ve just gotten a sale. I guess it’d be around 10-20 or perhaps more, depending on usage. If you get a reply along the lines of ‘but it’s only for xyz and it’ll be great exposure for you’, then thanks, but no thanks. Not only will nobody remember the photographer in some obscure campaign in some obscure location, but chances are your image will probably land up being used somewhere else too because they have no understanding or respect for IP. It’s one of the many reasons why I will never put full size images with any remote sort of commercial value online anywhere^. The basis is this: clearly your work has commercial value because the end user would like to employ it to help sell whatever widget or service it is; but they are not willing to reward that value, so why should I give away something for free – especially when there’s no value that returns to me?

^And given that I refuse to show unfinished work in case it’s attributed to me, this means I’ll just never post full size images period, no matter how many review commenters ask.

In these five fairly common scenarios, we’ve got per-image prices that range anywhere from 2 units to 160 units – a variance of 80x – for the same photographer, and probably the same equipment. Now, see why the question of ‘how much do you charge?’ is about as easy to answer as ‘how long is a piece of string’? Of course, if you only shoot one style – say full blown commercial campaign only, or reportage only – then your prices are likely to be a lot more consistent, but I’m sure you can also understand why there’s no way I can charge 160 units per reportage image, and 2 units per campaign image would be completely unsustainable.

To some degree, this means that rates are self-moderating; I can’t actually think of that many other photographers who both shoot reportage assignments and luxury watch campaigns. And within the categories, there are of course tiers; the more famous you are, the more you can charge. Of course, we all know that fame doesn’t necessarily correlate with ability the domestic wedding photography market is perhaps the best example of this, and also the worst example of a regulated industry. You’ve got famous society ‘pros’ who are little more than button pushers charging five figures per day; at the same time you’ve got some seriously skilled amateurs who do it as a weekend hobby for a few hundred for the entire event. There is simply no consistency here.

The same applies to teaching and workshops: if that’s all you do for a living, then you need to have consistency of income, which is brought on through volume. If you’re a bona fide working commercial photographer, then there’s always a tradeoff: the time you spend teaching is time you can’t bill a client for, and it must be committed to far in advance of the actual workshop – and you have to do it even if you have another better paid job for the same period, and less than half capacity. Here, as a student, you’re paying for the photographer’s opportunity cost and of course their knowledge and experience. Value here is relative; clearly there’s more to be learned from somebody who’s proven their images have commercial value than somebody who just blogs. Yet this doesn’t seem to be the case in the market, most of the time: as usual, the loudest voice wins. Just because he shouts loud doesn’t mean what he has to say is worth listening to. As usual: judge value by output. Be very careful of people whose images are either limited in style/ subject matter – a lack of diversity points to a fundamental lack of skills in some areas – or just downright crap.

In a roundabout way, this brings us back to our starting point. I firmly believe in a couple of things: how much you charge should be proportional to both the work required (obviously) and your level of skill. And your level of skill should be determined by both your clients, and by implication, your peers who also shoot for those clients. There’s a degree of information available that should give you a fair idea of what to quote; if not, be honest and ask what your client’s expectations are. Some will try to lowball or game you; most will be honest. The nice thing about this system is that whilst nobody really knows how much everybody else charges, they all have enough of an idea not to spoil the market. In the long run, whilst charging less will get you the job today, it means that things become tougher in the future: in every other industry, rates up with inflation and experience, not down. At the high end, a lot of this is semi-regulated by the agencies; whilst traditional ad agencies engaging photographers directly almost always take a sizeable cut of the bill presented to the client, they also handle a large number of major commissions; large enough that there’s a general benchmark for prices. Still, in recent times I’ve experienced (and heard) a lot of companies going direct to the photographer in the interest of saving some money; the photographer, not always being aware of the agency markup, will (if they’re smart) quote a lower price than the agency would, but a bit higher than their normal rates; there’s a bit of a positive shift going on at the moment.

Now what we need to do is be consistent to ensure that a) everybody wins and b) rates don’t erode further in the longer term. I don’t think the sharing of actual numbers is a bad thing, but I think we need to be a bit careful who we share with: you want to make sure that a) they’re not direct competition but still in a similar line, or b) you have tacit agreements not to poach each other’s clients unless the client makes the first move. There are a small circle of pros here who believe the same; in the longer term, the plan is to set up some sort of agency or accreditation/ regulatory body with the aim of both taking care of the long term commercial interests of the photographer, as well as educating clients and ensuring quality control. Despite what everybody thinks – it isn’t all doom and gloom in the industry, but it’s going to require a lot more collaboration than we have at present*** to make it stick. MT

Coda: Look out for a future article on understanding licensing: I originally wanted to roll it into this one, but by the time I explained the pricing model, we were already at dissertation-length and probably broaching the limits of most readers’ patience.

***In Malaysia, at least


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  1. Ming, for the most part during the analog days, it was much easier to put down a charge because analog medium is physical. If you list down studio time, creatives, model or product styling with X number of rolls shot. Clients normally do not question you. Since each analog frame is bracketed (using polaroid proofing wasn’t fool proof), there is no way a client will have to ask for a edit a photo since Photoshop wasn’t invented yet. Today, digital is virtual, it does not matter how many man hours you put in to edit an image. The client always assumes its your job to change it to the way they want it. Anyone with a computer can be a amateur photographer shooting great images thanks largely to photoshop. Want a celebrity who wasn’t there photoshopped into your birthday party? No problem, can be done. It is little wonder that the best images that will survive this era, are those which are shot on analog medium. Case in point are the images in Walter Issacson’s Steve Jobs book cover. That said, would clients accept if you as a professional if you shot only in analog in Malaysia? Probably not. Cheap is good to go and this is why I quit doing photography.

    • Frankly, your clients only accept you as professional in malaysia if you charge to their expectations…sadly, the rest is immaterial.

      • That’s true and this is why educating clients will not help you. In their head, they already know digital technology has leveled the playing field to the point that amateurs with plenty of time to spare should be put in the same hole as professionals— by being less of a photographer but more of a digital artist. Digital technology has devalued the profession to this level and now anyone can all himself a photographer. The pro or amateur suffix don’t apply anymore.

        • Sorry, but I disagree. Education definitely helps, and has helped me a) get more sophisticated clients and b) avoid bad jobs. The pro/amateur suffix might not apply because the lines are becoming increasingly blurred, but time does not equal skill or professionalism: that is the ability to deliver and add value, regardless. And that more than anything is the biggest difference between pros and amateurs now.

  2. Fascinating read, I found your site searching for equipment reviews. It is an unexpected, but very welcome pleasure to find such a treasure of intellectual and practical thoughts presented with such clarity and frankness. I will be coming back for more inspiration even after I have satisfied my current GAS.

    Let JC Biver know that your photos sold more than a few watches to me and my friends.

    Keep it up

  3. One of the issues of the agency model in working in the United States is that many agencies only want to talk with reps. I get most of my clients corporate direct, though the model for fees is different than if an agency (or rep) handled negotiations. On all bigger projects I write proposals, which can take a day or more to put together. In that process, I’m lucky to get 1/3rd to 1/2 of all the projects for which I write proposals. Add meetings, e-mail and phone conversations to that, and there is quite a bit of time spent that is uncompensated. All that must be factored into what I can charge and what I need to charge. I have to be fair to my clients and myself.

    Anyway, this makes the price levels for different projects quite variable. One thing that I factor in is how many projects I can do in a year, which helps me develop a bottom limit below which I simply cannot take on a project. It helps to work withing budgets, though rarely will a client tell you their budget. The only powerful negotiating tool we have is turning down a project.

    As to how we get through the lulls in action and time between projects, I find it can help to continue other creative pursuits, do some tutoring, and (more recently) write professionally. I’m recovering from a bad shoulder dislocation, so last year I did not take on many projects. While some projects sounded very interesting, I had to say no due to health issues. Needless to say that puts a pressure upon generating income.

    As far as more specific pricing, I have found it nearly impossible to do a project for less than $US 1500 per location/day. The biggest project I have done worked out to around $US 17000, while the largest I ever bid on was $US 34000 (didn’t get that because I was too low on my proposal). One of the problems with putting figures out there is that some clients may think you can haul that in every day of the week. The reality is that there are many uncompensated things that need to be done to either run the business or generate new business.

    • Sounds like pretty much what I’m doing, too. The trouble is I’m really not in a financial position to turn on jobs, but still have to occasionally if the figures bed with the quote. In malaysia, charging at that level would get you almost no work. I can’t imagine what it would be like to seen to undercharge, rather than overcharge. We continually get squeezed on price here, to the point that there are big studios doing editorial assignments at US$200/ image or less. I suspect that the only make money because they are constantly booked, as opposed to being reasonably profitable on each job. Personally, I would rather do fewer but more profitable jobs that might make me less money in total, but arrogantly creative fit. I suspect that doing too many soulless jobs in the long term may result in a complete loss of artistic drive. Sad truth is that with increasingly low client education and new people entering the business in decision-making positions who don’t really care or understand photography, it’s only going to get worse for us.

      • One bad indicator I have seen in the US is studios that use to be exclusive to a photographer, now offering their space and lighting gear for rent. I tend to do mostly on-location assignments, so I rarely ever need a studio. The overhead to keep and maintain a studio creates a higher margin of make-or-break on the need to be profitable. It’s a bad trend to watch, but my guess is if we see more photographer’s studios popping up available to rent, then our industry is not headed in a good direction. We must add more value to projects than being an equipment or gear rental outlet. I would never charge less than what it costs to rent equivalent gear.

        • Agreed. Same thing is happening here, too. Perhaps the other trend is an increasing number of projects being done on-location to save costs too? I hardly ever get requests for studio-based projects these days.

  4. wahyudi tan says:

    ” There are a small circle of pros here who believe the same; in the longer term, the plan is to set up some sort of agency or accreditation/ regulatory body with the aim of both taking care of the long term commercial interests of the photographer, as well as educating clients and ensuring quality control. Despite what everybody thinks – it isn’t all doom and gloom in the industry, but it’s going to require a lot more collaboration than we have at present”
    *Please share some more about this talk:)

    majority of low-mid tier commercial clients in my country never used any kind of licensing or whatsoever. so the industry is really harsh for any newcomer. the mindset always like i pay you to take the job so i own the image for eternity. and when you explain about licensing they will be turned off.. they will never call you back. why? because another people would like to do that with the same quality technicaly (not aestheticly of course because that certain aspect is unique to every person), lower price and clients can own the image. In the end its just a price war.
    To live a “proper way” is going up to the high end markets or going through respected ads agency (they take very big commission). not everybody can do that.. its a very small circle who took 80% of market’s shares and it comes down to the networking-you need to know the inside people etc.

    and about wedding industry in my country… its a total chaos down there..

    another high quality articles from MT. very nicely done

    • The solution around this is just to charge assuming they own the images in perpetuity, non-exclusive, with a provision for you to reuse them. Document it and get them to sign. Done. I do it with all of my clients and explain that it’s to protect both them and me in the future, plus have everything legally covered – try it, most of the time if you explain it right, clients are more than happy to support licensing. The trick is they have to think it’s not costing them any more – which it actually isn’t.

      • plevyadophy says:

        I don’t quite get that.
        If you say that your client “owns” the image, aren’t you then allowing them to do with the images as they please? And if so, doesn’t such a license cost more?
        And aren’t then handing over to the client your copyright, or at least handing over the right for them to use the images in anyway they please and related to purpose for which the images were originally commissioned?
        In the situation you describe, do you not at least restrict the license to the use for which it was originally commissioned e.g. the company wants the images for use in its KL stores, so you restrict the license to KL rather than allowing the images to be used across the whole Malaysia?

        • You want to get 100 units for your image for exclusive unlimited licensing. If you don’t present a 50 unit option for limited rights in addition to the 100 unit all-in, then the client won’t question why he has to pay 100. It’s psychology. You HAVE to do this because clients here simply think that because they’ve paid something, they can do as they please.

          • plevyadophy says:

            So I guess, you either have to ascertain whether or not your potential client is sophisticated enough to understand the different licensing arrangements, and if not you just charge the 100 units; or if you don’t know whether or not the client is aware of the issues, you just assume they are not and charge the 100 units anyway, right?

            Which leads to the question of how do you ascertain which potential clients are and aren’t aware of intellectual property and licensing issues? I guess, for some cases it’s obvious e.g. news outlets, ad agencies etc, but for others how do you tell? Or don’t you bother (if the potential client falls outside the obvious categories of client) and just charge 100 units and risk the client recoiling in horror and looking elsewhere for a cheaper solution?


            • Pretty much.

              If your client doesn’t bat an eyelash when you mention usage and licenses, you’re probably safe. If they ask, then you know…there don’t tend to be many in the middle.

            • Most manufacturing and publishing companies are aware of intellectual property issues. Service companies are a different matter, and quite often they really do not understand licensing. There are also issues specific to different countries, despite the number of places signed up to the Berne Convention, Madrid Protocols, and Universal Code of Conduct treaties.

              I do some work that ends up as Exclusive Usage, especially if a Property Release is part of the project. The difference there is the time limits stated in the Proposal. Many clients want an embargo on images, even for Non-exclusive Usage Rights, so I will often do three to six months of embargo on showing the images (sometimes one year). I don’t do buy-outs nor All Rights transfers, even though that means some companies will not use me; my experience has been that those types of clients treat you very poorly, don’t care about your future, complain about invoices, and tend to pay late.

              It’s important to remember that you are running a business, not a finance company, especially when deposits are becoming more rare as companies tighten their spending. Images enhance the image of a company, highlight their products and/or services, and promote the company to their target audience. Any company that decides they need images produced by a professional photographer, understands the importance of those images. Sometimes it helps to remind companies that those images are also important to your advancing your career.

  5. The thoughts and comments here are what drove me out of the industry 10years ago.

    What to charge? I always based my fees on the time taken for both the shoot and post production, the intended exposure of the shots and my relationship with the client. If the images were in my library, then the license fee depended on the intended exposure.

    It was my clients lack of understanding in regard to licensing and the increased competition from ‘amateurs’ that finally forced me into a salaried job.

    Leslie, £10 is ridiculously low for the time and effort you have spent taking, ‘laboriously’ scanning, retouching, getting the print and then posting to the client, and do you really value 20 years of your time and ‘creative input’ at just £10. The automotive parts business wants to use your images (therefore, time, effort and creativity) to ‘make money’. Price your WORK accordingly. If you don’t value your images, no one else ever will.

    I met quite a few businesses that expected to get my images at similar rates to what ‘amateurs’ were offering.

    eg.1: I shot at least one job a month for a kitchen manufacturer, large format, 4 images, fixed price. A good regular job with some beautiful subject matter. One day I’m asked if the designer can art direct the shoot, no problems. The designer and her husband turn up to the shoot and start discussing how, “his company (multi-national laminate company) could use the shots as well”. They both took offence when I explained that in fact the images were owned by me and only licensed to the kitchen manufacturer, and that, if said multi-national company wanted to use them in an advertising campaign, we would have to negotiate fees and usage rights and that a potentially international advertising campaign would cost a LOT more than a small local company building a portfolio. They honestly thought they could use the images however they liked, as I had already been paid by the original client.

    eg.2: I had a job shooting 35mm publicity shots twice a month. A nice half day job charged at $500 plus costs. After 5 years providing prints I was asked if I could supply digital images (this was about the time the Canon 20D was released). I said sure, but as I hadn’t increased my fees for 5 years I would need to add 3% to cover my increased equipment costs, because they were no longer paying for film and prints, the total cost to them would decrease substantially. I was replaced 3 months later by a student with a consumer level digital charging $150 for the job.

    I worked in an era where true professional photographers were respected and made a VERY good living, this changed with the 1987 crash, it never really recovered and the digital era has eroded it even more. I have many, many similar stories, of my own and fellow professionals, and I know that all working professionals reading this have had to deal with the same issues, I just felt like having a rant. Ahh, the good ol’ days!

    • No problem. I honestly think it’s going to go in a circle eventually – people will retire or go out of business and eventually there will be no semblance of quality left; yet the one or two who can somehow hold on will then have a larger pie as the increasing proliferation of gear/ images/ HD content etc drives demand for quality. But it’s going to take a few years for clients to realize that they can’t really do it themselves, or cut corners. The question is, how do we survive until then? (And sometimes I think I was stupid for even trying.) That said, I wouldn’t do a half day at $500, and I’m living in a (according to Paypal at least) third world country…so perhaps it isn’t doom and gloom after all.

  6. I am a non-professional but over a period of 20 years I worked freelance supplying rallysport images to a small number of specialist magazines. I have a collection of images on Smugmug in part dedicated to rallysport photography currently with around 1200 images taken in the 1970s. They were all shot on film and have been laboriously scanned over the last year. I have another 10 years worth of images to scan.

    The purpose of the site is simply to make the images available to see for those interested in what is now historic motorsport. If someone wants a print I will sell them one at a cost of £10GB for A4. This involves rescanning the image(s) at high resolution, spotting etc, the cost of materials and p&p within the UK.

    I was approached recently by someone who has a motorsports parts business asking for digital copies of all 1200 images. Having been stung in the past by a major oil company using one of my images for advertising purposes and others using images scanned from a magazine, reproducing them on a website and claiming copyright I said I was very reluctant to release digital copies and certainly not that number.

    I said that if he identified a number of images I would let him have prints. He came back to say that £10GB was too much for an A4 print so I reckon he thought he could get the digital copies at no or minimal cost.

    Some people don’t have a clue about what is involved.

    • If anything, £10 is too little. You’re being taken for a ride – I wouldn’t bother with this company for two reasons: firstly, the money won’t be worth it for you; secondly, they almost certainly won’t understand or respect any license restrictions that might have made it worthwhile.

      • Fair enough – but also part of this ‘amateur’ client market that doesn’t know about license restrictions will only appreciate it if someone shows them what it all means.

        I appreciate the ability to turn down potential troublesome clients, but I also realise that actually unless you are in the graphics/marketing fields virtually no one has a solid understanding of licensing rights. Not even other design related fields. I’m primarily an architectural photographer so I dodge a lot of the hassle here (and also increased income) as I grant a perpetual non-exclusive license for use to the (typically architectural) firm who designs the space – which in turn is almost useless to anyone apart from them. I can then independently market out the images separately to magazines/books etc. and get paid by such publications to subsequently print if I desire.

        I’d say 80-90% of my clients barely even care about licensing of any sort let alone know what it’s really about.

        I’d also say the parts business above is the same. I’d assume that they think your 10gbp price is actually the cost of printing and materials rather than in any part actually for the rights/ip of the photo in and of itself, and yes, then expecting digital versions to be dirt cheap. I guess you have to let it go. They either should pay the 10gpb and go from there or reasonably look at terms that you dictate, with digital costing a hell of a lot more.

        Also, (and this is a problem I run into – but just part of the kind of work I do…) as Ming has mentioned elsewhere… releasing digital files allows anyone to do anything with your picture in terms of post processing… so not only is cropping/composition potentially destroyed but god forbid that someone takes to a levels tool without your consent. Of course when I shoot it is rarely for a publication right then and there up front, but rather down the track use so I have no clear brief as to what is required ratio wise etc. and I must live with that risk.

        Many photographers will only allow themselves to issue prints (either by themselves or with a trusted print shop) so they retain full control of the final image which seems fair to me. The cost is more but the quality is virtually guaranteed as well, which should be seen as a win-win by the clients…

  7. “in Southeast Asia, everybody seems to judge you by how much you earn, but to ask outright would be a major social faux pas”

    Hah! That sounds a lot like the United States.

    Although in the U.S., people are given a bonus for having an occupation that’s considered cool or having social merit. Thus a $100k/yr computer programmer has much lower prestige than a $100k/yr director at a non-profit.

  8. Too complicated, Ming. In all honesty, as professional photographers we are selling expertise and the best way to measure the value of that is in hours consumed. Things may be different at your end of the scale, but for me the questions I ask are these: how many hours of the month do I have for production? How much money do I need/want to make? What is the financial position of this client? Answer those and you begin to unravel the mysteries of pricing (as a professional). There’s no “one price fits all” so you have to be astute.

    One thing I don’t do anymore is compete with amateur photographers on price. Where they can’t follow me is on hours spent producing during weekdays. They have 9-5 jobs and simply can’t offer the kind of availability that I do. Weekends are a different story and that’s why it says “I don’t shoot weddings” in the footer of my website. 🙂

    • Simpler in your part of the world, perhaps. We have ‘pros’ here who charge like amateurs and vice versa…and uneducated clients who pay both a small fortune for weddings and aren’t willing to pay at all – it’s a messed up market here.

      • Sounds like it’s the same here. Put another way, I know what my time is worth, so I price myself according to that. Of course you have to know what’s involved in producing X images for Y job, otherwise you’re just thumbsucking and will end up shooting yourself in the foot when it comes to the time you spend on any particular job – which is what most amateurs tend to do and we all suffer as a result.

        The absolute worst thing any pro can do though is go in too high on a quote and then drop the price dramatically just to get a job. Rather walk away if the client is pressuring you to reduce your quote. I recently did this when a Chinese company asked me to cover an event here.

  9. Very well said Ming. Enjoying your posts.

  10. Thank you for another well crafted commentary!

  11. Linden Wilkie says:

    Your sharp eye, thoughtful approach to composition and all elements, and your obsessive focus on inching up iterative quality mean that it is just as well your commercial focus (high end watches, etc) is with businesses that mirror your exceptional production values (my humble submission). Aim lower and your own production values will swallow your margin whole, and the client won’t value the difference. It is clear from what you present in this website that you wouldn’t deliver less.


  1. […] much do you charge?” (See also: the pricing game) I admit this is one step up from the second question. But not by much: pricing is an elaborate […]

  2. […] be is something only you can decide, but you should take into consideration a few things – rates for the rest of the market for similar work; your client’s budget; how much they’re spending on deploying your images; reach of the […]

  3. […] Any commercial photography quotation must take into account a number of factors such as the time it will take you to complete the preparations, the photography, and the editing and postproduction. There may be additional expenses such as travel, accommodation, and the hiring of equipment or models. You will then normally add to this the cost of the Licence depending on the client’s proposed usage schedule. For smaller commercial jobs it often makes sense to include the licensing fee in the overall quotation, offering perhaps a standard usage fee and an extended usage fee. This is very much how I approach my own commercial photography pricing because it’s pretty simple to apply and is easy for most clients to understand. But what if you suddenly land a large lucrative assignment for a well-known brand? There appears to be no standard set “across-the-board” commercial pricing tables and one photographer may quote very differently to the next. This is where additional determining factors come into play, such as the photographer’s existing track record and desirability. With this in mind I read a fascinating article recently, written by acclaimed commercial photographer Ming Thien: The Pricing Game […]

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