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The Business of Photography


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Company Commissions

Companies commission you for some of the same reasons, but are likely to take more notice of your USP than your geographical location.

Regrettably, it is becoming more true that companies are also buying on price, as the acceptance of ‘alright photography’ gains strength. ‘Alright Photography’ describes those pictures that are, at best ‘alright’ for the job, often merely to illustrate websites. They don’t need great visualisation nor do they have to be technically good; after all, they’re to be displayed briefly and at a small size in a website presentation. Add to this that all companies are cutting down on expenditure, often meaning that well-trained art directors, designers or artists previously employed to plan, oversee and eventually use good photography are being replaced by less-experienced (and therefore cheaper) people, and you see a recipe for disaster. Poorly-trained photographers will produce inferior results, but those pictures will be accepted by inexperienced designers or art-directors because they don’t know any better. It’s a downward spiral that only accountants can view with any satisfaction.

Those commissioning photography for small-to-medium sizes companies often don’t understand how it is supposed to work. They might even be trying to design their own brochure or other publicity material, and they might well ask your advice. Give it, but within your own capabilities; if you don’t know about design, printing processes or publicity in general, be honest and refer the client to someone who does. Where you can, in circumstances such as these, do use your own experience to advise the client. You’ll find that many of them don’t realise how photography can be used most effectively, for instance, they’ll want the whole range of their products featured in one shot, or to show the machines that they’re so proud of (and which have cost them a lot of money) instead of the product that those machines produce. It’s the product that their potential customers are interested in, not the machines; remember the fable of the drill and the hole?

You might be lucky, and get commissioned by an Advertising Agency or Design Consultancy

The differences between the two revolve around their size and the destination of their publicity. Design Consultancies are usually smaller and provincially-based; their work is often ‘below-the-line’, which means that the publicity they deal in is via brochures, leaflets or local/specialist advertising. ‘Above-the-line’ refers to national advertising, TV ads, large poster campaigns or ads in glossy magazines, and is invariably handled by advertising agencies.

The big benefit of this method of commissioning is that these clients usually know what they want; they’re often trained graphic designers and/or art directors, and know that, by giving you precise directions, perhaps via visuals (sketches of the finished photographs), you will be capable of contributing to the shoot with your visual and technical expertise, and arriving at a mutually satisfying result. Another benefit is that the fees via advertising agencies are often substantial (though smaller design consultancies may be financially restricted by their clients), and the people from the ad agencies understand that you have to charge either for materials, or for digital manipulation time, according to whether you’re shooting on film or not.

Working for ad agencies is not for wimps or shrinking violets, however; more often than not, you’re accompanied on the shoot by one of their staff, maybe an art director, who will look at the work as it progresses and will ask you to achieve certain effects. This can be daunting, as you’re committed to achieving results within a certain time-frame, and you need to be quick-thinking in order to amend (for instance) your lighting or the perspective in order to meet his or her requirements. Social and interpersonal skills are important here, too. One shoot at The Wharf last year was of seven days duration; each shot required at least one or two Polaroid tests. Each Polaroid takes 2 minutes to process; for the first two or three days, each two-minute hiatus could be filled with casual conversation about the weather, families, pets, pastimes etc (anything but politics, sex or religion). After that, it became difficult; luckily, we had worked with the art director before, so the odd silence was not embarrassing.

Everyone, particularly ad agencies and publishers, will try a ‘rights-grab’. This means that they will try to obtain the copyright of the pictures from you, often on a permanent basis. You might be asked to sign an innocent-looking commissioning form, which contains, in the (very) small print, an agreement to assign the copyright to the client in perpetuity. There might be a paragraph on their remittance advice which stipulates that, by your cashing their cheque, you agree to their terms and conditions of business, which contains (surprise, surprise) the assignment of the copyright of your photographs to them or their clients. Beware of this; the copyright of the photographs is yours. It is something worth having, and keeping. You are expected to assign it to the client for ‘first use’, meaning the purpose for which the photograph was originally intended, after which the copyright reverts to you. A well-known photographer of my acquaintance makes more than 60% of his not inconsiderable income through after-sales, ie when his pictures have been used by the original clients, they are then published by other magazines throughout the world. If he didn’t own the copyright, he wouldn’t get that income.

Magazine and Book Publishers 

Magazine and book Publishers are notoriously parsimonious. Another long-standing colleague has written many books about aspects of photography, illustrated by both his and my photographs. Realistically, he does it for fun, and to get his name known. Because at most he gets 7.5% of the cover price (Smiths and similar outlets get 30%!), and not only does he have to provide his own illustrations, but because of production costs, he’s restricted over the number of illustrations (particularly those in colour) that he can use.

Most of us would like to see our book or books published, but the work involved rarely justifies the returns, unless all you’re interested in is the status.

Magazine editors, in the main, are hard-bitten people. They’ll use your pictures if they’re good enough, but will wriggle out of paying if it’s at all possible. Look at the ways they can get you to contribute for free:

  •  ‘This Month’s Competition is……………….’,
  •  ‘Let’s Look at Your Pictures, and We’ll Pass Constructive Criticism………..’,
  •  ‘Send Us A Cover Picture……….’,
  •  and the rest.

They’re to be sympathised with, of course; they have limited funds, they have to fill their magazines with interesting text and attractive pictures, and the magazine industry is dog-eat-dog, especially now, with publishing so easy and relatively inexpensive. Just look at the titles on the magazine shelves, and notice how often a new title appears (and how quickly it can vanish again).


This is another area where photographers have to examine the small print very closely; copyright is something very desirable to editors and publishers, and they’ll grab yours if they can. You must assert your rights under The Copyright, Design and Patents Act, and take care not to enter competitions etc., where the publishers (or indeed, the competition sponsors) demand copyright beyond the needs of the competition. Asserting rights covers more than just copyright; the Act gives other rights too. For instance, you can insist that your pictures are not cropped by editors or publishers, once again by ‘asserting moral rights’ (you have to do that when you submit your pictures for publication – it’s too late to do so after publication), because you framed the picture carefully, either at the time of taking or at the printing/editing stage, and your reputation could suffer if the shot is subsequently cropped badly by someone else.


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