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|| News Item: Posted 2002-10-30

Let's Talk Business: Finding That Magic Bullet!
By Rick Rickman

Photo by
After 25 years in this field I have found that there's a transitional period in photography. Many photographers go through a portion of their career believing that they will, at some point, take that one image that is going to take them on the road to fame and possibly fortune. I believe this happens because, to some degree, schools and educational institutions foster and promote that idea.

I know several professors who are always telling their students that they should always have to have their cameras with them because you never know when that once in a lifetime picture will happen. For several years I believed that same philosophy. My entire life was an extension of the shutter in my Nikon.

After some years of looking everywhere and seeing nothing magical, I began to understand that the greatest images I took had very little to do with luck but everything to do with opportunity, preparedness and planning. In fact, if we look at life analytically, this is how all the best things happen to each of us. It's because of this scenario that I always feel compelled to talk about business with photographers.

Most photographers go through a great deal of their careers believing that they will at some point sell that one great image that will bring ultimate prosperity to their lives. It's an irony that these same photographers don't seem to have a clue how to be prepared to price one of those magical images, let alone the rest of the images they produce.

Recently, there have been discussions going on in the Sports Shooter site that have bandied about how to price a great image and what to do if we thought we had one. It was clear from those discussions that there was considerable confusion as to the best way to decide what made an image special and then just how to sell that special image for a good price. In fact, there have been several discussions recently that exemplify just how poorly photographers priced their services or images in general. This months missive will attempt to address a few of those points.

Imagine if you will you are standing at the end of the runway of the airport in Paris on a Thursday midmorning. You're there because you like to watch the planes take off and feel the thunder of the engines as they pass overhead. Suddenly, you see the Concorde approaching and you grab your camera to shoot because you've never seen this plane take off before.

As the plane approaches you're amazed at the beauty of the line of the plane and how fast it moves. Suddenly, before your eyes a tire blows and throws large pieces of rubber into one engine. That engine explodes into flames. The plane is in the air but now is yawing to the left drastically and the entire fuselage is on fire. As you watch in horror, the plane crashes and burns.

You become aware after the shock dissipates a bit that you have an entire roll of film of this event. Your mind now kicks into overdrive with a rush of adrenaline that surges into your system. "My god," you tell yourself, realizing finally that you've actually captured something of great newsworthiness, "I have this on film."

Now Buck-O, what are you going to do? The very first thing you have to do is get complete control of yourself! Your heart will be racing, and your adrenal glands will be working overtime. Sit down and begin to breath slowly and deliberately. Don't get up until you don't feel the veins in your neck pulsing anymore.

Take stock in how many other people were there with cameras and if you can find out who they are. Drive to your lab and get the film processed. If your not in an area you know call someone you trust to find out where you can take the film to get it processed well and carefully.

Finally, call another photographer who you trust to be good at business and tell that person what you have and who he/she thinks would be interested in the images. If they tell you to call AP immediately hang up and call someone else. These calls are important because they'll give your mind a chance to settle down and begin a logical process of thinking.

If you know that you were one of the only photographers at the scene you are in a great position to command whatever you want for these images. If you call the news magazines, ask to speak to the director of photography. Tell her/him what you have and ask if they might be interested in the images. In a news event of this magnitude, they "will all" be interested in your images.

The key then is to decide how best to "charge for" and "limit use of" what you have. Many people don't know that with huge news events, many magazines are willing to pay someone just to look at their film or images. It's very important to begin to ask these potential client publications if they are willing to pay a first look fee. Depending on the quality of what you believe you have, this number can be wide ranging. I have been aware of people getting as little as $500.00 or as much as $8,000.00.

It's important then to be thinking how best for you to get examples of what you have out to the people who will want to see the images without sending them the originals.

Once a magazine has your film in hand, It may become difficult to get that film to another potential client or competing magazine. Anyway, once you begin the process of notifying publications of what you have you need to be up front with everyone you talk to. If you are trying to sell this material to other publications you need to tell who ever you are dealing with exactly that.

Most important! Don't agree to any deal from anyone until you have had a chance to hear from all the people you intend to contact. Once you've received an offer from someone, calmly tell that person you will get back to them and be sure never to accept any deal on the first phone call no matter how enticing it may sound.

You're going to hear all kinds of ego strokes that will be designed to flatter you and lessen your price. Don't let your negotiations become emotionally tied up. You can't get your best deal if you're not thinking clearly.

Don't forget, the world is a huge place and each country is an individual market. You have to think about what rights you are going to sell. If you decide that one of the 3 news magazines has made you a great offer and you are will to sell those images for their offered price you and they have to understand that for this price they are getting one time first publication rights for the US only.

If they want first time publication rights for the world that has to be another price altogether because that will limit the sales potential for your images to the rest of the world.

With a news event of this magnitude, someone will undoubtedly want to use something on the cover. Those rights have to be negotiated as well. Most major magazines have prices they like to pay normally for cover use. Never forget, this is not a normal circumstance and because the image is "yours," you will be deciding the price for it's use not the publication.

Once all these things have been taken into account, you will be able to establish a fair price for this once in a lifetime image. Sometimes, negotiations like this can be overwhelming and it might be better to have someone experienced handle them for you.

There are picture agencies who deal with some of these kinds of things regularly. It might be a good idea to contact one of those agencies and discuss some kind of arrangement. This is a dicey situation that has to be handled carefully because not all agencies have good reputations. If you choose to go this route, make a number of calls to experienced and trusted associates for help with locating a reliable sales agent.

It's also important to get any kind of arrangement of the above nature put in contract form spelling out exactly what the agreement will be. For instance, I would suggest creating an agreement in which you get a 70% share of all sales and that no individual market deal (i.e. - first time US rights, etc. ) can be finalized without notifying you first.

This will allow you to be completely informed of any and all deals made and the prices that are being agreed to. This way there will be no misunderstandings later and the pressures of negotiations will be off your shoulders onto potentially more experienced ones.

The above scenario is probably never going to happen to most of us but it gives a clear example of the importance of understanding the value and exclusivity of an image or body of work and how to begin to market an extra ordinary image.

Setting the value of, and prices for, the work we do is a very important issue and one that has not been addressed well in this industry. For the most part, photographers are their own worst enemies when it come to being educated on valuing their work. We have allowed ourselves to be placed in a "client driven" market and that's one situation that we need to address and be cognizant of.

In a more ordinary scenario we have to look at our pictures analytically. Let's say for instance, you have a really terrific sports image that could easily be one of the Leading Off images in SI or Zoom images in ESPN the magazine. It is an image from an event that wasn't covered by anyone but you or you were in a location that no-one else was in and a great and beautiful moment happen there for you to capture.

You now have in essence an exclusive of sorts. Did it ever cross your mind to tell the editor as you talk to him about your picture that it is the only image of its kind and you really need a little extra money for it because if this. Sometimes we forget that if we don't ask we surely will never get what we want.

Has this ever happened to you? You are talking to a client about pricing for an image and finally the question is offered. So, Rick, how much will you charge us for that image for those uses. All kinds of things run through your head at that instant. This is a good client and you want to keep them happy, you need the money because it's been slow, you know they usually pay a certain amount but you'd like to raise that ceiling a bit and you know they really like this image a lot.

All that noise rattling through your head in a millisecond and finally you throw a price out. It's a bit higher than what you got last time but not as high as you really wanted.

The client says terrific in such a hurry and with such relieved inflection that the little voice in the back of your head says, "You just hosed yourself." You could tell by that tone in the voice of your client that she was expecting to have to pay more and your price was way below the ceiling.

I don't know about you but, I hate that feeling. You just potentially left a bunch of money on the table by not asserting yourself and standing up for the value of your work.

If we don't constantly evaluate our work and ask for more for images that aren't routine or have several similar out in the market to be had, then we continue to allow the client to dictate the prices they are willing to pay for our work. I'm very guilty of the same things all too often. I'll get busy or just lazy and forget to mention to an editor that this is a very interesting and unique image that I need a little extra for and then I kick myself later.

Taking the initiative to generate the kinds of discussions with editors that potentially will increase what they pay you for your pictures is the only way we are going to slowing sensitize and condition editors and magazines to being used to paying different prices for quality images.

Now, if you're shooting the same kinds of pictures that everyone else on the planet is shooting and there are literally hundreds of other images out there to be had that look very similar to what your offering, then that's another story. If you perpetuate the dime a dozen theory every time you cover an event then you are part of the problem.

Recently, in a discussion on the Sports Shooter message board,of how some photographers price their work to colleges, I was dismayed to find many photographers talking about selling unlimited rights on images for use for and entire year for $50.00. It's no wonder the world has little respect for the value of photography. When's the last time you were able to buy a good pair of shoes that would last for a year for $50.00?

The reality is that clients know that they can get photographers to sell images at ridiculously low prices just by saying that everyone else is selling to them for those prices. Most of the time that statement is a lie but, because most photographers are so easily cowed and hopelessly insecure they will agree to these low prices out of fear.

The common justification for photographers accepting these ridiculously low offers is that " if I don't take that price someone else will." My mother always said, "if Bobby, my next door neighbor, jumped out of a 30 foot tall tree would you?" The same logic applies.

We are all responsible for our own decisions and actions. No-one forces anybody to accept bad prices for their work. If you choose to accept ridiculously low prices for your work then, you are the "other guy." If your images look just like everyone else's and you are having to sell for low prices because of this lack of imagination then you "do" embody the problem.

We all have personal assessments of our own abilities and we, (each of us) individually create our own realities. If "you" don't believe that you are the $50.00 photographer then you won't be. However, if $50.00 is all you believe you and your work are worth then, until you personally believe that you are actually worth more than that, you will always be the $50.00 photographer and the one who continually rationalizes all sorts of reasons for taking bad offers.

The thread on the pricing for colleges was a classic example of a group of photographers who I feel, think so little of their own images, that they are willing to accept ridiculous price offers such as these. No one in their right mind who believes that what they do has value, sells unlimited use rights to anybody for any reason for $50.00, $100.00, $500.00.

Do you honestly believe that any college in the world would agree to allowing your children to come to that institution to study at a 1000 % price reduction. If Colleges operated their businesses the way photographers operate, there would be no institutions of higher learning to go to.

Pricing your work correctly,is every bit as important as getting your images in focus or exposed properly. Having enough self esteem to believe that you are worth a fair wage for what you do is more important than anything else. Remember, if you choose to be the $50.00 photographer that is who you are. No-one but you can change that situation. Let's all stop being that "other guy" we all detest.

(Rick Rickman is a Southern California-based freelance photographer. When his is not riding the waves he writes periodically on business practices for Sports Shooter. He will be conducting a session on the business of photography at the 2nd annual Sports Shooter Workshop & Luau Nov. 1-2. He can be contacted via e-mail at: or through his personal web site,

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