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Best Practices

Commissioning Assignment Photography

This handbook was developed by the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) to illustrate the fundamental principles involved during a typical commercial photography assignment. By defining key terms, answering commonly asked questions and describing today’s best practices, it guides you through the entire process of working with an assignment photographer.


This document is also available in a PDF version (16 letter-size pages, one color).


The Right Image for Your Purpose

Photography is one of the most powerful tools for persuasion that the human race has devised. But not all pictures are equally effective. The difference between a great image and a pretty-good image is, to paraphrase Mark Twain, like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. No one can guarantee you a great image for your next project, but you can vastly improve your chances by working closely with a photographer who understands what you need and can bring experience and creativity to bear on solving your problems.


Identifying Your Needs

The first step in planning for photography is identifying what sort of images might best represent your project themes. Are there any specific concepts, product features or benefits you’d like to highlight? Are there areas that require creative problem-solving? What geo-cultural norms and taboos must be respected? If you are addressing multiple demographics (of age, nationality, social stratum or wealth), what messages will you develop for each, and how will you keep them distinct?


At a strategic level, the answers to these questions will be important in finding the right photographer for the job. Then, at a tactical level, you can discuss them further with your photographer before production starts, both to develop specific imaging concepts and to clearly define the assignment parameters. With those, your photographer will be able to provide good time and financial estimates.


Selecting A Photographer

Try to match your needs with a photographer’s strengths. Commercial photographers often specialize in certain types of work, a unique style of imagery or specific geographic locales. They will have both the experience and the equipment to obtain the results you want.


ASMP helps you locate good candidates through its “Find a Photographer” database here, where you can search by photographic specialty and by geographic location. Once you’ve identified a group of photographers, you may choose to visit their web sites, request samples of their work for review or schedule meetings for portfolio presentations. You may also request to see photographs of assignments similar in scope to the project you have in mind.


The right photographer for you should understand your design ideas and be able to communicate them visually. Other factors to consider when making your decision include professionalism, compatibility with your style, and the right mix of technical skills and people skills. Don’t underestimate the value of a photographer’s enthusiasm and experience, as he or she will become an important part of your project team.


Estimating An Assignment

As a creative professional, you understand the importance of accurately defining the scope of work in order to determine your firm’s design fees. Similarly, in order to prepare an estimate for you, a photographer must have a detailed description of the assignment. Among the considerations are whether the photos will be shot on location or in a studio; what personnel (assistants, models, stylists, technicians, location scouts) and special equipment will be needed; whether permits and clearances must be obtained; and, of course, how much lead time is available.


An estimate typically involves three components:

  • The assignment description

  • Pricing: fees and expenses

  • Licensing & rights granted


The Assignment Description

In addition to an overall description of the project, some of the elements you may find in this section include the number of finished images for each medium, a description of deliverables, and a time frame for completing the assignment.


Assignment photographers are familiar with the main technical requirements of the standard publication media, including magazines, newspapers, annual reports, capability brochures and the Internet. If additional deliverables (such as transparencies, slides or black and white prints) will be needed, or if the images might be cast into unusual media (hologram packaging, bus wraps, backlit signs), be sure the photographer knows about them beforehand.


Digital concerns. In the last five years, all-digital workflows have become the norm, altering every step in the traditional publication process. You will usually get the best result at the lowest cost if your photographer can work closely with your printers, repro houses and layout artists to eliminate any uncertainties about who does what. Some of the key questions are:

  • How will the files be used? (Offset press, web site, digital prints, etc.)
  • Will the files need to be re-purposed for additional media in the future?
  • What is the largest anticipated reproduction size, and what resolution is required?
  • How, when and where will the captures be edited?
  • Who will be handling color correction, and how critical is color matching?
  • Who will be providing proofs, and what type of proofs are required?
  • Will there be an opportunity for the photographer to talk to the printer prior to the file delivery deadline?
  • Will the files be distributed to unknown printers (e.g., magazines)?


Licensing & Rights Granted

A photograph is considered intellectual property. The photographer owns the copyright to the images he or she creates and has the exclusive right to license their use. Licensing agreements are specific with regard to use and, in general, should answer these three basic questions:

  • Who will use the images?

  • How and where will the images appear?

  • How long will the images be used?


This information may be detailed in the Licensing & Rights Granted section of the estimate or in a separate licensing agreement. It’s important that you and your photographer agree on the scope of the license before photography has begun. Should your project plans change, be sure to discuss them with your photographer.


Under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, photographs automatically receive copyright protection immediately upon their creation. Absence of a copyright notice does not relieve a prospective user from the responsibility of obtaining permission from the copyright holder. In addition, altering or removing a copyright notice can result in liability under the Copyright Act and several other state and federal statutes.


More information about copyright is available from the U.S. Copyright Office and from ASMP’s copyright tutorial.

Possession vs. rights. The right to use images cannot be transferred by anyone without the written consent of the copyright holder. If you’ve received photographs without written permission for use, it is your responsibility to secure licensing rights before using them. As a rule of thumb, a good way to avoid any misunderstandings is to contact the photographer before passing along photographs. You should also advise the party receiving the images to contact the photographer directly to secure a license granting permission for their use. Any copying, distribution, public display or creation of derivative works of images without specific permission from the photographer is a violation of Federal copyright law.


Simply having physical possession of photographs, slides, prints, transparencies or digital files does not grant the right to use them.


A license is a legal agreement granting permission to exercise specified rights to a work.


A copyright is a collection of exclusive rights initially owned by the creator of an original work (an image, text, song, design, etc.)


Buyouts and ‘all rights’ agreements. There are legitimate, but rare, circumstances in which you need to possess the full array of rights that a copyright includes. Far more often, you actually have no prospect of ever using all those rights. (How often is the right to print on bubble-gum wrappers in Thailand a business necessity?) Rather, you may simply be looking to lock in future flexibility. Ownership is an expensive way to do it, though. Because the photographer can never again use the image in any way, he or she will have to recoup its lost future value in the upfront fee.


Nevertheless, photographers occasionally get requests for a “buyout” of the image. This is, at best, a vaguely defined concept, but it usually means that the client wants to make a one-time payment and never have to negotiate for further rights. For legal purposes, there are several ways to approach this.

  • The photographer may sign over the ownership of the copyright via a written document. As with many other transfers of valuable property, such a transfer may be recorded with the government — in this case, with the U.S. Copyright Office in Washington, DC.

  • The photographer and client may execute an exclusive, unlimited-use rights licensing contract. Here, the photographer keeps the tree (so to speak) but the client gets all the fruit.

  • A third approach is to structure the assignment as a “work made for hire.” In this scenario, the client owns the copyright (along with all legal liabilities) right from the start. Note that such an arrangement is valid only if both the client and the photographer have signed a specific, written agreement before the assignment has begun.


It is almost always more cost-effective to license just the rights you will actually use. Licenses can be written to provide coverage for any current and future needs without requiring transfer of copyright, exclusive unlimited usage or a work made for hire agreement. By discussing your real needs and concerns with your photographer, you can license any and all appropriate uses without adding unnecessary expense.



A photographer’s estimate typically has two components:

  • fees
  • expenses



There are two kinds of fees: Photography and Licensing. Some photographers combine them into a single number for presentation purposes (and some clients prefer to see them combined), but they are distinct in principle and are differently affected by changes in the assignment description.


Photography Fees (sometimes referred to as Creative Fees) reflect the experience, creativity and vision that the photographer brings to the assignment, along with the complexity of the project. Issues such as the total number of finished images needed, scheduling, site logistics or the need for specialized skills or equipment can affect the overall Photography Fee.


In addition to the actual time spent behind the camera, there will be fees that cover a photographer’s pre-production and post-production time. Depending on the complexity of the project, these may be included in the photography fee or listed as separate production fees. Pre-production tasks commonly include client meetings, site visits, set building, obtaining props, acquiring wardrobe, etc. Post-production tasks commonly include returning a work area to its original condition, prop returns, image editing and selection, digital enhancement, client meetings and preparing images for final delivery. Travel and weather delays can be factors, too.


Licensing Fees (sometimes referred to as Usage Fees) reflect the value of the usage for each image in the assignment. This is determined by a number of considerations, including how widely and for how long the images will be viewed, reproduced and distributed. Typically, the more extensive the rights, the higher the fee.


It’s just like the ads on television. Ad slots during the Super Bowl are expensive because the game has a huge audience. Ads on a local cable program cost relatively little, but not many people will see them.


Another issue is what degree of exclusivity is required. In addition to their immediate value, images can have ongoing value as stock photos, in coffee-table books, for historical research and so on. For many photographers, their library of licensable images creates an ongoing income stream. If the photos from an assignment must be kept off the market for an extended time, the license fee must be higher to offset the lost future earnings.


In this article, some of the words concerning rights and licenses are used in a narrow, technical sense. The PLUS (Picture Licensing Universal System) Coalition has developed an online database of definitions for most of the common terms used in photo-rights licenses. It's a valuable resource for everyone.

To obtain the best value at the outset, negotiate the rights license based on your currently planned needs, but also secure a price for additional rights that you might want in the future. This approach lets you pay as you go while minimizing budget uncertainty.



Itemized expenses may include charges for assistants, stylists, models, photo finishing, special equipment or prop rentals, travel, costs for location access, extra insurance — it all depends on the job. Expenses for analog (film-based) photography typically include consumables such as film, processing and supplies.


For digital photography, it is customary to bill per-image charges for format conversions, color and tone adjustment, digital retouching and file delivery. Because the technology is relatively new, industry customs and standards for digital photos are not widely understood. ASMP’s web site has additional explanatory material to help you and your clients in the planning and budgeting process.


Advancing Your Image

The photographs you use are a reflection of your company’s products and services. They affect how the marketplace perceives your business. While there will always be someone willing to photograph your project for less, what may initially appear to be a bargain can easily turn into an expensive problem when the resulting images do not meet expectations. Obvious pitfalls include legal liability for inadequate model releases, printers’ surcharges for color alterations, confused licensing language and missed deadlines. More subtly, the images may simply lack pizzazz. In the long run, commissioning a qualified professional photographer is an investment that can save time, money and frustration. The right professional photographer increases the perceived value of your company and its products or services.


Tips For Controlling Costs

If your needs outweigh your budget, don’t get discouraged. Here are a few ideas to relieve the pressure on your budget.

  • Be frank with your photographer about what you must have and what is optional, and be open to alternative approaches that could reduce the cost. Sometimes, small changes in the specifications — hiring fashion models vs. “real people,” the size and complexity of sets, the number of products shown together — can mean big differences in the cost of shooting. In every case, good upfront communications will mean a more focused shoot that takes less time and delivers the desired imagery.

  • Review the license terms you are asking for. Although it’s natural to want very broad rights, you may be spending more than necessary. A better approach is to license only the rights that will actually be required now and, if later you need more, license it then. Of course, it’s smart to negotiate the price for future rights now.

  • If location shots are required and the schedule has some flexibility, look for a photographer who does “package tours” in which the travel expenses are shared by several clients. (You could even call your peers to see if they want to join you in setting up a package.) The creative and licensing fees aren’t affected, but production costs could be dramatically lower.