What to do with a valuable image for publication

A question out of the blue came from a reader recently. It prompted me to start thinking about some important “what-ifs,” in terms of publication photography. Like many people who write me with questions, he had a less than fully developed question but he also knew that a fully developed answer could help him in the future.

His question was:

“Several years back I was in… I just missed a shot of the man who was killer of …. and …. It would have been the last photo of him before he committed suicide … later. If I had the right shot, what would be the best way to maximize the revenue from that shot? The clock would be ticking on the news value and I have no connections. Is an agent the best way to go? If so, any suggestion?”

The short answer is NEVER, EVER take your image to a wire service or newspaper. A wire service, such as the Associated Press will pay you next to nothing and send the image around the globe, with no added compensation to you. A newspaper will do the same, most likely sending the image across the globe via some kind of wire service.

The intermediate answer is to first register the image with Library of Congress. As I have blogged about before, I have that registration step built into my workflow so all my work is registered BEFORE it goes out. In the case of a highly valuable image, which is likely to be pirated, the only real enforcement tool you will have is a valid copyright registration of the work.

Also, if you ever send the image out to a potential distributor to see if the image is in fact of value, only send them a very small, low res, heavily water marked image. Once you negotiate rights and terms, THEN send the high res file. If you are not cautious, some of the more “shady” potential distributors will “distribute” the initial un-watermarked, high-res image, even if they do not have an agreement with you. They do this assuming that you are not likely to have the legal muscle and copyright registration that would make them regret (and pay for such misdeeds.) If you do in fact have the image registered beforehand, you do have the required legal “Hammer.”

The long answer to the original question is “it depends….”

Just because I think an image of mine is great and the “market” should pay me lots for the image, that rarely happens. The first question is to determine if the image really is that valuable. Some questions to ask are:

“Is the image really that unique and that well executed? Is it showing something that many people are NOW interested in seeing? Was the image hard to get, and/or is it showing the subject in a way that is in fact hard to show/access/etc.? Is the subject matter so important that millions of people really would want to see that image and will they be talking about it for days or weeks afterward? If so, then the image might be of value. Be honest, even brutal in this evaluation. Ask another photographer or three to look at the work and be prepared to be humbled.”

The place to take such a truly unique image is one of the major photo agencies such as Getty or Corbis, especially if the image has general news or political subject matter. They are the biggest and they have the most reach into the publishing market. Most agencies usually take 50% (or even 60%) of the fees they arrange for image licensing, but they are also incentivized by that set-up to get high fees and make as many license sales as possible. If the image involves a major celebrity you may want to go to one of the agencies that specialize in that subject matter such as Zuma Press or Shooting Star or Wire image. These agencies typically have a better understanding of the celebrity image market and a wider distribution network.

Ignore whatever the agency people say about fame, by-lines, etc. and keep your eyes on the prize, which is money. The agents can not predict exactly how much a unique image will earn but they can make good estimates. Get those sales estimates, from two or three agents and then you will know what the market thinks the image is worth (which may likely be nothing, by the way.)

I would also go to the agency web-sites in advance and research how to contact them when you have that million dollar image in hand. Put all that info in one document, print that out and drop it in your camera bag. That is the kind of information you do not want to be trying to find in a hurry.

Finally, the most important rule in this situation is do EVERYTHING by e-mail. Since real money is involved and their is going to be time pressures, get everything in writing. If you have a phone conversation with an editor, write down the salient points and send that to them saying, “I am just writing to verify our phone conversation.” A paper trail does not prevent screw-ups and rip-offs. It does give you the tools to punish those who screw-up and rip you off. It empowers you to make them pay you real money for your photos. Which in the end is what matters most.

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