January 13, 2016

Daniel Foster

How I turned a free photography request into a $570 sale

The dreaded free photography request-- every Flickr user knows what it looks like. But whoever said those free photo riders weren't willing to pay?All too often photographers dismiss free photo requests out of discouragement. Yet if someone thinks my photo is "just right" for their brochure, they should be willing to pay something, right? I decided to find out.In the end, I was able to negotiate this free photography request into a £390 ($570 USD) license fee payment. Here's how I negotiated the deal, and what it means for the current state of the photography business.

Step 1: Profiling the buyer of a free photography

Not all free photo requests are created equal. Mrs. Smith's third-grade class wasn't going to buy my photo, and neither would most bloggers. In this particular case, a startup with a tight deadline ("Please get back to me A.S.A.P.") needed a photo for an investors pitch. Even better, the individual who made contact was affiliated with a marketing agency.

A company that has the funds to hire an agency most likely has funds to buy an image.

Given these two details, I knew I had a chance of securing a licensing deal.

Step 2: Making the offer

The buyer was already looking for photos and had probably contacted several other photographers. With this in mind I drafted the following reply:

How did I determine the photography rate?

Since I was on vacation and out of the office, I asked a member of our licensing team (thanks, Barbara) to fire up Fotoquote (a useful pricing tool with a dated interface) and get a price quote for brochures.I've sold this particular work for considerably more in the past and made sure the buyer knew this.

Step 3: Closing the deal

Given that he was looking for a freebie, I was not confident that he would purchase the image. I got the following reply a few minutes later:

I could have gone back with a much higher quote, and ultimately decided to include limited web use at a significant discount-- like all photographers, I had bills to pay.

I was also hesitant to keep the negotiation ongoing for too long-- what if another Flickr user replied to the buyer's free photo request in the meantime?

I countered with an offer £390 ($570 USD), and also gave the agency the ability to exchange the photo with another from my collection at a later point in time should their needs change.


The agency agreed. I sent over an invoice and a copy of the photo and was paid a month later. The entire deal was completed in 20 minutes. Not bad for a free photo request.

Takeaway 1: Stock agencies aren't the only way to sell your photos

You can create a viable business licensing work directly to clients instead of through agencies. A stock photo site would have taken a 50%-80% commission on this sale and may not have pushed for the same price I did. A few may have licensed the work for more.I previously declined a request from 500px to make this work available for licensing.Stock sites are still a very valuable resource for creating revenue, but developing your own sales channels (yes, Flickr is a sales channel) can also be rewarding in the long-run.

Takeaway 2: Photography is not a race to the bottom

Some argue that with stock sites selling photos for as little as a few dollars, commercial photography is a race to the bottom. So why did the client buy my photo?

  • Visibility and communication. I spent just as much time tagging this work as editing, making it easy to find. I responded very quickly to emails with personal service even though I was on vacation.
  • Flexibility. I allowed additional use of the work for a nominal fee and also sent out a high-resolution file with a promise of payment. Instead of a contract, I relied on an email agreement. Digital goods can't be returned, and what if the agent's client didn't like the photo? I added insurance against this by allowing the client to switch out the photo later.
  • Value (perceived and real). Fair or not, buyers perceive price as a reflection of quality. In one Stanford / CIT study, participants drank two glasses of the same wine priced at $5 and $45, respectively. The samplers reported higher satisfaction with the wine that cost them $45. Might the same bias also exist in photography?

My client could have also bought a photo on any number of stock sites and also held out for a free photo from another Flickr user-- yet he chose mine.There are innumerable options for sourcing low-cost and free photography, but not all clients are looking for the lowest price. Succeeding in photography today is about embracing alternative channels, casting away assumptions (answer those free photo requests!), and finding new ways to meet the needs of clients.

Daniel Foster

As the entrepreneur and professional photographer who founded Pixsy in 2014. Daniel is an expert on topics relating to intellectual property and copyright law. Daniel is proud to have helped so many creatives in the fight against image theft.

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