How Much Should You Pay If You Earn $1 An Image?

A reader writes, "Hi Shelly, It was awesome to work with you [in Santa Fe at the AWAI photography workshop], and I look forward to doing so again, at a future event.

"I am extremely interested in stock photography. But if I understood correctly, both you and Rich stated you don't ever pay anyone to model for you. Yet you had that one young boy who models for you regularly. He was in your presentation.

"I plan to photograph my sons and daughter-in-law extensively; however, questions arise when I think about asking other families. I have friends with lovely children. A friend with a daughter who does ballet! Yet, as I discussed stock photography, in general, one friend said, she'd 'worry about images being altered and how dangerous that could be.' I didn't know what to say to that.

"Several families I know could use the money. How would I best present my case to them when I didn't plan to pay their children, yet I'd be making money from the images of their children? Words of wisdom with this situation would be appreciated.

"Lastly, since I also want to use [as my stock agency], do you suggest I go everywhere armed with an iStock model release and get one every time?  What if iStock doesn't want them and I want to sell them to other agencies?  And are they necessary overseas?"

My reply…

Hi Janie, I hope all is well with you.

That's correct, I don't pay (in cash) for stock models (more about that in a minute). I'll tell you why: You never know (or can guarantee) which images will fly and actually make money for you -- and which won't.

If I paid my models out of my pocket, I'd be starting at a deficit and every photo shoot I did would have to perform really well just to have me break even.

People sometimes think that you are making a lot of money off their photos. And sometimes they're right.

But often that's just not the case. The money comes from little, but consistent sales across your entire portfolio -- not just gangbuster sales of one image.

Here are two examples from my own stock portfolio:

** Example 1:

** Example 2:

As you can see (by clicking on each photo), both of these photo shoots are low performers -- with fewer than 100 sales in total (and these photos are over a year old).

Had I paid these folks as models, I wouldn't have broken even on this shoot. And worse, I'd also be out the time it took me to photograph them and the time it took to process and upload the images.

In fact, in these two cases, if I put a dollar value on my time in taking pictures and processing them, you could say they actually "cost" me money. If I'd had to pay these folks to model on top of that, I'd really be in the hole.

On the other hand, here is another example where the overall shoot is fairly low performing but a couple of the images are doing well enough to carry the group:

** Example 3:

My point is: You never know.

What I like to do is pay my models in something other than cash.

For instance, if it's a shoot with kids, I might plan to have a pizza party following the shoot -- something the kids can look forward to and be excited about, and which would also relieve the burden of dinner planning for the parents.

Usually, I'll also give them something… and that "something" depends on what type of shoot it is.

When it's a shoot I have asked people to do for stock, I provide them with a CD of the images -- so they can print them or use them as they would like.

For families on a tight budget, images like this truly are priceless, and ones they could not afford otherwise.

On shoots that I am hired for (but that I'd also like to use for stock), I provide a "print credit" with a signed model release essentially offering the people free prints if they agree to sign a release. That way it's a win-win.

The boy you mentioned in your note (and his three siblings) are really  like family to me. He, in particular, loves to have his photo taken. His brother… not so much. So I have a lot of the one and not so many of the other.

I have done a lot with (and for) this family since he was a baby, so it's a little different story… more as if I were photographing my own kids.

As for people being worried about how the images are used -- I think there are two things to keep in mind:

** 1.) Not everyone is comfortable (or willing) to sign a release and be a stock model. Fine.

I would not try to convince anyone who isn't comfortable with the idea to do it.

** 2.) But keep in mind that iStock does have very strict, legally binding rules on how, and in what manner, an image can be used.

You can always provide that information to the concerned person and let him or her make an informed decision.

I will also stress that, indeed, there are NO guarantees that all people are law-abiding citizens. A "risk" does exist that an image could be used in a way people don't like or agree with (medical issues, social issues, religious or political stances).

As for it being actually "dangerous," I just don't see that as a risk. Model Releases are stored but not viewable and never given to clients or other iStock members.

Now, on the subject of model releases: If you plan to use a photo for stock and it contains identifiable people, then YES you would have to have those people sign a release.

Again, it may be that not everyone is willing to sign. And in that case, your "perfect" shot could end up in your fine art collection instead of your stock portfolio. But that's ok, too.

I can't speak for the other agencies, but I know iStock does not accept releases from other agencies. You can modify the release and make it your own. However, if you do that, be 100% sure you have on it all the information iStock -- and any of the other agencies -- might want.

And, to your last question: YES, model releases are necessary overseas. iStock prints its releases in several languages (though not, as yet, in Chinese). Getting people overseas to sign releases can be problematic -- particularly in places where there's a high illiteracy rate, for instance.

When I go on trips, I don't take releases (well, I might have a couple in my bag just in case). I'll still photograph people, but I focus my camera on other things for stock when I'm traveling.

I'm just too shy to approach a stranger and ask for a release. I'm more comfortable restricting my people photos to friends and family.

[Editor’s Note: Learn more about how you can turn your pictures into cash in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.  Sign up here today and we’ll send you a new report, Selling Photos for Cash: A Quick-Start Guide, completely FREE.]