Why do photographers retain copyright?

You’ve hired a photographer. You like the results. You have all sorts of ideas about how you want to use the pictures – new things you’ve just thought of. New products you can use them on, new places you can sell them. And then the photographer pops up and says: “No, you can’t do those things under the agreement we have – I own the copyright. We’ll need to negotiate.” And you are angry. Really angry.

Why would any photographer – or any creative – behave like this? How dare they!

It’s a really obvious question. So much so that you’d think there’d be a really obvious answer. There isn’t. It is, as they say, complicated.

Do a search for the answer and you’ll get – interestingly – a lot of results dominated by discussions about wedding photography. Makes some sense, I suppose. It’s the one occasion where private individuals are most likely to commission photography, and it’s the one where the biggest shock arrives when the inevitable question pops up. “It’s MY wedding – what do you mean, I can’t do ANYTHING I like with the photos?”

But before we get into that, note that a) there is a lot of depth and detail involved in issues of rights and permissions and b) what photographers say the reasons are aren’t always entirely rooted in rationality and evidence.

Let’s go.

First, a quick recap on what copyright means. If you buy a teabag, you own it. You have no restrictions on where you can stick it. It’s yours. You can make tea with it, and you can make tea for your friends, if you want. You can sell the tea to other people. It’s just tea.

If you commission photography, you’re doing something very different. You’re commissioning a creative work. And in the age of digital imagery, you’re commissioning an infinitely reusable asset, costing nothing to copy and distribute.

Note that I’m labouring the word ‘commissioning’ here, rather than ‘buying’. You might think you’re buying the services of a photographer. You might also think you’re buying photos. You might arguably be doing the former, but you’re almost certainly not doing the latter.

How’s that then? Well, in order to protect the interests of creators, copyright laws exist. They – and I write about the law in England and Wales here, though similar concepts exist elsewhere – are automatically the holders of rights to use, publish, reproduce or resell the work they produce.

Does that mean that the person who clicks the shutter always holds the copyright? No. In the event of a complex shoot where a photographer prepares, lights, directs and oversees a team to produce an image, allocating an assistant to trigger the taking of the shot doesn’t bestow the assistant with copyright. But that’s a rare and specialist exception.

And if you are employed by someone – on their payroll – to take photos they, not you, will be the copyright holder. Incidentally, a concept called “work for hire” exists in US law which means that even if you are a freelancer, if you sign one of these agreements it will lead to the client claiming copyright over the work. Be very careful about signing one of these if you’re working for a US client.

Exceptions aside, if you take the photo, you automatically own the copyright. That means you can control who uses it, and this is generally done via some sort of licensing agreement. You might license a client to print it in one issue of a magazine, or in a series of books, or without restriction on social media. Or whatever. You might set a time period on the licence. Or not. The point being that you are still controlling the terms of usage.

So, one short answer to the exam question in the title is: photographers retain copyright because it’s theirs.

It’s not much of a satisfactory answer though. The automatic operation of law is one thing; how it all feels is quite another. (And how it feels when it’s personal photography – something like your wedding – only serves to raise emotions further.)

There’s a very natural assumption that the photo should be treated like a teabag. Yours to buy, keep, use as many times as you like, use wherever you like, and to resell if you so choose.

And you can certainly ask your photographer to transfer copyright to you. You can make it a condition of your hiring. But you are very likely to find costs and difficulties arise. So, back to the original question: why do photographers want to retain it? (And the unspoken secondary question: is this a morally ok thing to do?)

When you ask photographers, these are some of the common reasons you’ll hear:

1) I will help you police any unauthorised usage of your photos. You don’t want them ending up on a nasty site, now do you?
2) I know how to make this image work best as a print, so I can’t have you going and printing it badly – that will have a negative effect on my reputation.
3) The people in the photos didn’t sign model releases – by controlling any possible commercial use of these picture, I am saving you from a whole lot of trouble.
4) You could change the terms of the usage we’d talked about and put the images at the heart of an advertising campaign that you’re spending more than a thousand times as much cash on.
5) Because you’d be able to sell it as a stock photo and make money from it, or give it away to someone who really should be paying for it.

Let’s have a look at these arguments in more detail.

1) is a bit of a red herring. Sure, a photographer may already have systems set up to track and enforce any misuse, but there’s no inherent reason why a client who holds copyright couldn’t do it either. This argument doesn’t hold a lot of water. Anyone who leads with this one isn’t being entirely honest with you.

But this is a good point to mention something else. So far, I’ve not drawn any distinctions between photography commissioned for private individuals and that for corporate clients. But there is an important one. In section 85 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 there is a protection for people hiring a photographer for “private and domestic purposes”. They get to control where the images are published, and any photographer wanting to do anything else with them, regardless of them being the copyright holder, needs permission. This also means your family or wedding photographer needs your clearance to use any images on their website – and they’ll put this in their terms of business (if they’ve any sense). Again, I stress that this doesn’t mean the police will immediately come banging on the door of anyone who breaches this, but it will create the risk of a civil claim against the publisher.

2) is utter hooey. Show me the photographer who never worked again because someone printed one of their photos on Photobox and got the resolution wrong and it was a bit pixelated with a bad colour profile, and someone saw it and asked who took it, and oh god just stop now. This is nonsense. What sits behind this reason is, of course, a print-based business model. The photographer makes money from selling prints to you, and without that income, wouldn’t be able to sustain either their business or the (hopefully) quite cheap shoot rates they’ve offered. Of course, these business models can legitimately exist (bought a school photo of your child recently?) but if you come across this as a reason in a setting where you wouldn’t really expect to be buying a print, then push for a better answer.

3) is tenuous, really. The issue of “can I use a photo commercially without the permission of the people in it?” is a complex one all by itself. The answer is almost always “well, you won’t go to jail for it, but you will carry a variable amount of risk of somebody making a claim against you, depending on what the image is and where it’s used.” That can vary from someone claiming damages for you publishing their photo in what appears to be a compromising situation, to claims over invasion of reasonable privacy, or to implying their endorsement of a brand. The level of a claim will be related to how widespread the image is, and a host of other factors. But the liability rests with the publisher, not the photographer. In short: no sane commercial user of an image will take a risk of putting it on a commercial product (it’s less of an issue for news and editorial use) without a model release, and anyone doing so with someone’s privately commissioned photos also falls foul of s85 of the CDPA88 (see above). So, nice try, but this isn’t a particularly good reason.

4) and 5) are different flavours of the same thing. These centre on the concept of ‘value’, rather than resting on the costs of turning up and doing some photography and then some editing. This is where we get the heart of the real reason why photographers retain copyright.

What is the value of a photo? It’s a hard question. As many in my profession do, I try to get an understanding of what the intention of the photography is, and what the usage will be, before I even start to talk about pricing.

That’s because value is massively variable. The most expensive picture I’ve licenced was for a 5 figure (yes, 5) fee for a few years’ usage on a global poster campaign. Regardless of whether you think this is reasonable fee, it remains an inarguable fact. Real money, and lots of it, for the right picture. Similarly, a photograph of a rarely-photographed celebrity may generate an income stream for many years. Though a picture used in an online newspaper, or on social media, may command a fee measured in pennies – the point is that there’s huge variability, and photographers really don’t like the feeling that the potential for unfair, unknown exploitation of their work has been created.

We do our best as photographers to make these discussions as painless as possible for clients. If you commission me for PR or event photography, I will include a licence for all the usage that you’ll reasonably need. My job is to make you and your event famous, after all, not to tie your hands.

But that doesn’t stop clients setting out to get “full copyright” assigned to them. It’s also a standard piece of boilerplate legal text in many contracts (photographers always go straight to the section on Intellectual Property Rights). With a bit of discussion, this usually means they just want unencumbered usage for PR and marketing purposes, and that’s generally going to be acceptable.

If they held copyright, they’d be able to do an awful lot more, including selling the images onwards to anyone they chose to. That isn’t a good fit with the original terms of engagement, and I hope you can now see why a photographer wouldn’t agree to it – at least not without the negotiation of additional fees. Most of us have our price.

Proportionality also has a bearing on value. If a client commissions “a short event job” but it becomes clear that the resulting images are going to lie at the heart of a global advertising campaign with a £50m spend, your photographer will (hopefully) have terms of business that pick this up, and again, in our shoes you’d rightly expect fair dealing in terms of stated purpose and compensation. Similarly, an image that’s going to go on a million IKEA prints should command a fee that reflects that value. (Though this is an amusing tale about exactly that.)

The Story Behind That IKEA Photo of Amsterdam

It’s for this reason that many photographers put explicit clauses in their terms indicating that product or advertising uses will be subject to uplifts on a standard day rate. Handing over copyright would, again, remove that opportunity to ensure business was done on fair terms.

Of course an inexperienced one, or an ignorant one, or one that just wants to win the job against stiff competition and doesn’t really care, can agree to whatever terms they choose. Some shoots will be entirely inappropriate for resale given their subject matter. Others would be unethical, based on the access provided by the client, or the implied terms of engagement, or whether it would just be “doing the wrong thing”.

And in terms of “doing the wrong thing”, this piece wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the issue of image suppression, or exclusivity. It’s a common and reasonable situation that a corporate client wants to commission imagery that only they will see or publish (remember, the law looks after this for private clients). A good photographer will generally take a view that this is implied in almost all commissioned work of things that are not expected to be published publicly. But how can that work, if the photographer has held on to rights to republish?

There is nuance here. Lots of it. You could agree a non-disclosure agreement for a particular length of time (or for ever). I’ve signed many of these. You could rely on less formal instructions agreed as part of a photo brief. You could just rely on the professionalism of the photographer. Ultimately, nobody really wants to end up having these issues determined by a court.

Is it possible that photographers – particularly those who hold to the “no copyright buy-out at any price!” – are building up assets that may feed them in retirement? That after what everyone hopefully thinks is a reasonable amount of time, they’ll start to sell pictures? Possibly, yes. It’s part of the fine balance that exists in the industry between all our various interests.

There’s no doubt that sometimes copyright is retained when there’s absolutely no sensible route, or likely market, for image resale. There’s also no doubt that sometimes ‘unbranded’ images (the ones of the talent without the event logo in the background) may slip out to stock agencies to generate revenue. (I don’t do this, as a matter of principle.)

Clients don’t want to be cheated, but neither do photographers. The structure of copyright holding, licensing, and then other measures such as confidentiality agreements has evolved to be probably the best balance between lots of forces acting in different directions. It may not always be this way, but I hope this piece gives a fuller and better answer than you’ll generally find to the question of why photographers retain copyright.

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On Disappointment

This one’s for all the photographers. I expect it is all of them, incidentally, or at least all the ones who’ve ever tried to take pictures of people.

Well, I can see it’s probably a lovely photograph, but I’m a tiny bit D___

No. It’s just not what I wanted. I can’t use any of them. Honestly, I’m really D___

Seriously? SERIOUSLY??? I’m so D___

Dealing with the portrait shoot that doesn’t end perfectly is something we’ll all have to deal with. The very first one I did for money ended a bit like this. It nearly stopped me doing any more. Ever.

Taking someone’s picture is a very personal thing. A portrait is the deeply subjective product of a recipe with a few ingredients, some of which are in your control, and some of which aren’t.

You have to bring a few things with you: decent equipment, technical knowledge to know how to use it, a sense of creativity, and of course interpersonal rapport. The certainty with which you can bring those decreases as you go along the list. If you’re entirely missing any one of these, then portrait photography isn’t going to be for you. I’ve known superb technical creatives who just don’t have the sort of personality that enjoys a frank conversation with another human about issues of image and confidence (and to their credit, they usually recognise this).

But what you don’t bring is self-esteem, thought-control, or a knowledge of all the associations a person may have built up from 40 years’ experience of having their picture taken.

On that last point, a good test question for an enquirer considering a commission is: “tell me about your favourite picture that’s ever been taken of you?”. If you just get a blank look, or worse: “no, it’s never happened. I hate all pictures of me,” then have a serious think about whether you are going to be the photographer who’ll break that streak.

Of course, the subject who positively enjoys having their picture taken is a rarity. Especially in corporate photography – which can be more of a “distress purchase”. Something that has to be done, rather than something that is wanted, like car insurance. (Sadly, for some people, wedding photography can also fall into this class. “I really don’t want a photographer at all but my mum says we have to” – genuine quote from an enquiry.)

Statistically, I find there’s a small but consistent percentage of whole-company photoshoot subjects who don’t/won’t like their photo. Whatever you do. However you work with them on the day and show them examples as the shoot’s in progress. Even when they’ve said to you they’ll be ok with at least one of them. But when all of the commission is about making one person feel amazing about themselves, and they don’t, then the pain is hugely amplified.

It’s just how humans work. It’s not you. And this is my message to the photographers feeling crushed by one of these conversations. You may well have had room to improve on kit, technique, rapport and so on, but even if you hadn’t, this will still happen.

Crushed, though? Really, Paul?

Yes. Crushed.

What is it about that D___ word – disappointment – that is so hard to deal with? For many of us I suspect it’s got very early roots. We can cope with the consequences of doing things wrong – with punishments, or even with anger and shame. But when it comes to falling below expectations (either our own, or ones we perceive others have for us) then it’s the lowest blow possible. It can make you want to sell, or smash, your cameras – never to take a portrait commission again. To feel like you just hurt someone, personally, and hard. Or damaged a friendship. It’s serious stuff. I got unlucky with it happening on my very first one. I was inexperienced, did my best, and ultimately took the set to a mentor who took one look and said “nah, them, not you” – which made things feel a whole lot better.

I thought very long and hard about writing on this topic. It’s the great unsayable in any professional service. “Has it ever gone completely wrong?”

Yes. Yes it has. And in all cases I did everything I could to make good, whether that involved reshooting, or refunding (or both). But looking at the hard numbers, I can count 4 out of about 2,000 shoots where this happened. I don’t even have to try hard to count them; they burn hard in my mind as soon as I close my eyes. I’ve got a file where I have all the positive feedback from others – hundreds and hundreds of happy messages.

And yet I let those 4 carry a weight that sometimes feels like it exceeds 400.

Maybe that’s what we need to work on dealing with.

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The Mother of all Photoshoots

It has to be one of the most ambitious, and successful, mass portrait photography projects of all time. You see them everywhere – the portraits of MPs and Lords, produced by a Parliament team led by Carrie Kleiner, and shot by accomplished portrait photographer Chris McAndrew.

I know a little bit about the workings of Parliament from my previous career, and it’s a place like no other. It’s not government, for one thing. Nor is it “a company”. Instead it’s a collection of members, with some responsibilities to their political parties, answerable to their electors.

When you shoot a set of portraits in the corporate world, you usually have in mind some overarching theme that you want the project to convey. This might be one of “warm engagement”, it could be “quirky mavericks”, “responsibly sombre” or perhaps – as with one of my regular clients – the no-nonsense faces of criminal barristers.

With parliamentarians, though, you don’t just have a vast cast list of wildly differing personalities, you’re also dealing with some who will mainly be thought of as constituency figures, others with ministerial responsibilities, and some who run parties, or even parties-within-parties.

In short it’s as wide and tough a brief as one could imagine. And they’re not employees. They won’t be told what to do. If they don’t want to have their photo taken, they don’t have to.

So I can only imagine the work needed to get this to happen at all, and the team did an amazing job to get as many of them included as they did. Carrie has written some good stuff here about how they approached it. (They did it efficiently too, at a cost of less than £20 per portrait [excluding internal Parliamentary staff time]. There’s a whole other post to be written here about the commercial aspects of a job like this.)

I’ve thought a lot about this project. Although on a smaller scale, the issues involved are those of my working world too. These are a few of the thoughts and lessons it’s inspired in me:

Simplicity

If you’ve got a monster portrait project, and little time to do it in, keep it simple. It looks like this was done with a single studio light – up and to the right of the frame, with the subject set against a plain background. There are more interesting compositions, sure, but they’d all take more time, and have many more ways for things to go wrong.

Consistency

This has advantages and disadvantages, and is a useful point to think about if you ever have to commission your own set of company portraits. While the same aesthetic will bring consistency across the set, and helps to brand them as all being part of the same endeavour, individual appearances vary hugely. It’s not always easy to find one aesthetic that will suit every single person. Differences in size, shape, skin pigment, texture… all of these have a bearing on the final result. Some subjects will definitely come out of the process better than others.

Derealisation

What do I mean here? Well, you’ve probably experienced this with your own image. Did you ever look at a black and white version of your face and think – “oh, that’s so much nicer!”? There are a few reasons why this can happen, but one of them is that black and white is a quick way to create a distance from reality. Given the, er, complex relationship most of us have with our own image, having a bit of room to see ourselves abstracted can often help us accept, or even enjoy, the result. With this portrait set, I think there’s been a deliberate choice to ‘cool down’ the images – shifting the colour palette down to the blue end of the spectrum. It’s what makes these pictures look a little ‘blue’ or ‘cold’ overall. It really helps to give them a distinctive look, but it also helps to make them just a little bit unreal – at least in tone.

Authenticity

They are, however, ruthlessly real in other aspects. They are, as far as I can judge, unretouched. We’re in really interesting territory here in terms of what we mean by the ‘truth’ of a portrait. Whether Cromwell actually used the words “warts and all” to his portrait artist Sir Peter Lely, is unknown. But we all recognise the sentiment. The role of the portrait painter was to convey an artistic impression – very possibly a flattering one – of the subject. But the role of the photographer? Well, within the world of PR photography, not all that different. But in the world of journalism? Very. A little adjustment of colour, brightness and contrast, maybe, but no retouching as such. So are these photos to be seen as PR work, or journalism? In a sense they fall between the two stools. They are not a “news story” (although they did become one) nor are they an exercise in image management. The project team have come down firmly on the side of the journalists – unairbrushed reality. If the subject has a bit of a sweat on, it’s in. A pimple or a wart? Same. A few flakes of dandruff or a stray hair on their collar? You get the picture. It’s really easy to see the sort of problems a project like this might run into if it were seen to have manipulated the photos to flatter. But it shows the weight of the decisions that were involved.

Judgement

While there’s a whole lot of work involved in planning and shooting a picture set like this, once the lights are packed up there’s still more to be done. Carrie’s post talks about 15,000 photos taken – that’s bang on what I would expect – about 25 clicks for each subject. Discounting blinks, grimaces and the odd flash failure or lighting quirk, that leaves with you a few good options that are all technically ‘usable’. And from there you have to make a choice: which is the ‘best’? And having made that choice, to what extent do you seek your subject’s agreement? I’ve got no knowledge of how the process worked in this case, but I know from my own experience that there’s an enormous amount of judgement and negotiation required to get from the end of the shoot to final publication. (And a bit of digging into some of the history recorded in Wikipedia points to the fact that not every subject in this project liked what they got. That’s another inevitability of big portrait projects in the real world.)

Licensing

This might seem a bit of a niche point, but it’s worth some exploration. Normally when you do corporate portraiture, the aim is to make it available for the needs of the organisation (published on a website, for example) and possibly also for use by individual subjects. Here though, the ambition was much wider – to create a collection of photos to be available for use by anyone. The press, the subjects themselves, and indeed Wikipedia. So that means using an ‘open licence’ – allowing others to use the images. The licence they used – a “Creative Commons” licence – requires anyone using the images to credit the copyright holder. Other than Wikipedia, nobody’s done that as far as I’ve seen, which does make a bit of a mockery of the whole concept. Technically, most uses of these images are in breach of the licence and users could theoretically be chased up for money. (Not likely to happen in this case, I think.)

But here’s the nerdy bit which got me thinking – Creative Commons licences come in a variety of different flavours. Some put a “non-commercial” restriction on how images can be used, though what this means is often difficult to define in practice. Others say that “no derivatives” can be made of the image – so no tweaking, or making into collages, or memes, or whatever (though a copyright exception does exist which can help in the latter case). There are other more baroque variants, and you can read your fill here, but it’s notable that Wikipedia requires a pretty simple flavour, with very little restriction on reuse.

(Maybe, given the lack of likelihood of anybody bothering to attribute the images, combined with the lack of interest in enforcing a licence, a CC0 “public domain” designation would have been more appropriate. There’s definitely a good argument for it.)

So let’s take those points about authenticity and licensing and have a bit of fun. Because anyone can take those images and modify them, I can take those images and modify them. (Do I feel entirely comfortable doing this? No. Taking and editing someone else’s work is always weird. Especially when it features a living subject with whom I have no connection. But that’s the nature of this type of licensing and usage, so please forgive me. I should stress that there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with the original images, and I’ve described some of the context and thinking that’s likely to have been involved.)

What if I treated them as I might treat a PR photography shoot? I might undo that decision on colour balance, for instance. And might I then fix a few blemishes, the odd mark on a suit, a stray hair, or perhaps a few pounds around the jowls? You see where this goes, obviously – but where does it end? (In truth, I have pretty strict ethical rules about what I will and won’t do in terms of retouching. Every photographer should. Anything that could be done with better lighting or in a make-up artist’s chair, I’m generally ok with. Reshaping bodies is pretty much always a no-no, other than for a few exceptions such as very closed eyes. I have bent my rules a little in this post, as the images are purely for illustration.)

I sometimes have to work from less than ideal starting images, but still get the job done. By way of illustration, consider Diane Abbott as she appears in the official set, how I might rework her in a PR edit, and the image she uses for her own Twitter bio.

Diane Abbott – UK Parliament official portraits 2017 (L); edited version (R) – see attribution line below

(My versions [right hand side] are attributed as: derivatives (colour adjusted, with cosmetic edits) of original work by Chris McAndrew, made available for download at https://beta.parliament.uk/houses/1AFu55Hs/members/current/a-z/a, and used under CC BY 3.0. They are not made available for reuse; there is no “share-alike” requirement to do so and their reuse would go beyond the objectives of this post. Interestingly two of these photos, Penny Mordaunt and Rory Stewart, are no longer available on the Parliament site but remain within the Wikimedia Commons as their licensing there is irrevocable.)

So enjoy a few more example “PR edits”. I’ve not described in detail the changes I’ve made, to spare any blushes of the subjects, but see if you can spot the differences. I’ve already seen one published example out there of an edited version from this original project, and we may well see more. Keep your eyes open!

Mark Francois – UK Parliament official portraits 2017 (L); edited version (R) – see attribution line above

Penelope Mordaunt – UK Parliament official portraits 2017 (L); edited version (R) – see attribution line above

Kenneth Clarke – UK Parliament official portraits 2017 (L); edited version (R) – see attribution line above

Rupa Huq – UK Parliament official portraits 2017 (L); edited version (R) – see attribution line above

Roderick [Rory] Stewart – UK Parliament official portraits 2017 (L); edited version (R) – see attribution line above

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Being charitable

Ask any professional event photographer, and they’ll be able to tell you about the times they’ve heard this:

“Please can you shoot our event for free? It’s for a good cause.”

For bonus points they add: “it’ll be really good for your portfolio!”

In my experience, these requests fall into two broad categories: big organisations (usually charities) who know exactly what they’re doing, and smaller, often individual-led events, where it just seems like a pragmatic way of avoiding spending money.

What both types have in common are some assumptions about event photography that are pretty misguided:

1. Photographers just love taking photos of interesting things. You do it anyway, whether you’re paid or not. This will be a chance to have fun with your hobby, AND do good!

2. Our event is so cool that it will substantially enhance the portfolio of anyone who takes the photos. You’re lucky we aren’t charging YOU!

3. The only real cost to anyone doing this is their time. You already have the kit, and it’s not like you need to spend any money on film, do you?

4. As long as you’ve got a nice camera, you’ll do a good enough job for what we need.

These hardly need unpicking, really. But let’s just set them straight:

1. Yes. We do. All the time. But the critical factor here is that it’s our choice to decide what we want to shoot, and how we want to shoot it. There’s a world of difference between grabbing a few frames of an amazing act, or building, or crowd – and delivering the 100+ high-quality finished images that are required to do an event job properly from beginning to end.

2. This one is more challenging. We all started somewhere. Did I charge full rates for my first events? Of course not. I did lots of cheap, and indeed, free, stuff. But it wasn’t always that great. I was learning. Maybe that’s all that they’re after when they ask for pro bono work: key words you sometimes see are “budding”, “student” or “up-and-coming”. These are often code for: “we just want someone cheap” – and if that’s the case, be really clear that you’re not expecting a full-blown professional job (and that you might have to bite your tongue if the results aren’t everything you dreamed of). And do remember that if someone’s already got a great portfolio (go on, check, it’s easy) you really don’t have the negotiating position you think you have.

3. No. No. No. What about insurance? What about kit that gets broken on the job? And it does wear out eventually. Then there’s opportunity cost. Try this in the peak season months of March-June or September-November and if you can find a good professional that’s available, they’d very likely also be able to pick up a paid booking in that slot. Hence the sad refrain I keep hearing “well, we did have someone, but they let us down the week before.” Yes. Because they got offered actual money that would feed and house them.

4. A. Nice. Camera. There’s a world of difference between a £1,000 prosumer dSLR with a kit lens and the multiply-resilient bag of tricks that a professional will bring. If something goes wrong with any of my stuff on the job, I’ve got an immediate replacement to hand. If the lighting is a disaster, I’ve got low-light equipment that will keep the show running. If there’s a sudden request for an immediate press image, I’ve got the editing kit with me. And honestly, it’s really not so much about the equipment… It’s knowing what to shoot, when to shoot, when NOT to shoot, how people will react, behave, vanish after they’ve collected their award… The thousand subtleties that set a real event photographer apart from the herd.

So let’s take a look at the first of the types I mentioned above. The charity that’s booked the Grosvenor House Hotel for a celebrity gala. It’s a cheap shot to observe that their CEO earns £250k. I mean, big complex organisations need experienced and skilled leaders. But yeah. 250k. On the ground, they’ll have a budget for this event. And very likely a big budget. Yes, they might get a favourable rate from the venue, and some of the suppliers. But dig into the real work that’s being put in to make this happen… Did the lighting riggers all decided to forgo half their hourly rate? The bouncers? The sound operators? The caterers? The cleaners? The bar staff? Did the philanthropic drinks industry decide to take a huge loss on the booze for this one? NO.

And yet. The one thing you are left with when all the branding has been taken down and the guests have gone home are the photos. A three figure cost (in general) in an overall budget that may well have six figures. And you placed that responsibility in the hands of someone who might well not even turn up, and if they do, not have the first clue what they’re doing?

Yeah, and you put out a request on your channels for a photographer, all the same. And maybe the professional photography community noticed, and you started to get publicly fried. (And the bigger you are, the more oil we like to pour into the pan. We talk to each other all the time, in forums and groups. If you approach half a dozen of us, you’re almost guaranteeing to start a conversation you probably don’t want to be happening.) You might have to start deleting some of your posts, and getting drawn into reputation defence (good luck with that) which is only going to eat up even more of your resources and social capital.

So don’t. It makes absolutely no sense.

But what if you’re just doing a small event – and there really is no money to speak of associated with it? I am inclined to be more, er, charitable to these. I’d expect a lot of transparency about the other costs for the event, and a frank discussion about expectations. But if I walk in and see cases of free champagne or – and this did happen – a photo booth in the corner that had been paid for with actual cash, I will be out of that door in an instant.

So you’ve read all this, and you’ve cottoned on to the underlying issue: the fundamental undervaluing of creative work. We can all take “a photo” with our phones. We can all write a line of copy, by which I mean we all know some words. Most of us can get on a stage and say some words, which chisels away at the value of those who speak or perform for a living. (Whether our efforts are any good or not is an entirely different matter.)

But you do want someone to take your pictures. And you’ve got no budget to speak of.

Well, if you’re a big charity, you have. Go away and come back when you’ve thought it through a bit more.

And if you’re not? Ask your network, by all means. But better to ask them directly. If you have a patient/supporter/related industry/personal network, use that first. Charity is generally better offered than sought, and there may be some predisposition to giving this several-hundred-quids-worth-of-services as a charitable donation.

Try to avoid big public appeals for help. You may not get the response you hoped for. And if you do ask, publicly or to your own network, avoid weasel words like “budding”. We know what you mean.

Say something about how you’ve set up the event, what you’re spending money on and what you’re not, and what you need in terms of basic coverage. If you really just need award winner photos for press releases, say that, and don’t expect someone to be there two hours in advance to do all the set-up and networking pictures. Be honest about how much you’ll value what you do get, and that you recognise the importance of having this done well. If it doesn’t need to be ‘perfect’, say so.

And my door is open – if you are thinking about doing this, get in touch – I will happily offer advice on how to frame and pitch it, for free, in the interests of seeing my profession valued as it should be. Email paul@paulclarke.com, any time.

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Making a splash

When I ordered my Canon 1DX Mk2s a few months ago, I hadn’t spotted that I was also entering a competition run by Wex Photographic. First I knew was that I’d won it, and I’d landed a day’s workshop with top sports snapper (and all round excellent man) Eddie Keogh. We headed to Holme Pierrepont near Nottingham to get up close with white water kayaking.

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Pricing prints

This is really part of a much bigger theme of “how we undervalue our work”, I suppose, but I’m sometimes asked a simple question: “can I buy a print of that?”.

(It’s about many other things too – it’s about marginal costs of production, it’s about motivations, and it’s about friendship and favours, if there’s a personal relationship involved in the request.)

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Why we shoot and edit RAW

One of the lesser known things about digital photography is that the camera often sees more than it’s letting on. Generally speaking, cameras can produce two types of digital image: “RAW” and “JPG” (or JPEG, jpeg or .jpg but let’s not get hung up on that…)

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Comedysex 2016

It’s only mid-January, and surely one of the year’s most memorable events is already done and dusted. I was honoured to get an invitation from Zoe Margolis to come and make pictures as 11 incredibly talented acts gave their time in a comedy benefit to raise money for Brook, the sexual health charity for young people.

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Looking back at 2015

As I did a year ago, I’ve picked out a few favourites from the year just gone – as much to remind myself of all that flew past as for anything else.

Some I’ve published before in one place or another; most I haven’t – they’re taken on a mix of cameras, from DSLR to phone, some as commissioned commercial work, others as personal projects for my own enjoyment. I hope you enjoy looking through them – they all bring back special memories for me. Hectic (probably 25% too hectic at times if I’m honest), but fun, year.

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Pricing photography

Money tree

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about costs and pricing for photography. Unsurprisingly, really – I send out a bunch of quotes every day for photography work, big and small. Making the right call is vital to putting food on my table.

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Something Special

1980. Sharp suits. Wraparound shades. Pork pie hats. The days when we had proper fashion tribes, and a row of button badges down the (narrow) lapel – or on the inside of it in the case of a school blazer – was enough to indicate allegiance and provide that little inner glow of belonging.

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When all is lost

Maybe it’s unprofessional to admit that things go wrong sometimes. Maybe it’s more unprofessional to conceal that they do, and not to talk about ways that even an abject disaster might not be as bad as it first seems.

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Looking back at 2014

As I did on NYE last year, I sat down a couple of hours ago to pick out the photos that I remembered most from the year just gone.

With these reviews, there’s a tendency to put in some showy-off “good stuff”, and perhaps also a few that haven’t been seen publicly before but have something special about them, but this year I’ve also picked a few that are personal, rather than for work. It’s been a busy year of jobs – scarily so at times – but there’s been a life going on there as well. That’s made the selection a bit bigger than I intended…

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Sizzling digitally

I’ve had a few requests to say a bit more about the technical aspects of event photography, so this post digs into the settings a little, and also says something about how and when I bring flash into play.

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The 12 best things a photographer can hear

1. Could you just pop in for a few minutes? – we only need a few shots.

Usually the tuning notes that precede a full symphony of requirements – as models, costumes and props descend as if from the Covent Garden Opera House ceiling. The “few minutes” inevitably harks back to (and magnifies) the amount of time the client has spent thinking about this. The “few shots” are what you wish you could administer to the back of their head in a quiet alleyway. (Or that some photographers pour down their neck to dull the pain.)

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Talking shop

If a picture says a thousand words, why would anyone want to hear someone say a thousand words about pictures?

This thought did dart through my mind after agreeing to do a turn at a fabulous recent event, about events, for event people.

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Event Photographer of the Year 2014

I’m not a big one for competitions. This is something of an understatement. I put one picture forward for one, once, and heard no more. I’m generally a bit more focused on doing the work than on chasing trophies around. Plus, it’s a lot harder than you might think. Picking a tiny handful out of vast swathes of work – declaring those to be your best – and then being…judged. Publicly. Against brilliant people. Yeah.

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The Hack Day

Lots of my work involves capturing people, organisations or events associated with technology. Sometimes it’s to feature the founders of a shiny startup, and quite a few times it’s been the subject of this post: a hack event.

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It never rains

But it bloody lashes down. A cold, wet, dark November morning. Sane people are hiding in bed for at least another few hours.

The less sane are taking their prized veteran cars on the annual run from London to Brighton. And the really barking mad are heading into the storm to take photos of them.

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Panning for gold

A few weeks back I was in the middle of a portrait shoot when I spotted one of those chance frames that really stopped me in my tracks. Not for the first time, it involved one of London’s bridges. These three red buses, set against a diabolical, stormy City backdrop, became a very popular image of the weird weather of Summer 2012. Pre-Olympics, at least.

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Into the light

One of the very first bits of advice I was given as I clutched a Kodak Instamatic back in the 70s, was to make sure I had the sun behind me when taking family snaps. Well-meant advice, of course, but as I’ve written before, light shining straight into the face of a subject is a mixed blessing. Yes, you can see them well enough – but you see them as they screw their eyes up against the glare, with any hope of casting interesting shadows lost to the flat, boring, frontal (and often intense) lighting.

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Silk purse

The official launch of the Shard – tallest building in London by some distance – was trailed as being something spectacular.

Lasers, searchlights, pyrotechnics… Sauron’s eyeless tower conducting a thorough inspection (or benediction) of its new neighbours: much to see and much to capture.

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Last Minute

LeWeb comes to London! Today was the first of two days of a little bit of Paris in England (well, quite a lot it seemed, with the whole crew from bouncers to videographers shipped in by the debonair Loic Le Meur). I’m doing photo coverage for a couple of tech publications, and having a fine old time of it.

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Food for thought

A simple photo.

Such a powerful thing. It can demonstrate bare, unpalatable truths. It can lead to a swift journey to the courtroom. It can certainly frighten the hell out of people, especially those in authority. And even more so when there are children involved.

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Installing Canon EOS Utility from the web

(Forgive the clunky title, but I’m quite keen that people stuck in the situation I’m about to describe can find this post.)

If you take your photography seriously or commercially, it can be a very good idea to embed some information about you-the-photographer-and-copyright-holder within the file itself.

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Sensitive stuff

The World Naked Bike Ride is exactly what it sounds like. In dozens of cities around the world, cyclists take to the streets for a couple of hours, wearing nothing – or not very much – to highlight a range of issues from cyclist safety to greener living.

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Through a glass, darkly

A regular part of an event coverage job is making sure there are strong images of the main speakers. Maybe these are captured as they’re out there in the bright lights, perhaps in action doing their piece, perhaps in a relaxed moment. But sometimes the portraiture is more formal.

Last June, on an event shoot for Channel 4, we went for the latter.

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The best camera…

Yeah, you’ve heard it before, I’m sure. The best camera isn’t a Nikon, or a Canon, or a Leica. It’s the one you have with you.

That big thing with the boats last Sunday – I was steering one of them, at the very front of the flotilla, with an exceptional vantage point to snap a few frames from as we went along. Of course, steering and safety were my first priority. Of course.

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The quick and the red

The wonderful investigator and campaigner Heather Brooke collared me at an event last week – could I do a quick portrait while we were both there?

The obvious answer (I’m a huge HB fan) was yes, of course. The slower thought was: great portraits are not a quick business, generally.

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Gilt trip

A once in a lifetime chance to explore an extraordinary boat.

There I was last weekend, polishing a boat by the river at Richmond, when the Queen’s new Royal Rowbarge, Gloriana, pulled up alongside. Impossibly gleaming and shiny, brand spanking new, undergoing its final preparations for the Diamond Jubilee River Pageant on 3rd June.

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A serendipitous shoot

Spotted a Steve Lawson update the other day pointing me in the direction of a few tracks on SoundCloud from a fine, fine singer/songwriter called Luke Sital-Singh. I was bowled over, really. Hadn’t heard anything quite so intense and powerful in years. This was the track that blew me away. This, from a guy of 24. Steve, I’ve said this before, but you have amazing taste in music, and your generosity in sharing it is legendary.

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