Devaluing Your Images

Posted on 3/23/2010 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (2)

There is a persistent idea among many image creators that a photographer somehow devalues his work if he ever licenses it for low prices. Yet recent years have shown that volume can be as significant a factor as price, and there are numerous other considerations.

First, if you are going to license your work as right-managed (based on use), and if you are going to allow a stock agency to license it, the images will always be licensed at multiple price points—without any floor price.

Consider this: one day, a customer licenses an image for a one-time non-exclusive quarter-page use in a brochure with a print run of 10,000. The next week, a drug company licenses the same image for a cover of a major marketing brochure expected to be distributed to millions of potential customers worldwide, and the company may want to also use the same image on product packaging. The same image is used in two very different ways. The price for the second use may be 10 to 50 times higher than the price charged for the first. Neither buyer complains, because the price they were charged was reasonable based on the use they intended to make of the image.

Some would argue that the drug company would want exclusive rights if they were going to make such a large use and pay so much for the image. In fact, such large uses are regularly licensed on non-exclusive basis, and it is extremely rare for a customer to want exclusive rights in such cases.

Did it devalue the image to license it to the customer who wanted to use it in a small brochure project? Should the photographer refuse to sell for such small uses and hold the image out of the market until a really big use comes along? Most photographers would answer “no” to both questions.

What if the drug manufacturer was first to purchase the image, paying $7,500 for non-exclusive rights. Now, the value of the image has been established at $7,500. Should the photographer never allow that image to be licensed to anyone else, unless the new customer is willing to pay at least $7,500?

Not if he is smart. Many customers might have other uses for that image, uses for which they could justify paying several hundred dollars or more, but if the minimum price were $7,500, they would simply have to go find and use a different image.

The photographer may feel good that he has an image with an established value of $7,500, but he certainly is not maximizing the revenue he could earn from that image, unless he is also willing to license it for other smaller uses for less.

So what should the minimum one-time non-exclusive rights licensing fee be for an image without it being devalued in the eyes of the photographer? Every photographer may have a different answer to this question.

Suppose you have an image that has never been licensed for more than $25. Is that a devalued image? Is that still true even if the image has been licensed more than 2,000 times for prices between $1.50 and $25.00? A search for “business woman” on iStockphoto returns 153 images that have been licensed more than 2,000 times, and the top one has been licensed more than 10,000 times. Assuming an average gross sale price of only $6.50, each of those images would have generated more than $13,000 and the top seller would have generated more than $65,000.

Which images have the least value—the ones where the photographer holds out for the one big sale, or the ones that generate the most revenue? I would challenge rights-managed photographers to look at their records and consider how many of their images have generated more than $7,500 in lifetime sales—or more than $13,000, or more than $65,000. Very few photographers will be able to point to more than a handful of images that have generated over $65,000 since they first went on sale. More will be able to point to images that generated more than $13,000 or $7,500, but still the numbers will be very few. The vast majority of rights-managed photographers will likely be unable to point to a single image that has generated more than $7,500, no matter how many times it has sold.

Another thing to think about is whether or not you devalue your image when you license rights for about $575 to be used on a calendar with a circulation of 10,000? That picture will hang on some individual’s wall for a month for less than $0.06. If the individual likes the picture, he can cut it out and put it in a frame, with no additional payment to the photographer. Would you sell that individual the right to make a print to hang on his wall for $1 or $2 or $3 if the transaction could be handled fully automatically?

Is your image devalued when it is licensed for use in an unlimited number of textbooks (often 1 million or more) for the next seven years for $290? That is less than 0.03 cents per book—what Getty Images charges. Is it better because it comes as one lump sum of money rather then being paid by the book over a period of time, even if the per book payment would be 1 cent per picture rather than 0.03 cents?

Photographers do themselves a disservice when they disregard the value of multiple sales and focus entirely on how high a price they can get for a single license. The whole idea behind stock photography is to make multiple sales. We must find the proper balance between price and volume. We must price based on how the image is to be used and the value received. We must also recognize that technology has made it possible for direct transactions between consumer and producer rather than through a host of middlemen, and the world is moving rapidly in this direction.

Copyright © 2010 Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to:  


  • Paul Melcher Posted Mar 23, 2010
    there seems to be a confusion between the value of an image and the value of a usage. The higher priced paid for a large circulation ( like the one million cited here) is not due to a customer thinking that this image has more value, it has to do with the fact that the higher the circulation the less change that image will ever be licensed again.
    The pricing covers the potential lost of future income, not the value of the image.

  • Robert Dahl Posted Mar 24, 2010
    I'm not a "behavioral economist", but it sounds like the photographer who works toward the one $7,500 placement may feel that he gets other compensation from that sale which he values at tens of thousands of dollars. Maybe it is the ability to charge higher prices to other customers. Maybe it just boosts his ego, or makes great pick-up lines at parties...

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