You Should Be Charging Licensing Fees for Publication Use of Your Images

You Should Be Charging Licensing Fees for Publication Use of Your Images

You just wrapped up an amazing shoot and delivered the images to your client, who loves them as always. A week or two later, you’re contacted by a publication asking to use the images in a story they are running.

This is awesome! You’re over the moon and swelling with pride. But wait – what should you charge for publication usage of your photos? Should you even be asking a fee? You send back what you think is a fair rate to the magazine’s photo buyer, and they respond with the dreaded response that goes a little something like this:

“We have little to no budget but can offer you a credit line in exchange for the images.”


To make things more complicated, your client the designer (or architect) messages you about how excited they are that both of your work is picked up for publication.

So what do you do? Should you bend to the magazine’s request for essentially free content and keep your client happy? After all, client relationships are the bread and butter that make your business thrive. Or do you stick to your price and decline the publication’s request, standing in your client’s way of getting their work published?

This is such a nuanced topic and if you are looking for a quick answer, it seems to be that the only good way to handle getting paid for licensing your photographs for publication is to set the right expectations with your client beforehand. Client relationships make the world go round, and we want to celebrate the successes of their work, and in turn our work, together. While most photographers that I polled said that ultimately they don’t completely decline the publications request out of respect for their client, they agreed that you need to be getting something in return, whether that’s a small usage fee, ad space, etc. After all, publications make money off of subscriptions and advertisements. It’s a business.

Now let’s get into the thick of it. You should be charging publications to license your photographs for use.

I am admittedly not the authority on this topic, but that’s okay, because I reached out to those who are. After many chats and questions about the best practices of architectural and interior photographers from different markets all around the globe, long email threads to publicists and agents who work to get their photographer’s images into publications, and reading through endless press kits from magazines big and small, here is what I learned.

The Usage Request

Every single architectural photographer that I polled said that they have been getting more and more requests from publications to use their photographs in exchange for a credit line only. Jennifer Hughes reported back that she gets “no-photo budget” requests almost daily. If you’ve seen her work, you know it’s worth whatever dollar figure she asks for.

It seems like the publications offering no photo budget for images are smaller, regional or local magazines, and online publications. That’s not to say that all local or digital publications fail to pay for images, though. Nor is it to say that some of the “big guys” aren’t offering unfair payment from time to time. As one photographer I interviewed explained, it seems to be a “top-down problem.” When photographers are excited to be in a big-time magazine it’s hard to turn the opportunity away, even for little to no compensation. When a large scale publication realizes they don’t have to pay as much for photographs, the local magazines follow suit.

So why are photo budgets declining these days? With the emergence of social media it often feels like photographs have more value than ever, and yet are worth less. That coupled with the fact that the architectural and interiors photography niche has exploded in the past few years, means that there is an influx of new members entering the industry – new members who haven’t sorted out the best practices for their business, their clients, and in turn, the industry.

Don’t Forget That Publications are Businesses

Magazines make money. Publications are businesses. If you’re reading this, it is safe to assume you’re an architectural photographer. If you’re an architectural photographer, you probably subscribe to a handful of publications for inspiration and to learn a bit more about architecture and interior design. You pay per month to flip through these magazines.

Most publications, whether in print or online, have ad space that they sell. The money that they make off advertisement space is often determined by the circulation or views of the publication. What drives the views if not the photography?

Consider this: an “All Access” subscription to Dwell gives you access to 6 printed magazines and all of their online content. On sale, it costs $49.99 per year. In their 2021 press kit, Dwell mentions their print rate base (the number of subscriber and newsstand copies a magazine guarantees) is 200,000, they have 2.3 million unique web visitors, and reach 8.5 million people on social media. To take out a full-page ad in 2021 cost $26k. A half-page ad was $13k. Think of all the ads you see while thumbing through your copy on a Sunday morning with your coffee.

But that’s a large publication that is able to pay a fair price for purchasing photography content. What about a small local magazine?

Phoenix Home and Garden is a local magazine that circulates around Phoenix, Arizona. They shared in their press kit that they had 76,049+ audited and verified copies sold, between subscriptions and copies on newsstands. A full-page ad in their magazine costs $8,500. Running one web ad on Phoenix Home and Garden for one month costs $750.

Publications are profitable. If they weren’t, you wouldn’t be reading them. Your photographs are the content that keeps publications in business, now more than ever. Make sure you’re charging for your work to be licensed.

Discussing Rates With Publications

Let’s start at the beginning. You’ve got a request from a publication to use your images in a story. What do you charge? Where do you start?

Your first step is to arm yourself with information. Do some research on the back end. Start with the press kit.

Use a Press Kit to See the Reach and Ad Costs of a Publication

Most American and English publications have a “Press Kit” or “Advertising” link in the footer of their website. I had a much harder time finding these resources on the websites of magazines and publications outside the USA. If you are able to find a link to a press kit, it is a powerful resource that gives you insight into the size of the readership of a publication, and what they charge to take out an advertisement. This is handy to know when talking over the publication’s content purchasing budget. If you end up going the route of exchanging images for ad space (more about this later), you’re now equipped with the knowledge of that value.

Understanding the metrics behind the magazine and seeing the scale of distribution is a great way for you to gauge their budget. A large publication that has a readership of hundreds of thousands of people is more likely to offer hundreds of dollars per image for licensing, whereas a “mom and pop” local magazine that reaches just a few thousand folks around your town may genuinely not be able to pay over a hundred dollars for an image.

Just Ask

Architectural Photographer Casey Dunn keeps it simple. When he gets a request for publication he says “Typically, we ask what their normal fee structure is for supplied photography, and if they don’t have one we suggest a per image rate commensurate with what other similar magazines or outlets have or currently pay for usage.” Carrie Buell, who runs the business side of things at Studio Buell works mainly with small “mom and pop” publications that have little budgets. She shared that her first step is asking as many questions as possible after getting a publication request. Find out what you would learn from a press kit: what is the reach, how many runs, how long will it be in circulation? If it’s online, how many viewers will see it?

This information is powerful.

The Going Rate

Every photographer that I polled agreed that the best way to fix the “little to no photo budget” issue from publications is to create a unified industry standard. The magic cure for this problem would be all photographers charging these rates for their work, sort of like a guild. That’s all well and good, but what should those rates be? Here is some data for you from those sharing what they are typically paid, or expect to be paid:

  • Photographer A) $150-$200 per image for print, and $50-$100 for digital. Although he did say that in this day and age the digital rate should be higher.
  • Photographer B) Anywhere between $100-$500 per image for print, depending on the quantity and size of the spread.
  • Photographer C) She thought $150-$250 per image sounded fair.
  • Photographer D) Recently was published in a national magazine and received $300 per image + $1,000 for the cover.
  • Photographer E) They’re used to a ballpark price of around $300 per image for publication usage.
  • Photographer F) He operates in a small Northern German market and his minimum rate is 80€ per image. Larger spreads are 120€ per image.

When you look at these prices at first, they might seem all over the board. Read through the lines though, and you can extrapolate that you should absolutely be charging for your images to be used in publications. Photographers want $100 – $500 per image to be licensed in publications. The average going rate for licensing to larger tier magazines is about $300+ per image.

I spoke with a source that gave me some intel on what you can expect to receive for a feature in a publication. For large magazines like Dwell or Luxe, the upper range for a feature is about $1,200. She noted though, that these days it seems that magazines often cut photography budgets first. They typically assume that photographers have already been paid by the architect and will be complacent with receiving no additional licensing fee.

But What About the Small Publications

We recognize that small local publications come with a small local budget. Their tighter circulation means less money coming in, and less money to spend on buying content. That doesn’t mean that you should be giving them your work for free though. A small market photographer explained their process to me for dealing with publications that truly have a small budget.

They always receive some sort of compensation for their work, even if it’s a fraction of what they are used to being paid. If the publication claimed they have no budget, the photographer asks if the publication would be able to “round up” to $50? If not, $25. Once a price is established, the photographer always has the publication sign a contract stating the duration, medium, and platform that the photos may be used on. A credit line is absolutely required, and then the contract goes on to stipulate that if a 2nd or 3rd party wants to share or use the photographs for any reason, especially for profit, the photographer must be contacted.

Another method they use is determining whether or not the small publication actually makes any profit. Sometimes an agreement is made that the local publication can pay them if a profit is made later. They check back every few months with the publication. This method is unconventional, and makes me a little bit sweaty, but it works for them, and they share “We try to negotiate something, even if it is the duration or checking back in later. The goal is always to have a win-win for both parties & receive something out of it to benefit us too.” 

Sometimes small, local start-up publications just genuinely don’t know, and need to be educated on the best practices.

The Client Dilemma

Everyone’s greatest fear in the “should I be charging for publication” issue, is upsetting the delicate client/photographer relationship balance.

Nobody wants to be the bad guy stopping their client from having their work published. It’s understandable.

Maintaining the client/photographer relationship is so important. It allows the architects, designers, and developers you work with to understand where you are coming from with licensing. Setting the expectations beforehand is not only a solid business practice but common human courtesy. I mean, don’t you love to know what to expect?

Eva Hagberg, an architecture and design writer who also serves as a consultant for architecture firms for their editorial and publication strategy says “I always ask architects what rights they have and they always think they have more rights than they do! I cannot tell you the number of times an architect has been like ‘I bought ALL the rights’ and I check the contract and it’s like, ‘limited web rights.'” Eva is a wealth of information, and you can see more of her publication strategies in The PR Guide for Architects. If you’re looking for a bulletproof contract, I wholeheartedly recommend Mike Kelley’s Contract Template.

Don’t assume that all of your clients will innately understand the nuances of licensing. A great educational tool you can use is this brochure by the  American Society of Media Photographers and the American Institute of Architects. It’s called Commissioning Architectural Photography and on pages 15 and 16 it explains the ins and outs of licensing photographs for publication. If you haven’t read this document yet, go do it right now.

Here is one quote that is incredible:

Since the magazine receives the most direct financial benefit from the use of the images, it is most often the magazine that pays the photographer for the necessary license. The publication typically contacts the photographer directly and pays a fee commensurate with the value the images contribute to the magazine’s success…

The publisher may refuse to pay this fee, either as a negotiating ploy or an attempt to shift its editorial cost to another party. It is in the publisher’s interest to get the license at the lowest cost, of course, and he may sometimes play a little hardball. However, most photographers have established pricing, which is based on the value that the images bring to the publication. Despite the publisher’s protestations, it’s quite rare that a publication truly cannot pay. When that happens, it’s a sign that the total publication is soon to fold, because rights licenses are such a small part of the total editorial, printing and distribution cost.

If the publisher can’t or won’t pay for the rights, the other option is for the architect to obtain the editorial-use license.”

– American Institute of Architects in conjunction with the American Society of Media Photographers in the “Commissioning Architectural Photography” guidebook

The AIA gets it, and so will your client.

The Client Solution (and a new dilemma)

As mentioned in the AIA’s quote above, the first thing that needs to be understood is that the majority of the time, the publication does have a budget. All of the photographers I polled agreed on this. It’s just a matter of negotiation. What the publication can offer may be less than you hope to get, but 9 times out of 10, the money is there. In the rare chance that there really truly is no budget for licensing photography, every photographer in the poll said that their solution is to pass the licensing fee on to their client – most in which are happy to pay, because they want to see their work in print.

Eva also shared, “I often end up trying to convince the architects to pay for print licensing. I think it is appalling that some magazines don’t pay for photography, so I’m always trying to get the photographer paid somehow, which usually means getting the client to kick in a little extra for print licensing.”

Let’s check in with a few of the photographers I chatted with. Piet Niemann explains his method, sharing “In case they really plan to turn down the publication because of a demanded compensation, I go to the architects and say that they – if they really want to be in this publication – now need to extend their license, as described in the cost proposal, where almost every possible case of usage is written down in an appendix.

I communicate such issues with my clients in the very first cost proposal. So there is no surprise involved. I think this transparent communication is key, even though it feels sometimes like overcomplicating things. But otherwise, we photographers are the ones who suffer in the end.

I think we as photographers need to address this issue with our clients upfront. There is little to no frustration involved if everything has been clearly communicated from the very beginning. And then try to act in both your clients and your own favor and try to negotiate with the publication. Most times it works.”

Photographer Nate Sheets shares that his process also begins with setting the right expectations. He says, “Signing the terms and conditions to work with me is the first step, so usage is clear from the get-go. I weigh out whether this publication will actually benefit my client or if they are simply taking advantage due to certain products in the images.

I think it’s important for other photographers to always communicate as much as possible before you work with clients on your copyright and usage policies. I always have clients sign my terms and conditions before I’ll work with them. This gives you backing if they’re upset when you decline a publication.”

Architectural photographer Tom Harris explains that he is in the place in his career where the majority of his clients are long-term. They are accustomed to his business practices and working with him. Tom agrees that publications that make money should be paying for content. That being said, Tom doesn’t decline usage. Instead, he charges a higher day rate to “cover loss of revenue to some image sharing that happens.” He goes on to say “Be good to your clients and they’ll be good to you. If you’re not planning to be paid for usage instances like this, make sure you make that money up in your day rate or somewhere else in your billing.”

Many photographers have decided the solution for not getting paid for publication licenses is to just have their original client pay. They add it in a line item or roll it into their day rate. Everyone agrees that setting clear terms and conditions and establishing expectations beforehand is the secret sauce to avoiding an awkward client phone call. It’s a great solution to keep everyone happy, your clients’ work in the spotlight, and your bank account satiated, but it does come with an unintended and unavoidable consequence.

It is a death sentence for any hope that publication buyers will pay photographers appropriate fees for licensing.

“The only reason I have conceded to requests in the past is because I didn’t want to lose the client or have them miss out on being featured. [I often wondered] will this be something they will understand – because some don’t,” explains Jennifer Hughes (who, mind you, is on Architectural Digest’s ’50 AD-Approved Photographers For Your Next Interior Shoot’ list). 

“But today, I’ve decided that I’m going to rewrite my contract,” she says. “Instead of waiting for the uncomfortable ‘ask,’ I am going to be upfront and proactive and put editorial usage as an option in the contract with its own separate fee to at least recoup some of what I won’t receive from publishers.

However, this will not fix the bigger problem of publishers even asking. This is something we have to work on as an industry! Until we are all on board with not giving away our work for free, they are going to continue to ask and receive.”

She’s absolutely right.

What is especially interesting, is that the American Institute of Architects and the Amercian Society of Media Photographers agree. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, their guide to Architectural Photography Best Practices is an essential read.

Your Photographs Have Value

Publications are businesses that are trying to be as profitable as possible. They’ve put their feelers out and determined that a large slice of the photographer community is – well – kind of vain. They want to see their names (hopefully you are being credited) and work in print. It’s an awesome feeling! Photographers are also caught in the middle of trying to please their clients. They don’t want to be the bad guy that keeps the client that they’ve worked so hard building a relationship with from having their work published.

There also seems to be a mystical shroud around all things architectural photography. It’s a small niche so there isn’t much “How To” information floating around. People don’t want to give up their business secrets. Most photographers don’t have anyone to represent their interests and, in turn, get taken advantage of.

Another beautiful point stated in Commissioning Architectural Photography touches on the idea of a photo credit as payment. The AIA notes this:

It is often argued that a photo credit, like a byline, has value to the photographer as a form of advertising. This is true in one sense: Its value depends on its prominence on the page. However, it’s not true that the credit can be used to negotiate down the license fee. Most photographers have already factored its value into their fee structure. In this respect, photographers and architects have much in common. Architects like to see their firm’s name on the dedication placard, but they nevertheless expect to be paid for their design work. Professional photographers view a credit line in much the same way.

Commissioning Architectural Photography

A credit line is nice, but it shouldn’t always be taken as a form of currency.

Here’s another point to consider. In every other artistic industry, licensing is commonplace.

The Screen Actors Guild has guidelines in place to make sure that actors are paid daily for their work. When the movie is released, and later played on TV and streaming services, the actors make residuals. In the music industry, artists and labels are paid for their songs’ usage in shows, on the radio, commercials, in concert, etc. Graphic designers who make fonts sell them to users. Users that then wish to use them in any commercial aspect for profit have to purchase additional licenses.

Literary works are licensed, reproductions of paintings, sculptures, and furniture, are licensed…anytime art, music, movies, or shows are “consumed,” somebody gets paid.

So why would it be any different for architectural photographers? You produce the photo for your client. Later it is picked up by a magazine (which is profitable or it wouldn’t exist). The “reproduction” of your work is giving the publication the content to continue making money. It doesn’t matter if you’ve already been paid by your client, you are the copyright holder of your work, and you should be paid when another business uses that work to make money.

Here’s Your Script

One of the best bits about chatting with so many people about this topic is that I was able to pick the best parts from everyone’s answers to help you negotiate licensing for publication use.

Ok, so let’s say you received an inquiry for your image to be used in a publication. They haven’t offered up any budget information. You could kick things off this way:

“Hi ______

Thanks for reaching out about my work. I would love to be part of your publication. Publication of my images in your story requires a usage license. If you’re interested in using these photographs, I will need details on their use within your publication. Could you give me more details (cover, spread, digital, etc.) so that I can quote you an accurate cost for licensing?

This is a short, sweet litmus test to determine how serious the publication is about licensing your work. Usually, they will respond with a set photo budget. If not, the ball is in your court.

What if they claim that they have no budget?

Are they a larger publication? If so, you could take this route:

“I appreciate your honesty about your budget. Unfortunately, I do not provide free content to ‘for profit’ businesses. If your budget changes, please let me know and I will be happy to discuss fair compensation.”

Short, sweet, and to the point. Remember, if you read the AIA’s document, you are aware that larger publications are often playing hardball. In the meantime, you might want to prepare your client that the publication is giving you faff about paying to license the photographs. Remind them about the terms and conditions they signed at the onset of your project together. You’ve already set proper expectations with them, so they are prepared to potentially pay for the usage license themselves.

What if it’s a small publication claiming to have little to no budget? Take Studio Buell’s approach:

“Hi _____,

I appreciate your interest in my work and I understand that your smaller circulation numbers dictate your budget. I could license these photos to you for $__ for use in your story. If that works for the publication, I’m happy to discuss the terms a bit further. Looking forward to hearing from you.”

Just as with a large publication, get in touch with your client. Keep the communication flowing. As we mentioned before, small publications may not have a budget that meets your initial hopes. What else can you negotiate? Can you exchange usage for ad space?

An Actionable Change in the Industry

The alternate title for this article was – as suggested by one of my favorite architectural photographers – “Stop (colorful language redacted) Giving Your Work Away and Ruining Any of Our Chances for Getting Paid!”

It made me laugh, but it also made me understand the gravity of the situation the industry is in.

Continuing her earlier quote, Jennifer Hughes says “[Not charging for publication usage] is a photographer education problem. Most of us make our living billing for usage – per license…not a one-time fee from the architect or designer or so on. For me, every company wanting to use images is billed separately for their usage or upfront on a cost-share.  It is not a ‘one and done’ fee structure where anyone who wants to use the images is free to have them after we are paid for the initial shoot. If you are doing it that way, reexamine the HUGE amount of lost income you are missing out on – not to mention, how you are hurting the industry by making your work available for free.”

Casey Dunn shares a similar sentiment, saying “I think that every photographer should be asking for usage fees, no matter how small, because the more we collectively accept a by-line for payment, the more that becomes the industry standard.”

At the end of the day, what I hope you take away from this article is this:

You should be charging magazines and publications to license your photographs – especially those who make money from selling subscriptions and/or advertisement space.

Don’t be afraid to negotiate. Good negotiations are built on good research. Know the value of your work. Understand the industry standards. Be kind and personable, but firm.

At APALMANAC, our hope is that we can educate architectural and interiors photographers – both seasoned and new to the scene – to understand the proper industry standards.

Howdy! I'm Lexi. I write and make photographs. I love being outside and listening to '00s indie rock.
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