Between teaching and my involvement with the non-profit HeARTs Speak, I’m regularly asked about stock photography and it’s no wonder – the idea of getting paid over and over again for work already created is an exciting prospect. Given the frequency of the request, I thought it was time to sit down and write about it in this format to provide an easy reference when the subject comes up again.
I’ve shared my thoughts on the future of stock imagery before and I think it offers good background before considering licensing options. If you haven’t read that article or if you just need a bit of a refresher, you can read it here. Today’s article is more of a how-to guide and while I know many of you might not have ever given consideration to licensing your photographs, you might walk away from the article thinking it might be worth considering. Oh, and if you were wondering about the term license – well that just means you’ll be giving permission (for a fee of course!) for the company to use your photo but that license will be limited to the terms of the licensing agreement. You will always own the copyright (i.e. right to copy or license the work) for your images.
I know you’re just back from re-reading my previous article so the concept is fresh, but it’s worth repeating that stock imagery is work that was created on speculation. Stock photos (and video) are not made for a specific licensing opportunity (like for a specific magazine article) but rather they are made available for such uses after they have been created. In an ideal world, you’d post your photos on your website and companies would start offering you money for the privilege of using your beautiful work. It sounds kind of pie in the sky, right? Well it is but sometimes the stars align and it actually does work that way. When it happens, it is great because it allows the opportunity to actually work with the client on the job and because you earn100% of the royalties. Win-win! Most of the time however you’ll need a middle man (a.k.a. stock agency) to facilitate the sale and that’s what I’m writing about today.
The first step is to build a body of work that you think is marketable. To be clear, I’m not saying make one or two great images here, I’m saying make 100 or more solid images – they don’t have to be master pieces but they do need to be consistently very good and you do need at least a hundred good photos before you are ready to take the next step. As you build your portfolio, consider the kinds of images that you enjoy seeing in the magazines you read (many of those are stock photos). Do you read pet magazines? Food magazines? Travel magazines? Look at that imagery and think about why it speaks to you (even if it says ‘Wow – I can’t believe they published this crappy photo!’) and you’ll learn two lessons – first, you’ll learn what you like in an image and second, you’ll learn what kind of image sells.
Now that you know what you want to shoot, take a moment or ten to objectively consider whether or there is a need for the kinds of photos you want to make. When you are thinking about this, consider how unique your imagery is – for example, since moving to Tucson, I’ve been photographing the local flora, fauna, and the city itself. I like to think that my images are consistently of high enough quality that they could be licensed as stock imagery BUT there are 1,000,000 people that live in the Tucson metro area and most of these people have cameras. There are even some really good photographers in the population not to mention all of the people that visit Tucson on an annual basis SO, even if my photos of Tucson are outstanding, there is a lot of competition and the market is saturated. By contrast, last semester I had a student that was offered a unique opportunity – she took three weeks off from her course work to do an internship with a group that flew her to Nepal (and back) a few weeks before the first earthquake hit. As part of her journey she hiked up to the first base camp on Mount Everest. She shows a lot of promise as a photographer but she’s still learning so some of her imagery is not technically perfect BUT she went someplace most people in the world never go, she created some beautiful photos, and they were taken a week or two prior to a natural disaster that altered the physical appearance of this remote location so her images are fairly unique and are potentially very marketable. Does that mean you need to travel to have a successful stock library? Of course not but you should consider what might help you stand out from the crowd.
Okay, now that you have some good candidates, it’s time to edit your portfolio. Chances are you have some images in that first series that are weaker than others – they need to go. Unfortunately, the weakest images in your portfolio will have more weight than the strongest images when it comes to reviewing your initial submission. While you are editing, remove any photos that are too similar to each other. The people that review new submissions at stock agencies appreciate a tightly edited portfolio.
Next, you’ll need to consider whether or not your photos can be licensed for commercial use or if they can only be licensed for editorial work. What?!?
Okay, I’ll assume at this point that you have not asked any of the people in your photos for model releases and that you have not secured property releases for all owned property in your photos – many professional photographers skip this step too (and no, pets and livestock are not models under US law – they are property). It is ALWAYS best to secure model and property releases if possible for your images if you think you might want to license them as stock photography (or videography). Without proper releases, the images cannot be licensed for commercial work but they can be licensed for editorial work. So what’s the difference? Think advertisement versus not advertisement and that will get you most of the way there. For example, if someone licenses a photo of Lyle and I submit a property release, then that photo can be used to sell things like kibble, toys, or pet apparel. If there is no release, then it can only be used for things like books, magazines, or greeting cards. The line gets a little blurrier though when you talk about things like book or magazine covers though because the cover is used to market the book or magazine. The bottom line is that a properly released image has no restrictions while an image without a release has some and restrictions mean decreased licensing opportunities.
Now that you have a solid selection of photos to market, you need to consider where you want to license them. There are essentially three tiers of stock agencies that you’ll want to consider.
The lowest is microstock. Microstock agencies are mostly filled with imagery made by photo enthusiasts that are happy to make a few bucks from their work. These photos are licensed for ten dollars or less and you have to do a lot of the marketing legwork by assigning key words (i.e. search terms) for your photographs – see the photo below for an example. iStockphoto.com (owned by Getty Images) offers royalties of either 15% or 45% of purchase price (depending on exclusivity) so contributors earn a pretty small percentage of a pretty small sale.
Next on the list are companies that sell licenses near traditional rates (say up to $200/image depending on the use and file size) but you will still be required to do some of the marketing work yourself. You can upload images without key wording them but they will never sell. Because you do some of the work, you’ll earn a higher percentage of the royalties. Alamy.com is a good example of this type of agency and they offer royalties of 50% of the purchase price so contributors can earn a decent rate of return on each image licensed.
The final tier are companies like Corbis or Getty – they’ve been in the business for a long time and sell licenses for traditional rates (up to $375/image) while offering only 20% of the royalties BUT once you submit your accepted images, they do all of the work. This is kind of important because they have years and years of metrics so they know the search terms their clients use and they can market the images accordingly. My experience is that while the royalty percentage is less than some agencies, they license far more imagery so the bottom line is a higher monthly royalty check.
Now that you’ve narrowed down your search (don’t just look at the handful of companies I listed – there are MANY more to review), take a look at their contributor guidelines. Oftentimes they will have minimum camera requirements to ensure that the image quality meets their needs. Be sure that the images you’ve created meet those needs otherwise your submission will be rejected without further consideration. Also take some time to look at the kinds of images that they license – not every agency will be a good fit for all types of work. Some agencies specialize in certain types of imagery and if you happen to have that type, then going with a specialty agency might make a lot of sense. Do your homework before you reach out because once you start the process, you’ll want to follow it through to the end so that you make a good first impression. These may seem like corporate giants (and they are) but you’ll still need to make a good first impression on the people reviewing your work if you want to work with that company.
Once you’ve passed your image quality review, it is time to do a bit of paperwork. You’ll need to be prepared to sign a contract (even if it is an online version) and to submit tax information (a W-9 if it is a US company). From there, it’s time to upload your portfolio, key word them if necessary, and start selling licenses for your work.
Feel free to ask any questions you might still have in the comments and I’ll answer them as I have time. Good luck licensing your work!