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Part #1 of 3 Part Series - "What is the value of a photograph or image?"

Hello fellow Google+ followers. This was first posted on my Facebook page and I realized I had left out my wonderful Google+ followers.  Before I start let me get the credits out of the way. The idea of a multi-part facebook (Google+) blog entry comes from Kathy Lucas and her FB Blog about her experience as a contestant on Wheel of Fortune. The inspiration for the blog on the value of a photography goes to my friend Doctor Sid and his Random Thoughts Blog entry on September 4th article “Wake up and Smell the Photograph” and from another good friend Mark Hamilton who has shared a great deal of delightful discussions on this very subject.

So what is the value of a photograph anyway? Today is truly a visual world more than any other time in history. It is estimated in 2011 that approximately 140 billion photos have been uploaded to Facebook; that’s 10,000 times the number of photos in the Library of Congress. Everyone seems to have a camera. Cameras are in our phones, tablet computers, pocket camera, or a digital SLR so it seems that everyone is a photographer. Most of these images never make it to a print but are shared digitally. So all this I believe has an impact on how the market perceive the value of a photograph. Years ago when I made my living with a camera I had a large corporate national client who valued my photos based on the cost of making a print. So is a 8x10 inch print worth only $2.84? (Walmart price at 1 hour photo 12/18/2012). Lately we have seen a number of tragedies occur where people have lost everything they own. Their home was destroyed by flood or fire. Besides our loved ones and what would you consider your most valuable possession? My guess would be that one of the items would be family photos. So if someone said they could replace them what would you value that at? My guess is some of the pictures you have you would consider priceless. Now you say, you know the difference. The value is not the paper or the printing service but the image that is printed on it right? So what is the value now of the image?.

The value of a photograph depends on many things. It depends on the market. It also depends if the image was documenting an important event in your family life or of a loved one now gone. The photograph may be a fine art print that makes you feel a special way each time you view it or it may be a documentary image that is newsworthy and important to share. The image may be a decorative work that helps complement your office or home. The image may also be of a product or promoting a service that communicates the message to the viewer. All these are part of the visual world today. So what is the value of a photographic image?. Tune in tomorrow for more discussion on this subject.
Tony Maro's profile photoMichael Adkins's profile photo
A photograph is worth what someone will pay for it.

I heard a story from a comedian this week - I will trim and paraphrase to the pertinent part.  The setting is a small town store selling various goods.  An out-of-towner pulls up in his huge truck towing a large horse trailer.  He walks in the store with a swagger and says in a loud voice "I wanna buy yer best horse blanket."  The proprietor shows him a nice blue blanket and says "That'll be $25."

The man says "This won't do.  I said I want to buy your BEST horse blanket."  The proprietor says "I have just the thing" and walks to the back room and pulls out a red blanket.  "That'll be $50."

The man says "You don't understand!  I have a prize winning horse here that I'm taking to the Kentucky Derby.  This blanket just won't do him justice."  The proprietor says "Oh, well you didn't say that! I have just the thing!"  He rummages in the back for a bit and brings out a black blanket.  "That'll be $125."

The mans says "That's more like it," pays and leaves.  

All the while, another customer has been watching on.  He asks "I thought you only sold one blanket, just in different colors?"

There's price and then there's perceived value.  Let's be honest, how many average people would hang a print of Van Gogh's "The Potato Eaters" on their wall without knowing who painted it or at least the story behind it?

As photographers, that's what we have to do.  If you don't see value in your own work, how will others?

A picture is also worth what someone will part with it for.  If I take a horrible photo of my daughter, but it's the last photo before she goes off to school or gets married do you think I'll just throw the photo away, even if it's slightly out of focus or overblown?
Tony Maro, great story and a good comparison.  You are correct.  We have to be more than just a creative photographer.  We have to be able to sell the perceived value.  To explain that this is more than an image on a piece of paper but a work of art.  Something to be cherished.   One thing that I have done in this direction is starting January 1st I will no longer sell any of my fine art photographs in digital form or as a print only.  I will only sell them matted, quality framed, signed, and a finished product.  Now time will tell how this works out but I want my works to be more than something bargain basement.  To be viewed on an iPhone.  I want my works to be appreciated on a wall.  Something to be valued over time.  And the only way to accomplish that is for me to change.
I have a mantra I live by in business.  "I don't want to be the cheapest around."  No good ever comes of it.  I don't sell my photography, but when I do that will stay with me.  As it is now, my work is only given away, and I take great pride in what I give and whom I give it to.  I live in a very economically depressed area where the average household income with both parents working is less than $30k.  Several times I've done senior portraits for those I know would never be able to pay $150 much less the $1500 most packages run, and I do a package of prints for free.  I guarantee the value of those prints is higher than the $1500 packages local photographers offer, and I don't ever have to listen to some parent pick apart my photos and pick the worst ones to be printed. ;-)
Tony Maro, Interesting discussion.  I think we are on the same page but  thought I would pick out a couple of our comments to talk about.  Not that I disagree I just have different views.  I watch my market and what other photographers charge.  I look at there work and in some cases strive to up my quality to that level and others I think I am doing a far better job.  But here is my rule.  I fortunately do not have to depend on income from my photography and I really love photography.  So I could produce a great product and give it away or undercut everyone around.  The problem with that is there are other great photographers in the area that depend on photography for there income and to feed there families.  So I charge on average what they charge.  That evens the playing field and now we are competing based on the creative final product and talent and skills and not price. 

You also stated that parents pick apart my photos and pick the worst ones to be printed?  Interesting that you consider some of your photos to be the worst.  My customers never see an image that I do not consider my best.  All equal.  It is my creative right.  I promise X amount of images for the setting but they are all equal in my eyes and have my standards and work into them equally.  I have a pre-setting agreement that clearly says I reserve the right to choose what images you will receive from the setting.  I take a great deal of exposures during a setting and only a few are selected to be presented to my client.

One final thing.  I got out of the printing business over a year ago.  I still print but only on request and only a Quality Framed, Matted, and Signed product.  I do not sell prints.  I charge for a creative fee that covers my time.  I then provide the customer with full sized edited images, sized down copies and a certificate of rights of photo reproduction.  This has worked out great for me.  If you look at the time it takes to arrange a meeting, sell the prints, collect the money, have the prints made, pay the shipping, arrange another meeting or mail the prints the profit was just not there.  I would rather make my money up front.  This also opened a lot of doors for commercial work where business clients demand the full sized digital image.  I have a day rate, a studio rate, and a location rate.  This also includes the per-consolation time and the post processing time.  I deliver the images using Dropbox Service.  But this is my model and it works well for me.  Also, I live in Huntington West Virginia.  Very depressed market.
Para 1:  I agree, if I were charging I would be charging comparable prices.  But, you can't make the assumption that I'm taking business from them because that's not the case.  I'm providing a gift to someone who would have gone without.  I don't advertise doing this.  I don't give the full size digitals, and I put together a very generous package of prints to ensure they have what they need, which I also do not charge for.  When I believe I have a talent I can offer to make people's lives maybe a little bit better, then who is to tell me to stop?  Should a home baker not give holiday treats to friends because it might irritate the local bakery?  I'm not suggesting you're attacking my choice, mind you, just following my line of thought.  I agree that amateurs charging too little for their craft is a horrible thing for the business in general.  That's the other reason I just don't charge.  I'm also not in the business of photography.  If I were, then I would not do the free shoots, and I would probably be offended if someone asked me to.  

I think the real rub for photographers who get angry at amateurs muscling in their business, is that they have a hard time conveying their own value to potential clients.  I'm sorry, but if a professional photographer's work is so average that someone shooting three or four senior portrait sessions a year can outdo them in the customer's perceived value then maybe they should find another line of work.  You can't claim it's art yet deny the individual artists their passion, and you can't claim it's a business if you are put out of work by artists.  I think I'll write a longer-winded post on the art of business...  I'm already too long-winded here.

Para 2:  My comment was more of a tongue-in-cheek jab at what I see photographers complain about all the time.  I may shoot 40 frames, but I'll only show 8, so I agree - they only get my best work anyway.  But, I have hanging in my office a print that everyone loves yet I hate.  Since I already brought him up, even Van Gogh considered The Starry Night to be inferior and didn't want to show it, so yes I consider some of my work to be inferior, yet still publicly popular.  My favorite work is rarely the popular work.  Hanging over my desk is a picture of a pod hanging on a branch.  Nobody likes that shot but me, I can tell.  As one person asked about the photo, trying to be polite but obviously not seeing what I see: "What is it about this shot that made you want to print it?" lol

Para 3: I've always wondered why more people don't go that route regardless of market.  We all know that families are rarely going to come back for more prints after their first order.  Managing ordering, inspecting and logistics of having prints made is a nightmare.  It's also a commodity business and you generally don't want to work in commodities on a small scale.  Personally I think I'd rather only stay in the "printing business" for things like canvas or aluminum plate prints that are beyond most consumer's ability to manage the order properly due to wrap, etc.
Tony, well put.  Thank you for your comments.  Yes, the value of the image is in the beholder.  We both agree that part of my post.  Sometimes when you give something to someone they do not appreciate the value and the work you put into it.  But they should.  I would make one final suggestion and this is just an idea that I heard.  Give them an invoice for lets say $350.00 and then discount it to Zero as a professional curtisy.  In some cases it may change there perception.  Good luck to you and good shooting.  It was been my pleasure to discuss this with you.  I always find these discussions simulating and informative.  My third part of this post will go up tomorrow and my 3 part post next week is going to be on What Make a Professional Photographer.  Take care.
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