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This Photo Is Not Free, But How Much Should It Cost?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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John Mueller's $6,612 image

In January, landscape photographer John Mueller sparked a lengthy debate about the economics of art with a simple observation:

It cost me $6,612 to take this photo.

$12 in gas to go from work to this spot and then home. The camera I took this with cost $2500. The lens was another $1600. The Singh Ray Reverse Neutral Density filter was $210. The Lee Wide-Angle Adapter and Foundation kit was another $200. The Slik Tripod was another $130. The shutter-release was another $60. When I got home, I uploaded it to a computer that cost me $1200, and then I used Lightroom 3 which I got for $200. I then exported it and tinkered with it in Photoshop which costs about $500.

12+2500+1600+210+200+130+60+1200+200+500= $6,612

So if you’re a magazine, website, corporation, sports team, or advertiser who wishes to use this photo, please don’t come and ask to use it for free.

Mueller’s essay hit two overly sensitive nerves. One was that of photographers weary of endless freebie requests, too frequently coming from considerably wealthier parties than themselves. The second nerve was that of people offended by overly simplistic economics. Obviously Mr. Mueller could sell more than the single photo from the same set of gear, so why is he griping?

Debate spilled from flickr across multiple sites. PetaPixel front-paged the piece, accumulated over 1200 comments, and a month later is still going.

Mueller’s broader point, leaving aside the particulars of his calculations, is certainly correct. Being asked for free photo use is insulting if you make a living from photography.

Curious about how much I ought value my own images, I consulted my financial records. Here is what I consider a more realistic assessment of what an image might cost.

My direct photography costs average $6,000 a year. That sum includes travel to one international field site (at budget rates!), a couple big equipment purchases like lenses, and random small expenses like web hosting, gas, bank fees, batteries, and software.

My opportunity costs are higher: $45,000. What do I mean by opportunity costs? This year, for the first time, I am primarily self-employed as a photographer. I pay my mortgage, buy my groceries, and cover my bills from my photography income. 35k/year is what I made as a research postdoc at the university, and 10k/year is my previous annual photography income. The opportunity cost of transitioning to a full-time photographer is the amount I must make to recover my lost income. So, my total yearly expenses, as a full-time professional photographer, are $6,000 (direct costs) +$45,000 (wage) = $51,000.

This photograph would not exist if I wasn't able to pay my bills with photography. Not having a day job frees me to take more and better images. Also, this shot cost 10 cents more than most of my images.

Calculating my costs is the easy bit. Figuring out the dollar value of an image licence is considerably more nuanced.

I do not need to generate my entire photography income from image sales. In fact, I don’t. I teach photography workshops and classes, give public talks, and blog here at Scientific American. Together, these activities amount to $9,000/year. Thus, to maintain an income that’s somewhat lower than the U.S. median household, I need my image licensing agreements to pull in $42,000/year.

My insect image library currently holds 5,000 saleable photographs. I add 500-800 new images every year. To match my basic costs, I need each image to generate $8.40/year ($42,000/5,000 photos). That doesn’t seem like much per image, but alas. The vast majority never sell. Most just wallflower away their time in the galleries. In practice I move perhaps 400 image licenses per year. A more reasonable approximation, then, of the worth of image use permission is $42,000/400 = $105.

$105 for permission to use one of my images is the average amount that keeps me clothed, fed, and housed enough to continue producing more images. $105 per photo is a bargain, too, considering that I have a Ph.D., a string of scientific publications, and my demographic peers are generally earning double what I do. I’m not complaining, mind you. I chose this because I love it, and I’m actually rather pleased that in the present economy I keep pace with my target.

Of course, at a more fundamental level images are worth the same as everything else: the price a buyer is willing to pay and the creator is willing to accept. I merely offer this post as an explanation for why the price I am willing to accept might not be “free”.

Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is Curator of Entomology at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Comments 12 Comments

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  1. 1. Sean McCann 5:00 pm 02/14/2012

    That is the clearest breakdown I have yet seen about pricing for photos!

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  2. 2. HBG_Dave 8:05 pm 02/14/2012

    Your research post doc probably came with medical benefits and possibly superannuation, so you should probably raise your opportunity costs. But I agree, all else being equal, doing what you love is more important than a lifetime of drudgery and a pension. Or at least that is what I tell myself when considering my scattered bits and pieces of pension.

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  3. 3. Alex Wild 11:34 pm 02/14/2012

    Thanks for your comments, guys.

    The opportunity cost is a squirrely concept. At the high end I could justify estimating it with an assistant professor salary or other Ph.D.-level position, but in the end I decided to lowball the figure to simplify the post. I’m paying higher self-employment tax rates now anyway- not figured in this post- so I probably need to adjust my rate schedule anyway.

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  4. 4. Jambe 2:28 am 02/15/2012

    I absolutely support your ability to make a living. Just for sake of argument, though, suppose another individual makes her money from an unrelated field but takes good photos of insects and sells them for a nominal fee to cover web hosting (say, $2 an image).

    Would you rather that person not license their images so cheaply? What of hobbyists (or indeed university staff) who license such images freely? Do you feel that they devalue your work?

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  5. 5. aes canis 5:24 am 02/15/2012

    While I agree that people should be able to sell there work, I think John Mueller’s evaluation is a simplistic. He inlcudes the cost of the camera, lens, and other equipment as if they were purchased especially for that photo and that photo only and were never to be used again. I think not. Just imagine if every manufacturer added the entire cost buying a production line to every product – things costing a few Dollars would soon cost at least tens or thousands of Dollars.

    But then again, if someone is prepared to pay over six grand for a nice picture, then that is their perogative. If not, then Mr Mueller is going to get very hungry… ;)

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  6. 6. aes canis 5:25 am 02/15/2012

    I meant “…tens *of* thousands of Dollars.”

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  7. 7. BigBird 5:22 am 02/18/2012

    Not so bright in very simple economics I fear..
    I guess John doesn’t throw away all of his equipment after one shot, does he?!
    So prices should be devided over the entire functional lifetime of the equipment (i.e. the total amount of pictures ever produced with the camera, lens, etc. or on an entire trip, in case of travelexpences.

    Else it’s just wack

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  8. 8. anthrosciguy 1:41 pm 02/18/2012

    Mueller’s complaining about how much it costs him to take a picture? He should be complaining about the cost of writing what he did online. About $100 a word. Maybe he should stop writing online; it’s eating him out of house and home.

    This post cost me $1800; you’ll be getting my bill. :)

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  9. 9. rustyburlew 1:58 pm 02/19/2012

    This post made me feel incredibly guilty. As one who as asked for (and received) permission to use some of your photos for free, I feel I have done you a huge disservice. It’s sad, too, because I feel like I’ve lost an ally in the quest to spread the good word on bugs. Because I can’t afford to maintain a non-commercial website and pay for photos too, I have no choice but to dust off the lenses and try harder.

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  10. 10. Alex Wild 10:04 am 02/27/2012


    Thanks for your comment. Perhaps I should clarify that when I get frustrated with free image requests, it’s not on the part of educators or people running personal websites.

    I get requests for free images from museums that charge a $20 admission fee. I get requests from commercial educational product companies that want free use because their products are “educational”. I get freebie requests from publishers making large profit margins. I get freebie requests from pest control companies who’d like me to donate images to advertise their commercial services. In short, I get a lot of requests from organizations that can budget for images. Those are the parties to whom I most frequently refuse freebies.

    Bug bloggers? As you say, bug bloggers are allies, and I’m more than happy to provide free use in that context.

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  11. 11. eastpole 9:19 pm 08/5/2013

    I notice the Sci Am blogs use many images licensed under Creative Commons, one of mine included. I’m curious as to whether the Sci Am Blog Network considers itself a non-commercial enterprise. Many CC licenses request attribution and further restrict free use to non-commercial purposes — should you be using these for free?

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  12. 12. Alex Wild in reply to Alex Wild 10:45 pm 08/7/2013

    Eastpole – Scientific American considers itself commercial, and the bloggers have been instructed to stick to materials for which they have obtained permission, or are in the public domain, or are clearly fair use. As you’ve noticed, individual bloggers have varying degrees of understanding of this policy. So, no. Those bloggers should not be using CC-licensed material outside the licence terms.

    You should feel free to contact Scientific American admins about improper image use.

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