September 26, 2011

What Is A Picture Worth?

For unto whomsoever much is given,
of him shall be much required.
-Luke 12:48

I’ve had enough! You’re all cowards and you don’t even know it. You’ve given away your legacy without much of a fight, and I am embarrassed and ashamed to be considered part of the fraternity of photographers.

Oh, I know times are tough (they’ve always been tough for photographers) and you have lost your power to larger powers (that’s only because you’ve let them) and if you didn’t give in, they simply would have given the job to someone else. Well, too bad. If we had all stuck together in the first place there wouldn’t be someone else, and besides you’ve lost a lot more than that loving feeling, you have lost the greatest gift you have as a still photographer.

Directors do not have it. Graphic Designers do not have it. Art Directors do not have it. Only you have it, and because you are scared and desperate, you are giving it all away. Well don’t! Stand tall and upright! Be proud and do not forsake what others have given to you.

What am I ranting about? Well, I am going to tell you.

In the early 1950′s, LIFE Magazine decided that the pictures that were shot for them by many wonderful photographers were their property and therefore, they had the right to re-license them. The photographer’s thought otherwise, and insisted that the photographs were their property to resell at their discretion.

This went to court and after a long heated battle with TIME-LIFE the photographers won the battle. The courts decided that the copyright remained with the photographer and the magazine had just licensed reproduction rights. The original property, after the contract was concluded, returned to the photographer along with the negatives.

So dear photographers, others before you fought hard and long to give you a gift. And although everyone from corporations, to magazines, to art buyers try desperately to take it away from you, I implore you not to give it away.

Most of you are young and feel the need to work, and feel powerless against larger forces. You do not realize that when you get older, having the rights to your own work will be the best gift you have as a still photographer. It will help you when you need it most.

I have never given it away, despite enormous pressure or at times significant time to educate a client. I have walked away from magazines and clients, unless we could reach a compromise that was acceptable to me.

The pressure is on. The economy is awful and people will grab what they can get away with. I implore you to stay strong and fight hard for what many other photographers, over the last 50 years, have fought hard to give you; the right to own and control your own work.

We are at the precipice. Either you retain your rights, or the next generation will have none to protect.




  1. Well put and a good reminder to hold on to your rights.

    Comment by Blue Fier — September 26, 2011 @ 9:27 pm

  2. This is definitely an issue in today’s blog world, where images are re-posted and stolen without so much as a reference or link back to the photographer. It doesn’t matter if it’s an amateur or a professional. The image belongs to the photographer!

    Comment by The Foolish Aesthete — September 26, 2011 @ 10:56 pm

  3. I understand what you’re saying and I agree. BUT. How do you handle retaining the rights in this digital world we live in? You can give a hi-res file to the magazine and keep a hi-res file for yourself. So who owns the rights when you both have access to the “negative”? I think we are moving into a whole new ball game and we need to figure out how to share the rights so the client and the photographer both come out satisfied.

    Comment by Michelleeeee — September 27, 2011 @ 10:24 am

  4. [...] via The End Starts Here. [...]

    Pingback by The Greatest Gift You Have As A Still Photographer — September 27, 2011 @ 10:35 am

  5. [...] via The End Starts Here. [...]

    Pingback by The Greatest Gift You Have As A Still Photographer — September 27, 2011 @ 10:35 am

  6. As you are all probably aware, we shoot everything on film. If we are doing a shoot for a magazine or commercial client, or even for promotion for a gallery or museum exhibition, we scan the negative and provide high resolution scans to the client. Although they have the scan, the rights they have to use it have already been negotiated. If they violate that agreement, they are in copyright infringement which has enormous financial penalties. If you have a simple contract signed and agreed to by all parties, then the rights that you are granting are very clear. I hope this helps.

    Comment by MisterS — September 27, 2011 @ 10:40 am

  7. Wrote this over on APhotoEditor, but figured it’d be good to put here:

    Sadly, seems like more and more clients are asking for full rights transfer lately. Turned down 2 jobs last month because of non-negotiable demand for all rights to all photos, and one was from a big, well-known media brand.

    On the other hand, I did have a pleasant negotiation with one big media company last month, too, to use a couple of my pictures that started out with “We usually request all rights for all time,” and ended with a very specific usage license at a proper fee and we both were happy.

    Comment by M. Scott Brauer — September 27, 2011 @ 11:32 am

  8. [...] over the last 50 years, have fought hard to give you; the right to own and control your own work.What Is A Picture Worth? (via APhotoEditor)Image credit: Nimoy Present Toss 2009 by Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary Wolvesvar [...]

    Pingback by Protect The Greatest Gift You Have as a Still Photographer — September 27, 2011 @ 7:40 pm

  9. [...] Via:-The End Starts Here [...]

    Pingback by The Greatest Gift You Have As A Stills Photographer Keep Your Copyright | Simon Evans Photography — September 28, 2011 @ 5:49 am

  10. I recently negotiated usage with a client who wanted unlimited, worldwide exclusivity in perpetuity. It was a pain, but I ended up with something acceptable to me. That said, in the end, it wasn’t worth the time it took to negotiate, and get paid. I should have just said ‘no’.

    Trying to convince, or simply educate, all of the photographers who don’t understand, or don’t have the self-confidence, courage, nerve, or whatever, to ask for different terms, is never going to happen. Is it worthwhile to try? Sure, but just like so many other industries, the race is always towards the bottom.

    Ever since I started in this industry, I’ve watched as rates dropped, and licensing has almost disappeared. For commercial photographers it is the demand for unlimited usage, and for portrait and wedding photographers, it is the competing photographers who give include a cd of all the images.

    With such low barriers to entry, and a perception of photography as fun and exciting career, the people who will give away the farm, so to speak, aren’t going anywhere.

    Comment by Kevin — September 28, 2011 @ 12:43 pm

  11. [...] // I'm posting this link because I think it's an excellent "rant" and an educational insight into copyright whether you're a professional photographer or not. Those of you who are not in the "business", please do not take this lightly. Every time a photographer (amateur, professional, otherwise, etc.) gives away his/her copyright, the whole industry is weakened. Someday you may regret not keeping the rights to photos you made. What's a Picture Worth [...]

    Pingback by The Value of a photo — September 28, 2011 @ 4:46 pm

  12. Amen,
    I try to keep my guns but when the competition comes in at $100 to shoot architecture for Nike and the client goes for it I am flabbergasted. Who should I be more upset at? What was that photographer thinking? But what is that client thinking? Dont they value photography. Aren’t they using the photography to promote themselves in some way? Was it worth all the effort it took, for them, to complete this job and put together promotional materials that only hold the tiny value of $100. Some clients are worth losing.

    Comment by Abernathy Photo — September 28, 2011 @ 4:48 pm

  13. Every facet of business has some type of legal representation. We,still photographers, need to form an organization. We need some legal help. Not just local, but a national system where our rights are upheld. How do we do that?
    We must organize!

    Comment by John G. Arnold — September 28, 2011 @ 8:42 pm

  14. Well put and well phrased as always! This is important to remember and important to remind photographers about!

    Comment by Andy — September 29, 2011 @ 10:16 am

  15. How is it a photographer’s right to keep the copyright and all future use on an image for which a client hired the photographer to acquire specific image and has paid for the photographer’s time and skill, the use of the equipment, travel, and other expenses related to the creation of the image? If the photographer acquired the image on their own and sold it to someone, then it keeping the rights makes sense to me, but why should he or she get all the benefit while bearing none of the cost?

    Comment by Mike — September 29, 2011 @ 4:30 pm

  16. Mike, I guess one could use the same argument for actors. Why should an actor get residuals when they were paid originally for their time and effort when the director does not? Lucky for still photographers, the photographers that preceded us fought hard for these rights. The directors guild, which I am a member of, although very powerful, never, never fought for the residual rights. What you are describing is work for hire. The client irregardless of who owns the copyright would be paying for the production costs. As an example, most editorial fees for a photographer are based on a very small usage; a one time editorial use. If one wanted to give them all rights the fee should commensurate with that usage. Most serious art buyers understand that the fee they pay is based on the amount of usage. If the photographer decides to give it all away, he has hurt not only himself, but others that follow.

    Comment by MisterS — September 30, 2011 @ 9:47 am

  17. I also work with actors and have the same question for them. And if one pays for the production costs, why shouldn’t that person/company not receive fully the actual product of that production and not just permission to use it for one specific use?

    I suppose the bigger question is why should photographers, actors, directors, etc., expect to receive residual payments for work created specifically for hire? For a 30-sec commercial, for example, assuming production value was equal, their time and skills would be put to use in exactly the same way whether the product is to be shown one day in a town in the middle of Kansas or broadcast all year in New York. Why should they be paid more for one than the other? Should the people who built my kitchen table be paid for each time I sit at it to pay bills instead of to eat dinner since more money is involved in the bill-paying? What if I take that table to someone else’s house to use for a party? Is it just that they didn’t fight for that right in the past and now have to continue making new tables to generate an income? I’m not trying to be snarky here – I really just want to understand the logic and why it only applies to some.

    Comment by Mike — September 30, 2011 @ 1:41 pm

  18. [...] A rare rant from one of my favorite photographers, Rodney Smith, about the gifts fought for by the previous generation of photographers and our need to honor those [...]

    Pingback by Required Reading 9.30.2011 | Luke Copping Photography - Blog — September 30, 2011 @ 2:49 pm

  19. Well said, sir. Sounds like everything was better in the 50′s! Love your beautiful photos. I’m a fellow film-shooting, no photoshop-owning, medium format-loving photographer and find your work inspiring. Thanks for that.

    I’m just starting out and offer wedding clients a DVD of hi-res images because that seems to be what the competition’s doing. Maybe I’ll rethink that approach or contractually limit their use of said images? It’s food for thought.

    Comment by kieran — October 1, 2011 @ 4:57 pm

  20. Thank you Rodney for the elioquent diatribe on all of our behalves. We need to be reminded of what you said many times during the years to come. Dennis Ayuson speaks very highly of you.

    Patrick House

    Comment by Patrick — October 10, 2011 @ 11:43 pm

  21. This is and has been a problem with the photography community for the 15 years I’ve been a part of it. I went to a trade school to learn photography and never really learned the importance usage or how to price it. I learned more about it working with photographers that wanted to teach me. But only some even worried about usage. Now I feel that we have slid into the Technological Revolution where technology has made everyone in the room a photographer. Agency’s and companies buy cameras and send graphic artists and interns to shoot the pictures. These people don’t know much about photography let a lone usage and copyright. These are the “photographers” a majority of us, who are professional photographers, are competing against. Some of us are scared for our jobs, some of us need to eat.

    What make you Mr. Smith unique is you have a style of photography that is hard for someone to reproduce. It also boarders on Fine Art. Thats why your able to sell a pice for $55,000. This makes you more valuable because you are one of only a few people that can create this type of image. This also gives you more leverage. The huge majority of photographers that know how to create a worth wild image are competing agents each other. You don’t have as much competition because of your specificity. Hence you can charge more and get more also get usage. ASMP American Society of Media Photographers, is there to help us with things like usage and will but I don’t belong because I can’t afford the membership. I’ve pushed for usage and gotten it. I push every time I get a photo job and have lost some because I pushed. The thing that tuns us to modify or even drop usage is money NOW.

    I just got a good statistic from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics for Photographers and for me it’s pretty right on.
    “Median annual wages of salaried photographers were $29,440 in May 2008… The lowest 10 percent earned less than $16,920, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $62,430. Median annual wages in the photographic services industry, which employed the largest numbers of salaried photographers, were $26,160.”
    “Salaried photographers—most of whom work full time—tend to earn more than those who are self-employed. Because most freelance and portrait photographers purchase their own equipment, they incur considerable expense acquiring and maintaining cameras and accessories. Unlike news and commercial photographers, few fine arts photographers are successful enough to support themselves solely through their art.”

    Mr Smith I am holding to my guns to the best of my ability. I want to get paid what I’m worth and have a small retirement plan with usage right. I would love to talk about this so much more but I have to get back to work. Because I’m a 35 year old man that just moved to NYC to try and make more then $30,000 a year for once. I’ve moved to the most saturated photography community in the world to do this because the clients are here. Unfortunately I have not kept my style or work consistent enough to get clients right off the bat so I’m emailing and cold calling photographers to Photo Assist. Something I thought I would be done doing a long time ago. Thats kinda how I ran across this potion of your blog. You have always been an amazing photographer so I looked up your info to email you for work and ran across this topic on your blog and feel strong about it and felt I should write something.

    Thank you for creating and sharing your work and your words.
    Christian Parsons

    Comment by Christian Parsons — November 8, 2011 @ 7:11 pm

  22. Christian, Thank you for your very thoughtful response. I will try to write something either to you or in a blog in the next weeks. Don’t give up. There is light at the end of the tunnel.

    Comment by MisterS — November 9, 2011 @ 10:52 am

  23. Mr. S
    I would really like to hear what you have to say in response to my post. If you have some time over the holiday to do so that would be wonderful. At the same time we are all so busy with family and friends so just let me know if you do respond. Have a good Holiday and thanks for thinking about what I have written.

    Comment by Christian Parsons — December 29, 2011 @ 11:53 am

  24. Dear Mr. Parsons,

    I want to thank you very much for your long comment and I understand both personally and professionally the situation most photographers find themselves in today. I must say in it’s own way, it was no easier 30 years ago. There was no commercial black and white work, and although there were far fewer photographers, there was also much less work. This is not in any way to diminish the struggle that you are facing. It is because of this situation where every art director, intern, student thinks themselves a photographer, it is more imperative than ever that you find your own private voice which will then speak universally to all who are interested. If you are competing in the general field against thousands of others who do the same thing, either you are extremely lucky, extremely cheap or willing to give everything away. It would be my suggestion to fight hard to learn who you are, and let it out in your pictures. This is a harder endeavor than the simple business of taking pictures, but in the long run it is your salvation.

    I wish there was some miracle pill I could give you but the cure lies not without but within. I’d be happy to meet with you at some time or perhaps you could consider taking a workshop to help this process along. Thank you again for your comments.

    Comment by MisterS — January 3, 2012 @ 11:07 am

  25. Mr. S,
    Would love to meet with you sometime to talk but I think taking on of your workshops is out of the question. I can not afford them. But like you say if I work on my style and get clients this way, maybe in the next 15 years, when I’m 50, i’ll be able to afford a class.

    Comment by Christian Parsons — March 9, 2012 @ 9:02 pm

  26. [...] photographs in the pages of Vogue and Bazaar, I was hooked. His blog is one of the best around, and this piece, talking about the value of a photograph, is not to be missed. So dear photographers, others before you fought hard and long to give you a [...]

    Pingback by OT Sunday: Posts of Interest and Some Tunes for Fun | ESSENTIALS For Photographers — March 11, 2012 @ 11:00 am

  27. Very right thoughts.

    Comment by Ruslan Lavrentyev — August 7, 2012 @ 7:04 am

  28. This is pretty cool. That’s give me an idea.

    Comment by Lean Notah — August 31, 2012 @ 7:45 am

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