Photographers have enjoyed a long tradition of making money by selling their picture to stock agencies, which will on-sell shots to clients like advertising agencies, businesses and publishers. Some photographers earn a large portion of their income this way, while others use it for supplementing regular income. Either way, submitting images to stock libraries can be profitable – as long as you have technically excellent photographs of the type they wish to buy.

Stock library managers have told Photo Review they have clients who are ‘always looking for fresh imagery’. Competition is fierce, but only for images that are both technically and creatively above the standards of everyday photography. To succeed, photographers must constantly strive for new approaches and technical excellence. Submitting routine travel shots, for example, is unlikely to produce success, even though the place you visited may be fascinating in itself.

Some key requirements must be met before images can be submitted to a stock library. Any images showing recognisable people MUST be accompanied by model releases signed by the subjects and any buildings or sites that place limitations on photography (such as most federal, state and local government facilities; sites of aboriginal significance and private land) must be accompanied by a site release, signed by the appropriate person. If you don’t provide the required releases, your pictures will be rejected.

What Stock Libraries Do

A good stock library will handle time-consuming tasks like promoting your work and finding buyers for your images. How successful you are will depend on how sought-after your photos are and how well the library presents your work. How much you earn depends on what the client is prepared to pay for your shots – and the commission charged by the library. All these factors are variable.

Most libraries operate along similar lines; photographers submit work and the library accepts shots they think will sell well. Some libraries produce glossy colour catalogues of their most saleable images and send them to regular clients and other libraries around the world who act as agents in their respective countries. An increasing number of libraries also allow clients to search and order images online.

The internet has allowed many photographers to reach a much wider variety of clients. No longer is it necessary to sell locally; with the internet your market is the world. Furthermore, you don’t have to be a professional photographer; if your shots are good enough, you can usually find a buyer – with some provisos (see below).

The internet has also greatly increased the competitiveness of the stock images market – and there are more people wanting to sell images than customers to buy them. To see just how skewed the market is, try keying ‘stock photo libraries’ into your browser. Most of the sites listed offer catalogues of images for sale; it can be difficult to locate libraries that want to buy images.

Royalty-Free vs Rights Managed

Until recently, most stock photography was made available as rights-managed. Purchasers negotiated a licensing fee tied to a specific use of the photo. However, with increasing use of the internet, more stock images are now being bought and sold royalty-free.

It’s important for both photographers and image purchasers to understand the key differences between the rights-managed and royalty-free systems. When an image is rights-managed, it is sold for a specific purpose and can not be used outside of the specified guidelines without negotiating another contract. This means photographers can control who they sell images to and clients can negotiate exclusive deals that ensure the image they purchase is not used by others in ways that will devalue their original usage (for example in an advertising campaign).

Images that are sold royalty-free can be used by any number of purchasers in any ways they choose. The photographer is only paid once and has no say in how and where his/her shots will be used. Furthermore, clients have no control over who will use the images they buy. We have heard of examples where use of royalty-free images has been costly to businesses. Two major US telecommunications companies had to scrap big-budget marketing campaigns when they discovered they had selected the same royalty-free image. Both spent much more than it would have cost to license a rights-managed photograph. Similarly, a church and an adult club in the same city that both ended up with the same image in their logos and newspaper advertising were out-of-pocket (and with reputations damaged) through trying to cut costs by using royalty-free images.

There are several different types of stock libraries, and photographers need to understand the charges they apply and how they handle the sale of images to clients. In some cases, the library will handle the entire transaction between the client and the photographer and most charge a commission of between 20% and 50% on the selling price of each photo. In others, the library acts as an intermediary, putting the client in touch with the photographer but allowing the photographer to negotiate the price of the image and handle details of the form in which it will be submitted. (Commissions are usually lower in such cases.)

Some libraries charge an annual subscription fee for photographers to participate. This covers the cost of generating leads for the photographers, who then handle their own sales and keep the full payment. Both commission-based and subscription-based libraries vet the work of photographers they represent and will not accept work that fails to meet their standards.

Recently, a new type of online stock agency has begun to proliferate on the Web. Known as micropayment sites, these agencies sell royalty-free images for as little as $1 to $3 each and target amateur photographers who are thrilled by people taking an interest in their photos. Photographers placing images with such libraries can expect to receive between eight and 20 cents per image so to make money they require thousands of images to be accepted by the library. (This isn’t as easy as it appears!)

Typical micropayment sites include: istockphoto, canstockphoto, shutterstock, dreamstime, bigstockphoto and crestock, all of which can be found with a Google search. (Interestingly, in February 2006, the world’s largest stock image agency, Getty Images, purchased iStockphoto for $US50 million. A company spokesperson is quoted as saying: “If someone’s going to cannibalise your business, better it be one of your other businesses”. iStockphoto expects to license around 10 million images this year, significantly outselling Getty’s more expensive stock agencies.)

Before using one of these agencies, it’s important to understand that:

1. Pictures that have been sold through a micropayment site are sold royalty-free, which makes them unacceptable to regular photo agencies who can’t license an image at a normal fee if there are hundreds of copies floating around that were bought for a dollar. Clients may also reject them because there’s no way of determining whether the shot has been used before – and in what circumstances.

2. Images placed with these sites are difficult to trace and may be used anywhere at any time. Your permission is rarely sought by purchasers, many of whom buy in bulk.

3. To earn the same amount of money through a micropayment site as you do through a regular agency, you will have to sell anywhere between 500 and 1000 images. (Professional photographers are seldom satisfied by the low returns provided by micropayment libraries and tend to avoid them. This means the overall quality of images on such sites is relatively low and the range of new and different images is limited.)

4. Many micropayment sites favour graphics over photography and will attract buyers looking for cheap clip art. Do you want your photos to be presented in such company?

5. It can take many months for payments to be processed as most sites won’t make payments until your images have earned enough revenue to cover costs.

For these reasons, we advise readers to stick with regular stock libraries and spend time researching the market before submitting any photos. Searching the internet is an excellent way to start. If the library is fair dinkum, it will provide all the information you need online and, if it doesn’t, there should be some way to contact the administration to have your questions answered. Be suspicious if it takes longer than a week for them to respond to your queries.

Place your pictures thoughtfully. Some libraries specialise is specific areas, such as sport, nature or travel, and it’s worth seeking them out if you prefer any of these genres. Most libraries, however, cover all subjects and have connections with the publishing, advertising and media world. In theory they should offer a much bigger market for your images.

There’s nothing to stop you from dealing with overseas libraries, although it may be better to start close to home if your portfolio includes lots of locally-relevant shots. There’s also nothing to stop you from approaching the larger libraries, although you will probably find it difficult to compete against the top-quality images already in their portfolios, especially with popular topics like travel and landscape shots.

Winning the Waiting Game

Stock photography should always be seen as a long-term investment. When a new photographer joins a library it can take many months before their work is even integrated into the filing system properly and even longer for a picture to be sold. Consequently, most libraries stipulate a minimum retention period of two or three years. During that time you should build up the number of pictures you have on offer.

Find out what the library requires and shoot pictures to meet those needs to build up your stock. The more pictures you have in their files, the more likely you are to achieve sales. Some libraries advise photographers to set a target of around 5000 pictures in the first year, with the aim of building up to 10,000 or more in three years.

Be as versatile as you can, offering your images in print form and as electronic files. Make sure you can meet the library’s size and quality criteria.