Permanent Tourist

The personal website of Mark Howells-Mead

Taking good photographs is a skill with a value

It continues to surprise me that so many people blankly refuse to understand that even the most simple photographs take a modicum of effort to create. Sure, the act of pressing a button on a camera takes just a moment, but the skills of knowing when to press it, how to prepare the settings on the camera for the best result, and how to edit the photo once it’s been taken all take time and effort to learn, practice and master.

A current email exchange has me baffled yet again. A self-appointed “young artist” asks for free copies of all my photos from an event in 2010 as he is “poor” and “doesn’t have a high-paying job in Switzerland”. When I respond by asking whether he would do his job for free in return, his answer is that he’s not asking me to do any work or go anywhere and that he feels that I should do him a favour with no measurable recompense.

I am not greedy. I am not a full-time photographer with an array of assistants and studio space to pay for, so I don’t demand high fees for my work. I only ask for what is fair based on my expenses and for my level of skill and training.

It may sound harsh, but unlike friend-to-friend swaps or charitable work, taking photographs as part of a career isn’t about doing people favours. I can waive or adjust my conditions and pricing for a specific purpose when I feel that the project or client is worth an investment, or if the use of the photographs is for a purpose to which I want to contribute.

If I attend an event at my own expense, then I have already done that “job”: I have incurred expenses by travelling to the event, by buying the camera, by learning how to use it and by learning the specific skill of documenting an event in my own style. It’s apparently of no interest to the person asking that the money I have made from taking photographs of that event may not have covered my personal costs.

The costs of buying and maintaining camera equipment or of learning how to use it in a specific situation cannot be assigned to every job. Neither can the costs of my computer, my software, my image archival facilities, online server hosting, website development costs for a portfolio, or the means of transport I need to take and process the photos I take.

If I total my daily expenses optimistically (taking into account my equipment costs, storage costs, online portfolio license fees, insurance, travel and so on), then sell five photographs from an all-day event, then each photograph has to be sold at 20% of my costs to break even. (Not even to make any profit.) If I only sell one image, then it would have to be sold at 100% of the daily expense to meet my expenses. That’s before I could even consider paying my living costs by this kind of work, which are (as cited by the latest correspondent) not inconsiderable in Switzerland.

Most people asking for free photos say that they’ll share my website address and therefore give me advertising which they believe will match the value of the photographic work I’ve carried out. In order for an offer of “free advertising” of my work and services, the advertisement would therefore have to be guaranteed to bring in the equivalent amount of my fee in order to offset my expenses. I’m sorry, but it’s very unlikely that a link on your blog or your Tumblr stream will bring me in that kind of contract, unless you’re a Joe McNally, David Hobby or Perez Hilton. (And even then, it’s tremendously unlikely.)

Those who ask for copies of images on the understanding that they will “not share them with anyone else” may ask themselves: how can I guarantee that you won’t share them with other people? Or put them on Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, Google Plus or your own blog?

Take a moment to stop and think before you ask a photographer for free images. Say you’re a car mechanic: would you service my car and replace the brake linings for free in exchange for a link on my blog? You’re an artist: would you give me 100 of your paintings for free in exchange for a link on my Twitter feed? If not, then why would you expect me to do you the equivalent “favour” of effectively giving away something I have created with expense and effort for free?