4 Business Questions Every Photographer Should Be Able to Answer

4 Business Questions Every Photographer Should Be Able to Answer

Photographers, like most creatives, generally hate dealing the business-side of the fence. Yet, this lack of attention has led to more than one photographer going out of business, and arguably has contributed to the deterioration of photographer rights throughout the industry. Whether you’re a grizzled veteran or an aspiring pro, here are four crucial questions you need to be able to answer.


1) What is your cost of doing business?

Determining your cost of doing business (CODB) is fundamental exercise for any freelancer. When you know your CODB, you automatically have a basis from which to price your services. If you charge less than your CODB, you are effectively subsidizing the customer – and you will likely go out of business.

Your CODB takes into account your business expenses (e.g. gear, insurance, office rent, transportation, etc) and your desired income, then divides that by the number of days you think you will be able to bill during the course of the year.

The National Press Photographer’s Association (NPPA) has one of the best CODB calculators. Their example expense data shows a hypothetical photographer wanting to make $40,000/year with 100 billable days has a cost of $897 per assignment day. This is why working $50 editorial “stringer” jobs with no secondary resale ability isn’t professionally viable. If your cost is $897/day, it’s hard to justify taking a $200 The New York Times assignment unless 1) you really believe that the exposure will lead to better paying work, 2) you can generate secondary sales off the pictures, or 3) you can work multiple assignments per day.

Calculating your CODB is one of the simplest business exercises you can undertake – and it is one of the most valuable.

2) What is a work-for-hire and when is it acceptable?

Simply stated, a work-for-hire (WFH) arrangement means the party that pays you owns the copyright (aka they are the “author” in intellectual property parlance). The Copyright Act of 1976 defines a work-for-hire as follows:

(1) a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment; or (2) a work specially ordered or commissioned for use as a contribution to a collective work, as a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, as a translation, as a supplementary work, as a compilation, as an instructional text, as a test, as answer material for a test, or as an atlas, if the parties expressly agree in a written instrument signed by them that the work shall be considered a work made for hire. (17 U.S.C. § 101)

What constitutes an “employee” is a matter of interpretation, as you might be aware of from the legal battles that companies in the “sharing economy” have been fighting in various jurisdictions. But in most situations, a freelance photographer would not fall into the “employee” categorization, thus in the freelance world, work-for-hire is less common. Most editorial and commercial assignments give the photographer ownership of materials they create. Notable exceptions are some of the high profile music concert contracts which were unapologetic rights grabs.

That said, work-for-hire isn’t unheard of. Photo assistants and 2nd shooters will often have work-for-hire arrangements. But a company that hires you as a freelance photographer can’t make authorship claims, so be leery of contracts that assert this right. They can, however, pay you for a rights buyout.

3) How much should I charge to photograph X?

There is no consensus on how to price any product or service. You might have heard answers similar to:

  • “Price what the market will bear.”
  • “Triple your costs.”
  • “Price within 10% of your competitors.”

Going back to question #1, it is important to cover your costs with your pricing, unless you are intentionally underpricing because 1) you’re being charitable/offering a discount, or 2) using a shoot as a marketing activity that will lead to future business.

Most people who don’t work full-time as photographers haven’t given much thought to their pricing, and cost-of-doing business calculations seem to go out the window when photography isn’t their primary income stream. Even photographers who are confronted with a different style/subject of photography are often at a loss as to how to price their services.

But ignorance of pricing can lead to artificial downward pricing pressure that affects many photographers. There a number of great resources for pricing online:

4) How and why should you register your copyright?

Under US Copyright Law, you own the copyright the moment you take a picture. But registering your images with the US Copyright Office confers two major benefits:

  • The court can award statutory damages of up to $150,000 per infringement.
  • The court can award reasonable attorney fees

Here’s a hypothetical case: A company steals an image from your website and publishes it to their Instagram feed. If your copyright isn’t registered, you’re essentially limited to a “usage” fee which for Instagram is maybe a max of a few hundred dollars at best. Good luck finding a lawyer and collecting any money. But if you did register your copyright, and you can prove a willful infringement, the company could be on the hook for $150,000 plus legal fees.

Registration is simple using the Copyright Office’s eCO system and costs $35.

We’ve covered copyright extensively:

Have more questions that you think every photographer should be able to answer? Add them to the comments below.

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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 10 comments for this article
  1. Sam at 2:58 pm

    #2–“That said, work-for-hire isn’t unheard of. Photo assistants and 2nd shooters will often have work-for-hire arrangements. ” or the hiring party could say they are employees and have them fill out W-2s.

  2. Bini at 2:38 pm

    Working Full-Time, it was easy to calculate CODB. But moving back to Part-Time only changed some ratios and not the concept. The hourly rate I need for my skill & experience doesnt change based on how many hours I work as a photographer – just some of my expenses (and discounts) are adjusted due to volume. Plus, now that its “on-the-side” – taking on a client means giving up family time and other obligations – and there is definitely a cost for that.

  3. KZ at 1:32 pm

    I know photographers who “work for” AirBnb and earn $85 total for a shoot. This is for everything- communication with AirBnb and client, travel, gas, session, post. I’m still figuring out how this travesty has occurred. Some people say it’s great experience for budding photographers, and I can’t disagree with that, nor condemn those who take those jobs when they need the work. However, the photographic requirements that AirBnb evidently asks for in the images are those of a photographer who knows how to do true real estate photography: tripod leveling, wide-angle lens work and the subsequent adjustment required. In other words, the time and skills of someone who takes professional care. Notice the word “time.” AirBnb has a great gig going!

  4. Paul at 1:58 am

    Good list of questions! As a photographer, we should clearly describe our fees, experience and terms of working because it can help you to win trust of your customer.

  5. Jay Hoque at 4:40 am

    Great post. It’s shocking how many photographers choose to bury their heads in the sand when it comes to thinking about their costs. Somehow exposure and promotion is more of a priority to many, and in pursuit of those things, they forget how much they are actually NOT making. As long as they can say they are popular, that’s all that matters it seems.

  6. Victor at 8:08 am

    I just hope photography will get a regulation board that determines how much to charge client per shot, otherwise lack of job may be a big issue in determing CODB.

  7. Tod Grubbs at 9:47 am

    Great info about business practices that many photographers do not take in to account. Pricing your work is the most difficult since it is hard to find out what your competition is charging for prints vs licensing. I have spent countless hours checking out the competition to get a handle on what the going prices are and using tools like fotoquote. Most of the guides that are published are for photographers that can charge by the day or event for commissioned work but my business is high end stock photography where I take images first then sale prints and license my work for commercial, editorial and fine art.

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