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|| News Item: Posted 2010-12-07

Photo shoot becomes lesson in business practices
By Ed Matthews

First, I thought I’d share this classic video clip with you. It’s an excerpt from a movie about screenwriter Harlan Ellison:

I get a call yesterday form a little film company down here in the valley and they’re doing the packaging for Warner Brothers on Babylon 5, which I worked on and I did a very long, very interesting on-camera interview about the making of Babylon 5 early on when Joe Strazinski hired me; and they want to use it. A young woman calls me and she says “We’d like to use it on the DVD, can that be arranged?” and I said, “Absolutely, all you gotta do is pay me,” and she said, “What?”

“I said you gotta to pay me,” and she said “Well, everybody else is just, you know, doing it for nothing.”

I said, “Everybody else may be an asshole, but I’m not.” I said, “By what right would you call me and ask me to work for nothing? Do you get a paycheck?”

“Well, yes.”

“Does your boss get a paycheck? Do you pay the telecity guy? Do you pay the cameramen? Do you pay the cutters? Do you pay the teamsters when they schlep the stuff on the trucks? Would you go to a gas station and ask them to give you free gas? Would you go to the doctor and have him take out your spleen for nothing? How dare you call me and want me to work for nothing.”

“Well, it would be good publicity.”

I said, “Lady, tell that to someone a little older than you who has just fallen off the turnip truck. There is no publicity value in my essay, my interview, being on your DVD. If you sell 2,000 of them that would be great. And what are people going to say? ‘Ooh, I really like the way that guy gave that interview. I wonder if he’s ever written a book.’ There’s no publicity value. The only value for me is if you put money in my hand. Cross my palm with silver, you can use my interview.”

And she says, “Well alright, thank you,” and she hangs up.

I’ll never hear from them. They want everything for nothing, They wouldn’t go for five seconds without being paid and they’ll bitch about how much they’re paid and want more. I should do a freebie for Warner Brothers? What is Warner Brothers, out with an eye patch and a tin cup on the street? F*ck no! They always want the writer to work for nothing and the problem is that there are so goddamn many writers who have no idea that they’re supposed to be paid every time they do something, they do it for nothing!


Photo by Ed Matthews

Photo by Ed Matthews

University of Kentucky point guard John Wall.

I learned some very important lessons recently and I though I’d share them with you.
Back in January I got an email from someone at Dime Magazine to do a photo shoot of the University of Kentucky’s star point guard John Wall for its March Madness issue. They said they liked what I had done for my school newspaper's basketball preview special section ( and basically wanted me to do the same thing for them.

Of course, I accepted.

As luck would have it, I had already started doing serious research about how to operate as a freelancer and I had recently run some numbers through the NPPA's cost f doing business calculator I had even created an invoice spreadsheet for myself and was on my way to fine-tuning my rates as a contracted photographer, so I had a good idea of what I thought my time was worth.

My contact at Dime Magazine soon sent me a rundown of what they were looking for from the shoot. They wanted, in addition to the setup like from the basketball preview, another setup at a different location, an outfit change for John Wall and a gallery set up on my site so they could review the images and pick which ones they wanted.
In the email they offered me “a couple hundred bucks.”

I sent the following email in response: “Considering the various requests you’ve had for locations, outfits, image reviews, etc. it’s making it hard to work with $200 for what will most likely be a full day’s work. My overhead alone on a shoot with this much involvement is just over $900. I’d absolutely love to do the shoot, but I need something to work with that will help offset some of my costs.

Also, could I get a rundown of how many images will be needed/ published and what their uses will be, including size and placement, online use, galleries, etc., for licensing purposes? And if you have a copy of a licensing agreement I could look over that would also be helpful. If you guys don’t have one I can provide it, again, if I get an idea of how the photos will be used.”

Photo by Ed Matthews

Photo by Ed Matthews

University of Kentucky point guard John Wall.
He replied: “So here’s the deal. We have a small budget on this, so the best we can offer is $300. That’s normally what we do with photographers, and especially with the shoot being so short (30 minutes) and you being a first-time photographer, that seems fair… To keep budget down, with such a small amount of time, forget numerous locations (and don’t see how John changing affects anything).

As for image reviews, that’s pretty standard and where they’ll be is in the magazine to accompany the feature. Depending on how many good photos there are from the shoot and the length of the feature, could be 1-4 used is generally what happens. I understand that magazines are different from newspapers, but all this stuff gets decided once we get to see what we have to work with.

If this will work for you, please let me know so we can go ahead with it. If not, I’ll have to find a new photographer. While it’s not tons of money, it’s on par with our other photographers and exposure in a national magazine. What more can you ask for as a student? Plus, if the shoot turns out great, we’ll keep you in mind for future shoots.”
Like I said, my overhead cost, meaning the cost of my hourly rate for shoot time and computer time, my equipment rental costs, my transportation costs, everything it was going to cost me just to push the shutter, was over $900 for the time I estimated it would take me to complete the job.

Not only that, but the licensing fee for ONE image to run in a magazine of their size starts at somewhere around $200 and ends with the licensing fee for a cover photo being around $1,000. That’s right, they should pay for the time it takes to do the work, AND THEN pay to get to use the photos in their magazine. Sound bizarre? It’s not. That’s how professional photography works (granted, creative (shoot time) fees and licensing fees are usually worked into one lump-sum contract).

The guy at Dime made a crucial error in our correspondence by forwarding me an email he had sent to the UK Sports Information Director in which he referred to it as the "John Wall cover shoot." So I had a sneaking suspicion that these photos were going to get some serious play. For them to try and pay me $300 when the licensing fees themselves would be vastly more than that was absolutely outrageous in my opinion.
I emailed another photographer they had used in their previous issue and he told me that typical magazine shoots are somewhere in the range of $1,200. So why was I being paid so little?

Well, let’s see: “While it’s not tons of money, it’s on par with our other photographers and exposure in a national magazine. What more can you ask for as a student?“

Oh, right.


If you take anything away from this, remember that just because you are a student doesn’t give anyone the right to undercut you, including you yourself. When I forwarded that email to an older, wiser colleague of mine, he said for them to say something like that was “unprofessional at best and criminal at worst.”

Throughout your career as a student photographer people will constantly try and pay you less than you are worth. The truth is, not only are you a photographer, you are a businessperson. I know that as a student you typically don’t have many business-related costs-- you don’t rent an office, you don’t have assistants, you don’t encounter the same costs a "typical" photo business would, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t treat yourself as a legitimate business person.

Don’t get into the habit of under-selling yourself just because you think that’s what people expect. You have to figure out what your skills and time are worth and you have to grow the balls to charge people accordingly. You need to get serious with yourself and stop doing free promo work for your roommate's girlfriend's brother's band, or free weddings for all the people you went to high school with so you can "build your portfolio," because if someone hears you're doing work for free, they'll want it for free too.

I took an Intro to Microeconomics class my final semester at UK and even though I barely passed (I hate classes where you get points for attendance), I think its the one of the most important classes I had my entire college career.

I absolutely recommend taking at least one class in economics, accounting, business management, and copyright law, whatever you can get in to. It will only give you a leg-up once you get out of school and realize that no, there really aren't any newspaper jobs, and if you want to work in photography you'll have to work for yourself.
A man that I learned a lot from recently wrote a short piece for the NPPA's Visual Student blog in which he said: " aware that every person out there with a digital camera is your direct competition, and the quality of your work isn’t really a huge selling factor.”

Obviously you have to be good at what you do, but most people don’t know what a good picture is – as long as it’s in focus and has a lot of color people think it’s fantastic... Once you are working for clients that are not highly trained picture editors, the playing field is pretty level. Your clients won’t always understand why they should pay you $5000 more than the high school photo teacher who just thinks it would be cool to see his photos in print somewhere...

The same thing applies to weddings – your biggest competition is the uncle with a D3 who will shoot the wedding for $250 and a case of beer, which is way less than the $4000 you have to charge to stay in business. Just like any other business, you have competition, people undercutting the market with inferior products, and you need to have a plan for how to handle that."

I strongly recommend you start doing research now as to how to run a business and start developing yourself as such. Learn everything you can about licensing, contracts, fees, rates, and everything that makes a business work. Ask professionals around you about how they operate and visit the NPPA and the ASMP business sites and just start reading, especially about contracts.

One thing that will get you a long way as a photographer is knowing how to read and write contracts. This skill is VERY EXTREMELY important, as the contract is what dictates everyone's responsibilities. You shot a wedding and now the bride wants 11"x17" prints of her 20 favorite photos? Well, if you have a contract you can point out that making prints isn't something you agreed upon, so she can file a change-order and pay you extra, or she can walk down to Walgreen’s and do it herself.

I also encourage you to ask the opinions of other people who have more experience than you. Many photographers have come across situations like this at one time or another and they are now much more wise and wary because of it. Use their experience to build your own business practices.


Photo by
In the end, I took the job with Dime for two reasons: 1) I’d rather it be me shooting a portrait of John Wall than anyone else and I had something specific I wanted to try, and 2), the most important point (which I learned by asking a photographer who knows a lot more than I do): Because Dime was careless enough to never ask me to sign a contract BEFORE I did the work, as soon as I pushed the shutter button I owned the copyright to the images.

The photos are, and forever will be, mine. I can do whatever I want with them, meaning I could assign whatever licensing terms I saw fit. I could have limited them to one 1/4-page image, six thumbnails, whatever I fancied. I could have even sold all the photos to publications like Sports Illustrated. I had no contractual obligation to give Dime Magazine a single photo. Sure, we had emailed back and forth, but that kind of stuff doesn't really hold up in court like a good ole fashioned signed contract.

In that same vein, if your school newspaper is selling reprints of your photos without giving you a cut and that doesn't sit well with you, then I would suggest looking into who really owns the rights to those images. Chances are that if you never signed a contract with the paper and they don't pay you some sort of salary, then they're your images and unless you gave the paper permission, they should either make you sign your rights away, or pay up.


Ed Matthews is a recent graduate of the University of Kentucky. He is currently an intern at the Columbus Dispatch.

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