Putting the Value Back into Photography

We are so used to getting things for free – online newspapers, magazines, even books — we expect everything to be free.

Some people think photography should be free, and there are those in the marketplace who have done substantial damage to the value of images and assignments. It’s becoming all too common for images to be free, or next to free.

Sadly, we are perpetuating a cycle of free that is now bleeding over to our own bottom lines when the reality is that photography is worth something — a lot.

Mass Media Runs on Photography

Our images make or break magazines, advertising campaigns, and so on.

A pair of jeans sells on the strength of a photograph.

A president is elected on the strength of the photojournalism surrounding his campaign.

Public opinion is formed on our wars overseas by the images that come out of those events.

Weddings are deemed a success after the dust has settled and the wedding album is fabulous.

But magazines are not paying rates commensurate with what they paid even 30 years ago. If photojournalists continue to be paid $200 an assignment only to lose all their rights, that business model can’t be sustained.

What about photography licensed with huge rights being granted at $1? This is horrible for the profession.

Change Has to Start with Us

We as a society need to understand and recognize the value of photographs, and those who create them. Now is the time for a sea change, and it has to start with us. If we don’t recognize the value of photography, no one else will.


15 Responses to “Putting the Value Back into Photography”

  1. Great post John. It is an unfortunate thing to see how the value of true photography is depreciating. We're working to give photographers the credit they deserve. You should check Stipple out http://www.stippleblog.com/post/perspective/

    Keep up the good work.



  2. Professionals can band together all we want but as long as we get undercut by semi-"professionals" or people who do not make a living off of photography we will always get the short end of the stick.

    I've heard this argument for years but what can we do? It's something that we all have to do together at the same time or else they just go to someone else.

    Hell, I just lost a $1500 shoot to another DC professional photog charging $250. Being undercut by that much is insulting.

  3. Sorry, John, it is way too late for this. It will never happen. Anyone who owns a camera is the supplier of magazine imaging. Pro Photographers can only blame themselves for selling out over the past 20 years. You cannot un-ring the bell. Change the way you make money from photography. Trying to change the client buyer is now impossible.

  4. Way too LATE I fear !!

  5. John, I'm confident you are aware of the true issue.
    In my opinion the threshold for acceptable quality has dropped for the client. This happened due to number of cameras in use. You mentioned photojournalism so lets create a quick hypothetical situation.
    The PJ assignment is to go cover Occupy Wall Street there are 10,000 people there 9900 are carrying a camera with them that are capable of "acceptable quality". That would be their phone! A riot breaks out and out of 9900 1% get lucky and get a great grab shot. That's 99 great shots by chance. So now lets say 10% of them are savvy enough to quickly send their shot to various media outlets on the very same phone. The photo desk has a available edit of 10 quality images for next to nothing before the PJ gets his CF card out of the camera. The PJ has less value.
    If you are in a realm of photography where a similar phenomenon exists you better realize the herd has moved to greener pastures or starve.

  6. Skepticism and cynicism aside, you should be addressing this to Getty, Corbis, Flicker etc. They are the ones who offer these garbage rates and they control the market, not us. If you're a buyer, you go to the cheapest acceptable with no thoughts of the financial welfare of the supplier.
    Charles is right -- the time for this action was 20 years ago. Exactly when ASMP, APA etc were nestling down in bed with the super-agencies, which weren't so super at that time.

  7. Yep I'm afraid the toothpaste is out of the tube on this one. For every one that works to hone a portfolio, to make his work a craft, there are a thousand others waiting for the next submit slot on Flickr. I took my former Flickr account down and now have one where I submit basically trash only. I got tired of the "can I use for free" requests there.

    I do have one "free" project that I have been committed to for several years for a small charitable organization. When I work on that project, I light it and shoot it just as if if was going into a national magazine. It's not a "shoot and run". Why do I do it? Because I know what there financials are and I see firsthand the way they utilize funds. They also offer me subject matter I would not normally be given an opportunity to shoot. On the nonprofits, you need to watch out to, because some of the execs on these NPOs make salaries that would afford them several Leica M9s in one year.

    @Richard - yes, the Super agencies - Getty has been giving it to photogs up the rear on an ongoing basis, the most recent blow being the cuts on editorial, yet only a few say "enough" - they just keep signing their contracts. Those who stay will wind up in their micro dollar bin soon enough - in fact it's already happening.

  8. Digital cameras have made everyone a "photographer" and that has hurt photography the most. Just like the Brownie Camera made everyone a photographer in the early 1900’s. The other truth is a camera phone photo is good enough for most people now; part of that reason is because it is more personal to them. Also because they don’t know any better. Most people view digital as cheap/free and compared to film it is. There is one other problem that I see a lot of artist face. That problem is a lot of people see anything done on a computer or involving a computer is simple and doesn’t cost anything. People don’t think about the hours it took to create the photo/painting/drawing/art or the years of training involved.

    We as pro photographers need to change the way we think and how we do business. Not by selling out or lowering our prices, but by finding other ways to make money with our photography. Also, I believe we need to educate the customer why they need our photos. Why OK is not good enough. I know this is easier said than done, but we have to try. Even if we fail, we at least tried and not trying is a bigger failure. To look back on history, how do you think pro photographers felt when Eastman Kodak introduced the Brownie Camera in the early 1900’s just so anyone can take a photograph? Not exactly an apple to apple comparison, but I am sure the pros felt the same. As technology keeps advancing, we need to keep advancing in our way of thinking. Above all else, we need to stay true to ourselves and to photography.

    I will be honest and say I am new to the photography field. I just graduated in September with my photography degree. You may not but I consider myself a pro. Not because of my skill level or the length of time I have been doing photography but because of my belief in and attitude towards photography. After 25 years in the Information Technology I am ready for a change in my life, a new career and life. As I look towards the future, I look at the photography field with a fresh set of eyes to see how I can fit in this world and how I can make photography fit my world. Not by selling cheap photos and giving up all my rights to them, but by finding my own uniqueness in this field. By working with the customer to help them understand why they should pay my prices and buy my photos. By finding a way to truly honor the field of photography and all the professionals that came before me that made photography what I see it is. Maybe I am being naïve in my thinking, but this is my belief and how I choose to create my new life and world.

    As always, I enjoy reading all the posts and responses on Black Star Rising. I love the view it gives me into the world I am going to be a part of.


  9. It's done.

    The last nail is in the coffin.

    All this has been said years before and the only thing that has changed is the value of photograph - it's gone down even more.

    The proverbial dead horse has been beaten.

  10. I have students doing very well. Why? Because they produce QUALITY!

    By doing what you love (not selling out) and being good at it, the word spreads. Every pic they take is a marketing tool, that gets shown to others.

    I expect them to KNOW the CRAFT of photography before MARKETING. In fact, many have built a business without any intent.

    So, we aren't DEAD. But those who think it's about fancy gear and faking it, will have very short careers.

    Do what YOU love, and you find your market.

    Matthew L Kees
    Director of MLKstudios.com Photo School

  11. Also, if you aren't making any $$ now. Give instead:


    Bless you ALL,


  12. I think the drive for profit by the buyers has also hurt the professional market. Why buy when I can rent and make my pub cheaper to produce and thus increase my margin?
    Secondly, I think photographers when interviewed by the media need to get a tad more ballsy. By that I mean talk whenever possible about the dumbing down that is going on. And look directly at the interviewer or camera and say the latest DSLR does not make a good photographer. It is quite capable in the right hands of producing crap like any other item.

  13. This isn't about the value of photography. No one would argue with that. This is basic ECON 110 first lesson: supply v. demand. Did we all miss this lecture in college?

  14. That which is now happening in photography has already happened in the music industry. Digital recording and mixing and delivery has completely changed life for 20th-century musicians. Today's music is, from the view point of most musicians, freely available. Performing musicians probably earn as much from T-shirt sales as from CDs or live performance. Record companies (Universal, Sony) still earn billions and their top artists earn millions, but for the most part the average educated and skilled musician just scrapes by. Digital copying and the Internet have been a large part of this development. If I want a specific recording I can get it, free. By the way, I make a point of buying the CDs of the independent jazz musicians that I like. Still, the music scene has changed enormously. Both the studio scene and live performance venues have declined.

    Being both a photographer (10 years), and jazz musician (35+ years), I have concluded that the digital revolution in photography occurring in the last 5 years is very much the same as that which occurred in the music industry's 1980s studio scene and later in the 1990s with mp3s and the www. I would also expect that the fate of photographers (and videographers) should be similar to that of musicians. There is a glut in the availability of digital information. So, OK, (or not OK), on the minus side: Anyone can copy your work and everyone with a camera or in the case of music, a garage band, is a competitor. Even if your music or image goes "viral," you don't directly earn a penny. Plus side: The WORLD is your market. Look at it this way, 0.001% of the world market is a lot more that 0.1% of your city. You can find those clients in the (whole) world who love what you do. The digital Internet world does allow one more possibilities to find the people who want what you offer. Perhaps quality matters more because there is so much more mediocrity. Perhaps photographers are better off in this respect: It is not possible to print a good-quality image from a web page sized photo but most people are quite happy with a highly compressed mp3 of their fave band.

    What have I learned from the changes in the music biz? Make your music. Make what money you can. Ask big, you can (almost) always negotiate and if not, then you wouldn't dig it for the bread anyway. If you don't dig it, don't do it. When you play with others and they see that you don't dig it, they probably won't hire you the next time anyway. Jazz musicians say "Do it for money, even if it isn't fun, or, if there is not much money, do it for fun. It there isn't enough money and not enough fun, then don't do it. Another plus: At least photography, almost any photography is more mainstream than the most commercial of jazz music. Yes, I am quite sure that no one would want to compare their earning power to that of the average jazz musician.

    If we look back at the last 100 years or so we can see that we as photographers or musicians haven't died off as a species with every new innovation and we still manage to do business. Also, younger generations seem to continue entering the workforce and surviving.

    Maybe the real problem that photographers (and musicians) face is that they, (me too), are looking at starting up again in this new world before they are finished with the old. I have seen this with top-earning sales people who "earn" themselves out of a changing business. Whole businesses evaporate along with the skill sets that have evolved to support them. This I have seen in the print business where film strippers and then the Mac operators after them, who used to make film for magazines and catalogs have been displaced by technology allowing their work to be done "in house". At least the skill set that we as photographers have is not so industry or tool specific. The art of seeing is primary. Photography, unlike music, is not so instrument dependent. With music it takes decades to learn the technique of a specific instrument in order to create a quality performance. Photographers, are lucky in this respect. Seeing, like hearing, is primary but the tools or "instruments" photographers use are relatively easy to master.

    The cycles of change, it seems, will always be accelerating. Saying that that the world (of photography or music) we now live in sucks is like saying human nature sucks. Maybe it does, but it is the only nature we have. Perhaps today's "real problem" is basing a lifestyle upon an everchanging and evolving world. The new reality might be that it is normal to start over several times in one's life.

    As always, one has to deal with reality as one sees it.

  15. Changing times are rarely pleasant for those who are established in their careers or for anyone preparing for a traditional career. Back in the "old days" of the 1950's, before you made a major purchase, you spoke to a salesperson who was knowledgeable. Now we have the Internet and we are able to educate ourselves for all but the most complex and exotic products. As a result, most salespeople have become unnecessary. So it is in photography.

    The average Joe no longer needs a professional photographer...or so he thinks. After all, his little point and shoot answers all his questions and does a fairly respectable job, not as good as you, the professional would do, but acceptable. And so not only does the new camera make it easy, it changes the prospective customer's attitude. As was said before, you will never change that.

    Keep your day job.

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