Who Owns The Photos A Photographer Takes of You?

Who Owns The Photos A Photographer Takes of You?

You're wondering who owns the photos which a photographer has taken of you. The simple answer is almost always the photographer. Unless you have an explicit agreement with a photographer, they almost always own the photos.

What does this mean from a practical standpoint? It means that you can't resell your photos or present them to a publication for example without compensating the photographer further.

The shortest explanation is that the photographer retains ownership simply because of copyright. They created the photos, they own them. It's as simple as that. For a more in depth understanding keep reading.

Why Does The Photographer Own The Photos?

The biggest reason that photographers own the photos they've taken of you is because they've created them. They are their work. When you buy a set of prints you're paying for more than the paper which the photo is on. You're paying for the expertise, experience, and business costs that the photographer must cover in order to continue working.

As a result photographers don't want to lose out on the money they feel entitled to when it comes to making copies of their work. In reality it doesn't always feel so fair, nor so cut-and-dry.

A Bit of History

Here's a bit of history that might help you understand. In the past you couldn't easily make a copy of your photo without the help of a photo studio. As a result it made sense for the photographer to keep your picture in the event that you wanted or needed additional prints made. There was little question about who you would go to. You'd go back to the person who took the photo because they had the negatives.

The Rise of Drug Stores Photo Centers

Even before computers and scanners made duplicating photos far easier drug store photo centers were the bane of pro photographers everywhere. If you did have your negative these drug stores could make a copy easily and cheaply. The problem was that photographers were loosing out on money. Because you could take their work and copy it for pennies they felt cheated.

To photographers those are not just "pictures of you" - they are their work. This is work they are proud of and they want to make sure any representation of it meets their standards. Additionally, they don't want someone else profiting off of their work, no matter how small that profit is.

Buying Your Negatives

As a result of these drug stores and small photo centers making copies photographers began to offer negatives for sale. This was true of many more wedding photographers than other photographers but during the late 1990s and early 2000's it was a popular trend.

The chances were high that you were going to scan their work and make terrible copies. Since photographers care about how their work is seen they saw the writing on the wall. Wedding photographers especially began to offer the sale of negatives for a steep premium. This allowed them to make at least some money off of their work but allowed clients the ability to have their photos printed.

The Digital Era

Once digital photos became the norm this trend of providing reproducible copies didn't go away. Many photographers now offer the ability to buy digital downloads, also called digital rights, to your photos. Not only are wedding photographers more likely to do this but headshot photographers almost certainly have to since you're likely using your headshot on social media and elsewhere.

Why Do Photographers Still Own The Photos?

Photographers still own the photos even if they sell you digital copies or rights to share them. This is because the photos are still their work. Yes, you may appear in their photos but that is only one small part of a very large and involved process.

To the photographer you are not just you, the client. To a photographer you are what they're building the image around. The background matters as does the light they're using. All of the details of the photo which they painstakingly orchestrated mean a great deal.

Take a photography course and you'll discover just how challenging managing all of these parts can be.

The Justification For Photographic Copyright

In reality creators retaining copyright is just how the law works so there's no legal need for justification. However, there are still compelling arguments for your photographer owning the pictures they've taken of you beyond what I've already mentioned.

Why You Don't Own Your Professionally Taken Photographs

First, the photographer has invested a great deal of time to be able to create a good photo of you. You paying for that might not seem fair at first. However, ask yourself, would you have hired them if that were not the case? Would you be paying them to take your photo if you didn't care how it turned out?

Second, they're not just taking your photo. There is a great deal that goes into photographing people. That's true of events, portraits, weddings, and more. Depending on the type of photo a photographer may need specialized equipment. That often includes lights and certainly includes lenses. These tools don't work without a solid knowledge of when to use them. Would you hire a plumber who didn't know if they should use a pipe wrench or a hammer?

Finally, photographers, like many professionals, spend a great deal of time working with you. This means they (should) understand you. Truly, they should see you and listen to you. A good photographer will deliver what you want and make it right if they didn't.

What Copyright Means To Photographers

When it comes to the photographers you hire for your family photos or wedding they most likely care about copyright. However, they might not understand the full value of the concept. Someone who photographs celebrities' and history-making events will be called upon for those photos for years. For those photographers it makes clear sense that they should retain ownership. In order to continue to make money from those pictures they need to own them.

Whereas those situations seem obvious you may be wondering about your local portrait photographer. You might assume they'll never be asked to resell a single image. That said, they simply never know.

In my early years I worked for a small weekly newspaper. I took countless photos of high school football games. Additionally, I photographed plays, graduations, and other small events in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. Some of the football players I photographed went on to play for the NFL. Sadly, because I was working for the paper they, not I, own those photos. That said, someone might call them up one day because they need one of my photos. You just never know what is going to happen.

Exceptional Situations

There are a few exceptional situations. As I just mentioned. I was working for a newspaper when I took photos of soon-t0-be famous athletes. Because I worked for the newspaper they own those pictures. This is called work-for-hire. Frankly, work-for-hire sucks. It means that some newspaper owner makes any future money off of your work. A better example is news photographers winning Pulitzer Prizes.  The incredible Martha Rial won one for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette in the 1990s. Technically, it's the Post Gazette who won the award. This is true even as Martha was not on assignment at first but shared the photos with the paper anyhow.

Read Your Contract

Read your contract to find out what your photographer says about ownership. Of course if they don't explicitly say, that doesn't mean anything. However you can ask for clarification. Too, photographers still are often willing to sell you the right to print and share their photos of you. That said, they're unlikely to sell the ownership outright unless you're willing to pay a very large sum.

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February 4, 2023 | Don Orkoskey
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