When it comes to negotiating fees for licensing underwater images, I am often confronted with clients who consider the quotes they are given to be exorbitant and they are puzzled as to why it would be more expensive than any other (for example) ‘nature’ or sports themed image.

What follows is a brief attempt to shed some light on this issue which also applies in greater part to underwater video and will hopefully serve others to some extent in trying to explain why this is…



Equipment Fee: Huge Overheads

Just like any other photographer or business for that matter, Underwater Photographers assess their overheads before even looking at what margin to add in order to make some profit. So what you get in the quote as the client is the total cost of what it costs the underwater photographer to ‘do business’ plus a percentage profit he/she can live with (flexible).

Without going into too much detail on prices, any Underwater Photographer will tell you that the housing, strobes, ports etc of a professional system is usually two to three times the cost of the camera which it supports. Insurance against possible theft or damage also turns into a small fortune for all this equipment and can even be the downfall for some. Add to this that every time you take all this equipment underwater there is the very real risk of flooding which could result in a completely totaled camera/lens and expensive repairs to the housing. For many underwater photographers their insurance companies do not cover this type of damage…scary thought.

For this reason equipment fees need to be taken into consideration as it all comes down to what it costs the photographer to do what he/she does.


Koh Tao – Thailand

Travel Expenses: Not A Quick Drive To The Studio

If you spend some time browsing some of the best underwater shots on the internet or in printed media, you will very quickly notice that they were taken in oceans, lakes and other bodies of water which aren’t always just a fifteen minute drive from home. When pursuing the ideal water conditions, some of the biggest or more spectacular marine life, the most stunning backdrops, caves or wrecks underwater, you usually find yourself in remote locations quite far from home.

To keep it simple, think:

– flight/travel expenses to remote parts of the world.
– excess baggage costs for underwater equipment
– travel insurance for yourself and your equipment
– dive operator/boat rental costs
– accommodation
and the list goes on…


Giant Moray And Freediver

The Creative Fee: Specialised Expertise/Knowledge

It should make sense that higher rates would apply when taking into consideration that Underwater Photographers have developed specialized skills and knowledge to be able to shoot underwater. Although you might argue that a studio photographer possibly attended university to obtain a degree, the fact is that as soon as you start handling equipment underwater it is considered a ‘higher risk occupation or activity’ which for most people means they have had some form of specialized training outside the photography realm (ex: SCUBA / Freediving Courses) which usually requires continued training or experience.

An Extreme example to drive this point home – If you put an amateur photographer in a studio for an hour he/she will probably leave having learnt something through trial and error without causing too much damage to themselves or the equipment. Put the same inexperienced photographer in the water with a full underwater camera system without proper training or in water experience and odds are he/she might not make it out of the water to tell you what they learnt. Regardless of this, even after you have obtained the experience to take images underwater you are always exposed to the risk factor of being in an alien environment whether you are 15 meters deep surrounded by more sharks you can keep an eye on or working on breath hold shooting models in a swimming pool.


Broadnosed Sevengill Cowshark

Unpredictable Outcome

When it comes to marine life and ocean photography, you would be amazed to know how many days a photographer can be at sea or underwater to finally get that one shot which everyone loves. Sometimes entire trips pass without an expected encounter and when looking at the list above it should be quite obvious that it can become a very expensive venture.


Sandy Hill…

Clients: Their Impact

Photography is a very fickle business when it comes to the money side of things and a key player in this is the client. Most Underwater Photographers have to carry the expenses listed above in order to produce the images they intend to sell. This being the case, when a client does not understand all the factors listed above they quite often undervalue the product and offer to pay very little. When the photographer has to decline in order not to make a loss, clients usually follow some other routes which are leading factors as to why Underwater Photography is seen as a commodity with diminishing in value.

Below are some examples:

Undercutting The Competition: The Playboys, Amateurs & Weekend Photographers…

There are a lot of Underwater Photographers who literally spend all their free time and resources to pursue their dream to make a living from their work and a big chunk of the best photographers out there have a second job or source of income from photography (wedding, portrait photography etc) to be able to make a living doing what they love.

It being what it is, there are also those people who are quite well off and have taken it up as a rich man’s hobby, usually as an offshoot to a few scuba courses. Then you also have those who have a well-paid job which affords them the luxury of being able to afford expensive underwater photographic equipment and ideal dive holidays to dream destinations to play with it, usually also as a hobby.

You have to give credit where its due as many of these ‘hobby’ photographers are amazing underwater photographers, but unfortunately do not appreciate or care much for the actual financial value of their work. What happens is that they become a reliable source for cheap and sometimes even free images just for the short-lived limelight of a photo credit. This completely undercuts the poor sucker who spent their life savings to pursue his/her dream of making a living from Underwater Photography or Video who cannot afford to give their work away.

Then there is the complete beginner… When I started posting my first underwater images of sharks, I was very quickly approached with small offers of roughly 50 to 100 USD from agencies sourcing images for their clients. In an attempt to save money, media and advertising companies now employ full time staff to scour social photography website Flickr and 500px to offer amateurs peanuts for their usable work which end up being licensed. In the end you usually still get what you pay for, but this making the business for the dedicated underwater photographer next to impossible to break into or sustain.

In both these cases these Underwater Photographers (usually by no fault of their own) do not consider the photography industry as a whole, but as a quick buck or easy limelight opportunity. This is two of the factors which encourage people to think that Underwater Photography (like land based photography) is a commodity diminishing in value.


Going Down…

In Conclusion…

If you are a client who is serious about purchasing high quality underwater images, try to appreciate the effort, time and money that goes into getting that one shot you need.

If you consider underwater photography to be just a hobby and you find that you are donating or selling images quite often, try to find out what your work is really worth and I guarantee you that you will be shocked and insulted for having parted with some of your work for a quick $100 and a pat on the back…

This might fall on deaf ears, but if you really don’t care about the money then please try to take into consideration what impact you are having on the Underwater Photography industry as a whole and specifically on those who depends on their work to make a living. Just Food for thought:

  • If you have a medical practice, how happy would you be with a free clinic opening right next door offering all the same services…?
  • Lawyer? Imagine someone opening a practice right next to yours offering free high quality consultation…
  • Have a restaurant? How much would your business suffer if someone handed out meals identical to what it is you serve on the sidewalk right outside your doors?

Hopefully this article rings true with some of you and can be of use when dealing with a client who is unfamiliar with the real costs of Underwater Photography…