The Value Of A News Photograph

I received this question from a reader:

Hey Rob,

I hope this finds you well.

Look I have a question that might be interesting for the other photographers following your blog.

The other day I was on on 6th ave when I saw smoke coming out of a building. I pointed my G9 to it to zoom in to see better, and BOOM, big explosion which lasted about 2 seconds. I got one shot of the actual explosion.

I immediately phoned a contact at the NYTimes and they said they wanted the low res for the website + the high res for the newspaper the next day. Because I had been talking with them for a while, we agreed on me giving them exclusivity on the pics and them signing me in as freelance. This was all done 15 minutes after the explosion.

In the following minutes, many newspapers and TV stations who had seen my picture on the NYTimes website starting going through every media they could (even my husband’s facebook) to reach me to buy it. Of course I had signed with the NYTimes so I went along the lines of the exclusivity agreement.

Should I have reacted differently?

What do you do in this kind of situation when time is precious? Who do you call? Can you impose your price and non exclusivity on the NYTimes and others?

People told me I could have made an awful lot of money with this and it’s not that I regret but I’d like to know what the reality is.

Thanks,

[Redacted]

I emailed David Burnett to gather his thoughts on the situation and here’s what he had to say:

There was certainly a time when New York, with its many daily papers, and many more magazines, would have offered the enterprising photographer a reasonable sum for their photographs. As competition narrowed, so did the chances of having your picture bid up by interested parties, and reflecting a greater value for the picture.

There certainly is a chance that some major (i.e. catastrophic) event could fetch something extraordinary but these days the big money seems to be paid for celebrity coverage far more than what was once considered “news.” That said, it’s generally not a good idea to simply make a deal with one publication, as you thereby immediately close off other opportunities. The excitement and panache of that “page one on the Times” picture wears off quickly, if you have sacrificed future earning power of the photo for an exclusive deal as you mentioned. In a city like New York you should expect to be paid more for the exclusivity, and if that additional money isn’t forthcoming, there is nothing to be gained by giving up those rights.

The one exception to that would be an iron-clad deal which enabled you to let the first company syndicate the work on your behalf, and that your share of secondary sales would be at minimum, 50% of the gross of each sale (not the “net.”) Truthfully, if you are not experienced in these matters you’re better off making a deal with–-my real first recommendation–-an agency which would syndicate the work. There are fewer agencies than ever, and the overall atmosphere is far less fulsome that it once was for ‘scoops’ but for the right picture at the right time, money will come in. And you need someone to guide you, or take over that work. Again, 50% or so from the gross would be reasonable. Both sides, the agency and the photographer are in the deal together at 50-50 and if there is money to be made both will have the incentive to push the work. Once other outlets see something published in a major publication (i.e. the NY Times) there would naturally be a rush to get that image for themselves.

I have been a founder/partner for 34 years with Contact Press Images, and we often take special cases like this-–scoops which essentially come in off the street. The advantage to an agency (Contact, Polaris, Redux… etc.) is that their main business is in syndicating material, and you would do better than merely getting a small check and having your material tied up. TO be sure, most pictures do not fall into the category of ‘scoop’ but when you find one, do not just give it away.

There Are 14 Comments On This Article.

  1. David Burnett’s words should be branded on the arm of every freelance news and feature photographer. If anyone knows how that marketplace works best for photographers it is David.

    The simple fact is that the NYT front page use of a photograph is unlikely to lead to prospective clients beating down a photographer’s door to give out new assignments. As the case at point demonstrates, it might very well lead to immediate sales from those wanting to exploit the event by concurrent publication. Problem is that few photographers have the experience to maximize revenues from those kinds of sales. Syndication is the best route to take by letting the experts do the selling.

    As for exclusivity being traded for a contract under which you might never be given another assignment, and again, if and when given one, you will lose the most valuable rights connected to the work, it is a really bad trade off. Selling a high value usage for a low value day rate plus a promise is like giving into the request from ADs: Give me a break on this job, and I’ll take care of you on the next one. I used to answer that with OK, provided you give me the purchase order for the next one now. You cannot pay the electric bill with a promise.

    Finally, at the risk of really sounding discouraging, but I think necessarily so, I have to mention this. I have a good friend in NYC who freelanced for the NYT for years. She did numerous assignments for what she described as a way to always have bread and butter on the table. When she refused to sign the NYT contract, the Paper that had assigned hundreds of jobs to her told her that her work was really not satisfactory, and they would not be using her in the future. Of course, it had nothing to do with her refusal to sign the contract without some adjustments in it. NONSENSE.

    After the loss of a “bread and butter” client she pursued new clients to fill the gap. What she found out was that her tear sheets from the Times didn’t really impress a lot of people because the subject matter was just ordinary and the photos, by the very nature of the subject matter and its use, were not unlike those shot by dozens of other NYT photographers. The new work she got was driven by her non-NYT images and personal work.

    Generally, people hire a photographer because they appreciate his or her work and not because of who they shot or shoot for. They are buying talent and not a resume.

    • @Richard Weisgrau,
      speaking as a nyt freelancer (full disclosure) couple things: “bread and butter” does not have to be so- it depends on the assignment of course, but it also depends on the approach. While the tear sheets I agree are not likely to gain you anything, the steady stream of new subjects allows you to find many times, something new for your book. But it depends on what you shoot, and then how you shoot it.

      Many of the editors now are ex-magazine, and they hire editorial photographers like myself to bring a different kind of picture making to stories. Because the freelancers don’t have to work on multiple stories per day like the staffers, we have time to add some production value to the assignments-lighting, extended time with the subject, etc. I do get a lot of so called ‘bread and butter’ but I also look at each assignment as a possible page in my book, and when those assignments and subjects coincide, you’ll find me spending hours if possible making the images I want to make.

      Sure NYT is getting a helluva deal- but so do editorial magazines-or shooting for indie pubs.

      IN the end you have to find your subjects, make your pictures, and pursue new clients as your friend ultimately did. If you think relying on any one publication to make it for you then I think that is going to be disappointing.

  2. Redacted’s fast thinking is admirable. Better that she did what she did than post the photo to Flickr. I do agree with David that there was probably something left on the negotiating table, and that an agent would have been better able to manage the transaction.

  3. John Briggson

    It would be really useful to have a post detailing the names, websites, and phone numbers of agencies for members of the public to approach at times like this.

    Does anyone know of any in the UK?

  4. I understand there is also another factor. Some groups – AP in particular – would like a JPEG image created at the point of capture. This helps to insure that there is no image manipulation taking place. If there is time, capturing both a RAW and JPEG image is a good idea.

    • @JeffGreenberg,
      I believe the actual photo was published in the NYT, you can find it on the website if you search for fire and explosion. Then a picture comes up from the 6th and 19th street fire. But, I have to say, the picture you referred to, looks more above things. The other one shows a bit more of the City. (Which I like)

  5. “I immediately phoned a contact at the NYTimes…”

    Seriously? That’s what you were thinking? About yourself?

    “What do you do in this kind of situation when time is precious? Who do you call? ”

    How about calling 911? Did the photographer on scene even consider it or were they too busy trying to grab some fame? Is this what we’ve become?

  6. Ok, whoever wrote the last comment – as much as I understand your stance on the scenario – in this case, SO not the point of this discussion. This is about educating professional and amateur photographers alike how to handle the management of their work – whether it be a snapshot of a sudden disaster or an editorial fashion shoot for a magazine.

    Granted, the person who wrote this “testimony” is probably asking (although he or she states otherwise) because he or she would like to know the value in this kind of time-sensitive imagery. More importantly, however, from this arises a very important point, which is to always be aware and cautious when granting rights to allow usage of your photography. It’s important to understand what it means as an artist to sign those rights away to another party. As it’s already been said, it’s best to find an agency to assist you with this process and advise you in the licensing of your work – larger agencies such as AP and GETTY will advise you to a certain extent, but on a more impersonal level because of their conglomerate status. If you are interested in the art of your photos being upheld, best to try and become apart of the roster within a smaller, upcoming syndication agency.

  7. scott Rex Ely

    Wow, the lag time, or lack there of basically, between the photographer’s question to Rob and Rob’s reply from David and Dick’s comment is remarkable beyond.
    I hope people realize the gravity of the participation here being so precisely and quickly articulated.
    ALL FOR FREE.
    Thanks to all for sharing.

  8. Jonas jungblut

    I was just in a similiar situation: I happened to be in Santiago when the earthquake hit and was trying to syndicate the images I took of the aftermath. Didn’t know who to contact, didn’t want to send them as an ireport to CNN and Getty, which I have a creative agreement with, told me they pay $250/day and keep rights for a year. Ended up sending some images and article to my local, weekly magazine which worked out great but given the headstart I had on all the news crews from the States felt a bit like underselling.