Dubai Photographers in Association

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If you work as a professional photographer in Dubai, then you are probably aware that the local photography market sometimes appears to be incoherent, unregulated and random. Some blame it on a huge influx of inexperienced photographers joining the ranks, others blame it on this or that individual or group undercutting prices, some blame it on clients refusing to adhere to international norms for conducting business … be it as it may, the potential reasons are many, but none of them unilaterally adequate to explain the current state of affairs.


Yes, it is true that the economic climate, which started a few years ago across the globe, has had an effect of bringing in a lot of newcomers to the profession. The improved accessibility to semi-professional and professional digital equipment has had a similar effect and has further contributed to the influx. But so what? Are the newbies to blame?

And yes, there are people who charge less and there are people who charge more. This is natural; we all have different expenses, overheads, needs, desires, creative talents and we value our time in different ways.

However, the question is not so much about how much we charge, because this is bound to vary, but what we price for. So,

Do we charge for the same things and are we charging everything we ought to be charging for?

I know some people charge AED 2,000 for a day-long photo shoot, but then spend sleepless hours the following week editing. As an estimate, this works out to be AED 400/day. To put this into perspective, a stylist in the UAE will charge anything between AED 1,500 to AED 2,000 for each billable day, which also applies to their preparation time (shopping). So, for a day out shopping and a day on a set, they’d pick up around AED 4,000. In the meantime, the “AED 2000/day photographer” is working at an actual low rate of AED 400/day and is spending a whole week without doing any marketing, sorting out bills, getting new work, etc.

But it’s not always about the money. Sometimes, low paid work benefits us in other ways. Perhaps it’s a job that you really like and is giving you personal satisfaction, or perhaps it is of great promotional value. The reasons may be many. However, more often than not, the job simply hasn’t been priced right.

In the above example, the time factor appears to have been underestimated. But, as we know,

time is not the only “tool” for estimating a fee.

So, what does come into our fee?

OK. We have all thought about how much on average we need to earn per month to be able to keep ourselves afloat, to pay our rent and bills, to service our gear or to purchase a new kit or a piece of software, or how much extra on top we would need to keep us in good spirit. The figures are bound to vary from individual to individual. One of the things I find often gets left out here in the region is:

Usage rights and licence fees.

If you haven’t been asked to work as a ‘work for hire’ photographer, then you should be charging for these, especially for commercial photography or advertising. And these can sometimes pay for most your bills, depending on how and what for will the final images will be used. As an example, usage fee for an image published on the cover of a commercial magazine will cost much more than an image for a full-page editorial.

A friend of mine who works as a photographer in Dubai once told me that, before submitting an estimate, he checks how much a client would pay if they were to buy a similar image, for an equivalent usage, from one of many stock photography sites, e.g. Getty Images or Shutter Stock.

An interesting idea, and perhaps, if you haven’t done so yourself already, maybe you should do so. It is likely to give you a different perspective on things. But also remember that clients purchase such images from the comfort of their offices. You, on the other hand, to capture a similar image, would need to pack all your gear, which you have no doubt paid for dearly but which worryingly depreciates more and more with each passing day, you’d need to get it to the set, set it up and use your time, talent and skill to shoot the photo. Once all that’s done, you’d need to dismantle and pack everything back whence it all came from and, in a frenzy, as you’re leaving the set hoping that you haven’t left your new 5D Mark Whatever behind, you’d run back to your screen to edit your photographs, wondering how Photoshop doesn’t quite work on the black bags you’ve developed in the process and pondering whether you should be adding milk to your Red Bull because, these days, even the full sugar version had started to taste a bit like the tea. Ok, perhaps I am being a bit too dramatic here. Nonetheless, I’m sure you see the point quite clearly.

A word of caution though, once you start charging for licence fees, you are likely to start competing against those who unknowingly or deliberately undercut prices by not including usage into their fee structure. Although this might get them the job, it puts them in a category of photographers who scramble for daily crumbs rather than looking at the bigger picture. This sounds a bit worrying, especially if you are at the beginning of your career and are still trying to establish yourself as a photographer.

But consider this:

If you have charged for usage fees and have an appropriate licence in place, you can ask and will have to be paid every time your photograph or image gets republished/reused. You will have also made your clients value your work more, you will have acted professionally and you will have contributed to bettering of your local photography market. I suppose, it’s really up to you, your beliefs and your attitude toward your work and work of others.

Ok, so, you get paid for re-usage, your clients see you as a professional who knows ins and outs of their business, but how does this work in terms of numbers? Well, the math seems simple enough, if you just spend a moment thinking about it – and let me turn this into an example rather than just waffling about it.

Let’s say that now, with your current fee structure (licence fees excluded) you charge 100 Whatevers per assignment and let’s say you have 10 of those assignments per month. Effectively, this earns you 1000 Whatevers per month. Now, let’s say that as a result of including usage/licence fees in your quote, or for whatever other reason, your total fee doubles to 200 Whatevers. This means that you can now allow yourself to lose half of your low-paying clients and still maintain the same level of income. What you will have gained however is:

  • More time to dedicate to your remaining clients, thus being able to offer them a better quality work (and apart from making your remaining clients happier, better quality work also looks great in your portfolio)
  • More time to market yourself
  • More time to develop your techniques and improve yourself
  • More time to network, etc.

Of course, the above is just a simple model and other factors may need to come into it. It seem the basic principles are quite straightforward – but:

What about the pushy clients?

Yes, I know some clients are pushy and make us feel like we need to oblige and outright conform to their demands so that we stand a chance of winning a commission upon which our daily livelihoods depend. And, of course, there are clients that will make you drop the price, but then demand that the scope be increased. But are they wrong? Is it not normal that clients would want to pay the least amount possible for the best service they can get, or that service providers or retailers would want to maximise their income? The clients only demand that which they are used to, that which suits them or that which they perceive to be the norm, regardless of whether those ‘perceived’ norms fall short of professional norms that have existed outside these borders long before the creation of new and modern cities such as Dubai.

Be it as it may, beware this: if you’re perceived as a low-cost, low-budget photographer, you will win some of those jobs, which is great if that keeps you happy. However, if your clients ever get a high profile high paying job, it is very likely that they will employ someone more expensive than you. Weird, I know, but it seems to work that way.

In general, as we have been finding out more and more, and which also became evident from some of the surveys we have been getting back from you (by the way, thank you for those), the following is evident:

  • We’re not familiar with usage rights
  • We’re not aware of the existence of regional copyright laws

And by saying “we”, I mean some of the photographers within the region.

Consequently, as it appears, the clients, to their advantage, tend to treat Middle Eastern photographers differently. Not long ago, I was told by an art buyer from a major advertising agency in the UAE, how they pay usage rights to international photographers but not those from the UAE because, apparently, the local photographers do not charge license fees? Shock and horror! Although it was at first strange that such a huge advertising agency would be bending such fundamental rules, the shock didn’t last too long. Unfortunately, from the conversations I had with some fellow photographers in Dubai, I already knew that this might be the case. Fellow photographers, not all of whom found it strange to hand over their photo CDs to their clients, forgetting about everything else; having no concern as to what end will their photographs be used, how big will they appear in print or whether they’d be on billboards, for how long, which country will they be published in, how many times… As mentioned before, our local photography market appears to be somewhat random, which is both alarming and scary – but we’re trying to do something about it and, with your help, we’ll get there.

But why are some regional clients reluctant to pay for usage and why do they think that, if they have paid us, they also own the photos and images we produce?

It’s true, many photographers, and clients alike, are trapped into believing that if a client pays for models, wardrobe stylists, hair and makeup artists and the like, that they own the copyright and that all captured images should be handed over at no extra cost, for clients’ use whenever, however, wherever and for all eternity.

I must admit, at a first glance this appears to be ok. But fortunately for photographers that’s just not the case – so, please, don’t fall into this trap.

The fact that a client pays for all these other things has got nothing to do with you. You have taken a photograph, and so the photograph is yours – and the copyright protects you in this respect. In the UAE, the Copyright Law has been in place since 1994, and, fortunately for us here, we don’t have to register our work to have our images protected; UAE’s obligations under the TRIPS agreement which encompasses the provisions of the Berne Convention, provide that protection be granted without any need for formal registration.

If your contract with the client is not a ‘work for hire’ agreement, it really doesn’t matter whether the client has paid you for your time or whom else they have paid. As long as you have not explicitly transferred the copyright into their name, the images are yours and they should pay for their use.


Perhaps it would be bold to conclude that, as it appears, those entering the field have either not carried out an appropriate amount of research as to how photography business is normally conducted, or, they are in the know but are unable or unwilling to adhere to the rules for the sake of short term benefits.

If we’re all going to be working alongside each other, in this or whatever other market, a part of our job should be to secure and ensure the health of the industries we belong to. So, as far as the photography is concerned, we should embrace those who have come to the profession but we should make all the possible effort to educate them as to the appropriate conduct and ethics when it comes to conducting business, for their own good, for all our mutual benefits and for the benefit of our market. We are the ones creating it, and therefore we, collectively, have the full responsibility to maintain it, improve it or fix it if it’s broken.

Please write to us and tell us your thoughts, your experiences and suggestions. If you are willing to help or want to collaborate and have ideas on how we can improve our market, please get in touch with us! The regional photography needs you!