Overlooking Washington, D.C.

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I bet this has happened to you.  Someone likes your photo and wants to use it.  Instead of offering money, they say they’ll give you credit. Here’s why you shouldn’t trade your photo for credit.

My Latest Offer

Here’s something I received on the Contact page of this site a few days ago.

Dear Mr. Beem,

I saw your photo “Overlooking Washington” and wanted to see if I could use it, crediting you, of course.

I’m a professional guitarist and its for a webpage I’m designing for my classical music concert series.

No hard feelings if you prefer not. It’s really a one of a kind photograph so I understand.

Thanks and best regards.

This kind of request is rather common. On the surface, it seems nice and polite enough. In fact, you can see that he’s nice enough to let me off the hook.  No hard feelings and all that.

Now let’s take a closer look.  He’s a professional guitarist, which means he expects to get paid for his performances and recordings. He wants to use this for a web page.  Last I checked, you have to pay for web hosting, registering a domain, perhaps purchasing a theme, or paying for a designer.

Then he compliments my photo (not me). It’s really a one-of-a-kind photograph, he says.  Well, he’s right.  I managed to get access to a place where few others have gone. Since he wants this unique photo on his web page, it seems like something that he wants to represent him and his music.

Yet he doesn’t talk about licensing or payment. He wants to just credit me as the photographer.

What would you do?

My Reply

Here’s the kind of reply I send when someone wants my photo in exchange for credit.

I appreciate your interest. However, I don’t license my photos for credit. I’m sure you don’t perform for credit, either.

He isn’t the first person who wanted to use this photo. A few years ago, the office of a U.S. Senator contacted me to use it on the Senator’s wine labels. Instead of credit, he wanted to trade me a case of wine for usage. We didn’t strike a deal, either.

With rare exceptions, my answer is always “no.” If I agree to donate a photo, it’s due to my own sense of charity, not for credit. The reason why you shouldn’t trade your photo for credit should be obvious.

The Value Proposition

What is the value of a photo? As the person who created it, that answer is up to you. If you can find someone who wants your photo and agrees with your value assessment, then you can strike a deal.

If they make a counter-offer and you revise your value assessment, you can still strike a deal. That’s a great thing.

So what is really going on when someone offers you credit for your photograph instead of payment? Think about this for a moment.  Both the musician and the Senator wanted my photo to represent their business venture. That’s a pretty big deal for anyone in business. The right image can do wonders for their brand and their sales, just as the wrong image can send their sales down the drain.

When someone wants your image in exchange for credit, it’s a sucker bet for both sides.

For you, the photographer, there’s no upside at all. What good should I expect from their credit?  Their customers are not my customers or even my potential customers. How many people who buy a classical guitarist’s music or attend his performance are interested in purchasing my photography? Have you ever bought a bottle of wine and said “I really wish I could buy a print of that image on the label?”

Don’t waste your time thinking about getting credit for a photo that isn’t going to your audience. They don’t care who took the photo. They’re buying something else. That photo is just a sales tool for another product, not you or your service.

Now let’s look at it from the other side. If you don’t care enough to pay for something that is going to represent your brand, service, or product, then how much do you really care about your own business? Why should I expect that these people are any good at the business at all when they pick something that they wouldn’t pay a penny to have? If you can easily part with my image rather than pay any sort of fee, it isn’t the right image for you and your business.

It’s Foolish To Trade Your Photo For Credit

I don’t want you to think that my advice is to never let someone use your photo for free. That’s a personal decision. I’m just saying that it’s foolish to believe that credit or exposure is worthless. Have you ever heard of a photographer who suddenly became successful because he or she let someone use their photo for credit? Neither have I.

The person who wants you to trade your photo for credit is bad at business. They aren’t good at their own business, so how can they benefit your business?

It’s also more than a bit insulting, isn’t it? Let’s say that a big-name magazine calls to use one of your photos for free. They pay the writer. They pay the printer. They pay for distribution. Yet they aren’t going to pay for your photo. Why not? Think how much you’ve invested in your gear, your training, travel, time, and experience to create a photo in the first place.

Don’t think that this doesn’t happen to bigger names in the industry. During one of my workshop trips with Joe McNally, he related a story with a big-name magazine that wanted to use his images for free. Being the wise businessman that he is, he declined their request. There’s no upside.

You aren’t building a relationship that will benefit you later. If they got something free from you the first time, that’s what they will want the next time. Your first price sets their impression of you. Don’t be gullible enough to think you can build a business on credit. Why should you be the only one not getting paid to support someone else’s venture?

Even if you aren’t in business and just like photography as a hobby, everything I said above still applies. Giving your photo away is charity, not a business plan.

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