The Evolving Business Model of Photography: An Interview with Jonathan Worth

19th Dec 2012

Jonathan Worth

The business of photography has changed.  It has had to.  The emergence of digital imaging has forced the supply of images between photographer and buyer and its monetization to be overhauled.  Photo distribution is easier than ever and maintaining a position of 'never giving your work for free' is increasingly difficult as the internet offers photo editors a wealth of imagery to use.

Photographers have had to adopt different attitudes and approaches to their business, one who is leading the way is Sony World Photography Awards Student Focus judge Jonathan Worth.  Described in the European Parliament as 'breaking new ground for photographers', Jonathan was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and Commerce in 2009 in recognition of his work in developing business models.

Here Jonathan shares his thoughts on an alternative business model.

The traditional model of supplying to magazines and syndicating the images wasn't working for me.  I had been a professional photographer since the late nineties and worked both in London and New York as a successful editorial photographer.  In retrospect I saw myself as a photographic supplier, it was pre-internet so my product - my photographs -  was scarce.  People had to buy a magazine or newspaper to get my images.

When the internet arrived, suddenly my product was everywhere and my business model collapsed.  To all intents and purposes I was a success but I wasn't making enough money to sustain myself.  My images were all over the internet without my permission and now everyone with a digital camera was a potential image maker and, more importantly, competition.  I needed to make my product scare again. 

I started to write to people who were using my photographs.  How dare they steal my images!  One blog using my Heath Ledger images which received a stern email had to be sheepishly followed by something kinder when I realised the blog was run by a young girl from her bedroom.  She didn't know about photo licensing so I arranged for the girl to use my images for free but in return she had to credit my work properly and direct people to my website.

This should have been my moment of crystallisation.  This young girl was a hub - as soon as she vouched for me, my product shifted.  She talked straight to the people who were most interested and directed them to me. I had become a trusted source, a point of authority and Heather Ledger fans from around the world found me and my work.

Instead it took me several years to realise that you can make money from giving something away for free.

I had photographed the science-fiction author Cory Doctorow a couple of times.  What interested me was that at the same time as publishing a book he would release an e-version for free - and still make money from the hardback.  This 'open' business model was intriguing and Cory convinced me that the same could work for photography.

The key change was to use a Creative Commons License for my work.  I had always been an avid All Rights Reserved user but it stopped making sense.  So, I made 111 limited edition prints of a Cory Doctorow photograph to coincide with one of the author's book launches.  The pricing of the images was staggered, the first the most expensive at £150 and the last the cheapest at £5.  Crucially the image was also made available to download the free.  And what went first?  The most expensive one.  In fact, there was a fight over it.  Although the image was there for free I was speaking with Doctorow fans who wanted exclusivity.  I had a finely tuned network of buyers who wanted my product.  My product became scarce again. 

I was beginning to leverage the power of the internet for my benefit.  I no longer needed a magazine for the consumer to have access to my work and I could still make money.

This model is one of a portfolio of approaches a photographer can use.  It has worked well for me and it is something that I unpick the threads of with the students who attend the my undergraduate photography class at Coventry University.  Like my photography business model, the class is delivered online for free and in the first term over 35,000 people attended a virtual class - Wired magazine said I had shaken up photography education.  I use the Creative Commons Licenses for the classes, it is the only way an open class like this can work and they are proving hugely popular amongst photography enthusiasts and professionals alike.

The open business model also has real-world applications beyond photography and the university setting.  I am always looking for new partners who share my vision that there isn't a silver bullet answer to being successful.  This is why I have agreed to be a judge of the Student Focus competition at the 2013 Sony World Photography Awards.  The World Photography Organisation, creators of the awards, can bring a global network of interested parties to my work.   There is so much room to explore and develop with them and I am looking forward to some exciting times ahead.

End note:

Jonathan is a judge for the 2013 Student Focus competition at the Sony World Photography Awards.  For more details about Jonathan and his work go to