Photography Fees

Need professional photography done? Want to reproduce an already-published photo? Bottom line: good photography is expensive. June 3, 2007

We finished a job last year where we did some millwork in a new house. I found out recently that the job had won some awards for the architect and GC from the local branch of AIA. I got the name of the photographer who shot the job and asked about prices for some of the photos that showed the work we did. The photographer responded, asking how we intended to use the photos. I told the photographer that we would put them in our portfolio book and on our website.

The quote I received had different pricing for each different situation. Prints for the portfolio book were $150.00, prints to hang on the wall were $275.00, images for the web site were $450.00 per year for a 1/4 page, $750.00 for 2 years, $1500.00 for 5 years, and an additional fee (that would be waived if we bought multiple images) if the image was to be on the home page. Additionally, all images would be required to include a photographer's credit.

Is this payment structure typical? It seems to me that if I hired a photographer to shoot something for me, particularly if it is something that I both designed and built, and I paid for the photographer's time, materials, overhead, and profit, then I would own the product that resulted from the service that I paid for. When somebody gives me a design for a piece of furniture to build, I don't have any claim on it after I am paid. Isn't the photographer clearly doing work for hire? How is it justified that copyright would attach when a photographer is being provided exclusive access to shoot the item in question, being instructed as to what the results are to be, and being paid to do so? If I hire a writer to compose a press release for me (intellectual property), am I obligated to pay the writer a fee beyond whatever was negotiated for the work every time I mail out the press release? And what if the photographer hires another photographer - which one has rights to the resulting product? If I hired a photographer to shoot a piece of furniture for me, and the next day hired a different photographer to shoot the same item, resulting in images that are identical, does the first photographer have any claim on the work of the second?

Not really intending to beat up on photographers… We all have a right to make as much as we can, but when it comes time for me to hire a photographer, these issues will really bother me. I don't disagree that if you create something new in the world, be it a photo, a song, or a piece of furniture for that matter, you should be entitled some protection from copies and knock-offs. But when you agree to be hired to do something at the instruction of those who are paying you, you are no longer providing a unique product; you are providing a service, and that would seem to change everything.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor L:
Hate to tell you this, but the photographer is charging you about the right price. You are buying his services. The photos that he takes are his. Any photographer has the right to copyright their work and it is their property. You need permission to do anything with the photos they take. I think the structured payment for the web seems to be kind of steep, but if that is what he wants for them, that is what you need to pay him.

From contributor G:
You may want to get a digital camera and a tripod and take your own pictures next time. If you aren't a pro quality photographer, there are gazillions of books on the subject. If the pictures of the home appear in a magazine, you can scan them and then put them on your website, giving the appropriate credits. You could also try contacting the homeowner and the architect to see if they will let you scan their copies. I wish I'd been making that kind of money when I was a pro photographer... I'd still be doing it.

From contributor P:
I have a friend shoot my pieces. He isn't a pro or making a living at photography, but he does decent work. I bring my pieces to him or he comes to my shop, sets up a backdrop, shoots what I want, prints out a bunch of portfolio pages, puts all the images on CD in different sizes for email or prints, etc. and gives me the CD. Then he posts them on my website. I am not sure what he would charge for all this to someone new. I would definitely call around.

From contributor H:
Get a camera and take your own photos of your work. It's your work . You can use your photos any way you want, or as another poster said, use the existing photos but credit the photographer for the image. It's nice how they credited you (bet they didn't) in the photos, isn't it?

From the original questioner:
I have taken my own photos from time to time, and I even have halfway decent equipment (35mm camera and photo lights), but I find I get what I pay for. I have bought prints under similar circumstances before, and the quality of the photos to what I can do is night and day. Bad photos make good work look cheap. I appreciate what an experienced photographer with top notch equipment can do. I also know the costs of maintaining the kind of studio that can do this kind of work. It is like our industry in that we need a whole bunch of equipment to be able to do the variety of things that we do, even though on any one particular job we will only use a fraction of the experience and tools available to us. So, it is not a matter of griping about the overall costs involved - I understand the costs - but rather the structure by which the costs are billed.

From contributor E:
We are woodworkers, not photographers, right? I have been taking my own pictures for the past few years, and you can see that it is a piece of furniture, but nothing great. Last week I had a pro take shots of my stuff and they are unbelievable. You can't believe the difference. Buy yourself a digital camera? It takes a little more than that. Don't we laugh at people that try to do what we do?

From contributor B:
You may need to do a little photographer shopping. I have used a local pro who specializes in architectural photography, and I typically pay around $300 to $500 per photo, but they are provided to me on a CD to be used as I see fit.

I talked to one photographer in my area and got the same type of quotes you did, but when I mentioned that he had photographs in several local publications of my product, and I expected the same deal when my product was his subject, he stopped returning my phone calls.

Keep shopping. You will find someone who can do what you need for a reasonable cost, and if you have a local college or university, you could probably find a local student to do your photography for the experience.

Also, don't discount the hobbyist. Some of these guys have more equipment than the pros, and since they are not dependent on their hobby for a living, many will either do it for the experience, or for a very reasonable fee.

From contributor X:
In the past I had a contract with an artist to do a large oil painting of my children. In the contract I had it stated that the artist give up all rights concerning the painting and its future use, etc., and that I had been given all the rights to said painting. I own the painting period.

Now if I took a picture of the cabinets that I made and installed - and in some pictures my customer would be in some of the pictures - I'd have to get a release from the customer to use said pictures for my advertising of my products… That is, unless I had a signed release stated in the contract with the consumer when he purchased the products.

Now some photographer comes along and takes pictures of my work without a release from me. How so? I guess it's all in the types of binding contracts we make with our consumers and subcontractors. I have noted that artists now spray on the back of their paintings that all rights are reserved.

From contributor A:
Under the best of circumstances, photos on the web are so severely limited in resolution that photos from any decent digital camera will be indistinguishable from the best professional shots. This does not address a lot of aesthetic issues, of course, such as lighting and posing - but if you can gain access to your work, you can shoot a lot of pictures and select the best of them. A photo manipulation program such as Photoshop or PhotoImpact (cheaper) are easy to use.

Moreover, the camera is probably deductible, and you would be able to photograph your work in the future. We use a Nikon D50 and a couple of 400 watt color corrected floodlights along with a Wal-Mart tripod. Some of the new digital SLRs have motion compensation which is also helpful. To me, this is a no-brainer, though photographers have to make a living too - and I don't find these prices exceptional.

From contributor M:
Hire a photographer who's willing to hammer out the rights and ownership issues with you in advance. Most are perfectly willing to do this, especially when doing the kind of "work for hire" that you're asking for. Just walk away from anyone not willing to allow you the rights to the pictures if that's what you want. It's different with documentary photography or art, but even in those situations (some) photographers assign rights to others.

Should you get a camera and do it yourself? I believe that's a bit like buying a table saw and expecting to produce a finely crafted piece of work first time out. The tools are less important than the know-how as far as the outcome is concerned.

From contributor O:
Before my current incarnation, I was a professional photographer for many years. Commercial photography pricing is based on usage. The same photograph can have a wildly different price depending on whether it is used as a handout promo piece, or in a magazine, or on a local billboard, or on a national one.

Almost everyone owns a camera these days, and the digital ones make shooting practically foolproof. But that does not mean that each one taken is of equal value. Although I'm fully capable of photographing my own work, my background is in journalism, theater and still-lifes of liquor bottles. Photographing people or whiskey is much different than architecture. When I need something for my own book, I call in a pro (fortunately I have friends in the business). They not only have the equipment to give dependably spectacular results, but they understand how to use light to complement and highlight the work.

Making images that will reproduce well is another aspect often overlooked. Need 5,000 pieces for a mailer? It's done differently than the way the corner drugstore makes prints. What looks good in a stack of 4x6" vacation prints does not necessarily translate well to larger prints or large run duplicates. The average cabinet builder might have a hard time photographing with an extremely wide angle lens from a low or high vantage to correct rectilinear distortion. Or mixing window light with artificial light and still getting the right contrast and color balance on your beautiful woodwork. And how about adding a flame in the fireplace so the room looks lived in? More easily said than done. Lots of pitfalls. Done yourself, your pictures will probably look fine. A pro's should look spectacular. The difference will be readily noticeable to your clients.

If you buy photographs that someone else took for another purpose, you will pay the going usage rate. It is possible to hire a photographer for the day (or half day) to shoot your stuff with an understanding that print or transparencies will be additional. Expect to spend about $1000 - $1500 for the day. Use a photographer who shoots interior architectural work, not someone who does weddings and is willing "to try."

As for your copyright question, that's for the lawyers. In a nutshell, those images (or words, in the case of writers) are how these people earn their living and feed their families. Copyright insures that they are compensated fairly for their work and guards against other uses. An example is music. I can buy a CD and play it all day in my home for the cost of the CD... But if a restaurant plays the same CD as background for their dining room, they must pay a fee. These fees begin at about $10,000 per year for generic usage of, say, ASCAP protected product. Otherwise, you are using someone else's creation for your own financial gain, without them being compensated. Another example is commercial radio. Every time a song is played, someone gets paid.

From contributor D:
I've hired pro photographers to shoot some of my work, but have been underwhelmed with the result. With a couple exceptions, I like my own shots the best. I know what excites about the work I've done, and even with my limited photography skills, I manage to come up with images that address those elements.

From contributor J:
Only one comment here, with respect to the statement that you can scan a magazine image and use it on your website. We had a project appear in Architectural Digest and were naturally excited to include it in our portfolio and (forthcoming) website. The photo rights person at AD informed me in no uncertain terms that we could show people the image in the magazine and that's it. No reproduction whatsoever. I'm not a lawyer, but I would recommend getting some expert advice on that particular issue.

From contributor S:
I have dealt with photographers and artists for the past 40 years. Most (not all) work very little, barely make it out of the "starving" category, and are willing to negotiate all terms when they see a dollar coming their way. The typical wedding costs $2500 to photograph because the guy only works 1 or 2 Saturdays a month, and they try to wring out every dime because they have no idea when they will work again.

New projects are easier to negotiate than a project that has won an award... That says "bingo" to the typical artisan.

When was the last time you rented a cabinet to a customer? Find another photographer and reshoot, or check with the magazines that have published. Many times they have already bought all the rights to a photo and are willing to let the subject of the photo use it for merely giving credit to the magazine. With the digital photo world, a lot more can be done after the shutter clicks, thus a lot less talent is necessary up front. Try trade schools and students. They can do some great stuff at a fraction of the cost.

By the way... The photo he wants to charge you $150 for cost him about $10... and even with markups like that, they spend the majority of their time in the unemployment line.

From contributor O:
I'm not interested in getting into a long debate, but contributor S grossly overstates the case. A wedding photographer charges $2500 because in addition to studio costs, expensive equipment and its maintenance (a single camera can cost as much as a serious tablesaw), large material and lab fees associated with a wedding, he has to pay an assistant, and because he puts in a 14 hour day at the wedding. Additionally, there are a lot of hours handholding future brides, editing, and cataloging images before they are presented in proof form. The real kicker is that there is no margin for "oops!" Your equipment and eye must be flawless. You get startlingly little allotted time to do the actual work, and you can never go back and recapture it if something goes wrong.

Although it is usually possible to reshoot an architectural job if need be, the other pressures and costs remain. I recently came out of mothballs to shoot a friend's wedding for free. My cost was almost $700 and that was only to the proofs stage.

I once was that talented high school photographer. I got better still as I studied at a major art school for the next four years and did many jobs along the way. It was nice - I got some experience while I was young, and they got some nice photography for a very reasonable price, but I wouldn't mistake what I was capable of then with what I later became capable of. There is a huge difference.

I've heard that talented people aren't usually limited to one talent. This may well be one of yours. So, if you have the ability and you are happy with your own images as representative of your work, there are some advantages to doing your own photography. You might get exactly what you want (conversely, if it's not up to snuff, at least you know where the fault lies).

From contributor O:
Not to flog this to death, but I just looked up the price of a new Hasselblad digital camera. It is standard issue equipment for pros doing medium format work. Its price is $12,000+ for one camera body and one lens. To be without a second camera as backup is almost unconscionable. You need at least three lenses and a raft of other junk to work. Each lens also has a hefty price tag. Every single year it all goes to the repair guy for cleaning and servicing.

Architectural work normally uses 4x5" film. Completely different camera and lenses. With this rig, you can straighten out converging lines and make your cabinetry look nice and straight and square regardless of the angle you take the shot from. Most pros have three different formats of camera to choose from, depending on the kind of shot needed. All with backups and multiple lenses. Lighting equipment is another discussion.

I find it odd that when pricing is discussed on this forum, the battle cry is "don't give your work away." We rail against it when a client suggests that we should sell our work cheaper to them, yet some in this thread are advocating the opposite when it comes to buying services from another trade. For photography done well, these guys earn every nickel.

And yes, a cabinetmaker can do exceptional photography on his own, just as a photographer (or dentist, or secretary, etc.) can build beautiful cabinetry, right?

From contributor L:

It isn't too hard to make a decent photo if you have some skill with editing software. This was taken with a 4 MP point and shoot. It was taken outside on a tar covered parking lot. With about 15 minutes in the editor, I think it would look good in a magazine. You can do your own photography if you want to spend about $1000 and maybe 50 hours worth of your time to get to know your equipment. Otherwise you will need to pay a pro what they want and have to respect the copyrights that they impose on you. The picture has been resized and compressed. You may see some artifacts caused by this because it was formatted to be displayed on the web.

From contributor I:
A Hasselblad for 12K was mentioned. That is actually not the most expensive one. Digital cameras are more widely used by pro photographers now and prices are closer to 25K. A decent picture can be taken with a $700 camera too, and if you have Photoshop and some skills with it, you can make it look nice. If you can do it, then do it. If a photographer can build his own cabinets, god bless him - why should he pay somebody else? I think photographers charge to make a living, just like cabinetmakers. It is a little expensive, but cabinets are not any cheaper.

From contributor T:
Nice photo (and nice table, too). How did you isolate the table from the background? With a blue backdrop or something?

From contributor L:
Not quite. Here is the original photo (resized). I would use the lasso select around the table in Paint Shop Pro (my photo editor) and then invert the selection to select the background. I would then do a Gaussian blur with the radii set at 100, then I would do it again. I would select saturation and play with the colors until I found something I liked. Sometimes I would invert the colors to get what I liked. All in the editor, no backdrop except for the tar parking lot.