Friday, February 29, 2008

Free Photos and Artistic Vision - A Contrary Position

My friend and colleague, Chase Jarvis, wrote on his blog, and article titled Free Photos and Artistic Vision, and, it's worth a read. However, where he posits the notion for pondering that, possibly:

The future of earning a living as a photographer lies not in your old pictures, but your next pictures. Sure, one-of-a-kind historical, documentary pictures will always have their earning potential, but the successful professional of the future -- just like the successful professional of today -- will make their money getting hired to deliver their commissioned, artistic vision for the newest product, trend, or photo of the moment, NOT to deliver the ones and zeros from yesterday's digital file.
He is promoting the 'sell once and forget it' approach.

In other words, get as much for it now as you can, and don't plan to, or choose the option that allows you to monetize that asset over time. At first blush, that seems fine, however, there's a problem with that idea.
(Continued after the Jump)

It suggests the conveyance to the client of all rights so as to eliminate your ability to earn more on those images from that client. There are a number of issues with that:
  • The clients will seek lower and lower figures for these all rights packages. They already are getting them now, for pennies of what they are reasonably valued at.
  • You'll get the client who hires you for a brochure, and then uses the images in a national ad campaign. Happens now all the time by unsuspecting photographers who buy the "we're only going to use it in a small print-run brochure..." line, and then signs away all rights.
  • You'll get the client who hires you once for $10k, and then, when they would have had to pay you another, say, $8k the next year to re-use the images, or perhaps another $10k shoot instead, decides they'll re-use the images under the proposed model, and would not have to pay the $8k, nor commission the new $10k. This will have a trickle-down effect.
  • These clients may, in turn, re-license them through a stock portal themselves.
There are, of course, other problems, with the all-you-can-eat buffet approach to photography.

I recently had a prospective client (a purported magazine) call me to photograph 60 portraits - individual portraits around DC. They wanted to pay $1k per portrait. At first blush, this seemed like a boon. Upon reading their contract, they took all rights, including reprints. I did a little research, and found that these portraits - of lawyers - were being done and then the lawyers, because they were featured in this "magazine" which was a "special edition" titled "Washington's Best Lawyers" and moreover, each firm could (read, was asked to) advertise in the publication, and then they sold reprints for $3k for an inside piece, and more if the cover was "redone" for the lawyer or firm. In essence, it was a disguised brochure, and I was the $1k guy that would have turned over all that income to the "magazine". Further, the firm could - for a fee - get the digital file for their own uses. There was no movement on the price, or a renegotiation on the reprints issue, and when I noted that they were charging for the reprints of my work and thus, earning a substantial income from essentially reselling my work, and I queried further "is that your business model", they said it was, and they were doing it all over the country.

While I know that Chase has a true and nearly as complete as possible understanding of the value of the images he produces, I submit that, to the vast majority of photographers who don't get signed contracts from clients before beginning work, roll over on rights grabs without additional compensation, and have no idea what their CODB is, letting the levy breach whereby "all rights forever" and WMFH are allowed to roam free and fester in the land of acceptable business models for freelancers, is a recipe for disaster.

Chase does put forth the question "IF (capitalized for emphasis) this is the case," and so, I think he may well disagree with this notion, but he puts it forth, and ends with "Scary to some, exciting to others. You just need to decide on which side of that fence you're going to sit." I submit that that last word has a misspelling. It needs an "h" between the "s" and the "i".

Please post your comments by clicking the link below. If you've got questions, please pose them in our Photo Business Forum Flickr Group Discussion Threads.


Eric Schmiedl said...

It's not clear to me that Chase is talking about giving away rights so much as he is talking about shifting towards assignment work and away from shooting for stock. (Also--and Chase is really the only person that can confirm or deny this as I don't do advertising work right now--I'm under the impression that the advertising photography world generally has much broader usage licenses in general than the corporate one.)

Anonymous said...

"It suggests the conveyance to the client of all rights so as to eliminate your ability to earn more on those images from that client."

In my opinion, it doesn't. Nowhere in his post did I find any (implicit) suggestion to just sell all rights. He seems to be making a case for focusing on commisioned work as opposed to counting on your stock archive as a reliable source of income.

Andy Frazer said...

I have to agree with the first two posters, Eric and Joost. I think Chase's point was to focus on gaining income from future assignments, as opposed to trying to monetize the value of your archives.

Although, the points you made about not giving away your rights are important.

Andy Frazer

Chase Jarvis said...

Indeed - Eric, Joost, and Andy are correct.

In summary, IF Chris Anderson is correct, my position is:

1. that "stock" photos (ie images either shot on spec for some future possible use OR images that were shot on commission but whose rights have now reverted back to you to do with what you wish) will continue to decrease in value more sharply as the market grows in size and speed.

2. Will there still be value, and will that "stock" value be realized more quickly and directly by photographers who know how to take a picture than those that don't? Certainly. But if you buy Chris' argument, their value does head to zero because of the speed, ease, and cost to distribute heads to zero. Simple market economics.

3. So where the revenue shifts in such a case is to favor the creative artist who is commissioned to create those photos in the first place (they get commission AND stock option...diminishing as it may be... vs just the "stock" shooter, or the shooter relying on their "stock" as longevity and livelihood). And what will get that photographer hired, as more photos flood the market and become available to buyers with a few keystrokes, is to be able to distinguish him or herself as a artist with vision.

5. THUS, hone your vision, develop your recognizable style, and get in gear to land commissions. It's therein that lies the greatest chance for ongoing marketplace success as the digital economy marches on.

Anonymous said...

Did you turn down the $60K job? If, so, you must be doing well. So well, in fact, that you're essentially putting huge sums of money where your mouth is.

On the other hand, someone did make that $60k, I presume. They earned it by taking 60 portraits. Maybe they looked at this as a temporary job (work for hire) situation, maybe they just figured it was worth the money and didn't concern themselves with how much value others would place on the images.

The model we'd all like to work under is that of per-usage licensing, for the most money we can get. But will all of us turn down money time after time to make a statement? I doubt it.

Like movie stars, and rock stars, only a few photographers will be able to make those "sweet" deals soon.

Eric Schmiedl said...

Ed, it depends whether you look at it as getting $60k or as getting $60k for a $180k+ job.

Bart said...

Eric, or if you look at it as getting $60k or not getting $60k.

$60k for 60 portraits? $60k = some new camera gear...$60k = paying off loans.

It's all fine and dandy for established photographers to turn down a $60k job....fine...I'll take it then.

Anonymous said...


But this wasn't a $180k job. It was advertised as a $60k job. That is what they offered as compensation for the deliverables and rights.

There are many people out there that trade work and products to a company, that then leverages that labor into big profits.

Should the local Starbucks barrista start demanding $100k per year to prep and serve coffee? This of course, based on the idea that Starbucks can turn the hourly cost of the worker into huge money.

So, like anything in a free market, we have the right to get what we can, and they have the right to do the same.

Let's not pretend this has anything to do with business ethics or the good fight against devaluation of our craft.

It was a $60k job. But, I guess if you can feel ripped off for accepting it, it just isn't worth taking.

Eric Schmiedl said...

Bartron and Ed-- Again, it depends on how you think about it.

You guys are thinking about in terms of supplier's accounting: it costs me $cost to do this job and I'm being offered $fee, and $fee is a whole lot bigger than $cost, woohoo!

John is thinking about it in terms of customer's economics: this job will earn them $income, so therefore it's worth $income minus ($their-cost-of-doing-business plus $their-profit). If John values the rights to the image at a certain amount (I got the $180k figure by multiplying his posted sales-brochure-portrait-day-rate by two, assuming he would charge double for that usage) then taking the job would be like Armani selling a suit for $500 instead of $5000. Sure, they'd still probably cover their costs of manufacturing, but...

As a business negotiator, your goal is to get the best possible deal for yourself while making sure the other side gets at least an acceptable deal. (If you can make their deal better without giving up any of your own benefit, great. And never give them a bad deal--then they won't do business with you again!)

Anonymous said...


I don't think you understood my post. There's nothing I wrote to indicate the "woohoo!" presumed cost vs. fee mentality as a motivator.

What I'm saying is YOU can't determine what the job pays based on what the client will eventually make. It pays whatever the CLIENT is willing to pay. Therefore, this is a $60k job (with a potential for the client to generate revenue, not necessarily profit, well beyond his cost of hiring a photographer).

Keep in mind, that client is assuming a certain amount of risk for the reward. Plus, they have tons of work to do on their end to make those photographs "worth" more to their end market of law firms.

It's all on them to work hard to drive up the perceived value of the images and their magazine/advertorial.

The photography isn't the only costs they face. And the photographer isn't the only one working on their end product.

So, as you say, it depends on how you think about it.

You can think that your lawyer portraits and the end value that the client will receive off of their use is so valuable as to demand a rate you'll never receive.

Or, you can simply live with the reality that the client determined a budget that will keep them in business -- so that maybe they can offer $60k for 60 portraits again next year.

Anonymous said...

Read Barton's Quote again and again and again folks. This is the toughest reality to accept. Change the numbers from 60k to 1k or even 500 bucks you can't deny that this mentality thrives in so many peoples minds. Justifiable or not, it is an inherent part of the equation. Only you can decide your own future." If there is a mouse it's the hole's fault' from the Talmud. Are you the mouse or the hole?

Anonymous said...

Anon, The client can already find photographers who'll do the job for 500 bucks. Why don't they?

Because the real equation is about what a client feels they need to pay in order to get the return they are looking for.

If they can get the same return with a $500 photographer that they can with a $60k photographer, they'll take the $500 (with good reason).

The thing is, this company determined it needed to spend more to meet its needs of service, and image quality. The $500 photographer would never have been considered.

This is business, not entitlement.

There will always be a need for highly paid photographers. There will always be demand for guys with cameras that will give away the farm.

Anonymous said...

I think Eric and Ed are both partly right.

The rate on offer is not the be-all and end-all. It has to be assessed based on the true value of the work. The pictures have a market value. This is a fact. And the it's the license that determines it.

Whoever said the amount on offer is the only consideration must also be prepared to pay $5 for a coffee because that's what the price board says?

It's true, though, that the client is value-adding through their own business and market position. And while that should be considered in so far as you, the photographer, would not be able to produce that sorts of "monetizing" (hat that word) yourself, it does hinge directly on the pictures you are supply and therefore reflects their value, too. And I think sixty portraits deserves a bulk discount of some sort.

However if the contract they pushed in front of John was for all-rights, then the "value" of his pictures was indeed much, much greater. And if he's in a position to walk then I congratulate him for doing so. Most people wouldn't.

Most people aren't as savvy.

Anonymous said...

I don't buy the "well, SOMEONE'S going to take it" argument. While prices (and profits) have risen in many industries, "creative" industries have plummeted. This is largely due to the fact that many wanted to be 'artists' - and therefore took no business classes, etc.

Ed - I would say the more appropriate summary is "$60K now, $20K next time, $5K the next..." It's the pattern that's been plaguing this industry.

I think a central concept to John's argument is that people are failing to look at the long-term consequences of their actions.

I work largely as a digital technician in NYC (why am I not shooting full-time already? Well...because I'm not going to lowball to get my foot in the door!) Last week, I was on-set with an editorial still-lifer with a regular client. The client mentioned how we'd saved ourselves work on THIS job by having already shot some of the products; the magazine would re-use those images instead. No new usage fees, no extra day of shooting. This is an example of what happens when you sell the cow; now the client's got plenty of milk - they don't need much from you.

Unfortunately, there are many "guys with cameras" competing on price instead of skill. The scary thing is, as content devalues faster due to things like the shift to the web, a "good enough" phenomenon is sweeping through - meaning that junk shot they bought off Flickr with unlimited usage in perpetuity takes a lot of days from more skilled workers.

We're facing the possible end of a profession; people (largely hobbyists - see the story about the pet food company that saved $40K buying a Flikr image similar to the one they'd wanted to license from a professional) are now selling images at less than the CODB; by definition, that spells the death of a profession. It's no joke.

Also, digital has enabled clients to get much higher productivity out of shooters, while simultaneously flooding the market with "try, try again" hacks; it's DECREASED the number of hired shoot days, and increased the number of 'shooters'. This has put a major crunch on professionals. What can we do?

Many things have crossed my mind... clients often still need truly skilled photographers for some images; those shooters could refuse to do business with companies that hire unskilled labor and only call when they're "in a bind" and need a true professional. We could renew attempts at a union - which would be an overall similar approach. We could start a free business network, trying to educate photographers. (Note to John - thanks for this site!!!!!!!)

Unfortunately, people who share the attitudes of some posting here will always exist; they'll always say, "Well hey - I'll take $60K over nothing." They're too short-sighted to realize that the next guy will say, "I'll take $20K over nothing!" and so on. In my profession (teching), I've found one small solution: I refuse to recommend anyone I know to undercut a fair market value. It's kind of like the "recycling phenomenon" - lazy people say "Hey, what's MY one can going to change? Let everybody else do it..." So what does NYC do? Checks your trash - and fines you if it finds something. Sadly, some people refuse to act in their own best interests and can only be cattled-prodded into good behavior.

So yeah, $60K sounds great. Know what sounds better? This being a lifelong career.


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Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! thanks a lot! ^^

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