How photography copyright works

A photograph is an artistic creation, regardless of the medium it’s displayed on. This means that when you hire a photographer to take pictures of your family, you are paying for the time, talent and experience of a photographer using specialized tools and software to create customized artwork. Photographic copyright is applied the moment the shutter is clicked, and it belongs to the person who composes and creates the image.

A copyright doesn’t necessarily apply to the paper a photograph is printed on (I don’t own the Mona List if I buy a mug with her on it). This means that if a copyrighted image is copied, distributed, screen-shot, or scanned without permission, that would be a violation of the photographer’s copyright and a duplication of art work the photographer has put a culmination of years of experience into creating. This extends to prints and print products. Purchasing a print does not include purchasing the copyright.

Professional artists will offer limited usage licenses with the purchase of digital files with explanations on where and how the file can be reproduced. This means when a web gallery is posted, digital proofs without usage licenses are delivered, or any easily-distributed media is delivered with the purpose of review for future ordering, those images cannot be shared, copied, saved or displayed without violating a copyright without explicit permissions.

Regardless of the subject matter (assuming all model and property releases have been adequately handled and no privacy clauses have been added), photographers have the exclusive right to reproduce their photographs.

Why are photographers so strict about copyright?

A professional photograph is not a quick and easy thing to create. While some amazing photographs can be created out of happy accident, most are created using specialized equipment and technical expertise after years of study, practice, and good deal of post-capture editing. When you pay a session fee, about 1/3 of that amount goes to taxes, another 1/3 goes to basic business overhead such as software, equipment and office supplies. The rest goes toward the photographer’s livelihood – rent, childcare, food, clothing, etc. The session fee, for most photographers, covers the cost of travel, hours spent on preparing for and shooting the session, and only a portion of the hours of backups, exposure and color calibrating, touching up and other edits. Some photographers can edit an image and have it ready to proof in five minutes – some challenging light situations require us to take over an hour per proof. Added up, the cost of photography is a great deal for the value of time and expertise – in reality a session fee with no following orders will probably end up costing a photographer money.

So in part, we are strict about copyright because without being paid for the products of our artwork (albums, prints, shared web files), we can’t afford to stay in business and keep taking pictures. That’s what we all hope to do – stay in business so we can keep doing what we love.

The rest of it is emotional. Posting unfinished proofs on Facebook is easy and feels harmless, but without permission and proper attribution to the artist, it can be actively detrimental for the photographer. Proofs are edited just enough for the client to get an idea of a portrait’s potential – it’s half a sculpture, the bare-bones of a painting. We can’t afford to spend the multiple hours it takes to fully polish an image until the client approves it and gives us the go ahead to order prints or albums and pays the costs associated with those services. So when we post and share proofs, it’s likely the photographer is hiding under a pillow somewhere in shame. It hurts our brand and makes us appear to be lazy, since the public who see your proofs will assume that is the finished image and the very best the photographer can do. It’s happened to me and yes, I cringed under a pillow for a few minutes.

If a photographer creates images from a session that aren’t worth purchasing a print of, that’s sad, but understandable – not everyone has the same aesthetic. But if the images are worth sharing, they are worth paying for and funding the artist enough to keep creating more art (and pay rent).

How to get legal copies of your portraits (it’s easy and everyone wins!)

I don’t deliver images I’m not proud of. I want you to share my (finished) work! I find it encouraging that you are excited about the images we’ve created together. I actively encourage clients to share web galleries and finished digital files on Facebook after your print order is complete. Send links to grandparents – spreading the word is great marketing for me. What we need, however, is to ensure that the file is properly formatted for the medium so it can look its best. We need to make sure the image is ‘finished’ and not a work in progress. And we need to make sure the image is properly attributed to the photographer so if someone sees an image they like, or say, grandma wants to order a portrait for the living room, we can make a living off of the art that we worked so hard to create.

None of my clients has done this (you are all wonderful), but this has happened to other photographers – a client will screenshot an image in a web gallery, print it on a home computer or at a local pharmacy, and attempt to frame and hang that image above the mantle. This just can not, ever, turn out well. Web-formatted images and small printed proofs are not the right quality to turn out an enlarged portrait of high enough quality to look anything but…sad. It’s just guaranteed to be underwhelming and while the photographer might not know about the slight, the people who have to look at that poorly printed mush of paper behind fogged plexiglass are never going to feel the joy we are all aiming for them to experience.

My goal as your family photographer is to create images that provoke memories and emotion that you can enjoy forever. I create heirloom wall pieces and albums that you can enjoy every day, reminding you of why you go through the daily grind of parenting and why it’s all worth it. Artwork you can hand down to your grandchildren. That kind of emotional response gets lost in a grainy 8×10 screenshot printed at Costco and it won’t do the image – or the personality captured in the photo – any justice.

Click here to contact me – we can work together to maximize the joy you feel from seeing your portraits every day!