What's a Photo Worth?

June 30, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

Photography can be sold as either art or commerce, and each avenue is affected by its own market forces.

The value of a piece of art is defined simply by what someone is willing to pay for it. That explains why a photograph of the inside of a 99 Cents Store fetched over three million dollars at auction. Beauty is, obviously, in the eye of the beholder.

It is unimaginable that an image created for marketing, advertising, etc. — commerce — would generate enough value to merit such a mesospheric sum. But images used in commerce do bring benefits beyond "beauty" and, fortunately, some guidance in equating their value can be found in the realm of advertising. Specifically, over time and based on many factors including the number of readers of a magazine, the characteristics and qualifications of those readers, and the perhaps intangible reputation of a publication, rates have been negotiated for presenting a message to those readers. To wit, a "rate card" spells out how much a magazine wants in exchange for advertising space, the “value” of that space. (Keep in mind that when I speak of value, I’m not addressing the cost to create and submit a photo, but the equivalent value of that photo as compared to an ad.)

Typically, the least expensive rate, per square inch, is for a full-page ad. The quantity (number of square inches) is higher, so the rate is lower. Purchasing more editions can further reduce the rate, as can negotiations with the salesperson. Granted.

However, because you cannot purchase multiple editions of cover photos*, I will use published full-page single-edition ad pricing as a guide to the value of space in a publication, an approach which is appropriate in these calculations.

Here are some rates for pan-aerospace publications (without naming names): PA-1 charges $8,869 for a full-page ad. PA-2 charges $12,130. PA-3’s rate is $16,145, PA-4 goes for $17,275, and PA-5 asks for $22,790. Those are some heavy-hitting publications with large readerships and they charge accordingly.

In more-or-less fixed-wing publications, rates run $4,840, $10,055, $10,520, and $23,085 for four representative titles, respectively.

And on a smaller scale, audience-wise, in the niche of rotary-wing publications, here are some representative prices: $5,021, $7,186, $7,942, and $7,990.

How do these numbers relate to the value of photography? One simple correlation is to assign the value of a cover photo, which takes up a full page, the same value as a full-page ad. Thus, cover photos in the pan-aerospace publications might reasonably be worth between, roughly, $9,000 and $23,000, the fixed-wing books between $5,000 and $23,000, while the helicopter magazines would be between $5,000 and $8,000.

But here’s a slight curve to these calculations: some advertising positions (locations within the publication) are considered “premium,” meaning they are located within the magazine such as to be more likely to be seen and seen repeatedly, and those positions command a premium price from the publisher, usually between 10 and 20 percent. Those positions are, typically, the inside front cover and the inside and outside back covers. Those are good positions, sure, but what premium should apply to get the outside front cover? The location that every reader (and passerby) sees, the cover that is advertised and touted by the publication itself? One publication, not included above, sells its outside front cover for nearly 40 percent higher than a full-page ad inside the magazine, and another (that is among the magazines surveyed above) more than triples its standard full-page ad rate! So, considering those ranges, it seems reasonable to apply a 20-percent premium to the full-page ad rates, yielding a value range of $10,600 to $27,350 for the pan-aerospace publications, $5,250 to $27,700 for the fixed-wing pubs, and $6,000 to $9,600 for the helicopter ones.

To reiterate: to purchase that position would cost between, $5,250 and $27,700, and you would still have the expense of designing and producing the ad. But the magazine will give you the position, essentially trade you for it, if you have the thing they want — a compelling, eye-catching, image. (I'll be covering the topic of what makes a great cover image in another article.)

So, we’ve established what a photo can be worth. What should a great photo cost?

Well, the magazine will give you the front cover for free! Free sounds good, right!? All benefit and no expense?

But, of course, as with other marketing efforts, great photography requires planning and effort and skill, and that means expense. How we’ve come to expect photography to be free is a discussion all its own, but as a photographer who has spent countless hours peering through a camera, I can confidently state that great photography is anything but free to create. Yet the most efficient and effective way of acquiring a great photo for the cover of a magazine is to have it shot on purpose.

Plus, there’s the bonus of acquiring more than one great image — you’ll have additional resources to use on your web site, in social media, at trade shows, in press releases, in collateral and advertising. It is an investment more lasting than almost any other bespoke creation; great images will pay dividends for years and years.

R&W-cover-201310R&W-cover-201310Cover of the October 2013 edition of Rotor & Wing magazine, featuring an image of a University of Tennessee Knoxville Medical Center, UT Lifestar, Airbus H135 air medical helicopter in flight east of Knoxville en route to an accident scene. Mark Bennett photo.

The old saw is, a picture is worth a thousand words. It can also be worth many thousands of dollars.


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Photography is a massive field. Aerospace photography less so. In these writings I share stories and tips.
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