A Man Can’t Live on Image Credit Alone

So, from time to time, I receive requests to use my images for various purposes — like on a blog or a pamphlet or a calendar or the side of a zeppelin or for a urinal cake. Typically, if they are nice and they’re not going to be making a load of cash off where they’d like to use my image then I’ll let them use it as long as they give me credit. I’m especially generous with environmental interests and non-profits and ice cream manufacturers offering vouchers for all-you-can-eat tours.

But then there are the chumps (and chumpettes) who will be making a substantial amount of money off of the use of my image and I send them packing unless they pony up a fair amount of money. The latest version of this repetitive saga really got caught all up in my craw and so I felt the need to write a bit about it.

I should say here that this is 100% legitimate, the company that contacted me exists and has a rather impressive retail footprint in the US. The emails below are word-for-word with names removed to protect the company. The underlying issue I discuss does not begin and end with this example or company, it is much larger.

So, Monday morning I awake to an inbox message on Flickr that reads:

SUBJECT: Saint of the Wildflowers

Your photos are breath taking. I work a a company called [Company Name] located in Michigan. We always produce a landscape calendar for our customers to purchase. We match up scripture with the beautiful landscape images that God has provided.

This is a very low print run and only around 20,000 calendars produced. I was wondering if you would give us permission to use some of your photographs? I would be able to give you credit for your photograph. Please look at this an opportunity for you to reach a possible customers.

I have a meeting at the end of this week to present images. I look forward to hearing from you.


Lead Graphic Designer

20,000 calendars is a low print run?! Can you see the dollar signs lighting up in my eyes? Wooooo!! Surely they must have a budget for the artwork — they have a lead graphic designer after all! So I reply after checking out the going rate at Getty Images to get an idea of what the market should bear:

SUBJECT: Re: Saint of the Wildflower

Hello L,

Thank you for the kind words regarding my photography and for contacting me with this opportunity.

I would love to be a part of your calendar, but I can’t allow my work to be used without monetary compensation. (It is work after all!)

I believe that fair compensation for use like you’ve described above would be $550 per image. That would cover use of each image at full page size for a one year run of your calendar.

Thank you,

Jeff Swanson

I hear back quickly.

SUBJECT: Re: Saint of the Wildflowers

Thanks Jeff

Your very talented photographer and thanks for taking the time to respond. I completely understand your point of view and I do realize how much time and equipment you have into each photo.

This price is out of our budget for project.


So I’m thinking, hmm, they have a budget after all. Let’s probe a little more and see what it is.

SUBJECT: Re: Saint of the Wildflower

Hi L,

Thanks for understanding that there is indeed a lot of preparation and skill involved in landscape photography.

If you’d like to make a counter offer that will fit your budget, I might be able to work with you on the price.

Thank you,

Jeff Swanson

And again, she replied quickly and this is where the my jaw drops:

SUBJECT: Re: Saint of the Wildflowers

Hi Jeff

I have a very little budget. I don’t think we will be able to work together.

I have 100.00 for all photos. I’ve been finding some of them for free.

Thanks again

$100 for ALL THE IMAGES! WHAT!? That is HALF A CENT for all the images in each calendar. Let’s do some math here to show how painfully out of whack that is:

The calendar run is (only) 20,000. Say they can sell the calendar for $12.99 or so and have to pay $1 each for the printing of the calendars (a rough estimate from That leaves $11.99 to cover the rest of the costs associated with producing and selling a calendar and some profit for the company. That comes out to $239,800 left over to cover the rest of the costs and some profit. Of that amount they have only reserved a little more than four one hundreths of one percent for compensating the artists that produced the artwork that will actually sell their calendars (when’s the last time you bought a calendar because you liked the font?)

This is appalling and I’m sure it happens all the time.

So here’s the message: I’m not a professional landscape photographer. I’m not relying on this business to feed myself and cover my rent. So, in theory, getting credit should be plenty for me. But here’s where that doesn’t work anymore: I know many landscape photographers who ARE making a living at this and every time I (or you or ANYONE) accepts an image-credit-only offer for publication it is effectively taking food off of their plates. What happens is that more and more companies start resorting to this method all the time because they are successful at it. So I implore you to think twice about your actions the next time you are approached with a similar deal. Don’t help to erode the market for high-quality artwork just because you’re not relying on that market to feed yourself.

Next, don’t believe the schtick they feed you about exposure. When’s the last time you saw an image in a calendar or on a urinal cake and said “Gee whiz! I like that enough that I want to track that artist down and send them money!” See what I mean? They already have your image to look at (or pee on) anytime they want. Plus, you can’t take image credits to the grocery store or gas station or zeppelin store. “Sorry Bill, I can’t pay you for this gas, but I will tell anyone that asks why my car is running so well that I bought it here from you at Bill’s Gasoline and Urinal Cake Emporium, that cool?”

See how absurd that sounds when you aren’t talking about art?

About the author: Jeff Swanson is a California-based photographer who specializes in dynamic landscapes. You can check out his work by visiting his website, blog, or online gallery. This article was originally published here.

  • Tanshanomi

    Who said that the company is making any money off this? I am a publications director for a manufacturing firm, and we often GIVE AWAY things like a “landscape calendar for our customers” and eat the cost. Hence, I often am pinching every penny to contain costs.

  • Cyberiad

     Here’s an even better tool: Tineye. Amazingly good and fast tool for discovering your images being used elsewhere online. Give it a whirl. I was quite taken aback at how much of my stuff is out there, unattributed. Sending out waves of “at least put my name on there” emails and comments. Most of this was commercial stuff done under a Creative Commons license: such a good deal for anyone looking for free imagery, but the DEAL is that you give credit to the source. And even here, most people just grab and run. Thing is, you leave a trail. And Tineye can find it.

  • Jeff Swanson

    If you had read the correspondence it says “to sell to our customers.”

  • Tabby Caat

    There is so much misunderstanding and misinformation in this thread.

    It’s useless to try to change the tides.  The photography industry IS changing.  People who made a good living licensing stock photos for $$$$ 20 years ago see their business dry up as services offer microstock photos for pennies.  Similarly, blogs CAN find people to provide photos “for credit”, and there will always be plenty of wannabe photogs who are happy to take credit in exchange. 

    Your mistake is thinking that someone who is in the market for free photos is a potential customer.  That person is NOT your potential customer.  Don’t waste your time trying to “educate” them, or other photogs, into not participating in this exchange.  It meets THEIR NEEDS.  For you to survive as a photographer, you have to target your energies at people who want to pay you for your work.  Wasting your energy on this fight is tilting at windmills.  No matter how many times this story is re-told, it’s not going to change the market back to the way it was before the internet.

  • Jason

    It baffles me a little that numerous people posting here are not understanding what he’s trying to say. The point is that until photographers(in this particular case) stop giving their work away for pennies on jobs like these, other businesses will continue to erode the market even further. Really, Professional Photography is nothing more than a commodity?…the digital photo revolution?…god some of you guys are idiots. This bs doesn’t have to happen. It can stop, you just have to stand your ground. 

  • Jason

    @ zachawry he’s speaking with, as you said, “plenty of photographers who will give stuff away for free” crowd. Stop doing it plain and simple. They are the reason the market is eroding. 

  • Seb F.

    You could also have tried to ask her if she only credits restaurant owners for the meal she had at their place ?
    More seriously, the point is that this mentality is getting everywhere now : “yeah we have a budget, but not for photos : I could take these myself”.
    So, why don’t you do it yourself instead of taking my time for no buck ?

  • Seb F.

    Sure you may contain costs by pinching every penny.
    But no penny is not every penny :-(

  • Seb F.

    last one was for @Tanshanomi just above… Used the reply function though :-(

  • Unsolicited_opinion

    Totally agree, I hate all those watermarks, they ruin the photo, some watermarks are much worse than others they also advertise their owner’s website. Back in the old film days most pro photographers had name stamps they would use on the back of their prints. Guess that can’t be done digitally, but people could make their watermarks very small so they do not distract the viewer from the image.

  • Don Komarechka

    As a professional photographer who has been in this situation before, I completely agree with Jess Swanson in his article – it’s ridiculous. However, it’s the market we live in and it’s only getting worse.

    I quoted someone a “no way they can say no to it” price recently and they refused, citing “zero budget”. They loved the image enough to create a complete mock-up and were looking to go to the printer the next day. They clearly loved the image and it fit perfectly. The refused to pay even a tiny amount to use it.

    I charge for my work, and it’s insulting every time people ask to use it for free. However, I can’t change the market and I simply have to adapt to it. Going back to a famous Darwin quote, “It’s not the strongest who survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most adaptable to change.” How to adapt is the tricky part…

  • UKphotographer

    This is true. I have been selling photographs since 1987 and the novelty of seeing my name in print wore off about 1988. Nearly always free just leads to more free. You get more respect from people who are paying because if you value your photography and yourself then other people will too. 

    A credit is not and never has been payment for photography. Again, you are just “getting your name out there” as a desperate mug who is a source of free images. 

    Make no mistake, many of the people who are driving this freebie culture are profiting from it massively. Google is just one example. 

  • UKPhotographer

    Currently there’s nothing at the end of the free road because so many businesses are playing this game. But I believe that will change. 

    Many books and publications are filled with free images that are “good enough”. Whereas they used to be filled with photos that were brilliant. They have forgotten that exceptional photography is a way to distinguish themselves.  

    Good quality affordable digital cameras have only been around for, what, ten years? So we’re still in the novelty stage and I think the novelty will wear off somewhat. Taking good photos can be time consuming and hard work and most people are short of time and lazy (especially when not being paid)

    Also, as pointed out in another comment, increasingly the majority are carrying just a mobile phone and the cameras in those tend produce relatively poor quality, they don’t have a range of focal lengths and so on. They are the instamatics of our time. Plus a large percentage of these images will disappear into thin air as hard drives fail and social networking and sharing sites come and go. 

    Professional photography isn’t about taking quick snaps and uploading them to Flickr in their hundreds. Often it’s about recording and providing a back story to those images and a reliable service. These things have got lost somewhat in the hype but will be back eventually. I have a couple of filing cabinets full of photographs that I took as a magazine photographer. I don’t care if people don’t pay to use them. They won’t get them for free. I publish them along with new stuff on my own websites and make money that way. Yet, despite all the supposedly wonderful free photos out there and digital cameras everywhere, businesses still steal shots of well-known places that I shot 20 years ago on slide or colour negative film. Makes you think doesn’t it?   

  • Matt Lit

    Just one look at the grammar and spelling of his reply should tell you the story! I wouldn’t want a graphic designer with such piss-poor language skills working on my project!

  • Inbound Marketing Expert

    if you are using some one else content or images, we must always give credit to those people

  • Marja

    The problem is obvious:

    Companies are making a lot of money off content they get for free.  Yet they see nothing wrong with this.

    It’s one thing if it’s guy using your photo as his desktop pic, but quite another when they will make money off your work.  Does that graphic designer work for free?  The printer?  The CEO?

    Changing the scenario slightly shows how ridiculous it is:

    “Hi, there!  I’m Marja with the Super-Duper Blendertron Co.  We are making a new blender, the Blendomatic 3000, and I would you like you to build for me a blade system.  I can’t pay you for it, but I will copy your prototype and make $250,000 in profit for my firm.  We also need a lid guy, a pitcher guy, a motor guy, a button guy and a cord guy to create those for us for free.  Your name will be printed on page 32 of the owner’s manual.  So, can I count on you?”

  • Vir

    Well the only bright side to all of it is at least they asked.
    I spent last week fighting(read thratening) a facebook page who used images from out page with there logo on it. And then yesterday my sister came across an image of hers from her wedding being used as a banner ad on a popular ecommerce website.

  • S

    I found it appalling that the representative mentioned that he could get this artist’s pictures for free online. Totally bypassing usage laws. It shows a real lack of professionalism and knowledge on part of this individual, and the company should be made aware of the laws they are talking about breaking.

    Good luck.