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Essay - An Insult to Photographers
by Rob Gray

I received an email the other day requesting that I submit a tender to photograph all the images for the brochures of a large travel company (who we'll call Big Time Tours for the purposes of this essay).

At first it looked like a dream gig, free tours to exotic places, easy photography as the end product only needed small reproductions, and I get paid.

I soon learned however that they were offering an insulting amount of money, presumably on the assumption that anyone would love to get a free trip.

I declined the offer to tender then wrote this letter to the manager.

Dear ****,

A couple of weeks ago I was approached by **** from your art department, and asked to consider tendering for a position of photographer on your tours, with a view to providing photographs for use in your brochures.

While I was initially interested, further discussions revealed that the budget for photography on each tour was a mere $1200. I subsequently declined the offer and that was that…until I thought even more about the job.

I now feel that I should write to you and explain my thinking on the flaws in the proposal, as put to me. The salient points are as follows,

  1. Roughly 300 photos are required from each tour.
  2. The photographer has to work with limited time as they are part of the tour.
  3. The photographer has to pay for many of the meals over the (nominal) 20-day period.
  4. It is assumed that the photographer can supplement their income by shooting personal stock images while on the tour. These images however should not be exact duplicates of those supplied to Big Time Tours.
  5. Big Time Tours will not pay for the photographer's time scanning images from film, you expect digital files.

Let me address these points.

Point #1. While I appreciate that the images in your brochures do not have to be masterpieces, they must be good. To produce 300 good photos at least 1000 should be taken, possibly a lot more depending on the exact circumstances.

Point #2. Working fast is no problem in itself , but it severely limits both the quality and quantity of images that can be produced. It almost totally precludes the production of late afternoon and early morning photos which, almost invariably, are the best scenic photos.

Point #3. Paying for meals is not a minimal expense, especially as at many of the tour locations one would be forced to use the nearest cafes/restaurants which would have inflated "tourist" prices, or to eat in the hotel due to a shortage of time, at similarly inflated prices.

Point #4. Let's skip the "exact duplicates" part as there would be little time to hunt for separate photos. If the photographer did shoot exact, or similar, photos for his own use and produced 300 for Scenic, we can assume that he also got 300 good images for his own use. The rule of thumb for earnings from stock images is $1 per image per year. Therefore, each tour would, in theory, produce another $300 pa. in earnings.

Point #5. It's fair that clients don't usually care whether the images are scanned or shot on a digital camera. But either way the client will pay, either for time spent scanning, or because the photographer has to amortise $50,000 of new digital equipment.

A look at one of your current brochures shows a very high percentage of aerial photos and photos that are setup, with models and/or special lighting and/or special circumstances that almost certainly will not be available on most tours. These I assume are currently purchased from stock libraries at prices you may feel are expensive. However most of them would cost several hundred to a thousand dollars and more to produce, all costs considered.

Let's roughly analyse the photographer's costs and time spent. Firstly time,

  • 20 days on tour actually taking photos.
  • At least 2 days before and 2 after in transit to/from the tour start point.
  • Therefore 24 days in the field unable to deal with day-to-day business.
  • Five days scanning and producing catalogued CDs.
  • Assume 8 hrs per day lost to this job, that's 232 hours, in fact it's a lot more than that as few small business people work a mere eight hours per day. Many jobs that are done after hours would not be able to be performed while on the tour.

And costs,

  • 1000 exposures = 28 rolls of film x $12 per roll for purchase and processing = $336.
  • Travel and, in some cases, depending on the country in question, extra medical insurance, say $200.
  • Meal costs, over and above "normal", due to being in the field, say $200.
  • Long distance phone calls, over and above "normal" due to being in the field, say $200.
  • Other miscellaneous costs that occur just because you're in the field, say $100 (very conservative, a couple of taxi trips will eat this amount).

So, in return for neglecting the normal operations of his or her business, the hapless photographer receives $1200 gross and nets $164. Even assuming only eight hours a day on the job, that's 69c an hour! If we include the $300 theoretical first-year earnings from personal stock photos taken on the tour, we are now up to $2 per hour. Still not good.

A professional photographer's rate is usually several hundred dollars a half-day, plus expenses. Even with a vastly reduced rate to allow for the large amount of work on offer, the $1200 budget is, in my opinion, just not viable.

Let's look at it another way. You get 300 photos for $1200, that's $4 per image. I believe there's nowhere in the western world you will find someone to produce professional photographs, specifically for a client, for $4 a piece.

I suggested to **** that a rate of around $5000 was closer to the mark, a highly discounted rate because this is not just a one-off job but a continuing relationship. Even at this rate that's only $16.66 per photo.

After all this you will still need to buy a lot of images from libraries. For example, of the 11 Big Time Tours brochure covers I've seen, I estimate that a photographer working on the tour would only be reasonably certain of capturing two of the cover photos, and possibly another one or two if things fell into place on the day.

My suggestion is to look for a student or unemployed/retired person who is willing to commit the large amount of time required in return for some free trips and some pocket money. Another idea employed by some companies is to ask their patrons to submit their best photographs, either directly for sale to the company, or in the form of a competition in which you keep the rights to all photos "selected".

Most tourists would be thrilled to have some of their photos published in a travel brochure.

Please accept this letter in a constructive light, that is certainly the intent.


Rob Gray

OK the rule of thumb I mentioned for stock images has probably risen since I was in a stock library. But then I doubt the photographer would get many useful stock images within the constraints of an organised tour.

I'm still waiting for a reply.

You can see more of Rob's work at the following websites:
Profotos - Rob Gray

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