A Photo is Worth a Thousand… Dollars?

Can you imagine selling just one photo for $1650?

I certainly didn’t, until it happened.

Here’s one reason that sharing your work on a searchable photo-sharing site might be a good idea.

This grainy, 12 Megapixel photo from my first, entry-level DSLR wasn’t even shot in RAW.  It was just a hand-held photo taken while on a vacation to Italy.

I shared it on my Flickr account in 2009, as I did for basically all my photos around that time. I tagged it with terms like “Italy” and “Piazza San Marco”, the location where it was taken. I also included some feeling tags, like “Lonely” and “Mysterious”.

Even now, nearly a decade later, the photo has only received around 5000 views.  But submitting it to a public site that allows for search helped give me a sale opportunity I might not have had otherwise.

In 2012, three years after the photo was originally posted, I was contacted by the publishing company Grove Atlantic.  They had found my photo on Flickr using search terms like “Italy” and “Venice”.  Turns out, they were looking for cover pictures for a mystery novel set in Venice! The mood and feel of the photo was exactly what the author was looking for!

Then, they asked me THE question that no creative likes to answer…

“How much?”

Honestly, even after shooting professionally for over 8 years, I still dread answering this question.  All these weird fears and questions of self-worth come into your mind. The same ol’ mental game:

“I don’t want to give away my work for too little. But I don’t want to ask for too much and scare them away…” (Repeat)

There are specific ways that I personally deal with this mental hurdle – which I’ll save for another post.

But, in this case, I hadn’t even considered this picture as “my work”. It was just one of my random personal vacation photos, and not one of my best, in my opinion.

So how would I find a reference point for how much to ask for?

Enter Getty Images, a well-known stock photography site.  I searched for “Piazza San Marco” and found royalty-free image usage to cost around $600. Wow.  I wouldn’t buy a photo at that price, personally.  But then again, I’m not an international book publishing company.

However, after a bit more searching, I found that the license I needed to use for a project like this would NOT be Royalty-Free, but rather, a “Rights Managed” license.

Rights Managed licenses are for limited use in a particular publishing format (Publication, Web) for a limited reproduction quantity (Limited to 50,000 copies), and for a limited time period (3-Year License).

I used a Rights Managed License Calculator for a specific photo on Getty to see how they would price an image for the specific use and time period specified by Grove Atlantic.

The calculator gave me a number over $2000 for a single license!  I still couldn’t bring myself to ask for that much for a vacation photo though, so I chickened out and asked for $1650, totally expecting them to say no.

But they said yes!

Anyway, you can see the finished result on New York Times Bestselling Author Donna Leon’s Novel:  The Jewels of Paradise

I also got a free copy of the novel.  Still haven’t gotten around to reading it though…

Moral of the story?

  • Consider sharing your work on a publicly searchable site, and make sure to tag it with relevant search terms.
  • If asked to license a photo, first consider WHO is asking. Ask them WHERE the photo will appear, the AMOUNT of times it will be reproduced, and for HOW LONG?
  • Put the answers into a calculator and give them a number with confidence!
  • If they agree, you know you’ll be paid what it was worth.  If they don’t, try negotiating a more limited usage to lower the price. Never lower a price arbitrarily.
  • Alternatively, give your work away for free on Unsplash and make the world a better place!

Could you make consistent money from this?

Seeing as it took three years for me to make money from this one photo, and also considering I never made another cent from it again, it’s probably not a solution for quitting your day job (YET!) but one thing’s for sure:

By putting your work out on the internet, you will definitely have more opportunities to make money from it than if you hadn’t!

Sounds obvious (because it is) but I’ve talked to a lot of people that want to make money with photography, but are hesitant to put their work anywhere online for fear of negative opinions, judgement, or image theft.  Whatever.  Those are all things that will inevitably happen to any talented photographer, but don’t let it stop you from getting your work out there!


  1. Anonymous on January 2, 2018 at 10:18 pm


  2. Josh Liba on January 5, 2018 at 11:47 am


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