How to Buy Photography

How to Buy Photography

By Leslie Burns-Dell’Acqua of Burns Auto Parts (the short course)

First off, let’s correct that misnomer: “buying” photography. One doesn’t buy photography-one buys the license, or rights, to reproduce an image. By federal law, the images created by the photographer are copyrighted by the photographer. He or she owns the images and sells to you, the client, specific usage rights to reproduce the images. Those rights are specified both on the estimate and the invoice you will receive.

Day Rate vs Actual Cost

When you ask for a “day rate” you will not be getting the actual cost for an assignment. What you will hear is the fee the photographer charges for performing a one-day shoot-showing up, taking the pictures, so to speak. It doesn’t include expenses and, more importantly, it does NOT include any usage fees – the fees charged to grant the rights to reproduce the images.

Even more important, good, ethical photographers won’t even quote you a day rate. Why? Because they don’t price their services that way. Photography isn’t a commodity nor is it labor. A photo that takes one hour isn’ worth less than one that takes 7 hours to create. Each image is different. Thus, a good photographer will be more than happy to provide you with a specific estimate for your project, taking into account your needs, the creativity involved, etc.

Save everyone some time – -don’t even bother asking for a day rate.


“What?” some people may ask, “If I pay for an assignment, I should own the images!” Well, while that certainly is possible, you’d be paying for much more than you actually need. Look at it this way, do you want to pay the same price for an image you’re going to use once in a corporate recruitment brochure with a print run of 2500 as you would if the image was going to be used in a national four-color print ad campaign that will reach millions of consumers? Joe’s Sprockets doesn’t need to pay Nike prices!

That’s usage. It saves you money. You buy what you need, but you’re not limited. Let’s say the image used for that recruitment brochure would be perfect for that same company’s website. You can re-license the image for that additional usage, and the fee will again be based on that specific usage.

“But,” a client will say, “I don’t want to be bothered with re-licensing for each additional usage.” In that case, plan ahead and be specific! You might think that “Unlimited Usage” is the easiest way to go (and, well, it is), but you probably don’t really need all that. Perhaps all the possible usage you will need is trade advertising print ads, corporate website, and recruitment brochure, and all that for only one year. That will save you money over Unlimited Usage (and tons over buying the copyright!).

So, when you want to “buy photography” gather this information ahead of time, and you will get an accurate estimate for your needs:

Project Description

(as detailed as possible, if you have a layout, providing that will definitely help).

  • Props/talent: provided by you, or does the photographer need to obtain them?
  • Usage: Advertising? Editorial? Corporate? In what media will the images be reproduced? Will the images appear locally, regionally or nationally? How long will you need to use the images? If you have media buy numbers handy, that will help the photographer be sure to give you the best price.
  • Can the photographer re-license the images (or out-takes) to others (in other words, do you want exclusivity)?

Bid vs. Estimate

An estimate is a noncompetitive pricing for a project. You may want to use Photographer X and want to know how much it will cost. A bid, on the other hand, means that you either have several photographers in mind or, more likely, are going to award the project based solely on price (as opposed to ability, style, talent, experience, etc.).

If you’re asking for a bid, please be up-front about it. While it won’t make a difference in the prices (a project costs what a project costs) for most, it will save time and aggravation. Tell the photographer who his/her competition is. See, there are always those who will do anything to get a job. This way the photographer can bow out before spending days putting together a complex set of numbers just to hear “but photographer X came in at 25% of that!”

BAP advocates the elimination of the bid from our business. Estimates are a far more fair tools by which to evaluate prices, quality, approach, and all the other intangibles that go into selecting the right photographer for any project.

When you really want to use a photographer, but you don’t have the budget Fees are always negotiable. While no one can “give it away” most can often work out something which benefits everyone involved. Even the most famous photographers have worded with small clients who have paid in trade, or product, or who have agreed to stock use immediately, or who have given the photographer a large credit line. It never hurts to ask!

If you have questions or suggestions, contact us.