Monday, December 28, 2009

The Photography 401 Scam

From an email I received a while back:


I'm Eric and I'm an art director in an independent agency here in Dubai, U.A.E.

I have seen some of your works here in devianart and I think they're great!

You see, we are currently working on a calendar for 2010 and we're featuring MACRO PHOTOGRAPHS with interesting colors and unexpected details of ordinary everyday objects ( or animals and humans maybe ).

I'm just wondering if you would like to be featured in this 2010 calendar.

I'll be honest with you though, We are on a very strict budget, which is basically none.

If you decide to agree, All we can offer you is your work being seen throughout the whole year in a lot of desks all over the world.

I cannot tell you which company we are doing this for at the moment because it's confidential at this point.
But we will give you a copy of the finished calendar design in pdf format before we send it out so you could see it first.

If you can reply to this asap, like now....that would be great!!

I'll be waiting for your favorable reply

Thanks and have a great day!"

So the art director gets paid, and the folks who print and distribute the calendar get paid, but the guy who took the photos (the poor SOB who's the reason why people are buying the calendar in the first place) doesn't get paid?! I sent the email to Tom Stack and Associates (Tom handles my portfolio) and I never heard from Eric again. There are so many people out there who are willing to fall for this "I can't afford to pay you even though I'm making out like a bandit" scam that they'll keep trying until they find someone who is willing to trade their work for a photo credit, and it's the reason why there's no money in photography anymore...

Footnote: The reason why the scam works is that people get all excited when someone contacts them for images. They think that because someone is asking for their work then that must mean that their photos are really good, and getting them published is a form of validation. What the photographer doesn't realize is that the publisher is phishing for people who will agree to give away their images for nothing but a photo credit -Eric's email is a prime example. He didn't know what direction he was going to take the calendar because he didn't know who would agree to give away their work. He'd just keep trying until someone said yes and then he'd use their images to develop the theme of the calendar. Target enough people and eventually you'll find someone who's willing to say yes -it's the same reason why the Nigerian 401 scams work. If the technique wasn't successful then it wouldn't be used.

Trust me when I tell you that if someone wants to use your specific images then they will pay you for them...


Ed Marshall said...

My wife recently had several of her photos published in a local coffee table book with considerable sales numbers behind it. She was paid in nothing but by-lines, and couldn't be happier with the arrangement; it serves as advertising for her and her photography education business, and as a source of personal pride.

Framing the argument as a "money or nothing" scenario is a bit extreme: some people (myself included) photograph non-professionally, and for the hobbyist, money isn't the only kind of feedback being sought. Someone choosing to have a photo published in this manner isn't necessarily "falling for" anything.

I'd rephrase your last sentence: it's the reason there's no money in stock photography anymore. Just look at Flickr; searching for CC-licensed material that permits commercial use just now, I came up with 34 million images, and they're not all pictures of cats with funny captions. ;)

I'm quite certain that hits very close to home for your style of shooting, but I'd argue that the work that you do still has a very high bar set for it, and sophisticated, skilled work will have a niche in almost any field. You're not just shooting "pictures of bugs" (which anyone can do with a point-and-shoot camera w/macro mode, repetition, and luck), and that gives your work more value.

Don't compare yourself to the folks who are just shooting pictures of bugs, and are happy to be published by someone like this. :)

Dalantech said...

I can kind of understand your point Ed but it loses ground when you get to the part about "considerable sales". People don't buy those kinds of books because they need something on the coffee table -they buy them for the photos. So the only person who is one of the reasons why the book sold so well, your wife, didn't get paid -sorry but it just doesn't make any sense...

I use to cook for a living, even today I put dinner on the table at least six nights a week. Offering up my photos for free is like someone asking me to cook for a bake sale that the organizers are going to profit from. Oh, they don't have the money for the food or to pay me to cook it but they'll put up a sign next to what I make to let people know that I made it. Gee, can't wait...

Sorry Ed, but trying to get people to give up their photographic work for free is a scam -there's no other way to look at it. If they have the money to produce and distribute the book then they have the money to pay the photographers for the content. By not paying your wife they simply pocketed more of the profits from those "considerable sales".

All too often I've had people tell me that if I don't agree to the terms then they'll just ask someone else. I let them go because there aren't too many people producing images like mine and I just don't need the publicity. When I first started out I might have fallen for the publishing scam but not now...

As for Flickr it's a dual edged sword: I get a lot of exposure for my work and I've made a lot of valuable contacts through it -but it's also the number one source of stolen images: When I find my work in someone's gallery they almost always took the photos from my Flickr pages...

Unknown said...

I think its all about economics 101: demand and supply.

If they want something and somewhere in the world someone is willing to give it for free, then why pay for it? You will only consider that option if the paid product gives something the free doesn't, right?

And thats why good images sell for money while the others don't.
Unless everyone starts asking for money, and btw its too late for that considering the amount of reasonable free images available on the net, then only the top photographers can really afford to ask for money or decline the offer.

The rest of us, well, they either say yes and get paid in pride, or they say no and thats it... And if they are willing to pay they will probably go to top photographers and not amateurs who take this as (expensive) hobby :)

Dalantech said...

@ Warl0rd: I'm not a pro -macro photography is just a hobby. But the people who contact me for photos fall into two categories: Those that are honest and willing to pay for my work, and those that are lying through their teeth when they say that the budget is to low for anything other than a photo credit. If a publisher has the money to produce any publication that budget must include the licensing of photos. Anyone who tells you that they can't afford to pay for an image is just trying to maximize their profits at your expense...

Unknown said...

Hi John

I can see both sides of the fence here. I'd be interested to know what you would consider a fair price for the use of an image?

There's also an issue of respect here. I think if someone is willing to publish your photo but not pay you for it, it's like a back-handed compliment. Whereas, an offer for reimbursement, even if it's only at stock photography rates, goes some way to saying that this work is worth paying for, and would for many people, make the whole business more palatible.

Pete (aka galadial)

Dalantech said...

Hey Peter,
I think that's part of the problem -too many people see the offer to publish as a compliment. But in reality the publisher has the money to pay for an image and is just trying to maximize profits...