Real World Estimates – Pricing Photography for Image Libraries

By Jess Dudley, Wonderful Machine Producer

Lately, I’ve noticed more and more corporations and ad agencies are requesting that photographers quote on producing “image libraries”. An image library is a pool of pictures that a client will commission, where they’ll license rights to use the photographs from a shoot in a variety of different ways, and they’ll often make them available over an intranet to different departments across their organization. The productions tend to be broad in their approach, loosely covering a variety of situations, sometimes in generic ways, rather than having a single specific objective. On rare occasion, library images will be used for ads, but most tend to be used for internal and external communications, and for publicity.

In the past, it was mostly institutional clients like schools, hospitals and other non-profits that liked to work this way. Those types of organizations tend to have a variety of different (often low-budget) publication and advertising needs that require a lot of pictures on a regular basis. But increasingly, where big companies once had photographers on staff to cover these types of projects, corporate downsizing has them now turning to freelancers.

One reason clients are willing to pay for broad (or unrestricted) licensing is because it’s often very difficult to maintain control over the use of the pictures when they’re available for use by so many people within their organization. So rather than risk a licensing infringement, they’ll negotiate unlimited use. Other times, clients expect to use such a high volume of photographs that they feel they can get a better deal by effectively negotiating a “bulk rate”. Still other times, a client will be willing to pay for the additional usage simply for the convenience of never having any limitations on their use of the pictures. In all of these cases, unlimited “library” use is worth significantly more than limited use.

But in a world where photographers traditionally price their product based on usage, what is “unlimited” use worth? There have always been photographers who intentionally or unknowingly ignore the subject of licensing, or otherwise simply give away unlimited use of their pictures without charging a premium for it. Those tend to be young photographers who don’t know any better, or established photographers who have found that it’s the only way they can compete, or they couldn’t be bothered with the extra work involved in understanding how image licensing works and explaining it to their clients.

However, in most of these cases, pricing photography “by the day” is a dysfunctional system, and not in the interests of the photographer or the client. There’s an inherent conflict when a photographer is compensated in inverse proportion to her productivity. The more photographs she produces, the less she is paid for each of them. Any photographer’s natural motivation will be to produce enough work to satisfy the expectations of the client, and no more. That is no way to run a business.

A much better fee structure is one that links the photographer’s compensation with the value to the client. My normal starting point for a medium-sized corporation and a middle-of-the-road photographer would be to quote a modest day rate (usually around 2400.00 plus expenses) which would include unlimited use, excluding advertising, of up to 8 images. Then I’d price additional images at 300.00 each (plus file prep). That way, the photographer is incentivized to be as productive as possible, and the client gets the benefit of committing to a low cost up front and then just paying additionally for any additional images that they pick. (Naturally, this pricing could be higher or lower depending on the nature of the pictures, the caliber of the photographer and the size of the client.)

Generally, I try to steer clients away from “unlimited use of all the pictures forever”, because it unnecessarily drives up the fee. There are many ways to satisfy the client’s need to use the pictures broadly. The photographer can license “unlimited” use in a limited way by restricting the time, geography, and/or realm of use, while leaving other parts unrestricted. Are the pictures really going to be useful after a few years? If not, why pay for forever? Do you really plan to use the pictures in Indonesia? Then why pay for international use? Do you really intend to put the pictures on billboards? If not, why pay for outdoor advertising use? When the photographer and client each understand what the other values most, they can come to an agreement that works best for both of them. (That’s known as a “win-win”.)

In addition to corporations, ad agencies seem to be increasingly interested in creating image libraries. We recently quoted on a project for a west coast ad agency who was working with a theme park client that needed a variety of pictures for use on their web site and in advertising. The agency asked us to quote a four day shoot, where the still photographer would work along-side a video crew, photographing families enjoying the various rides and attractions in the park. (See our related post on working with video crews here.)

In spite of my best efforts to persuade the client to agree to more specific licensing, they decided they really did want “unlimited use of all the images forever”. Determining an appropriate fee depends on a number of factors. Here are the questions I asked the art buyer (and the answers I got):

Who is the end client and how prominent is their advertising presence? (In this case, the theme park was a household name, but aside from the web, their advertising presence was not very prominent outside their region.) The larger and more prominent the company is, the more they stand to gain by using the photos. (In a normal licensing situation, the client has to share how they intend to use the pictures because it becomes part of the actual agreement. With any kind of unlimited use, the client has no obligation to tell you how they plan to use the pictures. And in fact, it’s in their interest to down-play their intended use. In these cases, it’s prudent for the photographer to overestimate, by a decent margin, the probable use by the client.

How many situations do you want to shoot in those four days and what level of production are you looking for? Would you rather cover more pictures with less production value (lighting, hair/make-up, props, wardrobe) or fewer situations with greater production value? (We’d like to cover variations of about a dozen different situations. We’re looking for a “real” look, so the pictures don’t need to be overly produced.)

Will the shoot days be consecutive? (Yes.) Just as you would discount your per image rate for multiple images, it makes sense to offer a lower rate for consecutive shoot days and a higher rate for non-consecutive because you can be more efficient with your own time on consecutive days, and you can typically get better rates from your subs as well.

Do you have a shot/situation list you can send me? (Not yet. We’re still working that out with the video crew. That list will be used as a starting point for the still photographer, and then we’ll work from there. We’d like to do a scouting trip with the photographer to determine which rides/attractions would offer good picture opportunities.)

How many final images do you expect to use? (It’s hard to say how many we’d actually use, but I’d like to see between 30-40 useable images per situation.)

Do you want us to deliver raw or processed files? (We’d like to have raw, color corrected images.) This can be a welcome change from the normal retouching and approval process. But the downside is that you are relinquishing control of the final image quality, and your ability to charge a fee to supervise that process as well. The down-side for the client is that they take on the responsibility of that processing, and they risk not getting the full impact of the photographer’s vision.

Thankfully, the art buyer was sensitive to the demands of working with a video crew and was very communicative regarding any overlapping production expenses. (For more on shooting along side a video crew, check out our previous blog post on the subject).

After considering all of the factors, we came to rest on the following:

(By the way, It’s very important for the photographer to convey the licensing to the end client rather than the ad agency. Otherwise, the agency would potentially be in a position to use the pictures for another client without further compensation to the photographer.)

A few notes about our production expenses:

In this case the “grip” was basically a 3rd assistant whose job was to be primarily rigging lights and managing underwater camera housings for the water attractions.

The groomer/wrangler is responsible for making sure the talent was where they needed to be for our shots and ensuring they were camera ready. You have to be careful when working alongside another production. They can handcuff your shoot should they dominate the talent’s time.

It’s unusual to charge for both digital capture and digital tech but due to the high volume of images generated on a shoot like this, the digital tech can’t keep up with the file management. So their job was to bring their workstation and display, transfer images intermittently when not needed on set and during breaks, and process a handful of images for review. This left a fair amount of basic workflow for the photographer after the shoot.

If you have any questions, or if you need help estimating or producing one of your projects, you can reach me at

There Are 20 Comments On This Article.

  1. We have produced and shot many image libraries and our quotes are very similar in layout to this example except for the “buyout”. We wouldn’t be able to get talent for $500 per day on a perpetual license unless we did a street casting (which I find to be less than optimal) so we would work on a 2, 3 or 5 year usage term with extensions optional.

    Additionally, our usage generally covers anything except the use in any “paid placement” which is allowed but charged separately.

    These libraries have a shelf life and I believe that 5 years is pushing it.

  2. Surprised to see a “model” line item. I’ve been hearing that the preference of late is for the modeling agency to bill the client/agency directly. Additionally, I would think you’d be shooting the same models as the video crew.

  3. I’m working on putting something similar together, but including advertising use and retouching, thanks for sharing.

    Love me some Wonderful Machine.

  4. I am curious about the “Certificate of Insurance” fee.

    Are you charging them to be listed as additional insured? or is this a fee for providing them with a copy of your insurance?

  5. john jackson

    Also curious about the certificate of insurance fee.

    Does the fee cover the photographers out of pocket cost on the cost of business insurance. How is the specific fee amount arrived at?

    Does the photographer have existing business insurance paid on an annual basis or are they purchasing insurance coverage on a per job basis?

    The last I checked with my insurance agent they instructed me that if the insuree charges a third party for insurance coverage with the understanding they are covering the third party on the existing policy this action would be illegal in certain states where an insurance agent must have a valid license allowing them to “Sell” insurance policies.

    Explain in more detail what the fee overs?


    John Jackson

    • @john jackson,
      Not sure how the Wonderful Machine people do it, but most people charge an approximated cost on insurance. For example, if your policy costs you $1,000 a year and you shoot 10 days a year, then you pass on $100/day insurance expenses to each client. If a job requires special riders or extra coverage, then your insurance company can usually give you an exact dollar amount and then you could pass that expense on to your client also.

  6. It’s always good to see what other people are doing/charging. But

    “My normal starting point for a medium-sized corporation and a middle-of-the-road photographer would be to quote a modest day rate (usually around 2400.00 plus expenses) which would include unlimited use, excluding advertising, of up to 8 images.”

    seems so low that next time the client needs photography they have been groomed to expect something that is not normally realistic. Which of course takes us to the ever on-going argument that when you price something so low you hurt all photographers out there. My question is why would a shooter shoot “library” work for $2400/day when it’s just as much work or may be even more work than a regular shoot? It’s still a day that you’re shooting. You should get your regular rate plus whatever the usage will entail.

    • @Dana,

      I agree, this is the second wonderful machine estimate posted and both have seemed low considering the usage….granted 32k is a nice chunk o change but still relatively speaking that’s a lot of images for a lot of uses.

      what is the time period on this license? is it forever?

      As an example…
      I quoted a job not too long ago for 2 images/2 days shooting/ 1 yr regional print advertising in trade and newspapers(1 state) and 1 yr web use usage. client was a national bank.

      total estimate was about 70k

      quote was 12.5k/image and AB had no qualms about it…granted i didn’t get the gig for other reasons but still…

  7. Ambrose Pierce

    I agree with Dana. While I don’t disagree with the producer’s approach in general, I do think the numbers are low.

    PDN did an informal nation-wide survey of photographers shooting corporate work and found that most were billing out a base fee of between $1500-$2500 a day to simply put the job in the can (no mention of how many set-ups were expected during that time frame). Those fees did not include any licensing. So I am wondering why the $2400 fee would have rights packaged into it.

    With the producer’s pricing model, the photographer would average $250 per image for unlimited usage. This seems exceedingly low for unlimited usage–the fee is similar to what a newspaper would pay for one-time print publication rights! I wonder who can compete with that?

    I think it’s better to try to pin them down to specific usage, instead of caving in to unlimited usage. Or to just say “no”.

  8. ” On rare occasion, library images will be used for ads”

    We’ve done a good amount of advertising shoots lately as a library of images and they always turn into actual print ads or billboards.

  9. Young Photog

    Can we get some “Real World Estimates” from agencies other than Wonderful Machine? A few of their other estimates on here have seemed low and it would be good to have more variety…

  10. This was very helpful! Particularly to a young photographer like myself who hasnt yet encountered such high production shoots requiring such things. The thought of them can sometimes be intimidating. This makes it less so.

    Thank you!

  11. Thanks Jess and Rob – this seems main stream to me combined with a really good explanation. I like the comments too because it illustrates the dilemma.

    Image libraries are a digital thing. Because of the way many of us have started to approach shooting – more often producing scenes and “covering” them with hundreds of frames – our clients have noticed the price advantages of asking for all frames at a bulk rate.

    For example: what would be the price difference if I asked for a library of 400 images – 100 each of 4 scenes w/unlimited use for 5 years vs. 4 shots, one each 4 scenes w/ unlimited use for 5 years? It could be $100 / image vs. $1000 or more / image – true?

    Certainly the library doesn’t cost the per shot price x 100. This usually leads to “why am I paying so much for 4 images when I can have 400 for such a relatively small amount? ” Followed by: “since I can have 400 images at $100/image … why are you charging me so much when I only want 4?” If we aren’t very careful and transparent in our pricing this can be an extremely uncomfortable dance.

    This is one of the many forces in our industry that are contributing to the downward pressure on prices.

  12. Did they even get this job ? If not I’m not sure what the value is…

    And to anyone saying this is priced low, I’d like to see your signed estimates and invoices to back it up, because I call bullshit.

  13. I’d like to know where the $32 grand number actually came from. There’s a “starting point” in the article, but that sounds like it just came out of the air and doesn’t actually specify any number of images that the client might want or expect. Or is it basically “If you want everything I can shoot in a day, forever, it’s gonna run $8 grand a day”.