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The Going Rate for a Time Cover Photo

This is my response to a debate that seems to rear its head in the photography industry from time to time. This time it has been dragged up again through an interesting article on David Hobby in Slate magasine.

To get a sense of just how bad things are for professional photographers right now, the story of Robert Lam is instructive. When Time needed a photo to illustrate its “New Frugality” cover story in late 2009, it purchased Lam’s image of a jar of change from stock-photo agency iStockphoto. The going rate for a Time cover had typically been $3,000 to $10,000. Lam was paid $31.50. Nevertheless, Lam declared, “I am happy”—the payment was more than he’d expected the photo to generate, and he was delighted to have a Time cover in his portfolio. Veteran professional photographers were livid, calling Lam an “IDIOT,” among other unkind words.

Lam told me by phone that he’s only a part-time photographer—he makes most of his income through a furniture store he owns. Last year, he earned $4,000 from stock photography. Since it’s his passion and hobby, not his job, that sum is fine by him. Most of what Lam has learned about lighting has come from reading online, on Strobist and similar blogs. Typical of the DIY approach of this set, Lam’s Time cover was shot using materials Lam found at a local sign store.

My reply is this:  Good for Robert Lam!

The truth of the matter is that the majority of professional photographers would laugh at the thought of setting up their studio to take photos of regular objects. Many do not have the time to carry out a shoot that may or may not create revenue for them.

I have spent time shooting random objects like this at a time when I was struggling as a young, fast-learning freelancer.  It is incredibly time consuming.  If “semi pro” and “amateur” photographers like Lam can create and make a revenue from such images good on them, not many pros have the time to put images like this into their libraries.

Much of the doom and gloom on this issue in trade journals and on blogs is incredibly daunting for young photography students and people wanting to be photographers. Some of the comments left on related articles online are to this effect.

For new professionals and students it would be good to concentrate some of your studies towards understanding royalty-free and rights managed photographs as-well as the usual curriculum.

I will always be an advocate of every photographer having stock images available. Some of the photos I have put up in stock libraries are similar to that of Robert Lam’s.  It takes time to shoot stock and have a library of images but even if you have only take 5 photographs there is no reason why you cannot make them available for sale today.  The initial setting up and editing of photographs to meet submission guidelines is time consuming as is meta-tagging and key-wording but when they are there, they are available indefinitely.

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