The Business of Photography

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The Business of Photography

The Commercial Photography Forum 2010

The following notes were taken at the The Nikon AIPP Event in Queensland last year. The MC was Mark Fitz-Gerald (past AIPP National President) and his panel comprised Tim Griffith, Richard Anderson (ASMP), Ian Golding, Gavin Blue (ACMP), Damien Bredberg, Ralphie Barnett (art director), Libby Baulch (lawyer), and Chris Shain.

Copyright Reminder

The commercial focus group began with some comments from Libby Baulch on copyright law. Copyright, she said, allows photographers or their clients to use photographs – to use them for advertising, to publish in a magazine or hang on a wall. Copyright also allows the copyright owner to stop other people using their photographs without permission.
So who owns copyright? A private person taking photos for private purposes owns the copyright in their own images.
However, there are different outcomes depending what type of professional photographer you are. When working for clients, commercial photographers – advertising, industrial, corporate etc – own the copyright in the photographs they take, but domestic photographers – wedding, portrait, family etc – do not. The copyright in a domestic situation is owned by the client.
There are also some other special cases for employees and when working for government departments, but in all situations, the ownership of copyright can be changed if both parties agree. In the case of domestic photography, if a client agrees to the photographer’s terms including, for example, the photographer’s ownership of copyright, then the copyright law won’t override it.

For commercial photographers, in the absence of any written agreement, they own the copyright and it is this ownership that gives them control over how clients can use their work.

The AIPP is about to release a new contract template for commercial photographers which will be available in the member’s section of the AIPP website (

Copyright Limits

Ian Golding commented that with his fashion work, it might be clear that he owns the copyright, but he may still not have the right to use it. “What you do with copyright is open to negotiation.”

Owning copyright doesn’t mean you can automatically do what you like with a photo. If the photo contains content or material owned by other people, there can be other laws or contractual arrangements that prevent you from publishing or using a photograph.

Similarly, photos that involve models or people may not be useable, even though you own the copyright. Similarly, a model can’t use a photo of him or her that you took without your permission, assuming you own the copyright.

Changing Profession

The panel was asked to consider the issues affecting commercial photographers in the future, including a reported decline in work.

One area this decline can be seen is in newspaper and magazine publishing. The New York Times was quoted, reporting that editorial pages from 2000 to 2009 declined by 49 percent and that 428 American magazines closed.

Blogs are replacing newspapers and citizen journalism is taking the place of professional writers. Is the same happening to photography?

Ian Golding commented that one of the things the web has changed is resolution, especially when advertising and marketing are web-based.

He recounted a recent experience shooting the Rosemont Fashion Week from the media pit with 100 other photographers, but they all had to make way when a young Japanese reporter moved in with her iPhone because she was streaming live to her website.

Be Adaptable

Tim Griffith stated the new tools aren’t going to go away, so the question is how do we deal with competition from people who are using camera phones and amateur equipment.

“The biggest advantage I have is adaptability. I can change my business model so my clients get the images they need.

“By understanding how their business works, I can modify what I think is a traditional licensing model to suit them. The business landscape has changed and so we have to be prepared to adapt and be flexible, and this increases the value of the relationship.”

Tim commented that he licences his images to his primary clients, but then makes around 30 percent with secondary licenses. He educates his clients about licensing and may also pay them a commission on secondary sales.

“Current business models are still working, but the figure will depend on how I can adapt so they also benefit my clients.”

Follow The Quality

Chris Shain said that he finds there is still a need for high quality, but he acknowledges that not every photography job is shot by a professional.

Clients don’t necessarily want to hire a professional for some ‘small’ jobs and will do them in house.

He has even received emails from clients asking for advice on how to take a photo themselves, and he gives the advice freely, knowing that if their photos don’t turn out, the clients will come back to him.

“There’s no point being negative about these things. I think there’s still a huge demand for quality, we just have to figure out where it is and be in that slot. The royalty free stock photography market proves there’s a great demand for low quality, but I don’t think as a professional we have much to offer here.”

Damien Bredberg commented that with the switch to digital, around half his income now comes from retouching.

He said that he can be more flexible on the photography fee if he knows he’s getting the retouching as well, so in this way he’s getting more of the client’s overall budget for the project.

He also commented that from time to time he would use stock images for comps and wondered if there was a problem with this.
Libby’s answer was that it depends on the licence he buys from the stock library.

Copyright is not an all or nothing idea. It allows you to put a value on what a permission is worth, and generally a more exclusive permission is worth more than a non-exclusive one.

Decentralised Market

Jim Fiscus talked about borderless markets and the fact that he shoots all over the world from his home in the USA. “It’s very possible to run a successful studio from an out of the way location.”

Gavin Blue commented that he has been focused on building an online reputation for corporate portraiture and that 60 percent of his clients now come from outside of Victoria (his home state). He has three websites, three Facebook pages and he provides a range of online hosting and delivery services. “Basically, I never give my clients a reason to go anywhere else.”

Ian Golding also commented that offering online and web management services has helped him retain business. “My gross income from actual photography is less than in the past, but more of my income comes from other services such as web management and video. So my secret is the service. All my clients are direct (i.e. not through an agency) and I am giving them service that no other photographer can dream about. I might have to work all night to have a fully edited video ready for the morning – we have to think about the services our clients are needing. “

Charging For Work

Mark Fitz-Gerald acknowledged that professional photographers charge for their expertise and the services they provide. But are clients prepared to pay?

Chris Shain explained that he keeps time sheets like a lawyer. “I might not charge for that half hour, but I know what it is costing me. Everyone should do a time and motion study on their business for a week to see where they spend their time. For me, 20 percent of my time is photography, 80 percent is running the business.

Tim Griffith acknowledged the benefits of over-servicing to ensure clients don’t go elsewhere, but there is a danger. “It’s good to prove to your clients that you’re capable of delivering in excess of what they have asked for, but where it is bad is to leave the gate open so they take advantage of the over servicing at no extra cost.

“When shooting with film, if I wanted to over-indulge on an assignment and take more images, the disadvantage was that I had to pay for the film. With digital, I’m able to indulge without extra costs, thus increasing the choice for my client and offering them, in their eyes, a broader service. However, if they selected everything I shot, I’d be losing money, so it’s important to put a limit on what they get in your agreements. Just because you create extra images doesn’t mean they get them for free, but they can buy extras at an agreed rate.

“It comes down to creating extra business opportunities. Define what the deliverables are, broaden the choice and have an agreement that ensures they pay more when they buy more.”

Film Threat

Mark Ruff suggested the main threat for professional photography wasn’t the iPhone or resolution, but rather the film industry. He referred to the new Red cameras which can shoot at 150 fps and provide 90 MB still frames.

Richard Anderson wasn’t so sure. “When you see a movie it looks great, but when you pull the frame you discover lots of problems and the image doesn’t seem so perfect anymore.”

Ralphie Barnett acknowledged that television commercial directors are happy to do stills off the back of their production. “It will be interesting to see what photographers do in the future. What are you going to call yourselves in ten years time when the technology blurs and clients demand something that has no demarcation between film and stills?

“Perhaps we won’t have film directors, but story tellers and visualisers. Photographers are facing things that have never happened before. I’m not sure if they will call themselves photographers, but there are ample opportunities to make great images.

“From an advertising perspective, we look at it as a new and dynamic way to work with photographers.”


There are a lot of photographs taken in the 1940s and 1960s which are greatly admired, but to take equivalent photographs today would be almost impossible. Photographers are treated with suspicion, which is perhaps surprising considering what people put on their own Facebook pages.

Tim Griffith admitted he’s surprised he’s not taken in by police on a daily basis. “In New York recently, we didn’t have time to get all the permissions, but we never stayed at a location for more than five minutes. Recently in China, we managed to shoot from five rooftops in a single day, but that was only possible because we went through the proper channels. There is certainly an increased suspicion of street photography and while it’s not getting any easier, it’s not impossible.”

Richard Anderson said even when he had proper clearances to photograph a law court, two officers ran at him with drawn guns and he was detained for twenty minutes while they checked out his story. “Photography is now a dangerous occupation!”

Gavin Blue stated that Australia is becoming very litigious and that when shooting in built-up areas, councils want you to have the right public liability insurances and even traffic management. “It’s a safety issue.”

Mark Fitz-Gerald added that the film industry has set the standard for insurance and safety, and so photographers are expected to do the same.

Opportunities and the Future

There is a re-current theme when listening to photographers: they are in constant amazement that they get paid to do what they do! However, just because you enjoy doing something doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get paid. It’s not something to feel guilty about!
This becomes an issue because there are many people out there who are not professional photographers, yet love seeing their work used commercially. It’s not just the new technology that’s making photography easy, but social media too. And photography is becoming very disposable – people are happy with lesser quality as long as it is timely. As a profession, we’re used to producing quality, but is that necessary going forwards?

Tim Griffith believes there is still an appetite for excellent quality imagery. “How it is produced is irrelevant, as long as there is a market we can pursue. The opportunities in architecture are still there because it is very difficult to shoot it with video.” However, Tim still sees video as an opportunity for his skill set. “I can’t pretend to be a cinematographer, but I do need to capitalise on years of experience, expanding on what I already know and doing it with new technology and markets.”

Added Gavin Blue, “The world is your market and if you’re willing to provide quality and service, there’s no limit to what you can do. I wouldn’t have thought five years ago that I’d have a site devoted to truck photography. You have to adapt to the market, but you also have to educate your clients about what you do and why.

Damien Bredberg said there wasn’t much point owning copyright if you don’t have any clients.

“Photographers are so niche, we don’t cross-sell or up skill, but we need to. We should know how to use every component in the Adobe Suite, not just Photoshop.”

Ralphie Barnett agreed. “You’re spot on about the Adobe Suite. For me, it’s all about opportunities. I am looking to get back to basics, to concentrate on craft and the art of story telling. It’s having that passion to capture an image that moves people, that provokes them to comment. That is the key and it hasn’t really changed. It’s all about crafting the story.” TWP

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