Low Photo Licensing Rate – No Thanks

A couple of weeks ago I was part of a major ad campaign licensing negotiation of my photography. I want to give you some of the background for the low photo licensing rate my agent and I received. Then discuss why I turned down the money. We will keep names and specific details out of this article. The bottom line is that photographers need to take a stand on low photo licensing rates, now, more than ever.

Low Photo Licensing Rate –¬†Opening

I received a phone call from my agent. A high-profile ad agency called her and said that they wanted to use my work for an upcoming ad campaign. A group of people from the agency were coming to Jackson, WY. They wanted to meet with me. We set up a happy hour meeting at one of the restaurants in town. Beer is always a great catalyst for new work! The meeting with the ad partners went really well. I had a good idea of what types of photographs they were going to need. The plan was to touch base in a couple of weeks to begin working on the ad campaign together.

The Phone Call

Like discussed during our happy hour meeting, a senior art director from the agency called me about a week later. We talked about what they needed for the upcoming ad placement. The campaign needed a photo for a two-page ad in Outside Magazine. If you read my post about the social media advertising racket, you already know Outside Magazine charges $200,000 for a two-page spread for one month! Note that this price has nothing to do with my low photo licensing rate. It does give the photographer an idea to what type of budget the ad campaign has though.

After my phone call I put together an edit of photos for the ad agency to take a look at. My agent became the point person to discussing pricing if the agency came back with any requests. I also looked at the pricing models that the stock agency who represents close to 2000 photos of mine has in place. This gave us a realistic dollar amount to begin negotiations.

Two Weeks Later

Two weeks later the lead art director for the campaign contacted my agent for pricing. The ad agency expanded the usage they needed for the photo. They wanted to know how much it was going to cost for unrestricted rights for the next two years! This meant that they wanted to use my photo anywhere they deemed fit for the next two years. We would find my photo online, on billboards, in magazines, pretty much any where you can dream up.

Based on this new information, I went back to my stock agency’s pricing model. Unrestricted rights for a period of two years, commanded a opening price of $20,000. Also realize that I would have potentially seen 50% of this $20K sale. Alex (agent) and I gave the ad agency an opening price of $10,000. We also added a clause in there to allow them to license additional photos for a very reasonable $250 per photo after the initial buy-in.

We added this clause because we wanted my photography to be the major showcase for the ad campaign. The more photos that were licensed, the cheaper the per photo pricing became. The more tear sheets I would then have for my portfolio.

Low Photo Licensing Rate – 24 Hours Later

24 hours later Alex and I were hit with not just a low photo licensing rate, but potentially the lowest rate of my career for this type of usage. $300. Yep. $300 for unlimited, unrestricted usage for a two-year period. Remember earlier in this article? They could use my photo ANYWHERE they deemed fit for $300. #WTF

After I got through swearing like a sailor and preparing a covert death op for this company, I threw a Hail Mary pass out there. I decided to agree to the low photo licensing rate if they used only my photos for the entire campaign. While I was still recovering from feeling completely screwed over, my thought process was simple. If the entire campaign consisted of my photography, I had ownership. Even at a ridiculously low rate, I would still make money if you added up all of the photos they potentially needed. I would also have the entire campaign as a marketing piece for my business. My agent would also have the same opportunity.

The ad agency declined. We were pretty sure they would because they have the pick of thousands of potential photos of the Jackson area. That’s why it was a Hail Mary.

I then formally declined their low photo licensing rate. While I originally wanted to blow the bridge up between myself and this ad agency, I mellowed a bit. After I drank a shit-ton of bourbon of course.

Low Photo Licensing Rate Learning Experience

Every day that I sit at my desk and go to work with someone else I grow. I only grow if I am open to growth though. While a $300 licensing rate is pretty much bullshit for this type of usage, I learned a valuable lesson on negotiation tactics and working with my agent. We came together, worked on ideas, theories, how to make this deal happen.

I also learned that sometimes small money really won’t solve anything so there is no reason to accept it. The bottom line is that if I accepted the terms of their usage I would not only be devaluing the photos I have struggled so hard to get, I would be devaluing my industry. This is EXTREMELY important to understand for EVERY photographer.

There are two stances in play here.

There is the photographer who needs every dime that comes his way. I am part of this scenario. Photography has been the only means of income that I have generated for the last decade. I don’t have another high-paying job we don’t talk about. There is no trust fund for me to dip into. I learned early that I needed to work hard. While many will say $300 is $300 of positive income. I believe short changing a decade of hard work is a huge mistake.

Then there is the photographer who doesn’t need the money. They have a full-time job or are retired. These photographers want the publication as part of their bragging rights. They also feel that they don’t deserve a large fee because of their low experience. This train of thought puts the economy of photography in decline too.

My hope is that this rate is not an upcoming sign of the times. I have already seen a major decline in photo adventure participation. I don’t want to see photography become some sort of hobby lifestyle. I don’t think it will if the professionals stand together. Once voice does have power.

Low Photo Licensing Rate – Stand Against

If you are a photographer and you sell the photography you create do not settle. While there isn’t any licensing to become a professional photographer think about the word professional. Once you hang that sign outside of your door perspectives need to change. You need to know what the photography marketplace can withstand. Other professionals like attorneys, doctors, and architects, don’t typically give their services away. Yes, it is ok to take on charity cases and work for less when it comes to non-profits. This story has nothing to do with either of those scenarios though. If a huge ad campaign can afford a $200,000 ad buy in massively circulated magazine, they should budget realistic fees for the work they want to use. When the ads run I will not only know which photographers settled, those photographers who agreed on $300 will know that I did not.

You may think of me as a martyr in this instance, but think about how much money the average professional makes in a single year. Most professionals bill out well into the hundreds per hour. If my product (photo) is helping to sell someone else’s business for 2 years is $10,000 really that much? Probably not. Even if they were only running one ad in Outside Magazine, $10K isn’t even 10% of that cost. In addition, there is no way the ad campaign is going to run for one month and be done. That instantly puts their budget in the millions, while the individual photographer makes $300. My hope is that I at some point I get the chance to work with this ad agency, but if their budgets don’t increase, I will stand firm again.

Sometimes it’s not about the money. Sometimes it is though.

Style & Vision

In Nature Photography


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18 Responses

  1. I think you have taken a valuable position here. This is another example of larger corporations attempting to leverage suppliers and workers for more production but with less reward or income. At the same time the directors of these agencies expect large commissions and bonuses.

    You are correct that accepting this low ball offer for unlimited licensing devalues the market for all others as well.

  2. Early in my days as an aircraft flight instructor, I was approached by people for instruction. They wanted me to instruct them for FREE! Their logic was that I was building flight time and that should be worth enough to me to teach them the skills I had acquired by hard work, study and money.

    Never did it that way even one time. Made no sense to me and Jay what you described at the agency offer make no sense either.

    1. Thanks Charles! I completely agree with you. The value of a learned skill set is getting forgotten. People need to realize that knowledge has value. You pay less in the end when using a person who is the top of the pay scale vs. someone who is just beginning.

  3. I can remember reading in one of the photo magazines in 2001 an editor asking his fellow associates what changes they expected from digital photography. He printed the one he thought was the most enlightening: The photographers were going to be the mom, pop, or uncle that just got their new camera and will shoot the portrait or wedding for a $100 or just the price of the chip.The only other photographers would be the high end professional photographers. All the middle end professional photographers, of which I was one, would be gone. And he was right.

    A lot of people have got a “That’s good enough” attitude. Then they look at your photos with some wonder when your photos are heads above their “good” photos. I did my first wedding for $900. Then I found out my customer wanted everything she could think of. Luckily my contract gave me some leverage. Then after the “dust” settled, I figured my wages at less than $5 per hour after taking out the cost. Rudely awaken, that was my last $900 wedding.

    You are absolutely right. Whether you are an amateur or professional, if your work is good, one needs to be paid as such.

  4. Good for you. I had a situation recently where someone had seen an image I had taken of a relatively rare African animal. They wanted to use it in a brochure. I said I would agree to that provided they sign a contract for sole, single-time usage and my charge for this one-time usage was $1000.00. Well, you would think I had asked for the moon. As soon as I mentioned the word “contract”, they all of a sudden had other images they could use. I don’t care that I didn’t get the fee, but I will not give my photography away for free, except, maybe in the case of relatively good causes. This was not one of them.

    1. Exactly Ron! If it is an established business, there is absolutely no reason that they shouldn’t have money in their budget for marketing. And there is no reason that they shouldn’t pay and agree to the specifics of the usage. Again all about the value.

  5. Good decision, I’m just a hobbyist, but just retired after 30+ years from a large automation builder. Had major automotive supplier that went on the cheap some yrs back. We walked away from several orders. They’re now our largest customer. They came to conclusion that they would have to pay for the performance, reliability & support they needed.

  6. Thanks for standing firm, Jay, for all of us in photography. For comparison, let me relay to you my own experience with REI, the outdoor clothing and gear cooperative. REI found my work on the web and wanted to license a photo of Crater Lake to license for use as a giant mural on a wall of their new store in Salem, Oregon. Having very little experience on how to price my image for licensing for restricted use, I did a little research and looked at what I was licensing my individual photos for downloading from my web gallery. I was charging $250 for downloading an individual image for restricted licensing. I gave REI that price. Guess what? They got back to me and said they thought that was too low. They more than doubled the price I had quoted them and, as you might have guessed, I agreed. Now, perhaps I should have held out for more. But as you can see, some businesses do make an attempt to be fair to the creatives they rely on for advertising, branding, marketing, etc. To think that the ad agency you were dealing with wanted to pay you $300 for unrestricted use is remarkable. Good decision holding out.

    1. Hey Stuart…

      This is really great to hear. I love when large companies like REI promote honesty. It’s good to hear from you as well!

      I have a similar success story…I have a friend who has worked at our local ski resort here in Jackson. She has always helped me out with privileges as a photographer. She came to me needing photos for a new non-profit she was heading up. She didn’t have any funding. I gave her and the non-profit the keys to my stock site castle. I figured I at least owed her that. They were so excited about being able to find a series of photos that specifically worked for them that they came back and paid me for using the photos.

      I think people are forgetting that EVERY successful business, situation, and problem solved happens because people WORK together. The more we collaborate with others the better each of us are individually for it.

  7. Never settle!!! Thanks for taking a firm stand Jay. Ad agencies, stock photo agencies, and even newspaper groups tend to take advantage of the lone photographer.

  8. Something that I learned awhile ago is when a company asks for unlimited, royalty-free usage say, “That image isn’t available for those types of rights.” They are never going pay you for what the image is worth and you’ll still usually get the current campaign. Then if they want to use the image again, they’ll need to come back to you and buy additional rights for each usage. If their clients like the image and really want it in other ads, then you’ll get the second sale.

    1. Yeah but these companies don’t come back. You have to chase them. They are effectively lowering the rates by the tactics they are employing. They are a group of very intelligent individuals who know that their bottom line is connected to what they spend. The less they have to fund, the more they make in the end.

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