Usage – the absolute basics.

If you’ve never charged money for your photography, or you’ve only ever sold work to the general public, you may be unfamiliar with the term “usage”. If you never intend to work commercially beyond selling to the general public, then you probably don’t need to read any further, but if you do, this blog post could make you a fortune! I can only offer a very short primer here, as the subject gets very detailed and granular, as well as being different for almost every shoot. Essentially “usage” refers to what use the imagery you create will be put to by your client – it’s as simple as that. Very little usage incurs a small charge, and lots of usage incurs a larger charge. Not understanding how it works can mean you miss out on some serious cash, or that you come across as being a bit naive. Neither of these is to be recommended!

Basics of Usage
Similar images, totally different usage, and consequently – fees. One was for a magazine feature, and was worth a few hundred quid. The other was part of a year-long social media campaign, and was worth a couple of thousand.

At it’s most basic, the usage of an image, or set of images, are employed for, can be broken down into 3 categories:

  • Time
  • Territory
  • Media.

Time is easy to understand. How long does the client want to use the imagery for? This may be limited by the appeal of the content of the image – is it the current spring/summer fashion, and therefore of very limited commercial use in 9-12 months time? Is it for the next issue of a magazine, timed to coincide with the release of a film or album, and so will become less relevant as time passes? Or is it something the client wants to use for a long period, say as a point of sale image that will be in stores for years to come?

Territory is also pretty simple to grasp. Does the client want to use the imagery just in this country, or across the whole continent, or a group of countries, or world-wide?

Media can get more complex, not least because there are often different terms for the same thing. At root though, it means what form will the imagery take. Is it going to be used as an advert within a limited run of trade press magazines? Is it going to make up a billboard advertising campaign? Will it become a banner for the client’s website? As you can imagine, media is probably the most flexible, variable, and detailed of the 3.

All of these work on a sliding scale, with costs commensurate to the amount of usage. The important thing to get your head round – and sometimes to convince your client of – is the same image is worth different amounts depending on how it’s used. In fact, that’s a very good way of framing “usage” when having conversations with a client. If you’re encountering resistance, try and get them to think of the imagery in terms of the value it will bring to them.

As a very simple example, let’s say you take a shot of someone dancing in a nightclub. It’s a great shot, really capturing the energy and enjoyment of being there. The nightclub ask to use it on a flyer they’re printing to promote a one-off night in a couple of weeks time. So, in this case, the usage would be:

Time: No more than a couple of weeks (the flyer is useless once the event has passed)
Territory: Strictly local – the nightclub is only appealing to the local area, and the flyer will be distributed by hand at the club and by people on the street.
Media: An A5 printed flyer, with a print run of a couple of thousand.

For a usage like this, you could expect to charge perhaps a few hundred pounds (although you’ll probably find that they’ll try and get it for free…) The value to the nightclub is comparatively small – they won’t expect to reap hundreds of thousands of pounds from that one event, so you’ll be hard-pressed to demand thousands, or tens of thousands of pounds in fees from them.

Now, let’s say someone at an advertising agency who do work for Coca-Cola spots the image, and asks if they can use it in Coke’s new ad campaign. Remember, we’re talking here about exactly the same image. In this instance, the usage may more likely be something like:

Time: 6 months to a year.
Territory: At least nationally, possibly across a continent or group of countries, and maybe even world-wide.
Media: Billboards, print ads, web banners, TV spots – a very wide range of media.

It’s immediately obvious that Coca-Cola will derive far more benefit and value from the image than the nightclub would. If things go according to their plan, then this ad campaign could net them hundreds of thousands, possibly millions in revenue. In respect of this, you should be charging accordingly. The exact amount will depend on the combination of these 3 factors, but you could comfortably be looking at a fee in the region of tens of thousands, possibly into 6 figures. For exactly the same image.

Basics of usage
Same principle as above. Very similar imagery, but wildly different usage and fees. One was for a magazine feature, the other for brochures, point of sale, and website usage for 12-18 months.

Obviously, I’m skating over extra details like model and property releases – you’ll almost certainly need the subject’s permission if you’re going to make commercial gain out of them, and if you shot it on private property you may find yourself in trouble too, but for the sake of the example, let’s breeze past those details for now. Let’s also ignore the fact that as you encounter clients who need a greater usage, and have bigger budgets, there’s a decent chance you’re already working with an agent, and so they’ll handle all of this side of things. The important principle to take on board is the concept that your fee is largely related to how the client wants to use the image, not just the time it takes you to create the work.

If this is all new to you, then I suggest you try a couple of things to get a feel for the sort of numbers I’m talking about. First off, go and play with the Association of Photographers Online Usage Calculator. Stick any number into the “B.U.R.” box, and then change the variables of usage and see what happens to the amount you should be charging. You can also go to any stock library site (Getty, Alamy etc), pick a rights managed image, and then play with the price calculator. Both of these will give you a feel for the sliding scale of usage, although I should point out they’re just a starting point – you’ll generally have to negotiate for each and every job individually.

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