Every now and then I'm contacted by a photographer who's been approached by a manufacturer or a magazine for use of one of their images. It's happening more and more as the boundaries between pro and amateur blur, and image buyers attempt to cash in on amateur snappers' commercial inexperience.
The obvious question is, 'how much do I charge?'
It probably won't come as any surprise that this is one of those 'piece of string' questions that doesn't really have an answer. The glib reply is, 'as much as your potential client is willing to pay for it', but that ignores the crucial caveat (which many photographers forget) that the image is yours to sell... or not, if the price isn't right. I turn down many more sales than I make, because there's no point in my selling images at a rate that's not commercially viable.
If you're approached for use of one of your images, here are a few things to bear in mind:
1. Money talks
In most circumstances, the potential buyer will be hoping for commercial gain as a result of using your photo. Being paid - with real money, not promises of future work, bylines or other ephemera not recognised as legal tender - is the only recompense that's worth anything. Literally.
2. Rights matter
Any time you sell an image (or images), you're actually just selling a license to use them under a specific set of circumstances - which you and your potential client should be clear about from the outset. It's a similar principle to software licensing - when you 'buy' software you're actually just buying the rights to use it. Pricing depends partly on the extent of the license a potential client needs. For example, the rights to use an image for advertising will be more expensive than the rights to use the same image in editorial coverage.
3. Copyright is non-negotiable
You automatically, by law, own the copyright to every image you take. Whilst it's theoretically possible (in some countries at least, though by no means all) to sell the copyright in an image to a third party, it's almost never worth it. NEVER, EVER GIVE UP YOUR COPYRIGHT. You'll lose all rights to your image (natch) and will almost certainly be unable to agree a price high enough to make that worthwhile. Just don't go there. Ever.
4. Don't sell cheap
Don't agree a price on the spot, but ask your potential client details about the image's intended use and agree to get back to them with a price*. You need to know the following:
- intended use (advertising? editorial? PR?)
- media (magazine? web? catalogue?)
- placement (cover? inside?)
- size (full page? 1/2 page? etc.)
- circulation / print run
- geographical distribution (single country? region? worldwide?)
- period of license (3 months? 1 year? 3 years?)
Do your research. Set a minimum price that you're happy with, then add a bit for negotiating room and make that the price that the potential client is presented with. Don't go below your self-imposed minimum and be prepared to turn the sale down if you can't agree a price that you're happy with.
Stock image pricing is fluid (and, some would say, in freefall) right now, so hard figures can be hard to come by. But you can get some idea of an image's potential worth by using one of the big stock agencies' online price calculators (Alamy's prices are a reasonably mid-range guide), or try this online calculator (the prices are in US $). These prices are intended as guidance only, but it's a better - and more professional - place to start than just blundering in with 'ooh, I dunno.... fifty quid?'
Oh yes. And I'm always happy to help with pricing information, when I can - just drop me a line.
* Some potential clients will bluster when asked to do this, either because they haven't really thought it through or, occasionally, because they want to buy the rights to the image at the lowest possible price and then exploit it as much as possible. Most people understand the principle that wider-ranging rights mean higher prices, and one way to call a staller's bluff is to price for 'all uses' (note that this isn't the same as a copyright buyout) at a rate several times above the price for a delimited, pre-agreed license. You can sometimes close a sale this way, by demonstrating that the licensed use is good value in comparison with the 'all uses' price.
I knew something was up about 18 months ago, when a new batch of OS Explorer maps turned up in my local shop. In place of the sub-1950s postcard cover shot on the Mendip map was a picture of a climber reaching for a hold.
Clearly, some enlightened soul in the Ordnance Survey's marketing department had made a startling discovery: people who buy detailed maps tend to be outdoorsy, rugged types who use them to go out and do stuff.
Sure enough, new editions have cropped up since then with all manner of active, rugged types on the covers. And some of them are even riding bikes. I recently discovered that the latest Bristol and Bath map features one of my images (of the Timberland trail) on the cover.
All of which begs the question, do mountain bikers use maps any more? I'll probably sound curmudgeonly and old if I bemoan the death of map-reading skills, but it seems that the combination of magazine route guides (just tear the page out), trail centres (map? who needs a map?) and GPS (paper? what's that?) is creating a new generation of riders for whom the delights of tracing an untried route out on an unfolded, crisp map are both unknown and unwanted. Perhaps that's why OS maps have suddenly become funky(er).
One of the downsides of earning a living from photography is the steady trickle of begging emails and phone calls. The detail varies but the gist is the same - these people (the vast majority of whom, incidentally, are salaried) claim to have little or no budget, but offer the prospect of publicity beyond the photographer's wildest dreams. To paraphrase Harlan Ellison, go tell that to someone who's just fallen off the turnip wagon...
And then the same email, from the same airline, turned up in my inbox this morning. Here's an exerpt (with names removed to protect the innocent / prevent a lawsuit - delete whichever suits your mood):
'Dear Seb Rogers,
The staff of XXX XXX, the luxury magazine of XXX XXX, is in the process of planning our Spring 2008 “Sporting Life” issue, focusing on many high-end products and articles related to health, sports, fitness, and wellness.
One of the articles we are working on is a photographic feature story -- a visual compilation -- of some of the best places on earth to experience a particular sport shot by some of the best photographers in the world. Examples include spectacular settings for sports such as fly-fishing, hiking, kayaking, rock climbing, scuba diving, golf, biking, and surfing.
We are interested in showcasing ONE of your favorite images of biking, preferably at a location within a couple hours of a destination XXX XXX serves. Several well-known photographers will be participating in this effort.'
And so on, in a similar vein. Only this time, presumably because of the number of photographers refusing to prostrate themselves at the prospect of (gasp!) a byline in an in-flight magazine, the airline in question has spelt out their non-payment policy in very clear terms:
'To clarify, we are interested in publicizing ONE of your favorite images and featuring information on you, including your website, books, and other projects you're working on. This is an expose of top sports photographers. And because of the size and scope of this feature, and because it exposes your work, website and book project to potentially more than three million readers of XXX XXX first and business class, we are unable to pay for or in any way purchase an image from you. This effort would be for publicity purposes only, and we will understand (but will be disappointed) if it is not something you are interested in.'
They are, of course, going to be disappointed. But, since they'd been pretty cheeky to me, I couldn't resist the opportunity to be a bit cheeky back. Here's my reply:
Thank you for your email and your interest in my work.
I would be delighted to license one of my images for use in XXX XXX; however I note that you are unwilling to pay and so, on this occasion, I will have to decline. The vast majority of my clients don't fly First or Business, so I can see no value in the publicity and, unfortunately, a warm fuzzy glow doesn't help pay the mortgage.
I am, I have to say, disappointed (but not surprised) that XXX XXX feels the need to poach 'free' use from photographers in this way. Perhaps you could shave costs even further by persuading the magazine's printers that their credit on the masthead is sufficient payment?
Just a thought.
I take some comfort from the fact that they're clearly struggling to find enough photographers to fill the pages (I'm not kidding myself that I was anywhere near the top of their list). But the depressing thought is that they probably will, one way or another, manage to fill enough pages to make their feature a viable prospect. And not one of the contributing photographers will get any benefit from it.
I always seem to miss the snow, usually by the very simple means of being somewhere that it (the snow, that is) isn't.
So last year, when I woke one morning to find the field outside my office window carpeted in a good few inches of white, I called in the services of Mike Davis (of Bikemagic fame) and his pro elbows. In the space of a couple of hours we froze extremities I didn't know existed, left tyre prints in several miles of virgin Mendip snow... and I got a few good shots.
One of which has found a home on IMBA's holiday season ecard:
The guys at IMBA, being American, probably don't appreciate the irony* of a Somerset winter representing a Colorado-based organisation's public face over the holiday period... but I'm tickled pink. And Black Down gets to look as genuinely wild and rugged as it can be - all 1068 vertical feet of it.
Go on, send someone a mountain biking Christmas ecard. All the way from Somerset...
* lest I risk upsetting any American readers' sensibilities... that was a joke, guys. Put it down to the British sense of humo(u)r.
Frustratingly, my favoured raw converter - Bibble - still hasn't released a final version that'll work with my new D300 (there's a pre-release version available here, but it's buggy and incomplete at the time of writing). That fact, combined with short wet days and a bunch of office-bound jobs to be finished, has meant I haven't really had the chance to put it to the test. But I've done enough fiddling and fettling to have formed a few early opinions:
1.) Speed is good
The D300's shutter lag and mirror blackout times can't quite match the standard-setting figures of the D2 and D3 series, but they're improved over the already good D200. And, intriguingly, the 45ms lag actually bests Canon's 1Dmk3's 55ms figure.
Say what? Yes, on paper the £1300 D300 is quicker off the mark than a camera twice its price. Hmmm. Does it matter? Well, yes, it does. My D2X had a shoot-by-wire feel to the shutter that meant I never felt I was waiting for the camera to keep up with my reactions. The D300 isn't quite up to that standard, but it's very, very close. And I love being able to shoot at 8fps with all 12 million pixels. It's like having my F6 back: fast enough and small and light without the battery pack; blisteringly quick at the expense of some bulk and weight with it. Best of both worlds.
2.) AF comes home to roost
I'm a big critic of AF systems partly because I think they can make photographers lazy. But they also tend not to deliver on their promises. Bikes are some of the toughest AF targets out there because, although they tend to follow fairly predictable paths, they're full of holes. I want my camera to focus accurately on either the handlebars or the rider's head - not the rear wheel, the rider's shoulders or some other random point.
I haven't been able to comprehensively test the D300's new 51-point AF system on a bike and rider yet, but first impressions (and a couple of quick-and-dirty tests) are very encouraging. Smaller, more densely packed sensors make it much easier to pick out small areas for critical focus. The D300 seems far less prone than any camera I've ever used to 'seeing' the background behind a subject - even a small and/or distant one. That's a big step forward. Accuracy, even shooting with notoriously finicky lenses like my 85mm f/1.4 and 200mm f/2, is astonishingly good. And the '3D' mode, which tracks a moving subject across the frame according to its colour, seems startlingly effective and a bit too good to be true.
I'll certainly be giving the whole thing a good workout as soon as I get the opportunity, but it's the first time I've felt genuinely optimistic about useable AF. Ever.
3.) Grain is back
Forum mutterings suggest that some photographers are unhappy that the D300 doesn't deliver ultra-smooth midtones and shadows, even at its base ISO. It's true, it doesn't. But - and here's the thing - Nikon has managed to endow the D300's sensor with noise characteristics that are very reminiscent of film.
Chroma noise - those multi-coloured speckles that get in the way of everything and are a right pain to get rid of - is almost absent, even at high ISOs. Luma noise - the stuff that looks more like grain - is there in tiny quantities even at base ISO, and gradually becomes more apparent as you ramp up the sensor's gain. But it's always tight and even, so that only minimal noise reduction is needed to keep it under control. And shadow and edge details are both held remarkably well, even towards the sensor's limits.
I'm very, very impressed, and looking forward to being able to shoot cover-quality images at ISOs that would previously have been unimaginable.
(My comments apply to raw files processed with no noise reduction at all. Out-of-camera JPEGs with standard noise reduction are, in some respects, even better - but since I never shoot that way, it's the sensor's raw (no pun intended) characteristics that interest me.)
4.) Screen fumblings
There's so much to like about the D300 and the way it handles, it took me a while to figure out what Nikon got wrong. But they fumbled the ball, as far as I'm concerned, by not showing the active AF point on the top-plate LCD - something practically every other Nikon AF SLR, ever, has always done.
It's hardly a deal-breaker, but with 51 user-selectable AF sensors to keep on top of it can be handy to know where you are without having to look through the viewfinder (or press the 'info' button to bring up the, erm, info display on the rear screen). I can't for the life of me understand why it's been done this way, but there you go. Guess they had to get something wrong.
Last summer, in one of those 'how did I get myself involved in this?' moments, I found myself trying to photograph a one-day attempt on the 100 mile Transcambrian Way route across Wales. On the wettest day of the year. In my car (which hadn't enjoyed the sheer volume of wetness involved in getting to Wales, resulting in £1200 worth of damage to clutch and flywheel... but that's another story).
Given the weather and the tricky logistics, I knew it wasn't going to be easy to get the shots I needed. The route crosses large expanses of high, remote Welsh hills with little or no road access, so I would only have perhaps a half dozen spots to get my pictures. Given the time constraints, I also knew that I'd have to get to each spot in advance to work out perhaps one wide and one long shot, squeeze them off quickly and then get back into the car to drive to the next spot.
What made my life all the easier was the fact that the rider mad enough to take on the challenge was all-round endurance athlete and (coincidentally) pro photographer John Houlihan. John's an animal on the bike, with incredible handling skills and ride-all-day power that puts the vast majority of riders in the shade. But, crucially for me, he also understood without being told what shots I needed for a magazine feature. So, every now and then, he'd pause for a minute or so to allow me to take a couple of shots of him reading a map, or to re-do a long shot that hadn't quite worked.
Cheating? Well, it put back his record attempt by perhaps an hour or so. But without that extra time, I would never have got enough pictures to fill 9 magazine pages. You can see the results in the January 2008 issue of What Mountain Bike.
One of the joys of being an amateur photographer, it seems to me, is that you have no-one to answer to. You can take pictures when you want, of whatever you want, for no other reason than because you, er, want to. And there's never been a better time to be so recklessly self-indulgent, what with all the opportunities to share your creative endeavours with the web community and such.
Trouble is, certain elements of grubby greediness just can't help themselves. The underhand practice of burying a rights-grabbing clause in the small print of a competition aimed squarely at amateurs (who, quite understandably, don't usually bother too much with reading the small print) is alive and well. And this time it's that upstanding defender of liberal values and fair working practices, the Grauniad, with its hands in your wallet. Tsk.
Competitions are great. They're a good way to apply a bit of constructive self-criticism to your photos, provide an incentive to go out and shoot new and different subjects, and see how your work stands up to those of your peers. And there's always the possibility of winning some loot, too (think you've got no chance? Just remember all the people who don't enter because they're thinking exactly the same thing - you've got to be in it to win it!)
But you don't have to prostrate yourself on the altar of commercial self-interest to enter. Rights grabs have become so commonplace, it's worth reading the small print before you decide whether or not to enter. Any competition that stipulates 'free use' rights beyond competition-related publicity is worth steering very clear of. And, if you can be bothered, a brief email to the organisers explaining why they won't be getting the benefit of your creative endeavours on this occasion...
Many photographers who remember film (yes, really - it wasn't that long ago, k'now) have been following the, um, noise on various web forums about dSLR noise with some amusement. Anyone who's shot with Scotch 1000, Fujicolor 1600 or even Fuji Provia 400 pushed a stop or two will know all about detail-robbing grain, shoddy contrast and blacks that aren't. Sound familiar? Oh yes. The two technologies may be chalk and cheese, in photon-converting terms, but the problems to be solved in terms of making high quality images when light's in short supply are fairly similar.
Until three years ago I shot mostly film - mostly either Fuji Provia 100 or Velvia 100. When the light started to dip a bit, I'd push Provia a stop to ISO 200. It handled this abuse pretty well, with a slight contrast hike (that actually tended to help on dull, overcast days) and a corresponding dip in dynamic range that just meant I had to be careful to nail the midtones. On even dimmer days, I'd reluctantly pull out my back-up supply of Provia 400. The ISO 400 version didn't have great saturation, couldn't hold detail nearly as well as its lower-speed counterpart and had grain out of all proportion to its sensitivity. But it was the best that was available. If things got really dire I'd push it a stop to ISO 800, which actually seemed to suit it better.
Thing is, photographers have always been constrained by the limits of the available technology. When the first colour slide films become widely available, they were rated at ISOs unthinkable today - 25 or below. Early colour photographer Ernst Haas used the resulting slow shutter speeds to great effect, introducing deliberate motion blur in moving subjects in a way that's influenced a generation of photographers. But he was just working around the limitations of his gear.
With all the brouhaha surrounding digital noise (or the lack of it), it's easy to forget that we've come on in leaps and bounds in a very short time. Here's a shot I took as part of a sequence for a magazine technique feature about a year ago:
We were running out of time - and light - at the very end of a particularly dull winter's day. ISO 800 is about as far as I'm comfortable going on the D200, 1/250 sec was the slowest speed I could afford to set for this fast-moving shot, and the 12-24 isn't really sharp enough to shoot wide open, so f/5 was as wide as I could go. In other words, I was at or close to the limit with every variable. If the light dropped any further, I was going to really struggle.
But the quality held up fine with some careful raw processing and noise reduction, and the resulting sequence ran across a double page spread. Here's a tight (not quite 100%) crop:
There's no way I would have been able to get even close to that quality with film. Sure, I could've got the shot. But it would've been grainy, desaturated and lacking in detail in comparison.
I was thinking about all this again yesterday, out on another dull winter's day shoot. As the light started to fail I was running up against all my gear's limits again: ISO 800, f/2 on my 200mm, shutter speed as slow as I dared. The odd thing is, just three years ago I wouldn't have been able to shoot in these conditions at all. But the goalposts keep moving, and with them new opportunities present themselves.
For example, although I haven't been able to shoot in anger with my D300 yet (because Bibble hasn't released an update for its raw processing software), my early tests indicate that it's around a stop better at noise handling than the D200 (and perhaps as much as two stops better than the D2X). I'm fairly confidently expecting the D300's ISO 800 to be on a par with the D200's ISO 400. And that means that my new upper limit may well turn out to be ISO 1600 (incidentally, I define my upper limit as the highest ISO that'll yield a publishable double page spread or cover, at a push. Yes, I'm picky). D3 owners will be able to push the boundaries even further, by all accounts.
There are other limitations, of course. Light low enough to be demanding ISOs that high often tends to be fairly poor quality. And it places high demands on AF systems, if that's what you're using. But still, the combination of decent high ISO and fast prime lenses has got me thinking about all the picture opportunities that I would previously have dismissed on 'not enough light' grounds. It's going to be an interesting ride over the next couple of years.
Another issue of IMBA Trail News, another European cover. This one is a tight crop from shot I took in Les Arcs in 2006. It was one of those occasions when I wasn't quite sure whether to set up a remote flash to put a bit of light into the rider's faces, or not. The whole point of the shot was the expansive sky and the backlighting, but that made the exposure tricky and the post-processing critical to the picture's success.
In the end I settled for the simplicity of no flash, relying instead on careful exposure and some post-capture tweaking to bring up the shadows. Much of the subtlety of the original has been lost in the cover shot; I don't think IMBA's choice of paper stock helps, because it doesn't seem to hold deep blacks. Still, it's one of my favourite Alpine riding pictures and it's good to see IMBA reflecting its global commitment on the cover.