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Selling Photographs (the Old School way)

Updated on March 9, 2011

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Good photographs are frequently required by editors of the illustrated press and technical journals, book publishers, advertising agents, press agencies, and many other users. Methods of approach vary according to the market, and the fees paid vary even more.

When a photograph is commissioned by an editor or publisher, there is nothing difficult about the transaction; the photographer knows in advance that the prints will be accepted if they fill the agreed specification and he knows what he will be paid for them. (The only point he needs to watch is what rights he is selling- i.e., is he parting with the complete copyright, or simply selling permission to reproduce in one issue of the publication?)

The essentials of a successful sale are: the photograph must be technically perfect (but there are important exceptions to this, e.g., outstanding news pictures), considerably above average interest in its particular class, appropriate to the market, and of the-right size.

Technical Perfection

This is taken for granted in prints offered for publication. The only exceptions are photographs of such outstanding news value that technical faults do not matter- e.g., an exclusive but badly focused picture of the assassination of a famous man would be accepted so long as the scene was recognizable. Generally the print should not be smaller than whole-plate and not bigger than 8 x 10 inches. It should be on glossy or glazed white paper with a full range of tones and with no tendency towards strong contrasts. (This holds good even for pictorial subjects; however well they may look on rough surfaced paper with a cream base, the editor is only interested in how well they will reproduce. The blockmaker always prefers to work from a glossy print with a white base.) Finally, the print must be dead sharp.


Millions of good prints are made every year and most of them are of interest only to the photographer's immediate circle of friends or relations, or to the people who have paid for them to be taken. Only a very small proportion are capable of making a disinterested stranger look twice and, unless a print can be relied on to do at least that no editor will buy it for publication.

A technically excellent picture of a baby or a kitten or a motor vehicle, however much it may make the breast of the photographer swell with pride, has no market value. But if the baby is bellowing tearful disapproval just when it is being awarded first prize in a national contest; if the kitten is riding on the back of a tortoise, or if the motor vehicle is doing a somersault in a road race, then the picture has a good chance of selling in the right market.


The Market

The fact that the market varies according to the subject ought to be obvious, yet thousands of salable photographs waste everybody's time and earn no money simply because they are sent to the wrong type of publication. One of the commonest mistakes is to send a photograph to a national newspaper when its real market is the local press. Before submitting a print, the photographer should always try to forget that he took it and try to imagine himself coming across it for the first time in the publication he has in mind. If it does not take its place naturally alongside the typical contents of that particular publication, then no editorial magic can make it do so. This means that the photographer who hopes to sell a picture must either know the market from  personal reading and  observation or should study an up-to-date book on the subject. Then he will not make such elementary mistakes as sending a picture series to a magazine that never publishes more than one photograph per page, or sending a red-hot news picture to a week-end paper.


The hard work should all be done by the photographer as far as possible; if he leaves anything that he ought to have looked after himself to the editorial or production staff of the publications he is spoiling his chances of making a sale. So all spotting and retouching must be done as carefully as for an exhibition print; the editor must not be asked to imagine how well the print will look after  his  art  department  has  removed  the blemishes. The print should arrive in perfect shape; if it is packed carelessly and arrives cracked and dog-eared it will call for more work than it is usually worth before it can be reproduced. It should be accompanied by all the relevant information, preferably typed out and stuck to the back; the editor cannot spare the time to hunt for missing facts himself.

When sending trimmed enlargements it is advisable to enclose a contact print as a guide to the editor. On the whole it is, however, better to send untrimmed prints- partly because it gives the art department of the publication more scope to adapt the picture to their layout and partly because the marking up carried out by the art editor will nearly always spoil one's special effect.


Everything that has been said above applies to both black-and-white and color photographs, but the editorial requirements for color are very much more stringent. The cost of preparing the necessary blocks for color reproduction is so great that only a picture of the highest standard will merit it.

Generally speaking it is rarely worth while submitting miniature color transparencies as the loss of definition in enlarging them for reproduction is too great. They may be acceptable for sequences (to be reproduced on a small scale) otherwise 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 inch transparencies or color negatives (accompanied by a color print) are about the smallest suitable size.

Photographers who specialize in color for reproduction should submit their work in the form of transparencies of at least quarter-plate size. Carbro or dye transfer color prints made from three-color separation negatives are also quite acceptable, but they should be much larger than quarter plate. Selling Direct. When a print is offered to an editor or other prospective buyer without any conditions, it is understood that payment at the normal rate will be acceptable. The normal rate is the rate that the buyer normally pays for similar pictures from other sources used in a similar way.

Various scales of payment have been proposed in the past, but no definite agreement has ever been (or could ever be) established. The photographer must either be prepared to accept when he receives for the print or he must state how much he wants and what rights he offers. It is useless to protest after the picture has been published that the payment is too low. The only redress open to the photographer is the negative one of not offering further work in that quarter, which is an advisable course of action only when it is obvious that the buyer was trying to exploit the photographer unfairly.

If the reproduction fee asked is too high, the editor will simply return the print- always provided that the necessary packing and stamped and addressed envelope have been included. Where a print is submitted with no stipulation about the reproduction fee, the editor, if he wants to use it, will retain it without further acknowledgment. If he publishes the photograph, payment will normally be made at the beginning or at the end of the month following publication.

Editors sometimes keep prints for an unreasonable length of time without using them. This puts the photographer in a difficult position: if he sends in a bill for a reproduction fee, the editor will almost certainly return the print, and any hope that there might have been of selling it in that particular market will be at an end.

On the other hand, if the sender does nothing about it, the print may lie for months in the editorial office.

When the subject is highly topical, the situation is even more serious, because the print may be worth nothing unless it is published right away. With this type of picture the photographer should either telephone or call on the editor of the publication and negotiate the reproduction fee verbally or put the matter in the hands of an agency.

Selling Through an Agent

An agency will want the negative, not the print. Feature and news agencies will sell either exclusive rights to a single publication, or will submit the material to a large number of editors for reproduction at their standard rates. It is almost certain that the picture will make more money in the hands of an agent than if the photographer handles the sale himself. By knowing his markets exactly, an agent can often sell a picture, even of no great immediate interest, probably to a publication the photographer has never heard of.

The agent's commission will be around 50 per cent of the gross receipts for the picture, but even then the photographer will probably make more out of a topical shot than by his own efforts.

The agent has the advantage of experience in making the most of news pictures, and has the facilities for printing and distributing large numbers of copies of general interest pictures simultaneously to all prospective buyers.

Where the photographer is content with only occasional sales and does not mind how much trouble he takes to get them, there is nothing to prevent him from sending prints off himself to whatever prospective buyer he considers a potential market.

Choosing a Market

A detailed study of various magazines and journals is desirable before submitting any prints. The type of market should, however, first be selected and the following can be taken as a general guide: news pictures will find their best market with local or national daily newspapers; general interest pictures are mostly required by the weekly newspapers and magazines, as well as the monthly popular journals; technical photographs should be sent to the trade publication dealing with any specialized industry connected with the subject of the photograph; pictorial photographs involving human interest are best placed in the hands of an agent, who can circularize them to many customers among advertising agencies, manufacturers of photographic materials or postcard and calendar publishers.

When submitting prints, they should be addressed to the news editor in the case of newspapers, the art editor with general interest and technical magazines, and the art buyer with advertising agencies. Reproduction Rights. It is always understood, when reproduction rights are offered, that the sender of the photograph either holds the copyright or is authorized to act for the owner. Very broadly, whoever takes the photograph owns the copyright, but he does not own it if he is paid to take it. When he is paid to take the photograph, the copyright belongs to the one who pays him—e.g., his employer or client.

When a print is submitted for publication, the sale of the copyright is not usually involved, only the right to reproduce. If a buyer wishes to purchase the copyright (e.g., to use as a trademark) he must say so, and be prepared to pay much more than he would for the simple right to reproduce. The fee in this case is always a matter for negotiation; there is no standard scale of charges. The purpose of the picture is however some basis for how much to charge; if a shot is suitable for, say, a national advertising campaign it may be worth thousands, while a calendar publisher may not be prepared to pay more than a few hundred. Here again the superior experience of an agent helps as he not only knows the most suitable market and the potentialities of the picture, but also the best time for submitting it.

When the photographer sells the copyright, he loses all control over the picture from that date; when he sells reproduction rights he can attach any conditions he wishes. It is usually understood that, when a print is submitted to a newspaper, it may be reproduced in all the editions of the paper on a given date at the normal rate of payment. If in addition the print is reproduced in other newspapers or periodicals of the same company, then each separate use must be paid for, also at the standard rates.

This is common practice, and if the photographer wants his print to be treated in any other way he must make it clear in the covering letter.

A number of prints from the same negative may be sent to a number of different publications and normal reproduction fees will be paid by each user. Unless the covering letter states that the print has not been offered elsewhere, the newspaper will assume that other publications may also be using it. There is no need for the covering letter to mention this, but it should point out if the picture is being offered exclusively.


Exclusive Use

When a print is offered exclusively, it is necessary to define more precisely what is offered than if the offer is simply one of many. The covering letter should say whether the picture may be reproduced on more than one day or in other publications belonging to the same group. It should state whether or not the photographer reserves the right to submit the print overseas, or to offer it for use in other media- e.g., for advertisements, posters, calendars, etc.

Frequently a picture offered exclusively has a very high spot news value, and there is no time for correspondence or haggling. The photographer will in all probability negotiate the sale over the telephone, but, even so, the terms should be discussed at the time and repeated in a covering letter sent with the negative, print, or undeveloped material. It should never be assumed that the copyright automatically goes along with exclusive reproduction rights; copyright sale should always be the subject of separate negotiation and is only effected by written agreement. Sales Record. All prints offered for sale should be recorded systematically; the details of the system will vary according to the scale of operations. A notebook entry is enough where only a few prints are being sent out, but index cards are essential where more than say a dozen different prints are out at one time. Each card should carry the title and reference number of the negative and give the publication and date of sending of each print

A check must subsequently be kept to see that all prints published are paid for. It is not normally necessary to send in an account, but if there is any delay beyond the end of the month following publication, an account should be submitted with the date and issue in which the print was reproduced.

The only foolproof way of knowing that a print has been published is for the sender to make a personal search of every issue of the publication in which the picture could appear. This is easy enough if the publication is one that the photographer takes in regularly himself or sees at his work (e.g., trade and technical publications) or at the library or club. But if he sends out numbers of prints to a wide variety of publications the expense and trouble of making such a check are out of all proportion to the rewards.

The photographer has two courses open to him: he can rely on the publications to pay without being prompted (which they usually do) and risk the loss of an occasional reproduction fee; he can place his business in the hands of an agent.


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    • RenePogel profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from behind the camera

      You're very welcome!

    • Rastamermaid profile image


      7 years ago from Universe

      Awesome hub!

      Great information,very detailed.

      Thanks for sharing


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