Business 101: How to Price Stock Photography

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Through the course of the year, I get a lot of emails and phone calls from fellow nature photographers that have questions about how I run my nature photography business — everything from how I got started, to how I make money self-publishing my own products, to how I price images for clients that want to purchase prints or stock photos.

As a result, I’ve decided to start up a new ‘Business 101’ monthly blog/column.  Please feel free to post your comments and questions below, particularly if you have future topics you’d like to see covered.

This first column is based on a question I received via email a few days ago regarding how to price stock photo usages:

…the tourism office has seen a photo of mine that they would like to buy off me and use in their shop on things like mugs, etc.  It is a good thing I was talking to them on the phone, because I was like a deer in headlights with the offer.  I don’t have any idea what to charge, or what I should do now, but I have a meeting with them next week and should probably go in with some kind of proposal!  Any suggestions or help would be appreciated.

I’m sure many of you have run into the exact same thing.  A client or potential client finds an image of yours and decides that they might want to use it in a marketing campaign, on a brochure, on product packaging, or for any of about a thousand other possible usages.

So how do you price out a request like this?  How do you come up with a quote or a proposal?  And how do you ensure that you don’t price yourself out of the game immediately by either quoting too high or quoting too low (which is more common than you may think).

Let’s start with a few basic tips and pointers.

I use two tools to figure out a ballpark price for image usages: one is a software program called Fotoquote, which holds true to its moniker as being the “industry standard for pricing photography.” It’s easy to use and provides an excellent baseline for figuring out how much to charge for just about any usage.

However, I also add a second tool to the mix now that the internet is so prevalent in our everyday lives.  After checking the pricing on Fotoquote, I then visit a few of the major stock photography websites to get an average price range from them, as well.  Sites like www.alamy.com and www.gettyimages.com provide me with additional ammunition for my initial proposal or quote.

But as soon as any of you purchase and download Fotoquote or go visit one of these stock sites and try to price out an image usage, you’re going to run into a roadblock or two if you haven’t done your due diligence and asked the right questions of your potential client.

Using a simple example, let’s say the client wants to use your owl photo on the cover of their real estate brochure.

How much is this great horned owl worth on the cover of that brochure?

To properly help you determine a fair and accurate price for this usage, you need to know as much about it and your potential client as you possibly can.

– will the image take up the entire front cover or just a part of it?
– how big is the brochure going to be in terms of dimensions? How many pages will it be?
– how many brochures are going to be printed?
– how long will the image be used for (i.e. how long will the brochure be in circulation)?
– will the image be used anywhere else, as part of an internet campaign or a newsletter or ??
– what is the brochure selling or advertising?  Is it local, regional, or national real estate?
– is the company a mom-and-pop operation or a big conglomerate?

I also often ask what sort of budget the client has in mind for the usage to determine if they’re worth continuing to talk to. I have a minimum stock price of $150, so if they don’t have a budget of at least $150 per image, then I politely let them know that my work is more valuable than that and costs me a lot to produce, so I ask them to look elsewhere for their images (more about this below).

All of this feedback from the client will then help you establish a price for your image using Fotoquote and the stock photography websites.

However, it’s not always quite this cut-and-dried.  For instance, if I feel my image is one that would be tough to find elsewhere – in other words, tough to replace with someone else’s image – then that gives it even more value.

A portrait of wild Canadian wolf is not that easy to find and only a handful of photographers might have similar images, whereas the opposite holds true for an image that’s easy to find and could easily be replaced, like a standard summer shot of Lake Louise on a blue sky day.

A wild wolf portrait may hold more value than a standard shot of Lake Louise or Niagara Falls

Be very careful of underpricing yourself, because once a client knows that you’re ‘cheap’, it’s almost impossible to reverse that thinking.

I think a lot of photographers put too much credence into clients’ tall tales about how much today’s economy has hurt them.  The fact remains that clients will pay for quality and for unique images that have value to them and their businesses. So rather than lowering your prices to make a sale or because you think you have to, consider selling the client on the value of your photography instead.  John Harrington, a well-known American stock photographer and author, recently wrote a great article on this called ‘Five Reasons Photographers Should Sell Value, Not Price.’

Harrington also wrote the book, Best Business Practices for Photographers, which I highly recommend for anyone wanting to run a successful photography business.  It’s an incredible resource which covers a variety of business topics, including a full chapter on how to price your work to stay in business and another one on why what you charge a client has to be more than what it cost you to make the images.

So now that you’re equipped with a few tools and resources, let’s revisit the stock photography question that preceded all of this information:

…the tourism office has seen a photo of mine that they would like to buy off me and use in their shop on things like mugs, etc.  It is a good thing I was talking to them on the phone, because I was like a deer in headlights with the offer.  I don’t have any idea what to charge, or what I should do now, but I have a meeting with them next week and should probably go in with some kind of proposal!  Any suggestions or help would be appreciated.

What would you do if this happened to you?  How would you proceed?

I would start off by calling them again and revisiting exactly what the meeting is going to be for.  Do they want a price and/or a proposal at the meeting, or do they just want to discuss possible usages?  There is a big difference between the two: for the former, you’ll have to start asking questions immediately to try to get a much better idea of what they’re hoping to use the image for so that you can come up with a price quote for the meeting;  while for the latter, you can relax a bit, and go in with a set of questions to ask so that you can then come back to the office from that meeting with the criteria you need to figure out a price range and forward them a formal proposal or quote.

At this point, it’s impossible for me (and it should be impossible for you, too!) to provide a price for this based on what the photographer has told me so far.

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I got an interesting email from a fellow pro in Smithers, B.C. this past weekend.  He had been helping out a local amateur photographer who had been contacted by a big European advertising agency regarding an image of hers they had stumbled across on the internet.  Rather than rush into a sale like that proverbial “deer in the headlights”, she had the good sense to call my friend and ask him for advice.

After several long emails and phone calls, he was thrilled to find out that she went into her negotiations with the ad agency with her newfound knowledge and came out of it with a whopping $13,000 sale!

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If any of you have questions or comments on this first Business 101 column, please let me know, I’d love to hear from you!

Happy sales,

John