Who’s Killing The Photography Industry?

Mar 5, 2015

JP Danko

JP Danko is a commercial photographer based in Toronto, Canada. JP can change a lens mid-rappel, swap a memory card while treading water, or use a camel as a light stand.

Who’s Killing The Photography Industry?

Mar 5, 2015

JP Danko

JP Danko is a commercial photographer based in Toronto, Canada. JP can change a lens mid-rappel, swap a memory card while treading water, or use a camel as a light stand.

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whos killing the photography industry

Mom-tographers?  Spray and Pray’ers?  (P)rofessionals?  Guy With A Camera?  Fauxtographers?  Uncle Bob?  iPhoneographers, Glamor Shots by Deb?

Professional photographers love to hate these types of posers so much we’ve made up a whole genre of semi-amusing names to feed our superiority complex as we mock them.

Sure, they are a minor annoyance – like that single mosquito that gets into your bedroom on a summer night and randomly buzzes by your ear all night long, and every time you slap yourself in the head and think you killed it, it comes back just as you’re drifting off to sleep….

But no, the real reason it is so hard to make a sustainable living as a photographer is explained by this recent inquiry I received from a potential client:

Investor Forum – Toronto 2015 is fast approaching and we would like a quote for the following services: • Event Coverage 9:30AM – 5:30PM (8 hours) on the 28th of March at The International Centre • Copy of raw files Thanks!

Can you spot the one key assumption contained in this inquiry that should make you want to just reach into your computer screen, grab the sender and yell NO, NO, NO, NO THAT’S NOT HOW IT WORKS!

OK, first there is the assumption that I would know what the “Investor Forum – Toronto 2015” is, coupled with the subtle assumption I would be so impressed by the opportunity to be a part of the “Investor Forum – Toronto 2015” I might offer a low rate.

Then there is the assumption that every single photo would be delivered in RAW.

But the one key assumption that is killing the photography industry is the idea that a client would expect to pay for a photographer’s time, but not the right to use the photographer’s photographs.

(Or maybe I should just be happy that they were at least willing to pay for my time?)

I have no idea where this insidious trend of clients expecting to avoid licensing fees started (although I am tempted to rhyme off the aforementioned list of poser stereotypes), but not charging licensing fees is death for any kind of sustainability in the photography industry.

triathlon athlete, jp danko, toronto commercial photographer

There Are Two Parts to Billing Clients For Commercial Photography

First of all, lets be clear that we’re not talking about wedding photos, or baby photos, seniors, families or anywhere else that your photography is used by your clients for their own personal use.

We are talking about commercial use – ie. you are hired to create photographs that will be used by your client for business purposes.

In most cases commercial photography is billed in two parts:

  • Part A – your time, effort and expenses for creating photography.
  • Part B – licensing fees for the specific use of individual photographs.

A while back, we published an article titled:  “How Much Should Photographers Charge Per Hour”.  This is a great place to start if you are still trying to figure out how much to charge for Part A – your time and effort.

But in addition to how much you charge to take the photos,  for the love of everything that is holy, if your photography is used commercially – charge a effing licensing fee for every single effing photo your clients publish, print or share!

Now, where this problem exists is mostly at the mid to low end of the commercial photography spectrum.

Art directors, advertising agencies, publishers, professional designers etc. all know that they will be paying to license the photography they choose to use.  In fact, if you quote a job for a creative professional that is used to dealing with professional commercial photographers and you don’t include licensing fees, its like holding up a giant neon sign that says “Warning – XX* (* insert your preferred photography poser stereotype term here)”.

To a certain extent, we can excuse Cindy from accounting who’s boss told her to go find a photographer to go down to the plant and authorized a $50 budget.

But even buyers that should know better – like the professional corporate event organizer that sent me this inquiry – are more and more often operating under the assumption that they will be able to use every single photograph that they paid you to take, for whatever use they choose.

triathlon athlete, jp danko, toronto commercial photographer

Save The Photography Industry – Charge Licensing Fees!

On one hand, the concept of licensing fees can seem like a deal breaker when you’re dealing with an unsophisticated client that is honestly expecting you to deliver 1000’s of photos for $50.

For clients that get hung up on the cost – it is often a much better business practice to cut something out of your service fees rather than forgo licensing fees.  In fact, as a stock photographer, I often volunteer my time and effort to create a set of photos – with the understanding that they will be individually licensed by my agency.

On the other hand, it can be difficult to figure out just what to charge for licensing.

Personally, the best approach that I have found is to simply ask clients how many photos they plan on using and what they have budgeted for licensing.  Most will tell you straight up and then its a simple procedure of negotiating the number of photos that you will provide and where they will be used to meet your client’s budget.

If you want a bit more of a scientific approach, fotoQuote Pro is a great way to benchmark your licensing fees against industry standards.

At the very least, you can estimate how much it would cost your client to license a similar image from a stock agency and at least charge that.

But the bottom line is that it doesn’t really matter if you charge $1000 for a double-truck international magazine publication, or $1 for a single Facebook status update – the important thing for the photography industry as a whole is that as a commercial photographer you establish that images are individually licensed for a specific use.

triathlon athlete, jp danko, toronto commercial photographer

Do You Include Licensing Fees?

Have you experienced resistance to licensing fees?

Are you tired of buyers assuming that they will get to use every single photograph taken for whatever they want?

Is this a trend that’s on the rise?

Is it killing profitability?

Leave a message below and share your thoughts!



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JP Danko

JP Danko

JP Danko is a commercial photographer based in Toronto, Canada. JP can change a lens mid-rappel, swap a memory card while treading water, or use a camel as a light stand.

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63 responses to “Who’s Killing The Photography Industry?”

  1. 2219 Photography Avatar
    2219 Photography

    #INMTW “: Who’s Killing The Photography Industry? – http://t.co/3ROgZZVOlC”

  2. Ken Tam Avatar
    Ken Tam

    Nah … people do offer their hand or leg to build their portfolio.

  3. Joe Spowal Jr. Avatar
    Joe Spowal Jr.

    The commercial side of the industry is hurting as well as the wedding, High School Seniors, family portraiture, newborns, etc. The BIGGEST problem, is that there are 1000’s, no, 10,000s of wannabe photographers in this industry that are doing shoots and giving the work away!…Giving clients (media choice) of edited images for pennies on the dollar! THIS is what NEEDS to effing STOP!

    Another thing, is that these “fauxtogs” need to learn how to EDIT and how to actually create an image! Not everything is “photoshop”…too many arent learning the right way to make an image. too many have lost the skills of yesteryear (the film days). And those that do have the experience of the film days are seen as “oh your too old, your not in with the current styles and trends”….RIGHT!!, because the current styles and trends SUCK!!!

    GREAT article!!

    1. mike Avatar

      I think it is a combination of “you get what you pay for” and vastly lowered expectations of quality in media. Newspapers are going bankrupt, while sites like Buzzfeed can take some youtube video recorded on an iPhone and write an entire article about it.

      Standards in the selfie age are pretty low. I would like to think they will pick back up when people realize how terrible the bulk of blog websites are.

      1. tom rose Avatar
        tom rose

        Reality TV sucks too. So does most popular music. There is nothing new here.

  4. gregorylent Avatar

    hah, what kind of rich protection racket country do you live in? everywhere i know, the client owns the photos. period. i mean, you don’t pay the plumber for the water that goes through the pipes after he has installed them, do you? no matter how good a job he did?

    spoiled rich kids from rick countries :-) .. aiyo

    1. Ryan Avatar

      ^^^ Prime example of the exact reason this article was even written.

    2. Wibbly Avatar

      At least in the UK you DO pay the water company…

    3. mr.tug Avatar

      In the USA, it’s important to keep in mind:

      – Copyright is a property right.

      – Just because you buy a print does not mean you have purchased the copyright.

      – Professional photographers are the smallest of small copyright holders.

      – Under the Federal Copyright Act of 1976, photographs are protected by copyright from the moment of creation.

      – Photographers have the exclusive right to reproduce their photographs (right to control the making of copies).

      – Unless you have permission from the photographer, you can’t copy, distribute (no scanning and sending them to others), publicly display (no putting them online), or create derivative works from photographs.

      – A photographer can easily create over 20,000 separate pieces of intellectual property annually.

      – Professional photographers are dependent on their ability to control the reproduction of the photographs they create.

      – It affects their income and the livelihood of their families.

      – Even small levels of infringement—copying a photo without permission—can have a devastating impact on a photographer’s ability to make a living.

      – Copyright infringements—reproducing photos without permission—can result in civil and criminal penalties.

      (from the PPA website)

      1. mr.tug Avatar

        We’ve reached a point where having rights protected by law is being “spoiled” and I feel really good about that *thumbs-down*

      2. Kay O. Sweaver Avatar
        Kay O. Sweaver

        All of this is irrelevant if its impossible to enforce. Just try and stop a client from making digital copies of your work, or anyone for that matter. Its not like the days of negatives where the very nature of the technology put the power in the hands of the photographer. This is what has really created the change.

        The technological solution would be some kind of photographic DRM (digital rights management), but such systems are super easy to circumvent unless you go full BitCoin style block chain on it, in which case we’d probably crash the Internet.

        1. tom rose Avatar
          tom rose

          It is not irrelevant at all. It has never been possible to prevent illegal copying of Intellectual Property. That is why we have Copyright Laws.

          [Unfortunately Copyright Laws, like much else, have been hijacked by big corporations to preserver their income streams indefinitely. They were originally intended to allow the original creator to profit for a reasonable number of years. But that is a different matter].

    4. JP Danko Avatar
      JP Danko

      Actually, if I look at my utility bills, I pay for the distribution of water and electricity – ie. the fixed cost it took the utility company to service my house, and usage – ie. a rate per unit of water or electricity used. If I use more, I pay more – pretty simple concept right? This is exactly how commercial clients should be billed for photography too.

  5. Rick Avatar

    Who says anyone is killing the photography industry? The industry is merely evolving as all industries do and just because you aren’t keeping up with this evolution, you see it as dying. So you’re transferring raw files, so what. You aren’t transferring copyrights and you need to make that very clear when you hand over the files. And while you believe the problem to be that once the cows are out of the barn all is lost, that is merely because you haven’t figured out how to transfer the files properly. Working through such details is part of the evolution of any industry. And until you work this out, you are the one at risk of becoming roadkill on the photographic superhighway as the industry will keep rolling along with or without you.

    1. JP Danko Avatar
      JP Danko

      If you’re interested in an actual statistical analysis of the state of the photography industry – this might me interesting to you: https://www.diyphotography.net/love-career-advice-leads-live-van-river-creative-professionals/ Statistically speaking – the photography industry was dead and buried a long time ago.

      1. Andrew Stagg Avatar
        Andrew Stagg

        So why am I making money then?

  6. Albin Avatar

    My daughter co-founded an Ottawa studio a decade ago, and considers it was put out of business mainly by the “aesthetic” of social media and friendly amateurism taking over advertising. Fee structure follows the market, and the market was badly hurt first by the consumer DSLR boom (now almost forgotten) and then by cell phone and other amateur shots taking over Facebook or blog reports that replaced professional shoots for small businesses. Restaurants are happy to let foodie bloggers do cheery cell phone reviews of their plates and platters for the price of a meal instead of preparing and paying for studio or on site shoots. Weddings and company events are increasingly informal and will even value the “friendly” and personal informality of bad images by invited guests over professional work, that will often be shown online next to the the pro’s work.

  7. Steve Gracy Avatar
    Steve Gracy

    People keep repeating this stuff and blaming the newbies and wannabies. That’s simply not the issue here. If you feel like your business is threatened by these people, you need to step your game up big time. The money barrier that used to keep them at a distance is gone. Now you can get incredible equipment for a few hundred dollars and access top notch editing software for $10 a month. Plus just about everything you want to know about photography is on YouTube for free. So being able to get a decent shot is no longer good enough to separate you from the pack. Even doing really good work is not enough. With camera phones and entry level dslrs everywhere, what are you going to do to put yourself miles ahead of this new generation?

    1. Jon Peckham Avatar
      Jon Peckham

      i agree with you Steve. Most of the stuff i see on facebook is crap. They don’t even know its crap. They don’t study, research and try to master the craft which takes years of hard work and failures, yet they want to make a living at it and call themselves “so and so photography” ? And they are always hung up on the gear abd want to criticize your work, yet their own portfolio truly sucks.

  8. Andrew Stagg Avatar
    Andrew Stagg

    It is not dying, it is changing. Like most other industries here in the UK, I don’t charge a licensing fee – unless it is for stock photo use – and then it is a license to use the photograph that I have created at my own cost.

    When a client books me to take a photograph for them, they book my time as a professional at a rate that is sustainable for me. The photographs I take are for them to use. In this situation, they are paying for a photographer. I charge accordingly in order to make a sustainable living.

    To take a different example, the article mentions ‘creative professionals’, so take a graphic designer who has created your logo which you use on your business cards, letterhead, website, in fact every single bit of marketing and correspondence that your company creates. Do you expect to pay a license fee each time you write a letter or produce a brochure? No of course not, you pay a graphic designer a fee to create that logo for your use. So why should photography be any different?

    I would actually offer that this dyed-in-the-wool attitude that photography must be paid for again and again has caused more harm to the industry than good. If we all charged fair rates and didn’t come back time and time again, maybe our clients and potential clients would be less inclined to look for the ‘cheaper alternatives’.

    I am not talking about the stock photo model here – that is a model that only works on a licensing basis. I am talking about the commercial photographer for hire work that I do for a number of large and small companies here in the UK.

    1. Wibbly Avatar

      Hmm. I think that you charge a commercial rate for your time (allowing for the costs of actually running your business as a business) is fine. Do you include your client having copyright to the images in that too?

      1. Philip Avatar

        Copyright and licensing are completely different. You can grant a full use license, including resale and duplication, but you still hold copyright. You are the copyright holder unless you pass that right on, in the form of a big cheque. Licensing all the way, it is your intellectual property.

        “Do you include your client having copyright to the images in that too?”, what you are asking about is licensing, not copyright.

        1. Wibbly Avatar

          I know, but in the same way it’s difficult to get licensing fees, I’ve had problems with clients refusing to pay for copyright, despite my offering an unlimited licence to use the photos themselves as part of the fixed initial fee.

          1. tom rose Avatar
            tom rose

            What is the problem? If they won’t pay then they do not get the copyright.

          2. Wibbly Avatar

            They didn’t get the copyright… and, to @disqus_L4qu0lEMxK:disqus’s comment below, I lost the business outright. They believed they had their reasons for needing it. So sometimes sticking to your guns doesn’t have a happy ending for either party.

          3. tom rose Avatar
            tom rose

            I am sure they had their reasons, or thought they did.

            Question is, do you want to do business with people that want to screw you over, or that don’t understand the ideas of copyright, licensing and the law as it relates to the use of photographs?

  9. Andrew Stagg Avatar
    Andrew Stagg

    I have another take on that – copyright is with the creator – in the UK that is the law. However the picture was created for the client – they paid for it so they get to use it. What else am I going to use it for? If I did, I would need to get my client’s permission because they paid me to take the images. If I didn’t I would probably lose my client. I don’t want to do that because they understand the value of good photography and pay me for it accordingly…

  • JP Danko Avatar
    JP Danko

    A graphic designer would absolutely charge licensing fees for a logo! The license would be for business promotional use in print and electronic formats. There might be a reproduction limit, or a time limit – but often it would be open ended. The licensing fee that is reasonable for a small business client like you or me is one thing – but what if it was a logo for global brand? A global brand has an exponentially greater reach – so the logo is exponentially more valuable to them – therefore it should cost more for them to use it. That is the value of licensing!

    1. gs_790 Avatar

      I think this idea of corporate versus private use might be striking a bit hollow.

      Most of us just don’t have to think about the difference. A good example would be pay television. You, a private person, might need to pay $60 to $100 to buy a pay-per-view event like a major boxing match. Go to a sports bar, ask the manager what they are being charged to show the event (okay, they might not be wiling tell you), it will make you eyes water and probably understand why they have a 2 drink minimum.

    2. Andrew Stagg Avatar
      Andrew Stagg

      Interesting – A global brand – lets say Nike – pays a design agency $/£x00,000 to design a logo – a big tick. Do you really think that they signed a deal that means in two years time they have to re-license that logo? what about the golden arches, blackberry’s logo, apple, microsoft, and a whole lot more – no they paid a fee to a company to design that logo period/full stop.

      1. Jim Johnson Avatar
        Jim Johnson

        Nope. Obviously you have never seen a corporate contract. Everything is itemized. They may only pay once, but their contract will have a licensing fee included in that one time payment. You could argue this is semantics, but I would say this is a legal contract.

        A licensing fee should be part of every contract (even if that fee is $0.01) just to set the rules of usage and ownership, and Nike would want this in the contract as much as the photographer.

        1. JP Danko Avatar
          JP Danko

          I think that it is easy to get the terms of a licensing agreement confused with the concept of licensing in general. If a client pays for the rights to unlimited use and buys out the copyright in a one time negotiated fee – they are still licensing the work. That licensing fee depends on how valuable the work is to the company to earn revenue versus the revenue the photographer could have earned if they retained control over the use. The fact that the licensing fee is negotiated and paid up front and is not paid as ongoing royalties doesn’t change the fact – it is the license that is the valuable part of the job!

      2. Jenifer Pritchard Avatar
        Jenifer Pritchard

        Actually Nike’s Logo was created by someone for $50 when they first started out. My husband has his masters in graphic design and he was taught that as an example in school actually. Funny but a lot of the iconic logo’s you see today were created for much less than you think. However most graphic designers do not charge a licensing fee for their work. They charge a flat rate to create it depending on what the client wants. Typically this should run about a grand for a solid logo only. The rest of the branding could run upwards to 5 grand or more. If the business is already established then that makes a huge difference too. If Nike were to rebrand now it would cost them upwards of 25 grand or more for that same logo revision just because of the value of the brand. However they are not licensed. After creation the company owns the work.

        1. Rajat Bhshn Avatar
          Rajat Bhshn

          She was given stock later worth 600 grands

    3. TonyC Avatar

      What an interesting article! And what a RUBBISH argument followed ….!
      Almost NONE of the comparisons hold any water!

      Let’s see … I guess if I charged $650 (price of an iPhone) + tax, PER PHOTO, then my client can do WHATEVER they want with their photos, and yes I will give them the RAW file and at that price, for enough photos, I will even give them my camera!

      Oh, and btw, you DON”T want to know what a design company would charge to design an identity and a LOGO! (Since some names were dropped)
      Lask week, I attended a baby shower (lugging 2 cameras, flash units, memory cards, batteries, tripods, etc. you know how it goes) and shot about 550 pictures. Guests wanted particular shots with certain people, certain poses, etc. There were about 125 guests, which cost (cheap) about $4000 (Everything is charged separately per guest/extra drinks, food, etc.)
      The food and drinks will soon be forgotten, but the photos will last a lifetime of memories.
      So should I give the photos (RAW) to the hostess, and let her post them on social netwroks, give them out, etc.???? Let anyone use them anyway they want?
      How much should I have charged? I am in the US and the copyright stays with me no matter what!
      My 2 cents worth ….

      1. TonyC Avatar

        Just to be clear: $4000 was for the venue, food and drinks. NOT my fees!!

  • Chris Cameron Avatar
    Chris Cameron

    Lets say one morning you get a call to make a portrait of a local Dentist (Small Company) for use on their web site, and business card.

    You estimate it’ll take an hour and charge accordingly.

    Next you get a call from Louis Vuitton (Large Company) wanting you to make a shot that will be used in Airport posters all over the world, magazine advertising in Harpers Bazaar, Vogue, Conde Nast traveler etc
    It’ll be printed on in store posters and used in their catalogue in print and on line.

    You estimate it’ll take an hour and charge the same as you did to the Dentist.

    Doesn’t make sense to me.

    1. Andrew Stagg Avatar
      Andrew Stagg

      I charge an hourly/daily fee that represents the cost of my services, I do it for multi-billion pound organisations as well as small companies. Typically a large group will require more complex setups and results – and therefore get charged more because it takes more time/resources. Other than that there is no difference.

      1. Jim Johnson Avatar
        Jim Johnson

        Yet Louis Viton will make a lot more money off of your skills, talent, and ability. That is what this is about. You are not trying to bilk people, you are asking for payment in relationship to how much you bring them— consider it a commission on return.

        1. Mark Berry Avatar
          Mark Berry

          What a ludicrous concept. By this logic, an iPhone should cost more if it’s sold to a business that will use it to negotiate million pound deals than if it’s sold to one that sells a product that sells for pennies. To try and charge more just because your client is rich is simply profiteering – you’ve done nothing more, so why should you be paid more?

          Instead, hone your skills and develop your offering to the point where it is of great value to the larger, richer client. In other words, offer more if you want more.

        2. Jim Johnson Avatar
          Jim Johnson

          Your iphone comparison doesn’t hold up. An iphone is a mass manufactured retail commodity. Iphones are designed and made without input from the end user, then placed in stock for others to buy. We have that in photography as well… stock photography. And in stock photography everyone can buy it at the same price with the same license. It’s retail.

          Commissioned photography is a bespoke professional service to a company, and should not be priced as retail. It should be charged what value it has to the client. “…hone your skills and develop your offering to the point where it is of great value to the larger, richer client.” That’s exactly what you are doing. It doesn’t mean you also price yourself out of the smaller clients, as well.

          Licensing is actually a strangely egalitarian concept. If the fashionable, and locally successful boutique down the street wants your services, you charge them a fair license fee for what they are going to be using it for (local ads, regional bill boards). Then Olive Garden wants your images for their ads, website, and menus… you charge them a higher licensing fee for more usage. Ostensibly, you did the same amount of work on both jobs, they are both happy, and the local boutique got the same level of skillful photography the corporate client did without putting them out of business. And, you are able to maintain your business in the long term.

        3. tom rose Avatar
          tom rose

          Furthermore, if I buy an iPhone I cannot create multiple copies of it. If I want two iPhones I have to buy another one!

  • Wibbly Avatar

    I agree.

    But the clients who expect to own the copyright to photos (i.e. without any usage fees) are the same ones who possibly couldn’t spot a decent photo if it smacked them in the face. You’ve only got to look at some web sites – storefronts for their businesses – to realize they either don’t care what the photography looks like or don’t realize the bad photography may well be impacting sales. If you set prices to grant them copyright (because they believe they need it), you wind up price yourself out of the market anyway because others will step in who aren’t running their photography as a real business.

    The fundamental shift is that the cost of entry for photographers in terms of kit to enable them to take a mediocre picture is so low.

    I think the only way forward is to get your skills to a level where the quality of your photography is really good. The kind of client who will recognize that are ones who also recognize they have to pay for such a skill…

  • jaysna Avatar

    I agree with Andrew below. I think your attitude towards licensing is poor and any client would rightfully be annoyed with it. I work with professional photographers all the time and we recieve full use as a matter of course. Our photographers are also paid (quite handsomely) for their time while generating content for us. f the photo industry is dying I certainly don’t see it all.

  • David Reid Avatar
    David Reid

    Firstly, I have to confess to being guilty of posing as one of the above stereotypes. However having been self employed for many years as a woodworker I tended to look at photography as a sort of trade and knew that I would have to pay my dues and learn the business if I was to succeed. I joined the ASMP and have devoted hundreds of hours to studying not only photography and post processing techniques but business practices as well. After two years of hard work and reaching a point that I was taking in a nominal amount of money, I have taken a step back because I see the whole profession in what I see as a state of free fall and I also feel that the more I learn, the less I know. I would very much like to earn money as a photographer simply because it has been some of the most enjoyable and personally rewarding work that I have ever engaged in but at this point, I’m just watching from the sidelines with a big question mark over my head. While I still plan to cover some events as a volunteer such as the upcoming Fairfax Police and Fire World Games and some charity causes that I support, I don’t know where I’m headed as a “professional”. For now, I still carry public liability insurance and keep my ASMP membership current in addition to Adobe and Kelby subscriptions.

    1. JP Danko Avatar
      JP Danko

      We’ve all been a poser at some point ;) As someone that can directly compare a business in the trades to the photography industry – you have a perspective that many photographers don’t understand.

  • Jim A. Avatar
    Jim A.

    I think you are describing the symptom of profitability loss, not the death of the photography industry. Simply put, in the film days it was much more difficult to achieve the level of proficiency that satisfies most customers. You had to pay for developing and film continually, and lost the instant feedback available to everyone now. The learning curve to “good enough” is much shorter now, so you’ve got a lot more competitors for those jobs. That’s not to say you or others aren’t at the top tier skill-wise for your chosen trade, only that the top tier has less value to most customers since they can now get adequate quality images from many suppliers. Supply and demand – pure and simple. There are many more suppliers now, and it’s driving down the value of adequate quality images as a result. The industry you began in is changing and will continue to change. It seems you’re left with little recourse to that. If your images are in demand enough to command “bespoke” pricing, then you’re golden, otherwise working harder to generate enough volume of imagery to sustain your profit demands seems like the only answer. Using licensing fees as a sort of protection of your work seems likely a declining revenue source going forward. Others will/might be able to make an image close enough to your original work – in many cases, to satisfy a client. That’s the bottom line. It may be depressing, but that’s reality.

  • peters Avatar

    I don’t take fees. This may sound strange, but I don’t see any reason to do so (yet). I am in my fourth yearh of studies in media-production and work as a freelancer in video and photo-projects.
    I try to charge enough, so I can live with it. As a student, my expenses are not yet that high.
    My Clients get the pictures and can use them however they want (but they may not sell them).
    I don’t think taking fees would be appropriate in my situation. Well, nearly all my customers where very happy with my work, that’s not the point. The point is: I would not buy anything, that would cost me additional fees.

    If a electrician fixes my cables in the house: I pay once for the work, and I do not pay a fee to use the cables he put in my wall.
    I pay once for a haircut, I dont pay a fee if I restyle it some days later.
    I pay once for my tax-advisor. I don’t pay him for the licence to use his knowledge.

    But my opinion may change, once I reach a higher level of profession in my field of work. Right now, I think additional fees are not the best way to get new customers.

    1. tom rose Avatar
      tom rose

      Your analogies are poor. Images are easily duplicated and used in new ways … your house wiring and haircut are one-off creations. As for your tax advisor, you actually are paying him a one-time fee for continuing use of his advice, even if it is disguised as an hourly rate.

      Regarding how you run your photography business … whatever works for you. You are not obliged to work in any particular way to help other photographers to be successful. Whether your business model will still work when you can no longer live “poor student” style is an open question. You will find out.

  • Rex Deaver Avatar
    Rex Deaver

    “First of all, lets be clear that we’re not talking about wedding photos, or baby photos, seniors, families or anywhere else that your photography is used by your clients for their own personal use.”

    This is an important caveat, far more important than anything else in this article for non-commercial photographers. You simply cannot charge licensing fees to these clients, you cannot even hold the digital images hostage to print product sales. They want the digitals, they want them now, and whoever gives them that will get the work. Even if it is Uncle Joe with his iPhone.

  • Matt Payne Avatar
    Matt Payne

    Honestly, I think the problem is supply / demand. Photography is more accessible than ever and a lot of people are happy with “good” photos that they can likely get in an inexpensive way. The vast majority of people taking “good” photos nowadays are not full-time pros and the gap between good and great is getting thinner by the day. My 2 cents.

  • mike Avatar

    The same thing happened to the software industry over twenty years ago. Suddenly every kid’s parents could afford a computer and the web was the next big thing. “My nephew programmed my vcr, I bet he could do our app/website.”

    For independent contractors, customers demanded full source, so they could farm out updates to India instead of hiring the original developers.

    In the early 2000s the bubble burst, and the people that could not hack it were booted out of the industry, even though computers are far more ubiquitous than at any point in history.

    The same thing will happen to photography. Good cheap cameras will continue to get into the hands of people that don’t know what to do with them… and customers will realize they need professionals and seek them out.

    Customers want to separate “person who presses shutter button” and “person who makes good looking pictures”. Sure, you can try to do that… if you want terrible results. Customers will either hire staff photographers or get smart enough to hire professionals. Or will learn to live with subpar results, which I worry some are.

  • John Westrock Avatar
    John Westrock

    If you don’t change with the times, the times will pass you by. What worked 10+ years ago no longer works today.

  • Mark Avatar

    I think it’s safe to say given the accessibility of digital photography these days “there will always be a steady stream of newbies (or however you wish to call them) giving away photography for free”. In the same way that everyday someone new picks up a camera and decides to become a photographer and works for free to get experience and build their portfolio. This will not change and when they know better there will be a new batch of newbies to do the same thing. I’m not judging them I’m sure there are a lot us who did the same thing.

    My point is comparing today’s business model to that of 10 years ago will only frustrate many. When you are starting out as a commercial photographer charging licensing fees to clients who’s businesses are just as small as you are will only scare them off and there will always be a newbie willing to do the work cheaper and completely ignore licensing fees. Will their work be as good? Probably not but they will always find someone will to do it.

    If the client isn’t hiring you for your unique creative vision like they would a big name photographer then paying for licensing doesn’t make sense for them. I guess my point is that photography has 2 sides a purely technical side ( what I call a generic type of photography) and an artistic side. If they hire you to do a job that any other photographer can do then charging licensing will only lose you business. On the other hand if they hire you for a commercial job based on your artistic creativity and technical ability then licensing is your right.

    A good example would be like a that get’s hired to play cover songs and a band that is hired to play a show because they have a hit song. A cover band charges by the hour and an “artist” band (for lack of a better word) that charges 10x more.

  • Mark Berry Avatar
    Mark Berry

    Where in the client’s enquiry does it say that he expects you NOT to include a licence fee in the price you quote him? He gives you an idea of the event type you’ll be covering, helps you by estimating how long it’ll last, and tells you what he’d like included in the package (raw files). What’s the problem with any of that? By asking for the raw files he’s simply making it clear that he requires less work from you than he might otherwise; maybe he has a preferred or in house post processor he wants to use.

    If you don’t offer the service the market (or at the very least, this client) wants, then just politely decline to quote. If what he wants isn’t available on the market, everyone else will do the same (unless someone cleverer than you spots the gap in the market), and he’ll have to re-think. If what he’s asking for IS available then you have to decide how to compete if you see it as a threat, but can’t moan just because someone else worked out how to make money by offering clients what they want where you didn’t.

    Simples :)

  • Jimmy Palota Avatar
    Jimmy Palota

    such a boring article… and such a hackneyed debate! step up and stop whinging!

  • Illona Haus Avatar
    Illona Haus

    thank you, JP. i’m with you on this one 100%. i despise the term ‘day rate’ as it doesn’t take into account ‘usage’. i far prefer working with my stock-image clients than commercial since – i have found – there tends to be more respect for what they are purchasing.

  • Trent Avatar

    Just had a lengthy conversation with a pro photog friend today and he is living proof that this article is off the mark. He has more business than he can handle. He is totally self-taught, he does almost every kind of photography (weddings, commercial, event coverage, portraits, real estate, drone/aerial, product), he charges only for his time and charges the most reasonable rates in town, and he probably bills $350k/year. Solo operation, occasional use of assistants. Been at it 25 years, is enthusiastic about his work, and it gets him constant repeat business and great referrals. Don’t know what else to tell you…

    1. JP Danko Avatar
      JP Danko

      That is fantastic – its great news to hear news of success. I guess the question I would have is if he only charges for his time and he offers the most reasonable rates in town – how many hours is he working to bill $350k/year? Because by my math if he’s either billing somewhere around $160 /h (which would be great) and working 40 hours / week 52 weeks a year – or he’s working 80 – 120 hours / week 52 weeks a year for a billable rate of $85/h or $56/h. Which points to the other major issue of only billing for time – your income level is not scalable and forever tied to the number of hours you can physically work. Licensing is an opportunity to earn a scalable income – which in the long run if far more valuable than billing for time. Maybe I should expand on that in a future post.

    2. Gillman Avatar

      Doesn’t add up, as JP states below. Your ‘friend’ is either not the best rate in town or working more hours a year than 3 Photographers put together.

  • Peter Pumpkineeter Avatar
    Peter Pumpkineeter

    Couple of quick thoughts on this interesting (and age old) discussion. Commercial photography is most definitely dying. There are far more suppliers out there now than the demand warrants. I know nothing about “retail” photography such as weddings, showers, family events and the like so, I’ll restrict my comments to the market for corporate work for companies and ad agencies (my field). The one thing that is killing it more than any other is stock photography. 90% of the agency art directors I know have not done a photoshoot in more than 3 years! Major brands now regularly insist that agency creatives find cheap stock and photoshop it within an inch of its life to turn it into something they will use. Cheap is the only option on the table (because it’s available) and original photography is almost never an option. Id say the market for this type of photography has fallen by 75% in the last 5 years, all replaced by cheap and plentiful stock. In short, the thinking is that since we are only advertising on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook etc, it’s only visible for a few days so, why spend so much money?

    This would be fine if you could replace that income with stock but, you can’t. The idiotically low percentages on already insultingly low fees that stock fetches means that most contributors play the game for a year or two and give up once the buzz wears off and they figure out they’ll never be able to really make any money. This is where the “posers” come in. Many of the contributors to stock are part timers, happy to call it a hobby and lose money or have very low expectations of return. For them, it allows them to take a tax deduct on their camera purchases.

  • Adrienne Avatar

    First, let me divulge that I am not a photographer. My older brother is one in NYC and has finally crafted his business into a sustainable one. I think a key point missing from the copyright argument is this: while everyone seems to agree that in some instances a client can purchase the image and that is his intention in hiring the artist. The reason why licensing and/or copyright seems to me to be justified is because of the fundamental difference between an artist and an everyday picture taker. The years of work and practice that went into developing their ‘eye’ which results in the higher quality and intimacy of the resulting photo is worthy a fee. Furthermore, because the artist alone OWNS that added value to the work he/she produces, a piece of him is in every print of that image. Therefore, every time it is used or printed, his years of experience and work are being used by someone else to profit (in a commercial sense of course). Because the years of labor he invested in himself result in a better image and therefore a higher profit for the client every time it is used after initial purchase, the artist is entitled to compensation for his intimate piece of that work….everytime. When you get to the level where that ‘eye’ has been honed, that is why a client chooses you in the first place…and if they wish to have the ability to profit from your experience and knowledge over and over again, why shouldn’t the artist receive credit/compensation for something that is and will always be his…his ‘eye’ because it will forever be in that work..and the client shouldn’t profit alone from the property and investment of another. Just my opinion. I also agree though that there are levels to this and just any old picture snapper will have trouble justifying licensing or ‘royalties’ if you will, because they have no intimate eye or lifelong investment in what makes a photograph special. Again, just my uneducated romanticized opinion on the intimacy of photography. It is truly an art form and i think it should be respected as such…perhaps that is the real problem…society has lost respect for photography as a deeply valuable art form because it has become so accessible and standardized… anyway, happy honing :)