Why Are Architecture Photography Rates In The UK So Low?

Why Are Architecture Photography Rates In The UK So Low?

Business

Over the years I’ve had the great fortune of befriending many very talented photographers from around the world; I’ve also come to have an obsession with all things British thanks to binging episodes of Grand Designs and Top Gear. Consider me another American British Fetishist, I suppose. In any case, in the process of becoming friends with photographers across the pond, I’ve been bewildered by the amount of money that these very very talented photographers are able to charge – and not in a good way.

Britain has traditionally been one of the economic powerhouses of the world – harboring a strong financial sector, plenty of large-scale architectural projects, top-level property development across the country, and a massive art and design scene that is globally recognized as one of the best in the world. On paper, a perfect storm for photographers to charge healthy rates for their work, and in many genres they do. Agencies I have worked with have reported spending as much as £75,000 for a photographer on a single fashion campaign – a day or two of shooting – so you can imagine my surprise when a photographer friend of mine casually said:

If you’re charging £1000 per day here, you’re doing pretty well as far as architecture goes.

-London photographer

That’s a rate of $1300USD per day – which on the surface seems pretty good until you start to dig into the numbers. Of course you can sit there and multiply 5 days of work by 4 weeks a month by 12 months in a year and come up with a photographer pulling in north of £240,000 per year, a very healthy salary – but we know that nobody works every day of every week: nobody’s body can handle that amount of this work for any meaningful length of time, we have marketing costs, overhead, equipment, and the list goes on. That £240k will dwindle really quickly. And that’s shooting every day of the year! It’s nowhere near sustainable or desirable. When do you upload cards? Import? Retouch? Etc.

A more reasonable schedule for a very busy photographer might consist of 2 or 3 shoots a week, which is still exhausting. I’d put this at the limit of what is theoretically possible while still maintaining a high standard of work, appropriate to high end architecture and interior design clients. After expenses, I could easily see someone walking home with around £60-90k. Not bad, but, given the incredible effort it takes to achieve a career like that, the talent on display, and the value of these images to developers and architects, it seems quite low compared to the US and other European countries. Not to mention the burnout – it’s real, let me tell ya. This perfect year of shooting is never going to happen. Shooting twice a week at £1000 every month of the year puts us at £96,000 pre-tax, pre-expenses, pre-equipment, pre-everything. A nice number on paper, but anyone who’s tried this knows 50% of that can evaporate in a heartbeat.

To get more insight into this, I solicited comments from as many friends in the industry as possible – unfortunately, I don’t have any UK-based clients to hear that side of the story, but the insight I received from other photographers was fascinating. For obvious reasons, most people that I asked for input into this story requested that I withhold their name. Photographers from the interior, architecture, and hotel industries in the UK were the focus of my question, but a few photographers from outside the UK (but strictly NOT American) also offered up input when they heard of the article; I didn’t post their answers here but they were expressing disbelief (and solidarity with their British counterparts!)

There is a massive discrepancy in fees. I earn a living from photographing predominantly commercial interiors in the UK. I charge £500 a day in NW England and complete roughly 150 shoots a year. I want to raise that to £600 but I could possibly lose 30-40% of my clients, which are mostly refurbishment contractors. It’s a market attitude that’s generally balanced heavily towards cost rather than value. I wouldn’t say the market is saturated either.

Manchester Photographer

Giving some credence to my paragraph upstory, the volume approach can be tough – 150 shoots a year – and not even hitting the 1000 pound mark.

I’m very aware of this perception in the UK. I’ve come to understand a number of reasons why this is the accepted case. The no. 1 reason? We (the Brits) aren’t great at selling ourselves. This is even more the case with photographers. I think Americans have a significantly more progressive mindset to commerce and sales.

A recent example: a Brit architectural photographer friend was recently about to close a deal with a big UK building developer.

Builder: so what’s your fee
Photographer : £2500 per day + licence
Builder: we’ve loads of business for you. We’re thinking more in the range of £500
Photographer: do you think you could do £800 if I gave you perpetual use image rights to all photos?
Builder: deal

This is typical. And it’s why the expectation is so low. Photographers most often want to just be a photographer – at any cost. They haven’t trained in sales, branding, marketing or PR. We far too often react to market forces than create our own value. This is something that I believe Americans do very well – you’re not afraid to say “this is what I’m worth” and demonstrate why you’re right. You have a much bolder mindset to talk about worth and value and that makes you better at sales and in my view, business. Especially the photography business. I believe there is a huge amount of British photographers that could learn more about business, but most often we just accept what market forces say we’re worth. And that’s why we’re not worth so much (in my humble experience)

London Photographer

This does make a good deal of sense and points to a general difference in attitudes towards life in general between America and many European countries. We’re known as entitled and loud for good reason 😉

Many UK-based photographers have been pressured into abandoning the licencing model which has done irreparable harm to our market. In previous years I have been able to licence images to editorial publications and contractors; but many of my clients have pushed back against this practice, citing other photographers they work with that supply images and allow them to be distributed at no additional cost to what, as far as I can tell, is anyone and everyone. I wish more photographers here knew the value of their work, I am often envious when American photographers discuss their licencing income. It wasn’t long ago that we were able to charge licence fees on the majority of our work without opposition.

London Photographer

This one cuts deep – licensing is such a huge part of my revenue stream; if it dried up overnight I’m honestly pretty sure I’d start looking for another career. Thankfully copyright law in the United States is quite cut and dry on the matter; the copyright holder retains the ability to license images and defend against infringement if needed. I’m not sure what the analogous laws are in the United Kingdom / Europe, or if it’s even possible to pursue infringements without spending a fortune.

I don’t even know where to start with this one. I definitely think this is more of a European issue than just the UK, although Germany and Switzerland seem to be able to charge more than others. In the UK there is a lot of money flying around in the property and construction industries and lots of construction projects happening, so I don’t think there’s a lack of work or money on the table. There’s definitely a high number of “good enough” photographers. Not too many amazing ones though. Somehow, somewhere along the way us photographers have let the situation get bad.

I think there’s been a general lack of photography business education. Most universities focus on photography skills, not business. Combine that with the British culture of not talking about money because it’s a bit taboo and you get lots of very arty people who don’t know how to price themselves. It took me about 3 years to get my head around pricing over here. All the info online is American and doesn’t really translate to the UK, so you’re left to just make it up and do trial and error.

I also suspect we don’t value the idea of marketing quite so highly over here. I could be wrong but us Brits are fairly reserved and don’t like to push ourselves too much for fear of putting people off. You can sense that when you go shopping. In America, you go into a store and get the instant “hello, how are you today? Can I help you with anything?”. Over here that would be seen as intrusive and annoying. It’s just a different culture. I think many European cultures are the same. Hard to say if this is to blame for low rates, but I’m sure it has to have an effect.

Guildford Photographer

Photographers – everywhere – nah, hell, commercial artists everywhere need to start talking about money more. In a landscape that is more cutthroat than ever, in a society where independent creators and small businesses are getting pinched more by the general costs of living than at any time in history while large corporations record massive profits, we’ve gotta be transparent about this stuff, especially when we are all helped by it becoming more public knowledge. It kills me inside when a photographer who is incredibly talented doesn’t know the value of their images. Getting paid a few hundred quid/bucks for a set of pictures that end up in a global magazine, where the placement cost tens of thousands per month (if not more!) is highway robbery.

1) It appears that there is, or at least has been, a stylistic difference in architectural photography tastes in the US and UK/Europe. UK architects tend to like a more ‘relaxed’ aesthetic. Documentary style with people doing their thing in the space, natural light and little post. This allows for a lower barrier to entry as the equipment and knowledge needed to pull of this look is easier to obtain than the highly polished/produced look that seems more prevalent in the US and elsewhere. I think this is changing though, and we are probably meeting in the middle somewhere.

2) Over here, 90% of photographers gave up rights managing their images years ago. It’s a sad fact and makes it very hard for those left that care about the value of their images but ultimately it has led to us being perceived as a service business, rather than delivering art. As others have said, [lack of] education and being shy of talking about money and contracts have probably got us to this point.

Kent Photographer

Manage. Your. Image. Rights! Imagine if the recording industry just gave up and rolled over on licensing royalties.

Architects in the UK, my clients at least, seem to be criminally underpaid. Very long hours and demanding clients can result in low fees, so when they do need photography they simply haven’t got any budget. I actually think a few of my clients end up showing a loss on some of their residential projects. The larger practices should pay, and have in the past, but increasingly are taking their photography in-house (and doing it badly). I work for the few people who will pay a few thousand a day and allow me to charge third parties; I also retain the ability to license for editorial. It’s tough, but I still earn a good living, especially with the ability to license photos.

London Photographer

So maybe it’s not only the fault of the photographer – but perhaps the industry as a whole. I, for one, would love to see architects charge a healthy rate for their work because I know how incredibly hard it can be to practice architecture in any market, though that is easier said than done. As photographers we are in a lucky position that allows us to work on short project timelines – and we can learn business lessons much faster. We’ll learn a lot about negotiating, billing, client management, and so on, when we are shooting 20, 40, 100 projects a year. Architects in many cases may only work on a handful of projects a year and it may be very difficult to figure out what works for their business – taking decades to perfect a process that a photographer might nail in just a few years.

I have shifted my work mostly to ATL campaigns that have made me 20,000 for a days work, but they are obviously more rare than a typical architecture gig. I’ve shifted my focus to capturing more of this work as the frustration working within architecture has become very great recently.

London Photographer

Always smart to diversify your income – whether through multiple types of architectural photography (hotel, architecture, advertising, interior) or selling prints from personal projects, or starting multiple small businesses.

It starts at the bottom and percolates all the way through the photography business.

For Amateur photographers in the UK, there are 1,100 camera clubs. Let’s say each has 50 members. That’s 55,000 good, keen photographers each looking for interesting things to shoot. We also turn out 1,000s of photography graduates from universities/collages each year all looking for work. If any of the above want to get into portraiture, they have to PAY for subjects to shoot, hence the rise of Purpleport and Model Mayhem.

With a market containing a huge number of good, very keen photographers and horrendous earnings in RE and lower paid work, anyone interested in architectural work is trying very hard to move up to higher paying jobs, creating huge saturation and inevitably price competition . I would suggest that this is the cause of suppressed earnings across-the-board in photographic work and particularly, architectural work.

I am fascinated to see how long it can last as I really don’t see how sustainable it can be. If you factor in travel costs, insurance, wear and tear on kit, this is pretty much working for free – supporting my initial claim that we have lots of photographers just looking for interesting subjects.

London Photographer

Photography can be an amazing career; full of rewarding experiences working with incredible talent, traveling the world, laughing until your stomach hurts, and as a result there are a lot of people who’d love to do it – but there’s a time to know the value of what you produce and provide for our clients. When money is involved – let’s take it seriously. Unfortunately there’s no way to enforce that. Trust me; I got plenty of comments about unionizing – if only!

It’s the same in lots of markets for the UK/USA. Sadly the UK doesn’t have a great culture when it comes to business practices, which is a sad irony for the country that was the spearhead for the Industrial revolution.

London Photographer

Which was one of my goals with starting APA, because I believe most artists in general could do better when it comes to learning about and being open to sharing business practices with one another.

The Healthcare And Social Services Bit

While talking to these photographers, one topic that came up on a couple occasions was the discrepancy in healthcare and infrastructure between the two countries. In America, as anyone who has ventured outside in the past decade knows, we have a bit of a healthcare situation – sub-par and expensive care proliferates across the country. Even with insurance, navigating the labyrinthine healthcare system can be the stuff of nightmares. Through no fault of your own you could be left with crippling medical debt and difficulty receiving care.

For most Americans, healthcare is provided as part of the benefits package of a full time W2 job. Employers are able to purchase discounted insurance and pass off the savings to their employees, or substitute cash compensation with insurance benefits. This can create a situation where it’s ridiculously scary for someone to quit a job to pursue a professional career in the arts, as healthcare costs for individuals and families have ballooned beyond comprehension. I don’t think this video could have been released at a better time:

Now before the inevitable comments – I know the NHS / European Healthcare is not perfect. But what I think is beautiful is that British photographers do not seem to be beholden to their employer for healthcare. They can strike out on their own for a much lower cost, carry much less risk in the process if something does go wrong health-wise, and they can take advantage of an incredible (to any American, at least) public services infrastructure. It goes a little bit beyond healthcare too, but I don’t need to get off the rails (pun intended) here.

My theory is that some of this downward pressure is due in part to systems like the NHS which make it easier for photographers to accept lower commissions – I don’t know about you, but even as someone with decent health insurance, there’s always a fear in the back of my head that I’ll get injured out of state where I don’t have coverage, my insurance will conveniently decide to not cover a procedure, I’ll have surgery with an out of network anesthesiologist, etc, and this could easily cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars if things really spiraled. A not-insignificant amount of medical bankruptcies declared in America occur with people who do have insurance! So I am always trying to keep a significant of money saved as a form of self-insurance, and given that employers usually cover health benefits for employees, these costs are often significant – personally my premium is around $550 monthly for a second-tier plan; as another example my 60 year old mother pays $1100 a month for hers – both purchased through the “marketplace” open to all Americans.

So that is one way in which artists may have a tougher time demanding higher fees, but I don’t think it paints the entire picture. The cost of living in major British cities can be astronomical – yet photographer fees still seem suppressed, despite the crazy amounts of money flying around.

The Cultural Differences

Perhaps there is a greater cultural factor at play; as some of the photographers I interviewed mentioned. I know as an American I have been raised to constantly compete; we are raised to go for the gold, shoot for the moon, fight for our worth, don’t settle, and so on. Humility is not our strongest suit – but I don’t think it should be if you are going to go into the cutthroat world of commercial art. You’ve gotta fight like hell to get the most out of it, be a bit ruthless, and killer, because there are plenty of people out there looking to take advantage. I can’t think of a more succinct description than what one of our London-based photographers said:

Photographers most often want to just be a photographer – at any cost. They haven’t trained in sales, branding, marketing or PR. We far too often react to market forces than create our own value. This is something that I believe Americans do very well – you’re not afraid to say “this is what I’m worth” and demonstrate why you’re right. You have a much bolder mindset to talk about worth and value and that makes you better at sales and in my view, business. Especially the photography business. I believe there is a huge amount of British photographers that could learn more about business, but most often we just accept what market forces say we’re worth. And that’s why we’re not worth so much (in my humble experience)

London Photographer

The Tight-Lipped Bit

Photographers are a notoriously secretive bunch. Trade secrets, pricing information, equipment secrecy. I get it – I totally do, as it is an intensely personal craft and one does not simply arrive as a photographer with their business totally figured out in a year. It has taken me nearly a decade to get to this point, and I often struggle with sharing information that I fought ti discover on my own through years of trial and error. Why should you get it – you just started shooting a year ago. Figure it out on your own, bucko!

Brits – notoriously – are quite tight lipped and reserved, from what I can tell, and the stereotype exists for a reason (aren’t you guys famous for never talking to people on the tube or in public unless absolutely necessary?), especially when it comes to business and artistic techniques (note: this is obviously anecdotal, please don’t crucify me in the comments). It is most often the rambunctious Americans (stereotypes exist for a reason!) sharing pricing talk, licensing info, and so on. Combine the reserved British culture with the already reserved nature of photographers and you have a perfect storm for a lack of shared information.

And frankly, I don’t care if I lose a job to someone else and they are charging a fair rate. Fair play – you’re a better shooter than me. Or one of a thousand other factors. Life happens! Onto the next job.

But I lose my marbles when I lose a gig to a shooter who, regardless of skill, doesn’t know how to bill for a job. Licenses given away. Heinously undercharging. Not understanding the value of the images they produce – which really does make it harder for the profession. So I’ve tried to share as much information as possible to try to elevate the amount of knowledge floating around – and hell, I don’t even know if what I do is the best way to do it, but I know that my rates are healthy and sustainable; they also allow for well-managed licensing deals and third party cost shares which have been a vital income stream for the architectural photographer for decades.

That was a lot of conjecture, Mike

I know, I know – at the end of the day, I don’t have a solid answer. I have some theories – but they are just that. I do believe so strongly that everyone in every country should understand the value of the images they provide. Are we putting rockets in space, curing cancer, or solving the world’s greatest problems? We certainly aren’t, and we knew that going in. But what we are doing is providing some of the most important marketing assets to clients who are making some very serious money – and in many cases, the creative talent and energy that is put into these projects isn’t compensated nearly enough. Think of how freaking hard you worked to build this business – all the highs and lows, all the research, all the obsession, and the trial and error. And clearly my question to my colleagues in the UK struck a nerve, as so many had so much to say. And if you’ve got more to add, I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments and any thoughts you have on the subject.

About Mike Kelley
Mike Kelley is an architecture and interiors photographer who has photographed projects all over the world. He is a self proclaimed airplane food enthusiast and the founder of the Architectural Photography Almanac.