Everything you need to know about the photographer-agent relationship

Dec 5, 2023

Bill Cramer and Sonia Klug

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

Everything you need to know about the photographer-agent relationship

Dec 5, 2023

Bill Cramer and Sonia Klug

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

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photographer and agent looking at photos on a digital camera

For many young photographers, signing with an agent means that they’ve arrived. It’s validation that the dream of a photography career has become a reality and that they have a business partner who can deliver a steady stream of assignments, so they can fully devote themselves to a life of creativity. But before you get too excited, let’s consider how the photographer-agent dream matches up with reality.

What is the Role of a Photo Agent?

The primary role of an agent is to support the business side of the relationship in a way that will allow the photographer to concentrate more fully on the creative side. Most photo agents handle some or all of a photographer’s marketing, sales, estimates, production, billing, and collections. In addition, photographers hope their agent will bring to the relationship a deep well of industry contacts and also be able to coach them on their career in general.

Atlanta-based portrait photographer John Fulton agrees that the agent’s primary role is to bring in projects.

They need to be projects the artist would not have landed without the rep. A good agent continually nurtures and builds relationships with clients. They also regularly promote you and your work as an artist: promos, personal emails, in-person portfolio showings whenever possible, and industry portfolio showings like Le Book, etc. In addition, an agent consults with the artists about their work and guides them in putting estimates and treatments together.

Lisa Pritchard, who runs her own agency, concurs on the expanded role of the agent. 

In the best photographer-agent relationships, the photographer appreciates that it’s not just a case of ‘getting a job.’ The main point of an agent is to handle all commercial enquiries. I find the less experienced photographers, or ones that have never had an agent, don’t always appreciate this.

What is a Customary Agent Commission?

Most photo agents get a 30% commission on a photographer’s assignment fees (though we’ve seen rates as low as 20% and as high as 50%) depending on who the players are and what the agent is doing in exchange for that commission.

What Revenue is Subject to that Commission?

Some line items are going to be subject to a commission (like the photographic fee) and others will not be subject to a commission (like travel expenses). However, there may be items that show up on an invoice as an “expense” but are technically a fee.

For example, when photographers bill for post-processing or retouching that they do themselves, it’s reasonable for an agent to apply the commission to that revenue. Where it’s a little more of a judgment call is when a photographer charges for photo equipment that they own. Part of that revenue would genuinely go towards purchasing, storing, maintaining, and insuring that equipment, but for any busy photographer, there’s profit in there as well.

The same goes for insurance. When a photographer bills a line item for insurance that they pay once a year for, it’s an open question whether there’s profit there that an agent might be entitled to. In these cases, it’s arbitrary and the parties simply have to agree on a set of rules.

The Photographer-Agent Power Dynamic – Who is Working for Whom?

Most photographer-agent relationships are asymmetrical. Some photographers depend on their agent to funnel assignments to them and the client relationships primarily reside with the agent. In other cases, it’s the photographer who has the client relationship and the agent is there to handle the estimates, invoicing, collections, and to a greater or lesser extent the shoot production. Regardless of the balance of power, both parties have an opportunity to provide value to the other, and to form a mutually beneficial relationship.


Some agents and photographers have non-exclusive relationships where the agent only gets a cut of the work they find for the photographer.

Others have an exclusive relationship, where the agent gets a commission on all projects the photographer works on regardless of the source.

Others take a hybrid approach where the photographer can hang on to “house accounts” (at a reduced commission or no commission) that they’ve previously established, and the agent gets a full commission on all new projects regardless of the source. Some agents allow for house accounts for a period of time (perhaps a year) after which they are charged at the regular commission.

Some agents might just represent a photographer in a certain geographic territory (like the mid-western United States, France, or all of Europe). Once again, these details often come down to who has the power in the relationship. If the photographer is the one with the power, they might be able to have several agents working for them in different parts of the world.

Agent Business Model vs. Production Company Business Model

Traditionally, photo agents take a commission out of the photographer’s fee. However, it’s customary for production companies to pay the photographer or director their full rate and then mark that fee up to their customer by 15-25%. In recent years, the line between photo reps and production companies has continued to blur more and more, so it’s important to be clear upfront on these terms.

Trust and Communication

The bedrock of the photographer-agent relationship is formed by diligently meeting explicit and implicit obligations. The photographers we surveyed for this article all agreed that both parties needed to pull their weight and — like any relationship — honesty, trust, and good communication were vital. To avoid misunderstandings, clear communication of expectations for both parties is key.


The contract is at the heart of the photographer-agent relationship. Normally the agent will provide a contract for the photographer to review. It’s up to the photographer to read and understand the contract and then fulfill the terms of the agreement. But beyond the contract, there are broader responsibilities a photographer has to fulfill to make the most of this vital working relationship.

Andrea Stern emphasized that photographers need to be proactive and actively push themselves, even if they have an agent. 

They need to promote their own personable presence with clients actively, keep their portfolio fresh, and have all of their business elements up to par by utilizing consultants and designers.

She also stressed that photographers must listen to and follow the rep’s guidance to get the most out of their working relationship. John agrees.

Photographers also need to be promoting themselves on their own. It’s also the photographer’s responsibility to provide their rep with the content they need to promote them. Then they need to knock every project their rep brings out of the park!

Andrea also finds this aspect to be crucial. A stream of new and high-quality work from the photographer enables her to market them effectively to clients, resulting in a mutually beneficial relationship. 

In summation, she says it’s the responsibility of an agent to:

  • Actively promote the photographer’s work through a professional and personable presence within the industry, as a well-branded resource
  • Use marketing tools and materials tailored for specific clients
  • Give business guidance to maximize growth
  • Handle all bidding and negotiations
  • Give clients a sense of being “in good hands” should any confusion arise 
  • Be the client contact for decisions during a busy photoshoot

The Photographer-Agent Chemistry

It can take a while to find the right “fit.” Some agents specialize in one genre, while others represent a broad range of photographers. So, it’s worth researching to ensure you fit in without being too similar to the photographers they represent. John recommends checking potential agents’ clients and their track records before making a decision.

Artists have contacted me many times asking about my agent and my experience with them. Many photographers try to talk with other photographers on the agent’s roster to see what their experience has been like. They also ask ad agency contacts, producers, and art buyers to see if they know or have heard of that agent.

There are as many photographer-agent relationships as their agents and photographers. It’s like any other relationship — you need respect and trust to make it work. 

Norma Jean Markus is a New York-based agent and believes that what makes a photographer-agent relationship work are the same ingredients for any relationship. She says, 

You need mutual respect, honesty, as well as good communication. And, for me, admiration to some extent. Of course it’s a business relationship, but I only work with people I can imagine being friends with.

Norma feels a duty towards the photographers she represents beyond getting work. She says, 

The photographers in our group function primarily as fine artists — their editorial and brand assignments are secondary in their careers. Therefore, it is important only to accept assignments that reflect the aesthetic of their work, which can often mean turning an assignment down. But when the fit is right, it’s a lot of fun for everyone.

Termination Clause

However, like in any relationship, things can go wrong. Or circumstances may change, which may mean the agent is no longer a good fit for the photographer or vice versa. For example, a photographer may want to specialize in a new genre or work fewer hours to meet other commitments. Likewise, the agent may decide to shift the focus of their agency. In all likelihood, the agent’s or the photographer’s outlook or goals may change over the years. Every contract should stipulate the conditions for either party exiting the agreement. Lisa says, 

Just a simple month’s notice each way is what I do. But this is up to the agent — I feel if one party decides to go their separate ways, it’s best to crack on.

However, contracts can vary widely in this field. For example, some stipulate severance pay or longer cancellation periods. This is worth keeping in mind when the going gets tough. The contract also delves into the handling of disputes (some say through arbitration, while it’s the courts for others). However, these worst-case scenarios are rare. Lisa says, 

I haven’t come across a situation where it gets to this stage as we are clear with the contract to start with. Nobody wants to spend the time and money on an unpleasant dispute.

Achieving Synergy

Getting the right rep can be a huge boon to a photographer’s career. Most have a very good and mutually beneficial relationship. Still, it’s worth scrutinizing the contract, being clear about obligations and expectations, and working hard to generate synergy. The goal is to cultivate a relationship that is greater than the sum of its parts.

What do Photographers Want From a Rep and What is Reasonable to Expect?

PerceptionOnce I have an agent, I won’t have to do any marketing.

Reality: In most situations, photographers will partner with their agent and share the marketing responsibilities. Most agents will expect their photographers to maintain a website and social media presence. Beyond that, a photographer is most often expected to advertise on one or more industry directories or sourcebooks.

PerceptionSince my agent works on commission, the relationship doesn’t cost anything unless I get paid for a shoot.

Reality: Most agents will expect their photographers to share the cost of shared marketing efforts (like group sourcebook ads or print promo campaigns) in addition to paying for their own website, email campaigns, and other promotions.

While many photographers dream of this extra marketing support and industry connections, getting an agent isn’t a magic bullet. First, most agents will only be willing to take on photographers who are already working steadily for good clients and have a decent revenue stream. They want to accelerate a business that’s already going, not start one from scratch. It’s also worth keeping in mind that the cut an agent takes is considerable. If photographers are happy with their established client base or are successful at acquiring clients, the marginal benefit of an agent might not justify the cost.

Photographers feel so passionately about their art that they choose this career despite its many challenges. One of the challenges is that — at least initially — they need to spend a large portion of their time marketing their services rather than making photographs.

Partnering with an agent frees a photographer to do what they do best: take photos. Meanwhile, the agent finds and manages clients. Before the advent of the internet, agents acted as gatekeepers and were essential for photographers to connect with the best clients. Today, photographers and clients can find each other online with a simple Google search or by searching photography any number of online photographer directories.

Andrea says, 

Photographers’ and agents’ responsibilities are not as clear-cut as they used to be. Reps used to be the primary way that big clients would discover photographers. But these days, it’s an open market for all of us to use the many options that exist. As a result, photographers may feel they don’t need reps to open the doors as much as they used to. So reps have to adapt, just as photographers do.

Despite this trend, most big-name photographers still have agents and most photographers aspire to have one. Many photographers find that an agent can help accelerate their career. French-Canadian fashion and documentary photographer Julien Cadena is one of them.

I chose to get an agent to increase my volume of work. With an agent, I can reach clients I wouldn’t have otherwise. My agent is based in France, so 99% of their clients are in Europe. My relationship with them is good and communication is efficient. We communicate easily, even with an ocean between us.

About the Authors

Prior to dreaming up Wonderful Machine, Bill Cramer spent 20 years working as a commercial photographer – first as a photojournalist, then later doing conceptual portraits for magazines, corporations, and institutions. When he isn’t busy working with his staff or talking with photographers and clients, you can find him at the creek with Tilly, reading historical biographies, or relaxing with his wife Adrienne and their daughters Helen and Sarah. You can find Bill’s work on his website and connect with him via LinkedIn.

Sonia Klug is an inquisitive writer specializing in writing about digital technology and is fluent in three languages. Other than working as a writer at Wonderful Machine, she also contributes to The Independent and various print magazines. You can learn more about Sonia on her website and connect with her via LinkedIn.

This article was originally published here and shared with permission.

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