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Monday, April 25, 2011

Business 101: How to Price Stock Photography

Through the course of the year, I get a lot of emails and phone calls from fellow nature photographers that have questions about how I run my nature photography business -- everything from how I got started, to how I make money self-publishing my own products, to how I price images for clients that want to purchase prints or stock photos.

As a result, I've decided to start up a new 'Business 101' monthly blog/column.  Please feel free to post your comments and questions below, particularly if you have future topics you'd like to see covered.

This first column is based on a question I received via email a few days ago regarding how to price stock photo usages:

"...the tourism office has seen a photo of mine that they would like to buy off me and use in their shop on things like mugs, etc.  It is a good thing I was talking to them on the phone, because I was like a deer in headlights with the offer.  I don't have any idea what to charge, or what I should do now, but I have a meeting with them next week and should probably go in with some kind of proposal!  Any suggestions or help would be appreciated."

I'm sure many of you have run into the exact same thing.  A client or potential client finds an image of yours and decides that they might want to use it in a marketing campaign, on a brochure, on product packaging, or for any of about a thousand other possible usages.

So how do you price out a request like this?  How do you come up with a quote or a proposal?  And how do you ensure that you don't price yourself out of the game immediately by either quoting too high or quoting too low (which is more common than you may think).

Let's start with a few basic tips and pointers.

I use two tools to figure out a ballpark price for image usages: one is a software program called Fotoquote, which holds true to its moniker as being the "industry standard for pricing photography." It's easy to use and provides an excellent baseline for figuring out how much to charge for just about any usage.

However, I also add a second tool to the mix now that the internet is so prevalent in our everyday lives.  After checking the pricing on Fotoquote, I then visit a few of the major stock photography websites to get an average price range from them, as well.  Sites like and provide me with additional ammunition for my initial proposal or quote.

But as soon as any of you purchase and download Fotoquote or go visit one of these stock sites and try to price out an image usage, you're going to run into a roadblock or two if you haven't done your due diligence and asked the right questions of your potential client.

Using a simple example, let's say the client wants to use your owl photo on the cover of their real estate brochure.

How much is this great horned owl worth on the cover of that brochure?

To properly help you determine a fair and accurate price for this usage, you need to know as much about it and your potential client as you possibly can.

- will the image take up the entire front cover or just a part of it?
- how big is the brochure going to be in terms of dimensions? How many pages will it be?
- how many brochures are going to be printed?
- how long will the image be used for (i.e. how long will the brochure be in circulation)?
- will the image be used anywhere else, as part of an internet campaign or a newsletter or ??
- what is the brochure selling or advertising?  Is it local, regional, or national real estate?
- is the company a mom-and-pop operation or a big conglomerate?

I also often ask what sort of budget the client has in mind for the usage to determine if they're worth continuing to talk to. I have a minimum stock price of $150, so if they don't have a budget of at least $150 per image, then I politely let them know that my work is more valuable than that and costs me a lot to produce, so I ask them to look elsewhere for their images (more about this below).

All of this feedback from the client will then help you establish a price for your image using Fotoquote and the stock photography websites.

However, it's not always quite this cut-and-dried.  For instance, if I feel my image is one that would be tough to find elsewhere - in other words, tough to replace with someone else's image - then that gives it even more value.

A portrait of wild Canadian wolf is not that easy to find and only a handful of photographers might have similar images, whereas the opposite holds true for an image that's easy to find and could easily be replaced, like a standard summer shot of Lake Louise on a blue sky day.

A wild wolf portrait may hold more value than a standard shot of Lake Louise or Niagara Falls

Be very careful of underpricing yourself, because once a client knows that you're 'cheap', it's almost impossible to reverse that thinking.

I think a lot of photographers put too much credence into clients' tall tales about how much today's economy has hurt them.  The fact remains that clients will pay for quality and for unique images that have value to them and their businesses. So rather than lowering your prices to make a sale or because you think you have to, consider selling the client on the value of your photography instead.  John Harrington, a well-known American stock photographer and author, recently wrote a great article on this called 'Five Reasons Photographers Should Sell Value, Not Price.'

Harrington also wrote the book, Best Business Practices for Photographers, which I highly recommend for anyone wanting to run a successful photography business.  It's an incredible resource which covers a variety of business topics, including a full chapter on how to price your work to stay in business and another one on why what you charge a client has to be more than what it cost you to make the images.

So now that you're equipped with a few tools and resources, let's revisit the stock photography question that preceded all of this information:

"...the tourism office has seen a photo of mine that they would like to buy off me and use in their shop on things like mugs, etc.  It is a good thing I was talking to them on the phone, because I was like a deer in headlights with the offer.  I don't have any idea what to charge, or what I should do now, but I have a meeting with them next week and should probably go in with some kind of proposal!  Any suggestions or help would be appreciated."

What would you do if this happened to you?  How would you proceed?

I would start off by calling them again and revisiting exactly what the meeting is going to be for.  Do they want a price and/or a proposal at the meeting, or do they just want to discuss possible usages?  There is a big difference between the two: for the former, you'll have to start asking questions immediately to try to get a much better idea of what they're hoping to use the image for so that you can come up with a price quote for the meeting;  while for the latter, you can relax a bit, and go in with a set of questions to ask so that you can then come back to the office from that meeting with the criteria you need to figure out a price range and forward them a formal proposal or quote.

At this point, it's impossible for me (and it should be impossible for you, too!) to provide a price for this based on what the photographer has told me so far.


I got an interesting email from a fellow pro in Smithers, B.C. this past weekend.  He had been helping out a local amateur photographer who had been contacted by a big European advertising agency regarding an image of hers they had stumbled across on the internet.  Rather than rush into a sale like that proverbial "deer in the headlights", she had the good sense to call my friend and ask him for advice.

After several long emails and phone calls, he was thrilled to find out that she went into her negotiations with the ad agency with her newfound knowledge and came out of it with a whopping $13,000 sale!


If any of you have questions or comments on this first Business 101 column, please let me know, I'd love to hear from you!

Happy sales,



  1. Many thanks for sharing this kind of information John.

  2. Nice John, I recently had a company contact me for an image they wanted to use for their corporate contact cards. This should be of some help, thank you.

  3. Good stuff. It's quite common for an agency to approach someone that may not look to be in business and sell them on the glory of being published, get them excited, and then try and offer credit in exchange (or istock prices).

    I recently walked away from a decent offer based on pro advice that had amateur friend photographers calling me crazy. I later got double the original offer after I waited a few days and responded with an in depth response on why I felt it was worth more. Mind you, it was not nearly $13k.

    As much as I feel pricing is voodoo and random, it doesn't need to be rocket science with a little guidance. I regularly check Getty, Corbis, Alamy and AllCanadaPhotos to compare the markets.

  4. Great article John and thanks for sharing this great information!!! I've had a few requests for my photos in the past couple years but they didn't pan out. I've bookmarked this page so hopefully things will go better in the future. :)
    Thanks again!

  5. John - thanks so much for such an informative post! One of the next steps in establishing my new photography business is stock,so your blog posting is really timely! I was just starting to look at a variety of stock agencies to see what they charge. I'll definitely check out Fotoquote.

    You said your base price is $150. Is this based purely on print usage? Do you get requests for web usage? What would you charge if a client wanted to purchase a 800 pixel wide image for a web advertisement? And for such a request, would you limit the time of usage (1 or 2 years? Longer?).

    Thanks again for creating your new business 101 topic. For those of us new to the business, it really helps to hear from folks with so much experience.



  6. helpful John! Thanks so much!

  7. I love the Business 101 topic. It fits with my agenda of getting a business going. It is very educational and helpful.
    Donelda Snyder

  8. Excellent information John, I'm looking forward to future installments.

  9. Fantastic initiative, John. You're so right about people wanting images for 'free'. It takes resolve to price images competitively. I like your idea of a minimum price. Do you find Fotoquote's prices to be on the high side when compared to Alamy and Getty?

  10. Thanks for all the comments everyone.

    @Shelley - No, my base price is my base price, whether it's for web usage or whatever. However, my print prices are separate and things like an 8x12 are lower than $150 ($95). The web advertisement would still depend on a few factors, like what their budget is, what sort of business it is, how wide-ranging the website is (regional, national or international, etc). I almost always limit the use, definitely 6 months or a year, or even two years, at most.

  11. @John - yes, occasionally fotoquote's prices do seem a bit high compared to the agencies, but you have to keep in mind that the agencies' sole objective is to sell. They'll do whatever it takes to make a sale, which is why you often see them dip far below their listed prices. I'd suggest you stick to your guns and go with fotoquote's numbers over the agencies numbers, though you can always negotiate downwards.

  12. Really awesome post.I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have seriously enjoyed surfing around your weblog posts.

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  16. If you are starting out in this business and have a local municipality willing to but 50 images but are not willing to go over 20 per image what do you do?

  17. @southeastimagery The question comes down to this: will you want to forever be known as the guy who sold images for $20 each to your town? Because that's exactly what will happen and you'll have a hard time ever getting more for your images from other businesses. Why not try giving them 20 for $50 each as a 'special' deal? Same $$, but fewer images.

  18. well they are willing to go 20 images for $100 but I went in with an estimate of $100 per image So I a little baffled

  19. thank you john i appreciate your time

  20. Many thanks for sharing this kind of information John.