A reader asks: 1. what’s the big deal risking a shoot on someone new when you’re only paying them $350-$500? 2. What’s up with those crap rates?

1. If you include all the expenses (assistant, rental, film and process or digital fees, travel, cell phone, messenger, insurance, tips, cab fare, and misc) a one day shoot is easily over $3500. Add to that the availability of the subject and the looming deadline plus the fact that for every failed shoot the editor and creative director give you enormous stink-eye… well it turns into a little more than just $500 out of the budget.

2. The rates. I actually inherited them and while I will agree they’ve been stagnant for many, many years the expenses have gone up considerably and… this is a big and, the theory has always been that you get your clips in editorial and make your money in commercial. Uh, maybe that’s a very bad assumption on the part of photography editors.

Anyway, there should be a better pricing structure for editorial photography. The way writing works and commercial photography works is the better you are the more you get paid. I should be able to pay established photographers more and unproven photographers less.

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  1. A lot of the time that $350-$500 is all inclusive. No expenses, no assistants, nothing. And the worse part these days is a lot of even these $350-$500 inclusive shoots are WFH.

    Of course, Annie and Mario don’t have to worry about those kind of contracts. Not that they need to “save photographers” but they would be the ones who could have influence on these WFH magazines. Telling them that they don’t work for magazines that give WFH contracts to ANY of their photographers. I mean, I do that and I’m just the little guy who needs the jobs. But, why should they care?

    I can’t wait until I’m big enough to not give a crap about the little guy. Now, excuse me while I get my assistant to pick up my dry cleaning and clean up the dog shit in the yard.


  2. Are you more likely to hire a new photographer whom you’ve met in person and liked? (Assuming you like their work and feel it fits in with the magazine.)

  3. Sure Armando I think building a friendship and trust leads to frequent assignments. I would certainly take good photography over just a good person tho. On the other hand good photographer who are jerks are off the list.

    Yeah Jeff it looks like the market has already figured out a way to pay the new guy less by not giving them any expense budget so you end up paying the magazine to shoot for them.

    I do recall in the PBS documentary on Annie that she begged Jann Wenner for her first assignment and I’m guessing paid for it herself.

    Work For Hire contracts are bullshit.

  4. This year, I’ve seen an increase in assignments with a flat budget, whether it’s 1k, 5k, or more, for magazines. This encourages photographers to cut corners because every penny of that budget you don’t spend goes into your pocket. There are a lot of ways to do it, many of which affect the quality of the job.

    I prefer the creative rate and digital expenses going into my pocket, then doing the job right and having the mag pay for it. Peace of mind, a better shoot, and ultimately more profit anyway.

    Do the magazines find that the pressure on photographers to do it cheaper helps the quality at all, or just the bottom line?

  5. $3500? Looks like I’m shooting for the wrong magazines.
    My average assignment fee runs around $1200 – $1400 depending on how long the day is and the amount of travel involved. A lot of times the digital fee gets capped at $150. Assistants $200. Few assistants will work for that rate so I have to make up the difference out of my fee. For some reason editors have no problem paying higher fees for film but won’t budge on digital even though in reality it’s often the same $ or more expensive than shooting film. Equipment rentals vary. Most expect you to have the basic gear.

    You’re right expenses have gone up. But they’ve gone up for us to. Car payments, camera gear, computers, insurance ….. The only thing that hasn’t gone up (with a few exceptions) is the assignment rate. Factoring in inflation it’s actually gone down. That whopping (or to use your words “crap”) $500 fee in 2007 doesn’t have the same buying power it did in 1992.
    Of course this isn’t your problem. We did this to ourselves by working for and continuing to work for these rates. But it would be nice to feel that we had an advocate for us within the PE sister/brotherhood. I think that very few PE’s get it. I think my experience is closer to the norm than what you’ve expressed or maybe it’s only drizzling in my part of the editorial world and sunny everywhere else?

  6. Flat rate is the square peg going in the round hole. I have a budget and the first thing I do is set aside enough for the cover and fashion and any big feature stories. What’s left gets divided up into all the things that must be shot for that issue. So you get a flat rate to shoot something (If you want to stay on budget) because that’s what’s left. I don’t do it this way but I may be the exception in the industry. Probably has to do with how budgeting works at a magazine. The CFO gives you a number– he pulled out of his ass– to spend on photography for the year. Are you kidding?!? How the hell am I supposed to know what it’s going to cost if you don’t tell me what all the stories I have to shoot are?!#?

    Let me ask you this. Are these magazines who’s photography you respect that are doing this or is it the case where you’re trying to build your clips to get to the magazines you respect?

  7. I don’t think you’re the exception…yet. But regarding a reason, you hit the nail on the head. The problem is that the financial people have such a strong say regarding how the creative department does it’s job. I can imagine that frustrates photo editors, directors, etc. You (as a magazine creative) should be allowed to exercise your judgment on the magazine’s investment in good photography. Several nights worth of steak dinners would be egregious, but allowing a photographer to travel with an assistant they know, as opposed to hiring someone local, wouldn’t be. And only one of those contributes to a better shoot.

    I understand that the money must get allocated beforehand, and that approach leaves no room for surprises in the end. Any profitable company would dictate their budget from the top down. That kind of micro-managing might achieve a short-term financial goal, but if done to an extreme, inevitably contributes to cheapen the product.

    These are magazines I respect, with good photography and editors, but I don’t see it going away anytime soon. I must say though, sometimes it’s forced me to become much more resourceful than I otherwise might have been, in order to deliver a great take.

  8. So how much push back do you give to photographers you have doing the cover when they give you their estimates?

    Even for covers I shoot, I’m initially given a budget from the magazine as a flat rate. The next thing I do is say I need $X more for assistants, digital and expenses. That usually pushes their budget up a bit. But, admittedly these aren’t larger cover shoots like Men’s Journal, VF, Rolling Stone, etc. So, I know their budgets are smaller to begin with.


  9. Yeah I guess it always starts with the budget but ideally some shoots are more some are less so really I just see what it’s going to cost and then go from there. Usually if it’s over budget I’ll try and eliminate things or make small changes across the board that add up.

    Part of pushing back is just testing to see if there’s some padding in there. I’ve done this enough to know that cutting corners increases the risk of failure so I don’t push past a certain point

    I also know this. If I prove to my editor and CFO that I can do it as well for less money then that’s the standard. And that can be very dangerous.

  10. I think an interesting phenomena is that on some high end editorial shoots with big productions the photographer is the worst paid person on the crew. The assistants get prep days and overtime. Stylists get days to shop but on a 20k production the shooter is getting $500/day.

  11. I gotta say, it’s sure interesting to hear the money equation from your side. Us photographers are used to complaining about editorial rates, it’s interesting to see how you have to divvy up the money to make it work. Wonder where the Exec. Editor actually gets that total Number from, for real? Kinda like standing there, and coming up with a number, in advance, that you’re going to spend in restaurants for the entire next twelve months. How could you do it?

    I just think that the quicker that photographers can rearrange all this inside their minds, and get money entirely out of the equation, regarding Editorial, the happier they’ll be. Just say to yourself, Instead of sending out a Modern Postcard, or buying a page in AtEdge, I’m going to shoot this job, and make a nice image, and not get one dime for it, but I’m going to have fun”.

    But what gets me is when these editorial assignments arrive, along with a list of the way that they want you to shoot it! It’s like they don’t get it that the ONLY reason you’re even considering taking this job is to make a picture for yourself; something interesting and rewarding. When these email assignments come in, along with a Laundry List of how they want it shot, you just know to turn it down immediately. Because it’s only going to get worse.

    I pretty much stopped doing editorial about five years ago. The only one I shoot for now is The Oxford American, and I give them the pictures for free. Just because it’s a kickass magazine, with great writing. I never really SHOOT anything for them, I just let them use my stock images. Check it out, great magazine:


    The editor, Marc Smirnoff, is a good guy; his heart is in the right place. (It sure as hell ain’t in “profits”).

    Back to Editorial: When the phone rings for a magazine job, (which it rarely does), I just ask my self a simple question: “Does this job have a chance in hell of producing a picture that would go in my book?” If the answer is no, then it’s an automatic No. I think that’s a good yardstick to measure by. Because you’re sure not doing it for the money.

    One some level, Editorial is the best. When the conditions are right. It’s just a blast hopping on an airplane and getting access to great stories. As long as the magazine doesn’t try to hogtie you into “doing it their way”.

    Just one opinion.

  12. Honestly, the number, it’s a game.

    CFO trying to see how cheap the magazine can be made while maintaining readers, advertisers, staff and contributors.

    Editor getting a bonus to come in under budget putting pressure on creative director and photography director to meet those goals and still maintain high standards (plus meet the kill budget).

    Photography Director balancing chance of getting fired with producing award winning work and maintaining relationships with photographers.

  13. I must say, even with the nasty news that you just posted, (which I guess is not that unusual for any corporation), this Blog is very refreshing. At last, a Blog for people who work for a living.

    I guess art school is great and all, but it just makes you wonder, when you read all these Art Photo blogs, “Who the hell is paying these kids rent in Brooklyn? Their dad? Their grandmother?” All these kids, getting pumped out into the world, and all of them pondering their navels, and then the Gallery takes half, after that. I just can’t get the Numbers to work in the gallery world.

    Here, even though the news is grim, it’s still about the real world. So, congratulations on your venture here; I’m betting that you’ll have many many readers soon. You speak frankly, and without candy coating.

  14. Here are a few posts from back in April that might be worth a re read if you havent come across them already all extolling the virtues of the mighty editorial dollar from the editorial photographers persective.




    We are all in this together photographers and editors sharing thoughts, knowledge and experiences is a great thing.

  15. Andrew and Chad,

    You (and John and Robert) should join EP (Editorial Photographers). Yes, it’s lame at times, but a little fresh blood would help raise the level of discussion. What’s the saying – a rising tide lifts all boats.

  16. Johnnie –

    I am in EP and quite honestly have been bored into submission by the posts. Coming from a journalists background, its strange to be somewhere stuck in the middle between my newspaper friends who are very nearly clueless about anything business related (and sometimes willing to give away the farm for access to an interesting story) and some of the freelance mag/ad people I know who now only see their jobs in terms of dollar signs.

    As to this post, I think a lot of us understand the pressures that go into taking a risk on a new photographer in a declining editorial market, but certainly not all of us are interested in jimmying up each job on a bunch of ludicrous extra expenses (rental gear that is already owned, imaginary assistants, etc.) Either way, thanks for the real conversation.

    Mark – a lot of us would love to be in your shoes, and I have a great deal of respect for your work. If you are around for the Photoshelter city tour thing next Monday in ATL I’d love to grab a drink.

  17. Hello,

    I only stumbled across your website today and it is good to see the communication going on. I appreciate your providing how unrealistic your deadlines and assignment fulfillments can be. I think most photographers understand that the photo editors are in the middle and often have few options. You mentioned wanting a system for pricing editorial work. I wrote one which is free for editorial use and it can be downloaded from http://www.editorialphoto.com or http://www.photography.net. I have had a couple magazines call me up in the past because they had a similar need and they wanted to get an idea of where their compensation would make sense. While the software was not designed for differentiating compensation for different calibre photographers, you could vary the numbers to something that makes sense to you with the currency modifier.


    Ken Richardson

  18. I know I’m a little late to this conversation but I did want to add my two cents to the discussion about flat rate vs. itemized billing. As an editor working with an enormously tiny issue budget who has gone the ‘flat-rate’ route on more than one occasion, it is both discouraging yet eye-opening to hear how that approach is perceived by some in the creative community. Personally, my intention is assigning jobs at ‘flat-rates’ is manifold (and none involve the intent to encourage photographers to “cut corners” and turn in sub-par work). They are a) that’s the budget I have assigned for that section and/or shoot and as long as I get my shot(s) that’s all that matters; spend what you will, how you will and maybe make some money yourself b) I am presuming the photog is as invested as I am in getting an amazing shot and also may have more leverage and/or accessibility to a team to work within that budget and still secure both the shot(s) & some money for themselves, and c) a flat rate reduces a lot of the paperwork and accounting that would be required with itemized billing and, for such a small budget job, who really wants to bother with it all?

    That being said, my end desire is to give the photog as much as you can of what they need without inconveniencing them too terribly much (with paperwork, receipts, etc) and, hopefully, give them some of the control in where & how the money is distributed.

    So I ask in all sincerity, is this thinking just bass-ackwards and is the better approach to just offer assignments as expense-only, itemized-billing jobs where the photographer fee is line-itemed at ‘zero’?


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