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|| News Item: Posted 2004-09-08

Let's Talk Business: Business is Like Poker
It's All in How You Play Your Hand

By Rick Rickman

Photo by
I've been noticeably silent the past few months in the Sports Shooter Newsletter because I've been trying to assess whether anything I do here is worth the time that I spend writing to the masses.

Quite honestly, most of the time I feel like the majority of photographers don't give a damn about the fact that in the past decade the value of their work has been eroded by people who shoot pictures but don't have a clue on how to charge for their work.

Let's face facts! Most of you guys and girls are economic dunces! Many have no desire to change that. As long as you can stand on the sidelines of some football game somewhere and feel like you are part of the photo ignoramus fraternity it doesn't matter to you that there is a 34% chance that you might not be able to continue your profession for another 2 years. Most of you are more interested in talking about the latest camera than you are interested in appropriate pricing.

I've come to the conclusion that because it's becoming easier and easier to be technically adequate and camera technology is making it easier and easier to capture interesting moments, the industry will continue on this devalued trend because more and more people with limited intellectual capacity will continue to take over the ranks of the photographic profession.

It's my opinion that this will be both a good thing and a bad thing. The bad thing is that there will continue to be a growing over abundance of usable images for publications to choose from.

The price and value of those images will continue to decline and eventually you will see a drastic falling away of interest in photojournalism. Pay for staff positions at newspapers will continue to stagnate and photographers will be looked at collectively as an easily renewable resource. The middle ranks of the industry will become a frustrated collection of malcontents struggling to make ends meet.

Universities will be struggling to find ways to keep the ranks of their graduates in line with the employment opportunities in the market place. We are already beginning to see the onset of this scenario in my opinion.

The good news is that under this scenario, truly talented photographers will be highly sought after because of their unique vision. True talent always rises to the top and unique vision will become even more recognized for it's quality. This is the exact reason why a person with quality vision will need to recognize the value of their images and be able to price them accordingly.

Recently, on the message board there has been a lot of discussion about the importance of maintaining ones copyright. Many photographers who have trouble seeing the bigger picture of this industry will tell you that signing rights away to your images is ok if, in their opinion, the value of the resale of the assignments may be limited.

First, its difficult to assess what may or may not be valuable in the future. Who's to say that a head shot of the mayor of some small berg in Nebraska may not end up as valuable when that person ends up the president of the United States in a decade or two.

A classic example of this scenario is a situation that a very good friend of mine found himself in. David was assigned to take a picture of a little know professor at Stanford University. She was the subject of a story for a small magazine and David did some nice portraits that were very well received by the client. David took those images and, as is his routine, filed them away in his library.

Fast forward to 12 years later and guess who is chosen by George W. Bush to be the Secretary of State? Condeleeza Rice, the same little known professor at Stanford. Needless to say, David began to make that little shoot pay off big time. In fact that little shoot has made a sizeable addition to his bank account.

Saying that it's "ok" to sign rights away to a publishing interest because the assignments you are likely to receive won't be worth the concern later is very much the embodiment of the Ostrich Theory.

Just a matter of a few days ago, someone wrote on the message board a question I found very interesting. I was going to reply to the question but I decided to relate to that question here instead. The question was something to the effect of: What has been your biggest business mistake?
It's always interesting to go back into one's career and take an analytical look at the motivating factors in your life and work. This "What has been your biggest business mistake," is one of those important points of transition for me.

In 1988, I was still employed by the Orange County Register, a newspaper in southern California. Hal Stoelzle, Brian Smith, and I had all been on the Olympic coverage team for that publication and we had been fortunate enough to be recipients of a Pulitzer Prize for our coverage of the 1984 Olympic summer games in LA. In 1988 we were all looking for a way to cover the summer games which were to be held in Seoul, Korea.

Our newspaper, The Orange County Register had decided that they really weren't going to send 3 photographers to Seoul and if they sent one it would be Hal Stoelzle.

Brian Smith and I wanted desperately to cover another Olympics to see if we could better our performances of LA. We both found a solution. We had contacted Maria Mann, Director of Photography for AFP, and she offered us the chance to cover the games with the AFP organization.

Brian Smith and I, were ecstatic. We were going to another Olympic games. We would be able to keep the streak alive. For a flat fee of $3000.00 we would be in Seoul covering the games. The only hitch we had to agree to is signing the rights to our images over to AFP. We both decided that was a fair trade off. After all, we would be there covering the games again. When I look back at how embarrassingly stupid I was for doing this I still to this day can't believe it.

Almost as a slap in the face and adding insult to injury both Brian and I captured some unique and exclusive images for AFP during the course of our coverage and of course AFP marketed those images to a tidy profit for the company.

Brian's image of Greg Lugainis hitting his head on the diving board made tens of thousands of dollars for AFP of which Brian saw and shared nothing of those profits.

My image of Ben Johnson beating the pants off Carl Lewis and looking back at him with glee did very well as well and I also saw nothing from the sales of that image.

After the conclusion of those summer games Brian and I spoke extensively about how stupid we felt for making such a horrible deal and we both vowed never to make that kind of mistake again. I think it's safe to say that we have made every effort not repeat that kind of mistake.

I can say that this was one of my biggest mistakes and the one that put me on the path to becoming knowledgeable in a business sense to the variables of this market place.

In a rapidly changing photographic world when jobs are tight and work is scarce, it's difficult to analyze how best to keep yourself afloat.

Keeping the rights to your work is in fact one of the most important. Knowing the market value of your work and pricing those images appropriately is every bit as important and is the one thing that will add longevity to your career.

In another recent and interesting event another dear friend of mine gave me a call in a bit of distress because a company wanted to use 6 of his images in an athletic setting. Of course the ad agency called him last minute and wanted him to come up with a price for the work immediately. He had the common sense to take a deep breath and tell them that he would have to get back to them in a short while.

The Ad Agency involved had quoted my friend a ridiculously low usage price as is always the case and when my friend told me the offer I couldn't help but laugh. We talked about what the client wanted and how the images would be used then we came up with 3 different scenarios. One that the client had mentioned for a buy out of the images. That figured came out to be in the neighborhood of $65,000.00.

We came up with a figure for a five year usage and that figure was in the neighborhood of $35,000 for non-exclusive rights and finally we came up with a figure for one year use with an option of rights of renewal. This came to the neighborhood of $20,000.00.

My friend went back to the client and after a little more negotiation they settled on a fair price for one years use at about $18,000.00

He has since renewed the contract for use every year now for 3 years running and his total income for those 6 pictures is over $40,000.00. My friend would never have been able to make that deal if, first he didn't own the rights to his pictures and second hadn't taken the time to find out appropriate pricing for the images.

In an incident which occurred with another friend while I was in Athens this past month an interesting situation developed. One of the agents for a very important American athlete came to my friend who I will refer to as Michael, (not his real name) and asked Michael to shoot some lifestyle and portrait images of this guy for the agency to be used in advertising and promotion. Michael came to me about 1:00 AM in the morning and told me the situation.

The agent for this athlete had asked Michael how much he would charge for this arrangement.
Michael, to his credit told the agent he would get back to him in the morning because he was just too tired at that very moment to think straight. (Great way of delaying making and important decision.)

Anyway, Michael asked me if I thought $1500.00 a day for a potential multiple day shoot was enough. One important thing to remember is Michael is a newspaper photographer and he isn't used to this kind of work. He was however doing things well in asking all the right questions and delaying a decision on price until he had done a little research.

I told Michael that there was no way on earth that this assignment should be considered for anything less than a minimum of $10,000.00 a day considering the agent was looking for a buy out of those images. I could tell by the look on Michael's face that he was terrified of those numbers and he really didn't believe he would get the job if he asked for that much.

All his body language indicated that he was afraid to ask for that kind of money. He kept saying to me that he really wanted this to work out and that he was hoping for more work from this guy in the future.

After more than 2 hours of discussion and strong assurances from me that this agent is used to these kinds of number Michael had resolved in his own mind I think that he would take a chance at charging appropriately for this work. I left the Main Press Center wondering if it would be too much for him to do so.

The next day I was with Michael at Track and Field and could tell from the look on his face that things had gone well. He told me he had asked for $10,000.00 per day for the shoot and that the agent hadn't even blinked at that number.

I personally had hoped that Michael would have started much higher and I mentioned this to him reminding Michael that the $10,000.00 figure had been the minimum amount. I mentioned to him that I was sure that he could have asked for $20,000.00 and gotten that price as well.

Michael told me that he had some misgivings about asking for that much because those were numbers he was totally unfamiliar with. I told him that he had done well and I was glad to see him have faith in his value as a photographer.

The most interesting thing in this for me was the fact that had this agent contacted another photographer who wasn't insightful enough to do a little research into pricing appropriately the job would have been done for 1/10 of what the work was worth.

As we move forward into this next century, things will continue to change and what technology brings to the table will be fascinating to see. One thing that will not change however is the importance of photographers ability to maintain the rights to their work and the need for those same talented people to become aware of how to price those images appropriately.

I hope that as we see this industry continue to change, one change that I desperately hope to see as well is a genuine interest on the part of all photographers to become knowledgeable as to the true value of their work and how to research effectively the pricing for great images.

Now get out there and work on creating a valuable place for yourself by developing a unique and valuable eye and sense of vision.

(Rick Rickman is a freelance photographer based in Southern California. He is a regular contributor to Sports Shooter, writing on business issues.)

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