photo “licensing” and working for free

I had no idea that pictures of astronaut underpants were in such demand.


This week, I’ve had three websites pick up on my blog post and story about Koichi Wakata’s experiments on the International Space Station. One was a large Finish website who linked to my blog and sent several thousand visitors.

Welcome Finns, I have always wanted to visit your country!

The other two sites have set me pondering the economics of the Internet. I received two emails asking to use my photos for free. I turned one down from a Czech website without thinking too much.

Here’s the second in full. It came from a VERY well known commercial IT blog, and it had the provocative subject line, “photo licensing”.

Hey there,

I’m writing a blog entry for [website name removed] about the japanese space undies. I was wondering if we could use your photo of the young lady holding them up? We can’t offer money, but attribution and a link back from a major blog we can do.

Let me know if it’s ok!


[name removed]

So what to do? Is this email an insult? I’m sure the person sending me the email wouldn’t do his job for free. A less interesting photo I took  minutes before re-sold for 100 dollars. But it was basically a reporting assignment and I just grabbed a few pictures for this blog.

Do I send an outraged email saying “if you were a major website, you would pay”? Do I ask for money? Do I send the photos?

The thing about photographs, as everyone who looks at them as a businessperson rather than a photographers knows, is that they have no fixed value. They could be worth 50 cents or 5000 dollars. It all depends who is selling them, who is buying them, and for what.

If you are just starting maybe you’ll be delighted to see your photos anywhere. If you are Annie Lebovitz, your photos probably won’t get out of bed for less than a wodge of $$$。. That was always the case, and is especially so today when the cost of distributing data is virtually zero.

So what is the commerical value of one of my (perhaps, any photographer who isn’t a household name’s) photos used at 250 pixels longest side on the Internet?  It depends on the website of course, but I’m guessing very little.

In the recession, even newspapers are turning to cheap subscription services and refusing to buy from individual photographers. Private blogs just copy and paste photos, and larger sites – apparently – try to convince photographers to provide their work for links.

I heard a story recently about a photographer who phoned his agency, irate, to find out why one of his photos had sold for  a measly 60 cents. He was told that it had gone to a blog. And it wasn’t 60 cents — his cut was 30 cents.

But back to the question, is it worth my while providing the photos, or should I ignore the email? Am I damaging the profession by providing my work “for free”. I made the following calculation:

I would never let my photos be printed for free, I never write for less than a certain per word rate, and up to now I’ve always said no, but . . .

The photo’s value on a website, say bought from a stock site, is probably a matter of cents. If there is significant potential to raise my profile or sell photos through my archive, why not? It was a pretty big site. I sent them the data in the hope of getting a surge of traffic to this blog.

And what happened?

Nothing at all.  I am still waiting for the photos to be used . . . . . .

5 Responses to “photo “licensing” and working for free”

  1. Shibuya246 says:

    As the internet continues to grow and more people come to use if for both reading and writing stories, the traditional distribution and payment valuation system for stories, pictures and videos is changing.

    Previously a magazine or newspaper may buy a story or photo as a scoop or because they were on a tight deadline. The value payment for this was generally cash. Years ago you might have been paid with a free dinner but we have progressed to the cash form of payment.

    With the internet, once the photo is published anyone can access it. That doesn’t mean they can republish it without your consent, but it is easy to point people in the direction of where to find it at least. Giving people a link to your site is simpler to follow than telling them to go buy the magazine.

    So does the value of the photo become less because it is easy to access? Is its value less because the website referencing it or asking to reprint it does not charge money? (maybe they earn through advertising only). This is hard to say, but is is clear that because of the internet the playing field is changing.

    If you want to attract the highest value for your photos and receive cash payments, it may be better not to let them be seen on the internet at all. Make them exclusive to off-line publications. This would mean less circulation than the internet. It is often a choice between fame and fortune. Do you go for increased circulation and become well known but less well off, or do you find a niche and earn more money by limiting access to those willing to pay?

    Through the growth of the internet have we started moving back to more of a barter society rather than a cash payment one? For individual merchants, the world is becoming like the villages of old where people could trade their skills for things they needed. Since you can reach out easily to the other villagers through the internet the need for a cash payment system decreases.

    Is it better to accept traffic to your site rather than a cash payment? Maybe it is, but as the business owner of your own site and brand you need to make that judgment call.

    I don’t have the answer, but I can think of a lot more questions on this topic that would be interesting to think through and work out. It is the internet that is changing the dynamic of the market place the most and therefore you should consider what that marketplace may look like in 5 years and again in 10 years time. Where are we moving to? and then try to get there first.

  2. Durf says:

    Shibuya246: “Through the growth of the internet have we started moving back to more of a barter society rather than a cash payment one?”

    On a very small scale, perhaps, but I think this dynamic is limited to a small population of alpha users who bring skills to the table that other people want to use in the Web environment. A talented designer could license some of your shots in exchange for hand-tuning your WordPress code, for instance. I don’t think that sort of exchange can take place between anyone and everyone, though.

    More importantly, I think the Internet has raised a generation or more of young people who think that media is supposed to come for free. Newspapers are going out of business left and right because everyone wants to read news for free online; music comes from file-sharing, not Tower Records. In an environment filled with these people it’s a certainty that for every one company kind enough to write and ask for permission to use a photo for free, there are dozens of bloggers who just grabbed the .jpg, cropped out the watermark, and stuck it on their sites without a word to the photographer or a link to his site.

  3. Unfortunately, the market for simple pictures of stuff is saturated; the value of a photo that simply shows a product, location, or event is essentially zilch. There are enough amateur photographers out there, and good enough tagging and archiving tools, that anyone can find a picture of anything that someone’s willing to give them for simple attribution.

    It seems that the market for pro photography has turned into:
    1) Assignment photojournalism, where you pay a photographer to bring back the photographic accompaniment to a story (as well as possibly write the story).
    2) Full-service event photography, where you’re paying to have the best shots, processed and printed, of once-in-a-lifetime events like weddings, and
    3) Fashion and advertising photos, where you need a specific item of clothing in a specific light on a specific person.

    With mass Creative Commons licensing and iStockPhoto, I don’t think we’ll ever make it back to a place where photographers can expect to make a living on simply good photos of stuff; the market will shrink to a set of assignment photojournalists, event photographers, and fashion photographers, all of whom work on contract and are paid to deliver an image or set of images to exacting specifications.

  4. tony says:

    Thanks for the great comments. I wonder if there’s a parallel with recording artists? Seems like stock images are the equivalent of digital tracks and assignments concerts. Albums have become little more than a free viral marketing tool for musicians’ concerts/TV appearances etc. The same thing may be happening with stock. That’s why I am putting so many of my images on the net.

    Not for the first time I’m glad that I’m a photojournalist and that I started out writing. As David points out there’s always going to be a market for news text/photo/sound?/video? packages. After all, news is supposed to be new – so there won’t be any stock to compete with!

  5. If the blog/website makes money i will charge . Even if it is just goggle ad .
    Minimum fee ¥5.000 yen for 700 pixel on the large side .
    If it is a FREE blog , a link to my blog is cool but it has to keep my watermark at the button of the photo as well.
    If they don’t like the idea i just send a link to istock and let them waste hours looking for something there .
    Times is money .

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