What's an image worth?

What's a picture worth?  It depends.  Like most things, it's only worth what someone is prepared to pay for it.  Sure, there are industry 'norms' which dictate how much a newspaper or a publisher will pay a freelancer to go and shoot a feature, there may be 'typical' fees for commercial shoots, which might vary depending on usage.  Stock libraries have a fee structure for contributors and buyers and so on.  But in a world where the photographic image is a commodity which has become so readily accessible, it is hard to put a figure to the true value of a photographic image and the photographer's skill in creating that image.  There are even stock image libraries that place so little value on photography that they guarantee buyers to supply images for as little as $1.00 each.  The point to consider, in my opinion, is what the impact of a good shot is, over that of a rubbish one.  Good shots can easily be overlooked, but a bad one will stand out like a sore thumb.

When I teach, I often meet students who tell me with great pride that once they've learned how to use their cameras they'll be taking all the staff portraits at their place of work for use on the new company website or corporate brochure or whatever.  This depresses me.  Clearly the head of marketing or PR at their companies would rather save the fee of getting professional shots done and instead use the keen amateur.  That's not always the case, but it is an example of the shift in people's attitude towards the value of photography.  The thing is, we all have smart phones which are able to take relatively decent pictures without us having to understand the technical, or indeed creative processes that inform our decisions when we take a shot.   Add to that the huge number of applications which make our pictures look a million times better than they really are and most people think of themselves as able to take a decent photo.  So when faced with a 'real' camera people are easily led to believe that its owner is able to do as good a job as a professional.What's more, people generally take the view that because photography is something that photographers enjoy, they're prepared to do it for less, or even free.  I'm often asked on jobs to take additional pictures which weren't in the initial brief, 'while I'm here'.  Such requests raise a minor dilemma.  Is it better to provide the extra shots without question for the sake of good relations and the possibility of developing an on-going working relationship with a particular client, or is it worth trying to explain that any additional shots would incur additional costs and so risk upsetting and possibly losing a potentially regular client?  The fact is, if you get a professional decorator to paint your living room, would you ask him to do the hallway too, 'while he's here' and not expect to pay him?  Why should it be different for a photographer?  Yet the prevailing attitude remains that pressing the shutter release button a few more times costs nothing.  Never mind the additional time spent in post production, or re-arranging lights, backdrops or camera possibly to another location, simply 'while you're here'. However, not all photography is quite so readily undervalued.  On the contrary, where there's money to be made, the value placed on photography can rise to stratospheric heights.

I was recently talking to a friend of mine, a freelance art director who not so long ago was working for a major agency on the re-branding of one of the largest supermarket chains in the UK.  A large part of the brief he told me was to increase customer awareness of fresh produce which had always been one of the weakest selling points for them.  He went on to tell me that they were using a food photographer who charges £5k per day.  £5k per day to shoot fresh fruit and veg in an attempt to convince customers that their fresh produce is of the finest quality!  Admittedly, the pictures they'd been using to date were terrible (more because of poor styling than poor photography) but is £5k per day really worth it? Where product photography as part of a large advertising strategy leads to increased sales and profit it seems that the value placed on photographs is not insignificant and clearly is worth it.

Because when people choose to use a professional, what they're actually choosing is more than simple camera skills.  What the professional offers over and above knowing how to take a photograph is consistency, reliability and the ability to deliver a product which correctly interprets the brief, as well as problem solving skills and the benefit of experience (I've heard it said that one of the things that separates the pro from the amateur is not that the pro doesn't make mistakes, but that the pro knows how to correct them!).

So the question of what a photograph is worth goes largely unanswered.  It's worth what someone is prepared to pay for it.  Perhaps a better question would be "What's a Photographer worth?'