When Should Pros Give Away Their Photos?

Reading my way around the photography blogosphere, I’ve seen plenty of warnings aimed at amateur or hobbyist photographers urging them to never — ever — give their photos away. Most of these arguments are based on the belief that this sort of free licensing takes work away from professionals, or lowers the value of photography.

How does this same advice apply to a professional photographer? One would assume that if amateurs shouldn’t give away licenses because it hurts the pros, then certainly the pros should never permit use of their photos without payment. But is this always the case?

Last year, I was presented with several photo requests for images to be used in environmental conservation efforts that I fully support. The requests each concluded with a now-familiar statement: “We love your photos, and would like to pay you for them, but we don’t have any money.”

My under-the-breath response is always, “Oh, and you think I do?” Wondering what to do about the situation, I asked a successful cinematographer friend for some guidance on how to proceed. I really did want to see the photographs used in support of the cause, but it’s pretty clear that if I’m not paid for the licenses to use my images, I won’t be able to continue creating them.

To give or not to give, that is the question. My friend advised me to reply by making the following points:

  • “I believe in your cause, and am excited that my photography can help in your efforts.” This says that we are on the same team, we are brothers/sisters fighting the good fight together.
  • “I make my living creating photographs and licensing the publication of them.” This establishes the fact that the budgetless client is asking for something that I do as a way to put food on my table. This is not a hobby; without this I’ll be on the streets.
  • “The fair market rate for the license you are requesting is $X.” This tells them that in order to operate my business and keep making photogaphs like this one that they so love, I need to make X amount from this license.
  • “Because I believe in your cause and understand your budget constraints, I’m willing to do what I can to help you. If you can’t afford to pay a fair price for this license in cash, what other sort of help can you provide that will enable me to keep creating images such as this?”

From this point in the negotiation, the discussion can go anywhere. The client may come around and agree to pay your rate. If not, perhaps you can barter for advertising (not just photo credit), promise of future paid work, in-kind work or products, etc. Think about how to make it work. If you can make a creative photo, you can apply that same creativity to identify non-monetary ways that a client can help your business.

Here’s a real-life example: One of my largest stock licenses came from using the above technique. The client came to me begging, but ultimately agreed to pay the fair market rate in full. They have since licensed more photos as well. I believe that I not only had the photo they wanted, but made myself into an ally by being open and honest — all the while respecting myself and the work that I do.

And — as I write this — I have just responded to yet another e-mail asking to license a photo for a good cause. I responded by tailoring the above points into my e-mail, and I’m excited to see what becomes of it. The client is a for-profit company that I would really like to shoot for. This time I’m hoping that I’ll be able to secure a promise for some future paying work as compensation for licensing a photo to them for one-time use.

So, should you give your photos away? In general, I say “no,” but I also recognize that payment can come in many forms. I love to shoot photos; I’m in this business so I can do it as much as possible. I’ve found that when I am flexible and communicate honestly with my clients, they will do what they can to see me succeed. People like to help those who are willing to help them.

[tags]photography advice, Scott Dickerson [/tags]

7 Responses to “When Should Pros Give Away Their Photos?”

  1. Is there a legal mechanism for writing off photos as charitable donations (as long as the organization is a 501c)?

  2. Colin,
    Good question, I can't answer it professionally. In the past I have been given a receipt from a 501c3 for the market value of the work I performed for them. I would assume this counted as a charitable contribution. But there maybe some complications with 'gift-in-kind' donations. Perhaps someone else here can enlighten us?

    I would like to know more about the potentials here as well. Especially as tax time approaches.

  3. Excellent article - probably something we've all come across at some point..

  4. This isn't tax advice but in general you can only deduct the actual cost of materials and not your time or, in other words, the "creative fee" part of making a picture.

    A win-win strategy I've used is to present an invoice and get paid and then write a check to the organization either as a donation or for advertising or sponsorship. This would be worked out with the client up front of course. This makes sure that I can deduct the cost of my outlay (say as advertising) and has the added benefit of making the real value of your work known to the client.

  5. Andy- Great idea! I always hate to create more paperwork, but I can see some very good advantages to following the course you explained. I'm going to put this one to use asap.

    Thanks for sharing.

  6. Many thanks for the information.

  7. I just found this post:
    by John Harrington that talks about working for non-profits. It includes some interesting information directly related to what we are discussing here.

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