The Business of Photography: Why It’s Important to Know What We’re Talking About


In photography, as in life in general, it’s important to know what you’re talking about. You and I could get together for beers and spend hours talking about exposure, lighting, composition, and any number of other photography-related topics (I’d enjoy that, by the way). But what if I started asking you questions about your business model? Would you be able to tell me what your cost of doing business is? How many photo shoots do you need this month in order to keep the electricity on and your family fed? What about a question or two regarding the fine print in your contract? When it comes to the numbers aspect of what we do, many photographers have a bit of trouble explaining themselves. This is by no means an insult, blanket statement, or judgment call. It’s simply a concern that’s been popping up on my radar quite a bit lately– one which we could all avoid if we had a better handle on knowing what we’re talking about when clients start asking us business-related questions.

I received an email a couple of weeks ago from a photographer who had read my “Photo Licensing: A Look at the Basics” article here on DIY Photography. They were in the process of negotiating a catalog shoot and the client had some concerns and reservations about the licensing fees. The client’s specific question was, “Why do I need to buy a license if I own the product line?” On the surface, it sounds like a perfectly reasonable question, right? That’s what the photographer thought, and he actually gave a very good response.

The Photography License is an agreement between your company and mine. I create the images for you and therefore hold the copyrights. In this case, you are looking to have your product line photographed for catalog and website use. Since the images you require do not exist in stock photography, I would create images that meet your needs and are all completely original with a consistent look. There are, however, production costs for photography, as well as licensing fees for the rights to use the images even though the product line belongs to your company. You will have exclusive rights to the images for the intended use only. This will give you insurance that your competitors will not have access to any of your product images during the contractual agreement. The licensing term is based on the life cycle of your product lineup. I’m estimating that your product line changes every two to five years. I can offer you a standard licensing term depending on what your needs are. This will keep your advertising costs down in the long run.

Sounds like a home run, right? Absolutely. The only problem with this otherwise awesome answer is that the client received it in an email after the photographer had time to do some research, and not while on the phone right when the client asked the question in the first place. What ensued was a week or two of negotiations, which resulted in the photographer making some pretty serious cuts to his original quote. He didn’t lose the client, but the client now knows that they are at least partially in the drivers’ seat. More importantly, the client now assumes that there will always be room for negotiation. I’ve checked “Dave’s” website and he’s done some excellent work. My guess, though, is that he isn’t always being paid what his work is actually worth. I’m assuming that this is at least in part due to something that many photographers share– a certain level of discomfort when it comes to talking to clients about the business end of things.

In many ways, photography is just like any other profession– we learn as we go. Nobody succeeds at anything without learning a lesson or two or fifty along the way. If you’re equal parts smart, motivated, and lucky, maybe you have a successful mentor or friend in this business who’s there to help with these lessons. Maybe they’ve let you copy their contracts, model releases, and other important paperwork. Perhaps they’ve walked you through their workflow so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned over the years has been that clients aren’t only looking for a talented photographer. They’re also looking for a confident one. Confidence manifests itself many different ways. Sometimes it’s in how you conduct yourself on a shoot. Are you chimping every shot? Are you getting frustrated in front of the client or model? How do you treat the crew? Other times confidence rests in how you handle something as basic as answering a question about your contract.

Our photography improves exponentially with practice. Trial and error. Recognizing mistakes and learning from them. The same thing holds true for the non-artistic aspects of what we do. The business end. The part where many of us have to “fake it til we make it.” Dave’s mistake with how he answered the question about licensing fees had nothing to do with his actual answer. His mistake was in not being ready with that kick-ass answer before the client ever asked the question. When I was still practicing law a lifetime or two ago, one of the cardinal courtroom rules was to never ask a witness a question if I didn’t already know the answer. In some ways, the same holds true for photography (or any other business).

What do I mean?

Think about Dave’s predicament a little further. He prepared a printed, professional quote for the client, which clearly specified things like his creative fee, post production, equipment rental, licensing fees, etc. While I may not necessarily agree with everything he included in the quote, I have huge respect for its professionalism. My guess is that five different photographers would have given the same client five very different quotes. But just like I never asked a question if I didn’t already know the answer, the moment I put something in my quote, I absolutely, positively must be ready and able to discuss it and clearly explain it to my client. “I’ll have to get to you on that,” is almost guaranteed to either send the client elsewhere, or change the dynamic of the relationship at the very least.

As noted, Dave’s client stuck around, but only after Dave made some fairly substantial adjustments to the quote. I share his frustration because I’ve been spending quite a bit of time lately reevaluating my own practices when it comes to the business end of my relationships with my clients. As with any relationship, communication is key. That not only means being prepared and knowing what I’m talking about, but also being able to confidently convey that information in a way that will not only educate the client, but keep them coming back for more.

Remember– these are the people who don’t understand why we charge them so much money to “just stand around and press a button.” In the business of photography, knowing what we’re talking about the first vital step guiding our clients to what  you and I already know– that there’s a lot more to what we do than just standing around pressing a button. Even experienced photographers need a little help with this stuff from time to time. Don’t hesitate to get help if you need it. There are excellent resources available online through the American Association of Media Photographers, as well as software packages devoted entirely to helping you get the numbers right. The better educated you are, the better you’ll be able to educate your client.

Photo Credit: Flickr user An Mai through the Flickr Creative Commons License.

  • Shelley Craven

    very good blog, you are always helpful, love reading them thank you.

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      Thank you so much, Shelley!

  • Frans

    Sure, licensing is important. However, I think we should distinguish between ‘art’ and ‘production’. Besides producing art we also produce tools, tools to sell other products in this case.
    What if every business line would behave like we do. A hammer is designed to nock nails into wood. Do I pay extra if I hammer a nail in another material? Or if I use that hammer for a totally different purpose…
    You could be an employed photographer, then the rights belong usually to your employer.

    I think if you ‘create something novel’, licensing can be an important element, however if you are asked to produce, maybe you are just a hired gun (there’s art to that as well).

  • videodude63

    Ever hear of “work for hire”?