Cash Only. No Credit: Setting Your Photo Policy

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This is the age old conundrum of every photographer. If I offer my photograph for credit, what do I get in return? Is it worth the risk, or do I demand payment? Do I operate like the Mom and Pop cornerstore of the past, or does my shingle read “No Credit. Cash Only.”

In the small town where I grew up, some shops offered in-house credit accounts. This was a revolving tab that allowed you to shop “on credit” during the month and pay up on the First. The arrangement was particularly beneficial to the elderly on pensions. In my case, our main breadwinner worked for the city, which meant a monthly paycheck. The credit account at our corner grocery was what got us through, paycheck to paycheck.

Credit was granted on the basis of its own principle: trust and the acknowledgement of a person’s reputation of good standing.

These shops were mostly Mom and Pop businesses, in a small town where almost everyone knew everyone else. Over time, these businesses changed and bank-issued credit cards became more mainstream. Even before these changes began to take place, the practice had become so customary that shops without this policy would place signs in their windows: “Cash Only. No Credit.”

The Mom-and-Pop shops became the sons-and-daughters shops and the new generation understood that the word “credit” carried an inherent risk. It’s not that they didn’t want to help elderly Mrs Smith with her monthly budgeting. It was, rather, the understanding that credit was the promise of some future payment and in some cases, that future payment never came. An uncertain future payment was avoidable by simply demanding a present payment for a present product or service.

Cash Only. No Credit. That prevented more problems than the offer of credit solved.

In business, we understand that credit is a tactic to leverage debt, or income, over time. Done thoughtfully and correctly, credit is a way to buy new equipment, hire labor, and obtain resources necessary to grow our business. Offering credit to our customers, even for a short period of time in the form of invoices, can increase sales and defer tax liability.

You don’t need to be in business to understand the concept of credit.

Credit cards, car loans, home mortgages, all types of buy-now-pay-later arrangements are based on credit. Even the statistical tally of a person’s financial worthiness is called a credit score. Even if you are a debt averse person and operate on a strictly cash policy in life, there is one thing you can not deny. Credit makes the world go round.

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It’s safe to say that we all understand the financial concept of credit.

But what about the other type of credit with which we are also familiar? Remember that basic principle behind credit? Trust and the acknowledgement of a person’s reputation of good standing. To be given credit for something goes beyond a trust for payment. Credit is an acknowledgement of worthiness or accomplishment.

(Before we go any further, let’s get clear that we will assume a few things for the purpose of this article. Any photographer should have a clear understanding that copyright is actually critical to this discussion and can be a complex matter all on its own. For the purpose of this article, we shall assume that the photographer is the owner of the copyright of any material we will mention.

With me so far? Good, let’s continue.)

So let’s talk about credit from a photography standpoint. Anyone who has ever taken photographs for a living will, sooner or later, be asked to offer the use of a photograph for credit. That means that someone wishes to display the photographer’s photo and instead of cash, is offering to display the photographer’s name as an honor and acknowledgement of their accomplishment.

For credit.

But what does that mean, exactly? How does the use of a photo “for credit” compare to the sale of goods or services for a promise of later payment?

Photographers get trapped in backward thinking when the credit dynamic comes into play. We think that the credit is coming from the person asking to use our work. We think they are offering something by offering credit for the thing of value. In fact, quite the opposite is true.

It is the one asking for something of value, without having to pay for it, that is asking for credit. The thing of value that they offer in place of cash is often referred to as “exposure”. The concept is that the photographer’s credit will be seen by anyone who views the photo and their accomplishment will be exposed.

In short, people will see your photograph and know you are the person who took it.

That is all.

Consider once again that credit is a promise of future payment for the present use of a thing of value. Consider that the photographer has extended credit for the present use of his or her photograph. So where is this future payment coming from?

The person asking for your credit will tell you that the exposure will result in business, or at the very least, has the same value as advertising your name to an equal audience. For the latter, that might well be true, but only if that audience is a potential customer for you. As for the former, that’s up to you to decide, based almost strictly on the answer to the latter.

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In other words, is that audience full of your potential customers? The decision to extend your credit is an easy one in that case.

What if you are exposed to an audience with no need nor desire for your services? Maybe they are just looking at a pretty picture that helps tell someone’s story. They will never remember your name, much less hire you.

Is this a good risk for your extension of credit?

This is the age old conundrum of every photographer. If I offer my photograph for credit, what do I get in return? Is it worth the risk, or do I demand payment? Do I operate like the Mom and Pop cornerstore of the past, or does my shingle read “No Credit. Cash Only.”

It might help to think that Mom and Pop had their reasons beyond the faith that they would get their reward every month. What about the months that dear Mrs Smith was a little short? What about that third piece of gum handed over to the three kids who only had enough pocket change for two? What about just knowing that someone’s world was a bit brighter for the credit Mom and Pop forgave? And what about their reputation and good standing in the community? Was goodwill enough return on their investment?

So when the question of credit comes up for a photographer’s photo, the reasons for yes or no are as unique as the photograph. There is no right or wrong answer for every situation. The first step in the decision, however, is a clear understanding of which party has extended the credit and who is indebted to whom. The next step is deciding if the potential repayment is acceptable, or if you are willing to forgive the debt entirely.

It might not be your first choice, but understand that sometimes the only outcome is making the world a little brighter for someone.

If you can live with that, any decision will have fewer regrets.