This Photograph Is Not Free

So this was the first sunset I captured in 2012. It cost me $6,612 to take this photo.

$12 in gas to go from work to this spot and then home. The camera I took this with cost $2500. The lens was another $1600. The Singh Ray Reverse Neutral Density filter was $210. The Lee Wide-Angle Adapter and Foundation kit was another $200. The Slik Tripod was another $130. The shutter-release was another $60. When I got home, I uploaded it to a computer that cost me $1200, and then I used Lightroom 3 which I got for $200. I then exported it and tinkered with it in Photoshop which costs about $500.

12+2500+1600+210+200+130+60+1200+200+500= $6,612

So if you’re a magazine, website, corporation, sports team, or advertiser who wishes to use this photo, please don’t come and ask to use it for free, or in exchange for credit or “exposure”. You found my photo so obviously I have “exposure”. You have an advertising budget, and this is what it’s for. You obviously don’t expect your writers to work for free, or your secretary, or your boss. No one is going to publish it for free. Just because the picture is digital doesn’t mean it was free to make.

As someone mentioned, THIS single photo didn’t cost me $6,612, but if you wanted to create it, from scratch, that is what is involved. So I consider it the replacement value if it’s stolen, or how much my lawyer will send you a bill for if it’s found being used without my permission.

If you give your photo away for “credit” then the best possible scenario for you is someone will see your photo, contact you, and ask if they could borrow one of your photos… for credit. Try this… next time you’re at dinner, tell your waiter you’ll tell all your friends how good the service was if he gives you dinner for free.

About the author: John B. Mueller is a photographer based in Ventura County, California. Visit his website here.

Thanks for the tip, Morts!

  • Smart Parenting

    I think he forgot to mention the cost of his electricity while processing this photo.

  • PerformingArtist

    The photo isn’t valued at what YOU think its worth, its valued at what the market thinks its worth.  Itemising costs doesn’t change this.  Market law dictates that if you set a price that no one will pay for then ultimately your photo is worth nothing.  It doesn’t matter the reasons behind the price you set.  A lot of artists are so passionate about their art they tend to forget the laws of economics.  I am a model/dancer/musician and I manage other models.  I get asked for free stuff all the time.  Some models are new and need exposure, others have a larger fan-base and are in demand.  I cannot simply charge based on how expensive their gogo outfit cost or their level of dance qualifications.

  • Ashley Beolens

    Every sing person here who has made a comment critisising this post needs to remember YOU do NOT work for free, if YOU were to go to work tomorrow and do a great job and then your boss said we will give you credit for a job well done but we no longer pay YOU would be pissed!

    Or how would you feel if someone decided to volunteer to do your job so they no longer willing to pay?

    The price listed is as an example to how the cost of a great photo is not about free digital images but that time effort and money go into great works.

  • Matthew_photos

    This picture sucks, nobody will use it man.

  • Gerda Grice

    Travel and equipment costs and the professional status or lack of it of the photographer are not the issue.  The issue is surely that the photographer owns the images s(he) makes and has a right to demand payment for them if s(he) chooses.

  • KnotWright

    Just keep your photos to yourself and never show them – then nobody will rip you off!
    Or – take your chances and keep putting great photos out there – you’ll make some $ – eventually!  Photographer’s aren’t restaurants or even plumbers – we’re lucky to get paid, and it’s a miracle if we get paid a fraction of what we deserve…

    Just take great and unique images and quit bitching! 

  • Theraisa K

    Couldn’t have said it better myself!

  • enzo dal verme

    To the clients that ask me to shoot for free, I am now sending the link to this short video: Exposure Doesn’t Pay Bills

  • Guest

    I hope you do, then John can sue you. And then maybe you’ll find a free lawyer to represent you (good luck on that). But before you get sued, send me 100 of those t-shirts for free. You’ll get exposure… as a poster child of IP infringement when I plaster them around the local law school. 

  • Guest

    Totally agree with you… And then people wonder, why am I scraping bottoms with my photography? Because of people like these commenters on this forum who’ve collectively agreed to work for next to nothing and dragged down the industry with them.

  • gLOW-x

    This is always funny to read reactions about money subjects.

    In our “all should be free” internet world (sounds like communism :D ), a chance there are ppl buying productions made by others.

    But the “it is on the internet, so i can steal it” spirit is related to capitalist system.

    -“Everything counts in large amount” (Depeche Mode)
    Witch mean if a company steal 1000 pictures a month instead of paying 1 buck each, they gain 1000 dollars a month and 12.000 a year.That’s why even big bucks enterprises steal photos, musics…if they don’t make money with them, they loose nearly nothing anyway.

    -As nobody will suit me (too expansive), i can overuse everything i can download.

    I even discovered recently ppl download watermarked pictures, remove the watermark and sell them on another website.
    Sometimes they even create their own website, to be sure they will not be kicked from legit websites…
    This is their full time activity.

  • Guest

    I am a photographer and what people pay for is your skill and time.  That is all.  They dont’ pay for your camera, or equipment, etc.  They pay for the prints, and the time.  If you hire a plumber to come to your house does he charge your for the pipe wrench, or does your landscaper charge you for his rake?  No, because that would be stupid, like this article.  Anyone can buy those things, but not everyone can take a good picture.  That’s what they pay for.

    Your argument is honestly sad and telling that you value your art based on the equipment used and not the skill that very few have.  Shame….

  • Paulie

    It’s fairly clear the photographer was making a point, not trying to sell the image for $6612. EVERYTHING goes into making an true fine art image, as opposed to the junk stuffed onto Flickr with camera phones. Good images have value (as do ANY kind that mean something to the owner), that was the point. When anyone’s hard drive crashes, what is the first thing they panic over? Excel files with last year’s budget?

  • isaac

    well if you don’t want it stolen/borrowed don’t put it on the internet! my 35mm camera I got from my grandfather would take this shot. for far less being old useful and not needing photoshop!

  • Michael MrAdorkable Markauskas

    I think I could get into this method of billing.

    oil = 25$
    filter = 10$
    ASE certifications = 300$
    mechanics tools = 35,000$

    so Mr Mueller, your next oil change will cost you 35,335$. we take cash and credit card.

  • Emily Heizer Photography

    Copyright infringement under Federal law is a $150,000 fine PER violation. Removing a watermark from a marked image is $6,000, again, PER violation. Doesn’t matter how much he “spent” on creating the image. He’s entitled to $150k per illegal use. Think about that the next time you download someone’s images without their permission!

  • Emily Heizer Photography

     Wrong. It’s federal copyright law. Doesn’t matter how much he spent. Federal law allows for $150k fines per violation PLUS cost.

  • notenoughtime

    I can’t believe how so many of you totally miss the point of the article.  Duh

  • Ecland

    Wow… next time I make a logo, I must charge the customer for the prize of my computer, and the printer, and Photoshop, and illustrator, and the typefaces, and the coffee, and the electricity, and my Internet connection, and the rent of my office, and my clothes, and…

  • Lkeele3

    Okay, I would like to get advice on how to get permission to use a picture.  I WANT to do it right.  I create digital scrapbooks with family histories and genealogies.  How can I use old pictures including school pics?

  • Armin Von Kink

    youre going to spend all that every time you take a pic?….try drawing(pen and paper)…

  • magenta

    But not the whole cost of the equipment and the lease and the education when I go in for a physical. This argument is stupid not because people disagree with the idea that artists should be paid for work but because it is a stupid argument. I paid, blah, blah for my equipment and if you had to create from scratch. Well, yeah, I get that people are better photographers than I am (thank goodness for that, because I’m really a rather poor photographer.) Still,as a page designer if pressed between $6,000 for sunset shot and come up with my own, I’m going to come up with my own. I’m not *that* bad. And the difference between, “I really like this one” and “this one will do” is rarely $6,000. Exceptions exist, but they’re rare.

    I mean, seriously on personal level, sometimes I’m trying to pinch pennies and would prefer someone else make me an enchilada, but I can do a good one from my fridge. Fine, I can’t really do sushi at home, so if I’m trying to budget, I don’t have sushi. Stuff is worth what people will pay. And $6,000 for a sunset photo isn’t something any sane content editor is going to pay.I’ve had a few photos that I’ve paid more for than usual, but they’re, well, unusual. This is just a nice sunset.

    And if my doctor suddenly raised his rates to cover the entire cost of his rent, staff and student loans for my routine physical, well, yes, no matter how much I might like the doctor, I’d find a different one. If I need a liver transplant, obviously the rates go up. But we’re not talking liver transplant with this photo expertise, we’re talking physical.

    I’ve seen a few, “he was just making a point …” arguments and maybe that’s true. But he undermined the point with the ridiculous cost for what is a pretty generic photo. I don’t really care what his equipment cost, honestly. The going rate for a photo like that, printable quality probably $30. I don’t care if it would cost me $6,000 to reproduce it. Honestly, I could buy the equipment and not reproduce it. But the point is, going rate, maybe $30.

    And there is no insult in *asking* if an artist will allow use of photo for credit. The folks are asking. They are respecting it is someone’s personal work. The artist can say yes and get the credit or say no and give a rate.

    This is not the same as stealing the image, which I do see far too often and usually out of ignorance rather than malice. As a communications director, I often say, “OK, where’s that from?” Staff: “I grabbed it off the Internet.” Me: “Do we have permissions for it?” Staff: “Huh?”

    I mean, really, getting mad at the people who have the awareness and courtesy to ask permission is sort of ridiculous, IMO. Worry about the people who don’t even realize it’s someone’s property. Because they’ll take you’re happy little sunset image and distort it to heck, never give you credit and you’ll never know.

    I recently asked an artist for permission to use one of his images and he was more stunned that I asked than anything. “I’d never have known if you just reproduced it.” But, as I said to him, that’s *wrong*.

    On the other hand, expecting me to pay for your equipment with each individual photo if not wrong (and arguably it is) is completely out of line with reality.

    Now I often push for “let’s hire someone who will do this better” in my own position, because I’m not great at every aspect of communications. But if the Web designer had come in and said, “That’ll be the entire cost of every program I’ve ever bought to build my business plus all of my time and gas mileage for driving over today ….” Yes, earn a living, but don’t outline that you’ve had to buy Creative Suite and Web space and … Because I honestly don’t care. I know. Still don’t care. I didn’t tell you to take on this as a profession and go into business for yourself. Stuff’s expensive. I sympathize. So should the person pricing their product.

    On a small scale, I recently did a project for someone. I charged them for art I found (at cost) and my time. I did not charge them for the purchase of my PC, my photo account, the software that made it possible and my Internet connection for the two months on which we figured out what art we really preferred. Because that would be patently ridiculous and irrelevant.

  • J-roc

    Why are you confusing fixed costs with variable costs?

  • Katy

    woah, bitter much?

  • KOZ

    you forgot to add the cost of the shoes i imagine you wore shoes that day and the gas wear ant tear of your vehicle also the flash card or film you used. OMG and the rent of the place where you live! and the hospital bill that you parents paid to have you so this might be a million dollar picture.

  • dawnschroder

    The photo is beautiful – artists deserve to be paid for their work and should not be taken advantage of by multi-million and billion dollar organizations that have the money to pay for their work.

  • Ken

    It would only cost you 6,650 if that is the only photo you ever took with your equiptment and if that is the case your a good photographer but a bad businessman.

  • Ken

    Once someone takes your photo and you no longer have it anymore then you can call it theft. Otherwise it is copyright infringement which by law is not considered theft or even a criminal act but a civil one. Calling it theft is to claim something that has no basis in law which makes it empty hyperbole.

  • Otto

    Jeez, why be such a dick about it. Your professional problems are yours, not mine.

  • Pauljpb2

    yes, but, how much will you sell it for?

  • Dewdle

    Nobody wants to pay for Content these days. I’ve never met this Mr. Nobody .Everyone else will try to steal it , like they always have. It’s just so much easier to do the nefarious deed digitally instead of lifting actual film or a real print. I wonder where iDevice users and web surfers think all that digital Content comes from , anyway ? Took me six months to get Newsweek to pay me for a full page photo last year used globally in both print and online editions. Millions of views. But try to collect. If only the mainstream media would pay real photographers the way TMZ pays papparazzi for stalk-and-snipe shots of Lindsay Lohan’s crotch

  • Just to prove a point…

    If you really cared that much about the photo and its worth then you should not have put it up in an unprotected location… Because now I’m going to use it as the background for my desktop and phone…

  • Robert Jordan

    I’ve been a professional photographer for 30-years, respect for our profession and the value of our craft (as well as assigning a monetary value to our work) is at an all-time low. It’s been a great ride, but I can no longer recommend photography as a viable career choice.

  • Henry

    So it cost you $6,612 to take this photo, but all the ones afterwards will be much cheaper as you’ve now paid for your camera right?

  • Bianca Bell-Chambers

    Although assets writes off through their calculated lifetime, this example bring’s it to the point: Why do companies sometimes take everything – and especially the work of others – for free? While I suffer to pay for my chemo and others, some of my older and famous professionell photographies are copied again in well known magazines without permission and without being paid for. I am tired of fighting, but I will never give up to believe in a better place we could give ourselves. Do what you like but do the best you can give to make a start!

  • Anonymous

    I could’ve shot this for ten bucks.

  • 4712

    right on

  • Venice Valencia

    In business you can not always expect profit, and you can not add up all your expenses to just one picture like that, in able to gain, you need to put capital first, and do you think this picture is worth that amount? think about it… although it’s beautiful but not perfectly 100 % reach my expectation for that amount. thank you for posting.

  • Priceless


    I had to stop reading after the thousandth post (my time is valuable too) – you photographers are like a pack of (rational) dogs. There are several valid and well made points here but next time I need a professional quality photograph I’m going to pay one of those electronic supermarket photo-booths for the job!

    Also, here’s one I made earlier…

  • Kenny Hotts


  • Kenny Hotts

    What about the cost of the car? He didn’t just buy $12 in gas without a car. Also, he had to go somewhere, which meant he needed breakfast. Also, he probably had to wear clothes.

  • Ellen Ward

    I find it interesting how humble Mr. Mueller actually seems. He mentioned the cost of the equipment, software, etc. Never once did he say a word about how much of his TIME was spent taking this photo. Scoping the perfect location, identifying the perfect time to arrive, the remainder of planning, editing, etc. that went into this. THAT is worth A LOT. And in the end – while he may charge someone $6,600 for stealing it – inthe end they always had the option to pay for it (which would likely cost much less than $6,600). If it were me, I’d say, I’ll tell you what, if you can take his same exact picture for less…I’ll pay you the difference. In my opinion – dishonesty comes with a cost. Stealing is stealing. And what about expertise? What’s that worth?

  • George DeModiga

    Generally, I get what your point is and agree. However, there are other ways to express your frustration, which I agree, again, are valid. If you truly do not wish the general public to lift your print, use a watermark. Simple. Also, don’t use bogus numbers. I mean, you might as well throw in the three cans of dog food for your faithful friend who traveled with you for this shot, and price tag for shots, leash, and kennel, etc.] *smile*

  • George DeModiga

    One other thing: I have given years of all that I have for that one p e r f e c t shot. However, I did it for the love of photography, and the creative solitude that is involved in the process. I have sold my photos – or given them away more times than I’d like to remember – and continue to pursue that perfect expression of what I see through a lens. Never forget why you chose this line of creativity – whether it is with an aged and dented Nikon classic or a Canon miracle worker – it is for the love of life and presenting what you ‘see’ to those who can’t. :o]

  • Nick

    I couldn’t agree with you more, when people see a photo online they simply think they can use it free without the permission or more importantly any thought to the photographer. Photographers love taking photos and want others to see and appreciate them but this doesn’t mean we want magazine and publications to use them without even a credit. A fee would be better but things have changed dramatically on this over the years.

  • nhlighthouse

    Surely an inflated way of making a point…however remember that when you purchase anything in life…there are alot of cost associated with a product getting to the end user that people don’t even take into consideration!

  • nhlighthouse

    You also get section 179 depreciation credit from the gov…for your equipment now deduct that from your bill every year for seven years if you spread it out !

  • nhlighthouse

    You would be surprised how great a disposable camera or smart phone can take great pictures!

  • angie497

    Copywrite exists from the moment of creation. And while watermarking is all well and good, it stops very few people from ‘borrowing’ your work. I’ve seen people use watermarked photos on blogs and webpages without a second thought, sometimes because they’re uninformed but sometimes because they just don’t care. And someone with the time & photoshop skills can remove a watermark.

  • angie497

    Actually, his comment *does* qualify for copyright protection, and that protection exists from the moment of creation – just like your copyright on a photo exists from the moment you take the picture.

    Copyright doesn’t have to be registered on written works any more than it has to be registered on photographic works.