What’s the real worth of a photographic image?

This content is 14 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

A few months back, I was listening to a podcast on my way home from work. There’s nothing unusual about that – but this one was episode 125 of This Week in Photography, featuring an interview with Michael Corsentino, who is a California-based lifestyle photographer.

Listening to the interview, it was clear to me that Michael has made some hard business decisions about the way he packages his art (which is the way he refers to his photographic works) and the options he gives (or doesn’t give) his clients in order to ensure that he is able to cover the time and effort he puts into them. That’s fair enough when someone does do the best they can to turn images into art but now I’d like to put forward an alternative view.

Photography is one of my great passions and I like to think that I’m someone who appreciates great photographic images but is not prepared to be taken for a ride. When my wife and I got married, our photographers did not charge us an extortionate fee for a “wedding package”. Instead we paid for the (fantastic) images, both formal and journalistic, on a time and materials basis. Our lead photographer, the late Brett Williams, brought in one of his associates to assist on the day and I have all of the prints and most of the negatives for safe keeping.

On the other end of the scale are two examples that I experienced through my eldest son’s school.

The first was a school portrait, captured by H Tempest. As proud parents, of course we paid for some prints but I also looked into the quality of the images that I could have bought digitally. I don’t know what cameras were used to capture the image, but when I called Tempest to see what quality the image they were selling for unlimited printing was, the answer I got suggested it was a a fairly low resolution (2304x1536px) JPEG image. As that image is unlikely to be suitable for quality reproduction at any larger than 8″x10″, it’s not what I call unlimited, so I decided not to spend the (I seem to recall quite large) sum of money that they were looking for, opting for a few small prints instead (I have my own “first day at school” images anyway).

Then there was the case of Richard Kerber Photography. Richard came into the school to create family portraits and we attended, as did many other families, one weekend last November. The images he created in our short session were great – and we did buy several prints; however I was still disappointed by the lack of flexibility and attention to detail. In common with many photographers, the packages offered were intended to encourage us to buy sets of photos but, in these days of digital SLR capture, I see no technical reasons (only some commercial ones) to restrict the ability to mix colour and monochrome images. There was also a hefty fee if we wanted to pay for the images on CD (with printing rights, but copyright retained by the photographer); and, apparently, no post-production effort at all.

No post-production? Well, I know nothing of Mr Kerber’s workflow – I’m sure there was some post-production – but, in one of the images, part of my foot is missing from the smaller prints, despite being visible in a larger version (albeit a little too close to the edge of the frame – given the amount of white space, some basic editing may have been in order to balance up the shot).

It seems to me that what we have here is a photographer who clearly has the talent to create lovely images of my family (no mean feat with two “active” boys and two tired parents!) but who, for the lack of a little care and attention in his workflow, is not delivering the standard of work that warrants the pricing. Furthermore, whilst I can see that photographers need to set digital image pricing so as not to cannibalise their print sales, the prices charged for a CD with a license are extreme. £295 is a lot of money for a few minutes in a school hall (remember, there are still print costs to consider)… oh yes, and he used a portrait of at least one family on his website without permission (as far as I can tell, no model release was signed, and whilst the copyright is his so there is no. Legal reason not to use the images, one might consider that he was morally and ethically bound to ask permission first).

So, what’s the point of my rant? Well, I guess what I’m saying is that there’s money to be made by those who charge a fair price, without devaluing the overall effort involved (after all, it still has to be profitable – not everyone with an SLR is automatically capable of producing quality work). If you are a fine art photographer, then by all means charge a fee that reflects the value of the artwork but, if your approach is one of a production line, then your pricing should reflect that too – looking to make a fast buck from parents or newly-weds is just not on. If you want to charge me for something really special, then you need to put in the associated effort.

[Incidentally, I originally wrote this post back in February but wasn’t sure whether to publish or not… after sitting on it for several months, I still think it makes some important points, so I’ve edited the original post and committed it to the web!]

2 thoughts on “What’s the real worth of a photographic image?

  1. Agree, there is a huge disparity between hand crafted and churned, with regards to quality but not for price.

    I can see that a photographer used to use the expense of the equiptment coupled with talent to make a living and now you can get a good slr for 400 quid and post produce your heart out for almost free.

    Probably the non value related pricing is creating this market and a amateur with a good eye will fill this market gap.

  2. I have been a keen snapper for years and invariably prefer my own or other relatives’ photos of my children playing over studio portraits set up by machine-gunning snappers who attend the school.

    A friend of mine makes part of his living from his portrait sessions deliberately chose the informal, easy-going approach. He is very flexible and will drive to clients’ homes or an appropriate venue. He also doesn’t charge much (TBH I think he undercharges for his time) and, apart from a nominal session setup fee, relies on print sales. He is invariably showered with praise and gets no shortage of word-of-mouth referrals.

    Weddings are another thing entirely. Anyone who can produce consistently good work from such an important occasion deserves to be suitably rewarded for their efforts, though that also depends on them offering a reasonable pricing structure.

    Even without considering the additional flexibility permitted by digital proofing etc, I cannot see why photographers want to set fixed prices for a set number of prints. The best approach is simply not to give them the money.

    In later life your children will probably cherish the slightly off-level photo of them leaning against a bridge and squinting into the sun and wearing some once-fashionable attire(!) while you were on holiday over a bland studio shot. The technically inferior image will carry memories, which will then be so much more important than a clean-cut-and-combed version showing their school uniform. The best thing you can do is print the more significant ones and make back up copies of all your images.

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