Kah Kit Yoong has a great post at magichourunplugged.com called Respect Your Photography. He asks a really very simple question: what should you do if someone asks to use one of your photos for free?
Many [amateur] photographers are flattered by the attention and are taken in by vague promises of ‘credits’ and the thought of the value publication adds to their ‘portfolio’. I always ask the designers who ask me for ‘free’ pictures if they are being paid or if they are working pro bono. Invariably the answer is the same: they’re being paid for their time and efforts. (Only one was working for free – and he did apologise for asking for something for nothing.)
So if they’re being paid, why shouldn’t you be? Many amateur photographers have absolutely no idea how they are being exploited. Pictures obviously have value: if they didn’t add value, then designers wouldn’t want to use them in the first place.
Understanding the true cost of photography
Many of these discussions focus on price: price isn’t the issue here though. After all, you can only work out the true price of something after you’ve calculated a] the true cost of something and then b] its value.
The great advantage of digital is that [relatively speaking] once you’ve bought a camera it doesn’t really cost much to capture an image – you no longer have to pay for film and development and printing. So the marginal cost of a digital photo is pretty close to zero.
The true cost of camera gear is much higher for amateurs than it is for professionals
But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t cost anything to take a picture: far from it. Gear is expensive. If you’re a professional, the cost of gear is just one of the many costs of doing business: it isn’t really a cost though, it’s an expense. The distinction isn’t semantic: legally, costs and expenses are very different things: expenses can be put against taxable income – and gear can be depreciated. For a professional, gear is an asset.
If you’re an amateur though, then camera gear costs real money – that is money that has really come out of your pocket. For an amateur camera gear isn’t an investment, it’s not an asset, it’s just stuff which delivers no tangible economic return. When your gear depreciates, that’s a financial loss for an amateur – for a professional that’s a cost which can be put against tax.
Valuing your time
At a really basic point the difference between an amateur and a professional is simple: the professional charges for their time. And when you work out how much you’ve invested in your photography, the amount of time you’ve invested far outweighs the amount of money you’ve spent on gear. It may only have taken a fraction of a second to take a picture, but it’s probably taken years of practice and thousands of dollars worth of time and equipment for you to get to the point where that fraction of a second produced something interesting.
Being honest with yourself
Many people are willing to give their time and work for free: it’s called volunteering. Would you volunteer for a charity? Maybe. Would you volunteer to work for multinational corporation? Probably not.
So. If you understand the true costs of photography, and you understand what your time is worth… would you still give that photo away for free?