I know I’m fortunate to be paid for what I do. A big part of this is because I specialize in something very few photographers are doing at a professional level. But what most people don’t realize is that even at this level a large percentage of my workload involves pay negotiations. There are contracts that took months of negotiation. Some took weeks, or a single week, or several days, or a flurry of emails or texts in just a few minutes.
Every single one of those initially low-balled me; offering me starting contracts at 10-20% of my regular rate. And despite publications threatening to walk (and at least half will threaten to), I often land the print run anyway...and at what I was asking for or close to it.
The Myths of Freelance Photojournalism Pay
Myth: “The internet (translation: your photo) should be free!!!”
Reality: Well then cameras should be free too, shouldn’t they? Also, lenses should be free. And monopods. And filters. And batteries. And memory cards. And rain covers. And hotel expenses and gas and food and plane tickets and the various licensing fees I have to pay and any injuries I incur or damage to my machines. It takes real time, effort, experience and money to get a single fraction of a second like this. I'm a serious professional in my industry and my work is not and should not be free. I contact every theft I find. Sometimes I invoice them.
Myth: “No one pays for freelance work.” <---this is bullshit. See it. Smell it. Touch it. Remember it.
The Truth: Actually, yes, they do. All publications worth their salt have a photo budget and an established standard day rate or individual photo rate. This rate will vary depending on how established a photographer you are, how unique your photograph is, and the terms of the editorial license itself (for example, do they want exclusive rights to print it, or first run only, etc.)
Remember these publications have been in business for decades. They’ve published tens of thousands of photos in that time. They have a photo budget and a rate and they negotiate like pros. Negotiate with them.
Myth: "Photojournalism is dying. Therefore, we can't pay you."
Reality: Photojournalism is evolving....like all industries (transportation, education, medical, etc.) as we make the switch to ever changing technology. But it's still a profession, will remain a profession, and professionals in any industry, even in the middle of change, are compensated appropriately for the service they perform.
But What am I worth?
That is the big question. Most people fail because they have no idea. I was in that place very early in my career, but it changed quickly when I figured out I did have worth and I charged accordingly.
How do you determine your rates? First, there are five things to consider:
YOU. How established are you? Are you an amateur? A hobbyist who got lucky? Are you looking to be pro? Are you already professional? How long have you been in business? Who are your typical clients? What is your typical subject?
THE CLIENT. Is this a newspaper? A magazine? A book? Online? Print? How long have they been in business?
THE PHOTO SIZE/COLOUR. How big will the image be on the page? Are we talking a quarter page? A spot? A half page? Is this the front cover? Black and white? Full colour?
THE CIRCULATION. How many people purchase this publication? Do they have fewer than 1000? Over a million? Obviously, the number of customers gives you an idea how much a company might be able, or not able, to pay for your image. Do your research.
THE PHOTO. How unique is this shot? How valuable is it? How quickly do they need it? How difficult were the conditions to get the shot. Did you have to climb Everest for it? Or could any joe schmoe on the street have gotten a lower quality but still useable photo of the same subject?
I have a sliding scale for all of my images based on that five criteria. At the lower end of the scale might be an image that isn’t entirely unique, feeling more stock-like, or where I know I have a lot of competition. At the higher end of the scale, might be a unique image I know only I got or one I can tell they really want and for good reason. If images switch to colour or suddenly become a front cover, that price goes up accordingly. I also may lower my scale slightly as a courtesy, one that is purchasing multiple images, or one that is at a very low circulation rate. Often we make up the difference in various add-ons that can be converted to monetary value such as advertising in the publication, tickets, or being forwarded to another potential client. Remember these are negotiations. Negotiate until both parties are happy, and don’t freak if they don’t talk to you for a day or two. It’s normal.
Second, don’t be afraid to ask what their standard rate is. Like I said before, if this publication is the real deal (and their answer to this question will give you either good flags or major major bad red flags) they can and will have an answer. But always ask and ask first if you can. They’re used to being asked this question, and they will have an answer for you. And it’ll probably be lower than what you want to hear. But just because they do have a rate, and it’s lower than what you’re expecting, don’t be afraid to mention what your own rate is and that you're willing to compromise. You never know.
How much should I charge?
This is the worst question. lol. Hard to know without knowing you personally. I will, however, forward onto you information that was given to me by fellow pros when I first started. There ARE actual photo quote products out there. They are good and almost all decent publications are familiar with their invoices. It’s an option.
There’s also these free options, but they aren’t perfect:
National Press Photographers: nppa.org/calculator
Editorial Use Calculator: photographersindex.com/price-e…
Remember to always consider your unique criteria. And don’t be afraid to ask other photojournalists what they charge. Some might tell you or help you find a honest quote.
Should I ever work for free?
This is obviously controversial. For me? The answer is yes. And no. In my mind, nothing is ever free. Everything is a negotiation. Even if it’s “free”, it’s not. If I’m not receiving real money, there needs to be something of comparable value involved in terms of future work. I typically only do one or two charity events per year for foundations that mean something to me personally. That’s it.
If you work for free...a lot....
1. You aren’t going to make any money. That’s logic. Please accept logic for what it is. Logic. Reality. Inescapable sadfest.
2. The tax service of whatever country you belong to is probably going to get involved within a few years of operating at that loss....so...stupid stupid stupid idea. Or at the very least, unpleasant and completely unnecessary.
3. You really are undermining others and especially yourself. Remember how much it hurts to be told again and again that you and your work aren’t worth anything? Why on earth would you ever agree with them? Why would you ever agree with them on behalf of all of us? And why on earth would you reinforce it?!!
If you're going to work for free remind yourself you should be getting something of comparable value. And never, ever, ever, take paid work away from another photographer. If someone has a bid that involves pay and you offer to do the same job for free? Don't. Please. It's unethical and it's cruel. When no one is paid, no one pays their bills. Not them. And not you.
What about AP/Getty?
For the average photographer with a shot to sell, their criteria are often very difficult to meet. You have to have a very solid portfolio, a truly great image or a mega-useful one. They WILL require a model/property release form for some shots. Sure, the likelihood that you will be sued is very low without one, you don’t have the money, so you probably didn’t even bother at the time you took the shot, but these big firms do have money and they will want those forms to protect themselves. Sometimes even for editorial...just in case. This is a pain. Why? Because most people, especially strangers, freak out the moment you hand them a form with lots of legal mumbo jumbo. You will need to learn how to get these forms in case these agencies require them.
Second, if you’re a college student and you worked for a college paper your work might have been published with them. Remember the college owns your work and they can and will sell it if the big boys ask. It’s still portfolio points for you, but you probably won’t see a dime unless you’re lucky.
Respect your Potential Employer (even if they insulted you)
This will be a short section because it's common sense. I always handle negotiations with complete respect. If negotiations get tense, it's okay to take a break. Be firm in your value, compromise only where you're comfortable with it, but treat them with respect.
GET IT IN WRITING
Another short section. Also because it's more common sense. Get any agreed terms in writing, with clear statements and the words "I accept these terms" from both parties. There are dozens of templates for editorial licenses online, please research them and use them. Don't release it until you are paid or a clear contract has been established.
So that’s really the gist of it. I can’t tell you how to negotiate word for word, because it’s a craft and it varies. But I can promise you that all negotiations, all successful negotiations, begin with knowing what you’re worth and committing yourself to defending it. Yes, it’s stressful, but when that first real paycheck comes...you just might frame it. After all, it’s the first one of many and you can cash those future checks instead.