I was on assignment in the Arctic for Popular Photography Magazine, shooting and writing a how-to guide on photography in sub-zero temperatures. I had joined an eco-tour group polar-bear watching at a luxury lodge. On one hike we came across two young bears standing on their hindlegs, sparring. The light was gorgeous, the setting—with the blue sky, white bears and green grass—was colorful, and the moment was once-in-a-lifetime.
One of the guests turned to me and said, “there’s your million-dollar shot.”
I had to chuckle. While I appreciated the guest’s sentiment, that the shot was rare and took a lot of expensive logistics to get (travel in the arctic is incredibly pricey), the truth is that those factors almost never come into play when determining the value of an image. In fact, when the magazine published the story, I calculated that single photograph earned little over $80.
Magazines typically pay photographers on assignment one of two ways. They can pay you a day rate—a certain amount per day with usually half that amount for the first and last travel days, or they can pay you a stock rate where each image is valued depending on the size it runs in the magazine.
A good day rate for a professional photographer shooting on assignment for a top tier magazine (any magazine with a circulation in the 500,000 plus range) might be between $600 and $1,000 depending on whether they’ve worked with you before. If you’re new to shooting for them, they’ll probably give you a lower rate. If you’ve successfully shot several stories for them they are more likely to reward you with a higher rate.
A day rate allows magazines to use an unlimited number of images from the shoot in any size for only that assignment. You still maintain all your copyright and can—usually 90 days after the magazine appears on the newsstands—sell any of the images to any other clients.
The trick, of course, is that you need to negotiate enough time to do a good job for a shoot. It’s not unheard of for a photo editor to offer a high day rate ($600) but only give you two days to shoot an assignment. Or offer a low day rate ($300 but give you four days to shoot the assignment). Negotiate. For a feature story which involves 8-14 images, I usually plan on one full week of shooting with two travel days (one inbound and one outbound).
The second method of payment is stock photography where the magazine pays you for individual photographs based on what size they are going to run in the magazines. Sizes are usually broken down as cover, two-page spread, full page, half page, quarter page and spot (smaller than a quarter page). Sizes are always rounded up. A photo running two-thirds of a page will be billed at a full page.
Most of the bigger magazines out there (those with circulations of 250,000 or more) will offer at least the following rates: cover $1,000; full page $600; half page $350; quarter page $250; spot $150. If the photo editor has not sent you rates, ask for their standard rates. These rates are for a one-time use. If a magazine wants to also run the images online, I also charge an additional fee between $25-100.
The figures can be encouraging, but what if you’re just breaking into the business and earning your chops shooting stories for smaller niche magazines? Negotiate with editors. Ask to see their photo rates—this is simply a sheet that explains what they pay per photo or per day. If it’s a very small magazine they might tell you they pay $50 a photo or $200 for a package of photographs.
While there are no hard and fast rules on what magazines pay, most photography editors are kind and supportive of their photographers, most have been freelancers themselves and no that it’s a hustle to get work.
What about editors who want images for free? First, try to negotiate a reasonable fee even if it’s in the $10-$25 range. Finding the image, preparing it and sending it all takes time and the outlet is getting value from you. When you value your work, your client will value it, too.