Shutterbug Editorial: How Much is a Photo Worth?

Did this photo by Peter Lik really sell for $6.5M? And if so, does it really matter?

The most hotly discussed photo topic in the past month, undoubtedly, has to be the reported sale of a photo by Australian photographer Peter Lik for a record-breaking price of $6.5 million. I say “reported” sale because, as of yet, no unbiased source has been able to officially confirm this news, which was announced by Lik’s parent company in a press release in early December.

The photo that allegedly sold to a private collector for that unbelievable sum is titled “Phantom,” and is a black-and-white image of the oft-photographed Antelope Canyon in Arizona. As some have pointed out, the purported record-breaking image was actually originally shot in color and titled “Ghost,” and then converted to black and white later to create “Phantom.” (Am I the only one wondering what black-and-white conversion software was used? I’m sure the developers would like to get some credit!)

Of course, the blogosphere and the newspaper world have been up in arms about this news, with some folks using this as an opportunity to question whether photography is art at all. Let me settle that particular debate right now: it is.

And where does that leave the master marketer Peter Lik? Laughing all the way to the bank. He’s certainly not the first photographer to ride a wave of hype over high-priced photo sales. In a related story, we looked at the five most expensive photos ever sold and asked whether it was all just a scam or a positive sign for the photography industry, where a rising tide could lift all boats.

Does all this hoopla hurt other, perhaps, more accomplished photographers who are struggling to simply get paid what they’re worth? It’s a fair question but rather than use an outlier like Peter Lik as a measuring stick, I’d suggest you read Maria Piscopo’s story “How to Get Paid What You’re Worth as a Photographer: Taking Charge Of What To Charge For Your Photo Services.” In the story, Piscopo talks with four photographers on more practical matters such as how they go about setting rates and establishing price structures for usage fees and production expenses; and how they package photography estimates to convince the client that they need to hire them.

On the surface, it may sound like boring stuff but it’s the essence of what real working photographers have to consider all the time. The fantasy that you’ll sell your next photo of Antelope Canyon to a private collector for Lik-like money is just that: a fantasy.

But to the simple question of how much is a photo worth, the answer might be equally simple: how much do you think you can you get for it? In Lik’s case, the answer appears to be in the millions. So what’s your asking price?