What It Costs to Produce a Simple Photo of a Cornfield

I’ve been having a discussion with Serban Enache, CEO of Dreamstime, and I can’t resist commenting in detail on a couple of his questions.

He asked, “Aren’t the costs lower now for a traditional photographer, just as they are for a micropayment photographer? Why does an image of a cornfield need to cost several hundred dollars when it costs $10 to produce?” He also pointed out that he wasn’t talking about the costs of high-end productions, just simple images.

The following is my response.

First it should be noted that the way micropayment and all RF prices are structured, the fees for all pictures are the same regardless of their cost of production. Thus, there is some justification for taking into account the combined production costs of all images when trying to come up with an average price to charge. It does not seem reasonable to establish the price for all images based on what it costs to produce the simplest and least expensive image.

But I would also argue that the costs for a traditional photographer have not dropped and are not the same as for most micropayment photographers. Serban may be thinking of the costs of basic camera equipment. But traditional photographers tend to use higher end cameras, as well as more lenses and lighting equipment than do those shooting for micropayment.

And equipment is not the only cost.

Traditionals tends to hire more professional models, rent locations, build sets, travel to produce shoots, etc. Only in very rare cases do the costs of production incurred by micropayment photographers match those of traditional photographers.

I know many photographers who are spending between $10,000 and $30,000 in production costs (not counting equipment) for some of their projects. I don’t think there are any micropayment photographers spending anywhere near that kind of money for a one day, or one week shoot.

You might be able to argue that, in some cases, if the traditionalists were smarter they could produce pictures for somewhat less, but the extra expense usually pays back dividends in quality.

Shooting a Cornfield

The cost to shoot a “simple picture” of a cornfield is not in the time it takes to click the shutter, download the digital file, keyword and send it off to a micropayment site. That’s only a small fraction of what it takes the photographer to get that picture. The fee charged for usage should have some relationship to the number of marketable pictures a photographer can produce in a given period of time.

I have a little experience in shooting pictures of corn, so let me tell you some of the things I’ve had to go through to get pictures of cornfields. If the photographer happens to live on a farm, he can wait until the corn crop gets full grown, or to the stage he wants it, and then run out and shoot it.

Of course, once he’s ready to shoot he’s probably going to want to do some close-ups, wide shots, high angles (if he can find some angle to show the overall field), as well as shoot the field in various types of light.

Where does he want the sun — front lit, back lit, sunrise, sunset? What’s going to make the best picture, or the picture a customer he’s never met will want to use? Since he has no idea what the next customer is going to want, he’s probably going to shoot as many different angles and situations as he can think of — and that’s going to take some time.

Now, in a case like mine, I live in town. So when I want to shoot a cornfield, I’ve got to drive at least an hour and when I get into any area where there are cornfields I’ve got to find one that looks good. I can tell you not all cornfields make attractive pictures.

There is also a real dilemma if I want a high-angle shot that will allow me to look down the rows. In corn country there aren’t that many good high angles to shoot from. Sometimes I’ve shot from standing on the top of my car, but I’ve had trouble getting the car at the right angle to the field and often the angle still wasn’t high enough.

I may have to find a barn with a good perspective on a nice field of corn. That’s not easy. But then, of course, once I find this field and barn, I’ve got to get permission from the farmer to get up in his barn. And I’m stuck with the field nearest the barn when the field a quarter mile away is really the best looking field, but there is no high angle there.

And then we have the sun. When I left my house the sky was clear and blue with nice puffy clouds, but by the time I found a good corn field it was overcast or the light was coming from the wrong direction. Do I sit and wait for the light to change? In some cases that works. In others it just wastes more time and I still have to come back some other time to get a decent picture, if I really want a picture of corn.

All this time has to be factored into my cost of getting a simple picture of corn.

Should we leave this type of photography to the microstock specialist who lives on a farm and all he shoots is corn and hogs? That’s the subject matter easily available to him.

Having such a narrow specialty may work for the photographer who is just taking pictures as a sideline and is not interested in making a living from his pictures. But no matter how good his images are, he probably can’t earn a living from just selling shots of corn and hogs taken on his own farm.

Maybe this photographer wants to shoot other types of agriculture, or maybe he wants to shoot in town. Now he’s got transportation and logistics problems just like I had. And he’s going to have to spend a lot of time getting to where he can shoot other marketable pictures.

How many marketable situations can any of us shoot in a day or a week or a month? And if you’re going to maximize the number of shots you get in a day, a lot of pre-planning is required.

Let’s assume that this photographer who lives on a farm spends an hour shooting and an hour in post-production, and he get 10 really good images to submit. (Of course, it’s going to take someone like me a lot more than two hours to do the same production because I have travel involved.)

Will everything this photographer shoots be accepted? Probably not. Chances are the editor won’t like some of the images and several will be rejected. The photographer has to earn enough from the images that are selected to cover the costs of the rejected images as well.

Every professional photographer I’ve talked to who has submitted images to micropayment sites has had some images rejected. In many cases, the rejected images have later sold through other sources. The editing process does not guarantee that all the saleable images will get seen. So let’s assume that five of the 10 cornfield pictures are accepted.

After The Shoot

Now the photographer’s cornfield images have to compete with all the other cornfield images that are available in the market. I did some counts using the keywords “cornfield” and Getty Images has 1,188 images. Dreamstime has 2,617 and iStockphoto has 4,297.

Statistically, the chances of a customer picking one of the five this photographer has shot are pretty slim. If the photographer knew that once he had a good picture every customer who wanted a picture of corn would buy his, then maybe he could afford to sell pictures at $10 each — or less. But that’s not the way it works.

I did a little analysis of the iStockphoto images that have been downloaded the most. The first two pictures that come up when you search by number-of-downloads using the keyword “cornfield” are pictures of wheat. When you go a little ways through these pictures that are supposed to be of corn, you find pictures not only of wheat, but of hay, flowers, etc.

I have no idea how many actual pictures of corn there are among these 4,297. Hopefully, the buyers know corn when they see it, know the difference between field corn and sweet corn and won’t publish a picture of wheat and caption it corn. (Just so I don’t leave the impression that this is only a problem at iStock, a number of the pictures in the first 10 at Dreamstime are crops other than corn and Getty also has some similar problems, but fewer than the micropayment sites.)

The most downloaded picture of corn on iStock was taken in the U.K. by Duncan Walker, and has been downloaded 557 times in less than a year. (Incidently, one of the reasons this picture — Image 2245921 — is so appealing is the spacing between the corn rows. Such spacing won’t be found in more than one in 10,000 corn fields, but it makes a beautiful picture. If Duncan went out looking for such spacing it wasn’t easy to find. I wonder how many pictures of corn he took before he stumbled on this situation?)

Duncan is exclusive with iStock, has 2,348 images on the site and in total his images have been downloaded 126,120 times, or an average of 53 times per accepted image. Because he is exclusive he currently gets at least 40 percent of sales, so at an average price of two credits per download ($2.48), he would have earned approximately $535 from this corn picture (assuming all the sales were made at the current price).

Not bad. But it is interesting that the 984th picture is a vertical shot by Duncan of the same corn field at the same basic angle and it’s only been downloaded six times. In fact, 78 percent of all the corn pictures on this site have been downloaded less than six times.

Establishing The Price

So to determine costs, the photographer needs to look at a collection put together over a period of time, not just a single image. The photographer needs to include all costs including pre-production, post-production and shooting time, not just computer and camera equipment. He needs to add in a portion of all overhead costs involved in running his operation.

He can’t say that if a photo doesn’t need lighting or a studio it doesn’t cost as much as one that does — if owning lighting or a studio is a necessity in conducting his overall business. A portion of that cost must be factored into all images produced.

Time is also a factor. If a photographer spends a day trying to get good pictures of corn, that’s a day he can’t spend shooting something else and each of us has only a limited amount of time, particularly if we’re trying to earn a living.

While one needs to be very careful in assigning cost to any particular image, that’s a simple matter compared to trying to determine how much revenue a particular image will generate.

Once we’ve properly allocated all the costs of doing business to the collection of images created, there are two other very important elements in determining the value of an image. They are the likelihood that it will sell and at what price. 557 downloads at an average of $2.50 each represents about $1,393. Four sales of the same image at $348 each would have generated the same amount of revenue.

In the era of print catalogs, once an image was chosen for a catalog it could be expected to sell many times for figures of $348 or above. I doubt that any picture in that era sold 557 times, but it didn’t have to sell anywhere near that number of times to generate more revenue.

At the peak of the print catalog business, there might have been a million unique images in all the print catalogs ever produced. However, most art directors were only aware of a fraction of those images. Now, with the Internet, there are tens of millions of images easily available to any art director.

This number is probably close to doubling every 12 months, and the rate of doubling seems likely to increase. Thus, the odds of any particular image selling has been greatly reduced, and is continuing to decline.

Some images, given their extreme uniqueness, will separate themselves from the pack. But it will become increasingly rare for any photographer, no matter how talented, to create many of these top-selling images.

To measure success, photographers will need to look at gross revenue, subtract all expenses and then divide the total number of hours spent in producing images into the net revenue. I’m afraid this hourly rate will be shocking to most photographers.

One Response to “What It Costs to Produce a Simple Photo of a Cornfield”

  1. Thank you for addressing this issue in a clear, easily understood fashion.

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