Value, not usage, to determine picture pricing

Photography is an investment. No, not the “I buy a lot of expensive equipment and resell it later” type of investment. It is an investment for the image buyer.

A photograph, or a series of photographs, can increase the value of anything around it, like a multiplier. In its raw format, few images have any power. It sits on  a hard drive, or on a print, and does nothing. Once associated with words in a magazine, or slapped next to a product or service, it start doing its magic. It blends, merges, and adapts to its surrounding and creates a powerful communication funnel with the viewer.

The message is suddenly increased.

The trick is to match the right image. This is where the investment comes in. A photo editor’s job, or anyone else’s that purchases images, is to find the raw, and if possible cheap, image that will make the perfect combination. If it’s properly done, the returns can be spectacular. For a few hundred dollars a magazine (think LIFE Magazine) or a campaign (think Marlboro) can achieve legendary status.

As with any investment, this is part gamble, part luck, part intuition and part research. When licensing an image for a particular project, one has to juggle these skills in order to get the proper result.

Why is this important? Because those who license images should keep that in mind when they license their images. Sure, pricing can be based on usage, or size, or a subscription, if you so desire. But what about pricing based on predictive impact?

An image buyer calls you because they want to purchase one of your images. They have a definite feeling that your image will enhance their message, whether it’s for an ad campaign or an article. You will ask about usage because that is quantifiable. But will you ask about the expected impact and enhancement value of your image?


Probably because you don’t expect them to tell you the truth in order to keep the price low. However, this is where the real value of your image is. Not how many times it will be used and in what format but rather how it will be perceived by those who see it in its new environment.

Not in usage, in result.

Of course not all images end up creating value for its surrounding. Most often, it does nothing and sometimes even devalues its surroundings.  But that ‘s not the fault of the photographer but rather that of the photo editor, or the art director.

So, how do you price potential impact? Well, the same way the image buyer does: Part gamble, part luck, part intuition, part research. Mix them up properly and you have the correct price.

And like an investment trade on a stock market, the final price resides in a perfect balance between supply and demand. Not in quantity but in quality. The buyer has a price based on his perceived value of the image and the seller has to find it and match it. In the end, the market will decide its real value, but only after price negotiation has been finalized.

Maybe a new time for pricing images should be after a campaign or when an article has been published. Both parties would reunite and review how well the image did, or not, do its enhancing job. Did people rush to the stores and purchase the item? Did the magazine double its readership?  Then the image was successful should be licensed at a very high price point.

Sure, these are hard to measure values. But quite frankly it would be a better system than to price an image based on how many pixels it has.

This business has too many Surveyors and not enough Bohemians”       Roger Therond , legendary photo man, once said to a good friend of mine, Eliane Laffont. This blog is about restoring the balance and letting the Bohemians talk.

Paul Melcher  has been named one of the “50 most influential individuals in American photography” by American Photo. He is currently senior vice president of the PictureGroup. He writes the Thoughts of a Bohemian blog

Marco | Editor

Editor at large and founder of a bunch of stockphoto businesses

One thought on “Value, not usage, to determine picture pricing

  • April 20, 2010 at 9:53 pm

    I would add that a buyer’s perceived value can be influenced by the seller. In other words, you may be able to get a customer to perceive more value by simply explaining why it is a high quality image. In fact, image buyers often find that information entertaining – whether it’s in the form of some kind of “behind the scenes” look or an accurate caption detailing information about the subject or uniqueness of the image. Of course, taken too far this can become an obstacle in the purchase process.

    The idea of pricing an image based on results is appealing. The challenge, as described, is coming up with a system for measuring and quantifying. Solving that challenge in a way that works for the buyer would be truly innovative.


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