One of the key things to understand about stock photography is why some customers are willing to pay more than others to use an image.
Most photographers want to believe customers will pay more when the image is of “better quality” or more technically perfect. They believe that when they increase production values, build better sets, use better looking models, use people who look more “real” and when they generally spend more to produce an image, customers will pay more to use it.
Bright Backgrounds and Colorful Clothes
They believe that if an image is shot from a helicopter, or if they had to travel around the world to get it, it should command a higher price.
Some believe that customers will pay big bucks for images that are styled down and natural looking. Yuri Arcurs  advises microstock photographers who want to shoot for the rights-managed and traditional royalty-free markets to “forget about bright backgrounds and colorful clothes, big budgets and super fancy locations.”
All these things may be necessary to produce an image customers will choose over the rest of the competition — but none of these things have anything to do with why customers will pay more.
There is only one thing that makes one customer pay more than another for a stock image. That is usage.
It’s All About Usage
Some RF producers might argue that customers will pay more for a larger file size. But the reason they need a larger file size is entirely dependent on how they intend to use the image.
Photographers need to recognize that there is no precise definition as to what makes one image better than another. Any individual may like one image better than another. Photographers may win awards from their peers for certain images, but that has nothing whatsoever to do with the value of an image to any given customer.
Every day, customers prove that what they want for their particular purposes is different from what photographers, or other photo editors, would have chosen to use for that purpose.
When it comes to the matter of choosing a stock image, the customer is always right. However, that does not mean than when it comes to establishing a price to use a particular image the customer should be allowed to pay anything he wants regardless of the seller’s needs.
Every customer has a budget for the projects he is working on. Sometimes those budgets are unreasonable. Sometimes the customer will pay a little more than his original budget for an image that seems just right for his project, but usually he will not pay much more.
On the other hand, the customer will also happily pay much less than his budget allows, if that’s all the seller asks.
What’s “Best” Depends on the Customer — and the Day
Some customers have projects of varying values. For one project they may not be able to justify paying more than $10 per image, but on the next project, which will be used in a much broader way and is much more important to the company’s business, that customer may be willing to pay $1,000 for the right image.
Of course, if the seller only wants to charge $10 to use the image for that big project, the customer will gladly pay the smaller amount and pocket the rest for some future use.
On any given day, a customer may choose an image that he feels is “best” for the project he is working on at the moment. A week later, after the project has gone into production he may stumble onto something that would have been better, but it is too late to make the change.
On any two different days, a customer might choose different images for the same project. What’s “best” is entirely determined by the customer’s need at any given point in time.
If the customer finds two images that fulfill the same need, and the more expensive one is slightly better, he may choose to use the cheaper one in order to stay under budget. The customer may not always choose to use the best picture.
Fifteen or 20 years ago, Henry Scanlon, president of Comstock and an industry leader at the time, was asked during a seminar how he decides what to charge for the use of an image. He said, “I want to find out what the customer thinks the image is worth, and what he has in his budget for this project. Then I want to get all of it.”