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I'm a Cairns, far north Queensland, Australia professional photographer specialising in travel, editorial and environmental portraiture.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Your photos are worth nothing...


This little old lady knows the value of her eggs. She sits down at the foot of this sulphur-belching volcano in the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido and sells her wares. She knows how much each egg costs her to buy. She also knows it doesn't cost anything but time to boil them because she just sticks them in the volcano.

Oh and she charges an extra premium because these are special eggs. Each one will increase your life by 5 years! At least that's what she swore and who am I to argue? She looked like she'd eaten a few.

But here's the thing. Her eggs have a certain monetary value because they cost her money to buy. Our photos are kind of the same, and kind of not. It costs us money indirectly to take photos. We need to buy camera equipment, computers, storage hard drives etc. So in that sense our photos have some kind of value. But if you were to lose your pictures in a house fire, accidentally deleted a hard drive or some other mistake there wouldn't be an insurance company in the world who would give you a red cent for each and every photo lost. They would only pay you to replace your computers and hard drives. So while they might be really precious and priceless in terms of their value to you, monetarily speaking our pictures are worth nothing.

Until somebody wants to use them. Photographs, and all other kind of intellectual property where the copyright lies with the creator, obtain their value when other people deem them good enough to use. And the way in which they use them will determine the value. So for example a small 1/4 page picture in your local newspaper might only get you fifty bucks but the same picture used in a huge advertising campaign might get you tens of thousands of dollars. The actual value of the picture itself hasn't changed - it's the same picture! The value attributed to it based on how somebody wants to use it has changed.

And this is where I personally think Microstock and Royal Free pricing, and subscription based pricing for that matter, get it all wrong. They act as if photographs are widgets. Something that can be created on a conveyor belt and pumped out day after day. And they place their value on the actual image itself. And, as we all know, they don't place much of a value on even that. Which is fair enough, as I've said I don't think pictures have monetary value themselves either.

But what they've then done is taken away the value of the usage. If you can use a picture as many times as you like, in pretty much any medium, for as long as you like then the only thing you're paying for is the picture. How you use it is deemed irrelevant. So in micro-uses, like blogs, personal (non-commercial websites), school projects etc, those small prices might be the right price to pay, and there's obviously a big wide world of people who are prepared to pay small amounts to license pictures for those kind of uses.

Where I think we get into trouble is when we want to use the photographs in situations where the usage is very extensive. In those cases the photographer should be making more money because they're helping the client make money. Quid pro quo. If I produced an image good enough to help you sell lots of your product I deserve a fair share of the pie.The more money you stand to make the more the photographer should get. Hell even the egg lady would get more for her eggs if they helped her clients live an extra 20 years or so!

Of course it doesn't worry the agency. They make their money up on volume. If they have millions of their pictures downloaded every day that's a lot of money in the bank. But how does the poor ol' photographer do if that money is split over a large number of photographers? And how much better would they do if their pictures were actually priced according to the usage? Well the cat's out of the bag so I guess a lot of photographers will never know. But just think about it next time you're wondering which stock agency to place your pictures with.

Will they place the monetary value on the image itself, or on how the client wants to use it?

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