Selling your photo rights doesn’t have to be a painful or confusing process. I know as soon as anyone starts speaking legal jargon, my mind drifts, and my eyes find the nearest distraction. I feel your pain. But selling your photo rights can be simple, and once you have it figured out, it’s as easy as saying “yes.”
So, how do you sell photo rights? There are two types of licenses when it comes to selling your photography rights to a person or company – ‘Royalty-Free’ or ‘Rights Managed.’ Each type of license has its own benefits and downfalls. Understanding them is important in order to decide which format will best fit with your goals as a photographer.
Whether you are into photography as a hobby or you want to make it a full-blown business, some steps need to be taken when you go about selling them. And in some cases, you might need a photographer’s license to operate your business. Let’s investigate these methods below to help you find the ones most effective for your business.
What Are the Types of Licensing for Photographs?
When it comes to issues that may result in legal consequences on either side, we all panic. There’s nothing worse than believing what you’re doing is legit, safe, and lawful – but in the back of your mind, not quite being sure of it. It also doesn’t help that many of these laws were written by lawyers so that only lawyers could understand them.
We’ll start by exploring royalty-free options as there are quite a few web services out there to make this extremely easy for you. Then we’ll wrap up with the more involved licensing, rights managed.
Many online platforms allow you to upload your photos to sell ‘Royalty-Free’ – but what does this mean?
Royalty-Free allows a photographer to sell their images rights to a buyer, for an unlimited amount of time and for a multitude of different reasons and projects. There are very few restrictions when it comes to going down the royalty-free route, and it allows the photographer to build up a stream of income from selling their images on stock agency websites. The images are not exclusively used by one business or person, as many different companies, both independent and corporate, can purchase, and use at their will.
Once sold, these photos can be used for business websites or social media pages, advertisements, and much more. This is why you will quite often come across the same image being used multiple times on different company websites or campaigns – giving you a little sense of déjà vu.
Using the royalty-free model means that anyone looking to buy from you pays a one-time licensing fee. When they pay this fee, they receive the right to use your photograph for as long as they require. You may have been looking through Google Images, and stumbled across some photos with a watermark stamp that reads: ‘Stock Photo.’
The most common platform to sell royalty-free photos is stock photo websites, where the client can choose from a broad range of images taken by multiple photographers, to find the type of image that will match their needs.
Once the buyer decides they wish to buy from you, they pay a fee. This fee reserves their rights to use this image. When it comes to stock photos, the costs can vary greatly, depending on both the agency and the actual content itself. Some websites allow the client to purchase packages, which means you could potentially sell the rights to more than one of your images to that one client.
Shutterstock is one popular site you can use to sell your photos.
How much will I be paid as a Shutterstock contributor? The amount you earn with Shutterstock depends on two factors: Your earnings tier, and the license and subscription that was used for each download.
Your’ earnings tier’ refers to how long you have been working with Shutterstock, and how much you have earned with them so far. Depending on which tier you are in, the price you will receive for a photo purchase will vary. The more money you earn with Shutterstock, the more you are accessible to earn. There are four tier categories, which are:
- $0 – $500
- $500 – $3,000
- $3,000 – $10,000
There are multiple subscription packages for clients to choose from. However, these packages are split into two types. Whatever package they are subscribed to at the time they purchase your image(s), determines the amount you will receive. The two types of packages are as follows:
- Subscription Packages: These packages give the client the option to purchase the rights to up to 750 photographs per month. The buyer pays the same fee monthly, and if you are new to Shutterstock or have not yet reached the second tier, you will receive 25 cents each time one of your photos is downloaded. The earnings per download for each tier are as follows:
- $0-$500 – 25 cents
- $500-$3,000 – 33 cents
- $3,000-$10,000 – 36 cents
- $10,000+ – 38 cents
- On-Demand: This type of package gives the buyer the option to purchase a pack of images, rather than single-image purchases. There are multiple On Demand packages to choose from. Some of these packages come with image size restrictions, of which the seller will receive between $0.81 – $1.24 per image pack. Some do not come with restrictions, and the seller will receive between $1.88 – $2.85 per pack.
For photographers wishing to sell their photos via Shutterstock, or photographers who already work with them, they state that their more recently added single-image purchase option was aimed at potential new clients rather than currently existing ones. These single-image purchases are at a set price, under a royalty-free license.
“Royalty rates for this product range from 20% to 30% depending on your lifetime earnings at Shutterstock. We designed these percentages to be very close to what you currently earn for On Demand downloads. You will see these sales recorded in the “Single & Other Downloads” column of your Download Stats page.”Source: Shutterstock Blog
If you want to learn more about their stock photo rates, and what you may receive while working with Shutterstock and making single-image sales, take a look at their blog article, here: How Much Will I Be Paid As a Contributor to Shutterstock? You can also find out more about selling your pictures with the help of Shutterstock here: Share Your Work and Start Earning.
Of course, Shutterstock isn’t the only method of selling your photos as stock photos online. It is one of the most well-known sites. However, there are many more. They all have different requirements, and your photos have to be accepted to be sold, but when you find the platform that works for you, the process of selling your photography is a breeze. Some other widely respected stock sales websites you could work with are:
- Adobe Stock (previously Fotolia)
- Getty Images
- iStock (by Getty Images)
All of these sites can make you decent money. It all depends on whether or not you treat it like a job, though. You could make a killing if you post good quality photos regularly. If you only post every so often, you could still make a decent side hustle.
These sites allow you to post content from stock images, videos, to even illustrations for sale. They each have their own pricing per download and payment schedule, so it would be best to research all of these platforms and pick which is best for you. You don’t even have to just pick one; there is always the option to sell on multiple platforms.
Royalty costs at these sites can vary a lot. It is typical to see single-image photo sales vary depending on the image content and size of the image. Images that become popular for businesses to use often start to sell hundreds of times – or even in the thousands – building up a steady stream of income for the photographer behind the photo.
The term used for lower-priced stock photography sales is known as ‘Microstock.’ In recent years, stock photography companies have filled in a gap in the market when it comes to stock content sales.
Stock photos were previously only really targeting larger businesses and corporations who could afford to pay extra for package deals, allowing them an allowance of photos per month for their website needs. A lot of independent and small businesses really struggled with finding royalty-free images to use, due to the high costs of images.
Microstock Photography is the term coined for lower-priced royalty-free stock footage. It's a relatively new term in the stock photo industry. However, it has been becoming more and more popular in recent years.
Microstock photography has also allowed many more photographers to jump on the stock photo bandwagon, which is great news if you’re looking to sell your photo rights! Beforehand, stock image photographers were unlikely to get into the high-profile stock photo agencies as they were a tough market to reach. A lot of agencies limited the content they sold, and which photographers they used, whereas Microstock has opened the doors for new opportunities. Whether you’ve been a professional photographer for several years, are a newbie, or are just experimenting, it’s now a lot easier to give it a go and make a profit.
All you need to do is find a stock photo agency that is best suited to your lifestyle, photography style, and experience, and get in touch! Check out the ones listed above and get yourself up and running!
Rights Managed is a little more specific in the nature of how the photos can be used. When you sell your photographs under this type of license, the buyer then owns the rights to use this image for a specific type of use, or project – and for an agreed amount of time.
The aim of the Rights Managed License is to allow businesses to use certain photos for campaigns and projects, whilst ruling out the possibility that another business will use the same image as them.
This adds a high level of exclusivity to the license, which in turn bumps up the price a boatload – which is great news for photographers looking to sell!
Due to the pricing of the images under a Rights Managed License, companies have been known to try and skirt around the issue by using royalty-free photos and hoping no one will notice. Some businesses trying to save money by avoiding the Rights Managed license, have also ended up in a bit of hot water due to image duplication across different brands.
For example, Key Bank and Bank of America both used the exact same royalty-free image for their advertisements at the same time (source). This can be detrimental to a brand’s image and reputation and can cause major confusion for the customer – as well as making companies look a bit silly.
Any company looking to purchase your images for a book cover, editorial magazine campaign, a billboard, or even as the focus of their website for a specific period, should save the embarrassment and go with Rights Managed. This is something you can discuss with a client if you decide to sell your photos through other means, such as your own website – which will be discussed a little later on.
A Rights Managed license is extremely specific, and there are several rules that a company must abide by before purchasing from you and making the agreement. These are some of the things that need to be specified beforehand:
- Geographical area – the photographer and the rights buyer must discuss the exact areas the image will be used in. For example, if the buyer was looking to run a campaign in New York City, an agreement must be made on the exact locations this campaign will be shown, and the buyer must not use this image outside of these locations.
- Timeframe – The photographer and the buyer must discuss the length of time the photo will be in use by the buyer. This length of time must be abided by, and if the buyer uses the photograph outside of this timeframe, they will be breaking the law.
- Purpose – The buyer must state exactly what use they will be using the image for, whether this be for a book cover, editorial campaign, commercial advertisement, or any other project. Details must be discussed, and the photographer must be content with how the content is to be used before the agreement is made.
If a company fails to meet the requirements of these agreements and uses your photographs for an extended amount of time, or for purposes they were not intended for, there can be serious legal consequences – think big scary lawsuits and the possibility of them being sued.
This type of license is a lot more expensive in comparison to the loyalty free license. They can often be from hundreds to thousands of dollars per image, depending on where and how the image will be displayed. This option will not be every business’ cup of tea, however, if you manage to snag a buyer under an RM license – hooray!
If you are looking to sell your images, Rights Managed Licensing is a little harder to get into, as not as many websites work with these types of image rights. However, the good news is, there are a few that do. The one that should be at the top of your lists is Getty Images. This site is popular with buyers, and Getty uses a Rights Managed license. Getty Images has been around for over 20 years and is an excellent option if you want to maximize exclusivity.
So just a little recap to clear up any confusion:
- Royalty-Free is the more lenient and cheaper of the two – meaning you will make less money from it, but you can build up and increase your income over time. This license allows for the rights owner to have unlimited usage of the photograph with a one-time-only fee.
- Rights Managed is the stricter licensing agreement, that can cost an arm and a leg for the buyer. This needs many more specifications, such as geographic, time periods, and what specifically the image is being used for. It allows the buyer to use the image for a specific amount of time – if they wish to use it again, they will need to pay more. This license is where you hear that oh-so-lovely sound: “Cha-ching!’
Different Methods to Sell Your Work
Selling your photo rights online is as simple as setting up an online account with your choice of stock photograph platform. You can capture photographs at your will and post your favorites or only snap photos that are in the highest demand. Whether you are using this for profit or hobby will determine your best options. Each stock photo agency website has different pricing options for images, no matter what platform you go through.
As people download your photos, you receive money. The more downloads per photo you have, the more income you receive – and the higher-priced this image will become. Stock image photography can be a very competitive field, as photographers race to capture the image with the most popularity and the highest price. Some platforms pay their contributors once a month, and some pay more frequently.
Selling your content online can be one of the best and most accessible methods of selling your photo rights because anyone can buy them. From business owners to college students, you can sell to anyone – and the more accessible your photos are to the public, the more profit you will make.
Your Own Website
If you don’t want to pay any commission fees, then you can build your own website and sell your photo rights by cutting out the middleman. By selling your photos on your own website, you have full control of your prices and can set up your own terms and conditions. You will also have the ability to sell royalty-free or rights-managed, depending on which one suits you and benefits you the most.
The best part – no one else takes a cut of your profit. Keep in mind that if you are selling your photo rights on your own, then you will have to do all the marketing. You won’t just be taking the photos and posting them – there will be a lot more work involved in order to collect a customer base and reach your desired audience.
You may have to set up and manage your own ads, come up with a business strategy, and build up a reputation for yourself. SEO (Search Engine Optimization), is a great bunch of optimizations and best practices to make sure your website is searchable and readable. It is absolutely necessary at all levels, with arguably more of an importance when first starting out from scratch. SEO helps to direct traffic to your website from multiple sources, in order to optimize potential clients.
Find out more about how to carry out your own SEO procedures by checking out this guide, SEO Basics: Beginner’s Guide to SEO success.
You will also have to create your own website and come up with a design that will make it unique to visitors, giving you that head start you need to bring in the money. You can use a website builder such as Wix, Weebly, or Squarespace. Website builders are always easy to build, easy to manage, and offer professional-looking pages.
These builders typically market themselves as the leader in website creation, although they each perform better in certain niches. If you don’t want to deal with WordPress or use a premium content management service (CMS), Squarespace may be right up your alley as they cater to creatives.
Selling Print Photography
Selling your photography as print can work a few ways. As I mentioned before, you can sell them on your own website. Doing this method gives you free rein of all choices needing to be made. You can provide the option to buy a digital photo or a print photo. Even though you’re selling your physical prints, the license can still apply.
If you sell your photos as a print, you will need to ship them and deal with all of the logistics yourself. There is always the option to hire a partner to deal with that part of the business, but it isn’t necessary either.
Another way to sell your print photos online is through platforms like Fine Art America and Great Big Canvas. The cool thing about these sites is that you can expand beyond regular photo prints. For example, on Fine Art America, customers have the option to buy photos printed on things like throw pillows or coffee mugs. The websites will give you a base price for these products, and you can decide whether to keep it or mark it up.
The downside to these websites is that the competition is pretty high. When customers come to their site looking for photos and products, they will be choosing between your work and the work of thousands of other photographers.
You could also create an account and sell your print photos on Etsy. This isn’t usually something photographers think of first. Being that this site is known for crafters and artists, though, it is a good option for your e-commerce store. This site has a few fees to keep in mind when selling your photos, but they are relatively affordable.
Like selling on your website, you will be responsible for the logistics of the sale. Things like printing and shipping the items will be your responsibility. Luckily, there is the option of drop shipping, which allows you to print and ship your photos without receiving bundles of printed photos on your doorstep, just to package them and ship them yourself. Examples of drop shipping sites are Finerworks and Printhouse.
Aside from the options mentioned above, there are a ton of ways to sell your photos online. If you want a good read on some more ideas, Expert Photography is a great resource.
Selling to a Newspaper or Magazine
One of the most interesting parts of photography is that every photo has a story to tell. Newspapers and magazines can buy your photos and may sometimes even publish an article to pair alongside it. If a newspaper or magazine likes your work and offers to pay for it, this is an amazing way to get your name out there – and start your journey to becoming that prestigious photographer you always wanted to be.
Higher brand newspapers and magazines can, and will, pay big money for a photo that they think will work well and look great within their pages. With more recognition comes more attention. And with more attention comes sales. Why not try and aim to get your photos in a newspaper or magazine?
Create a niche market with your images and direct them towards magazine companies – start with smaller ones, and build your way up to the larger, most high-end, high gloss publications.
Sometimes if the newspapers and magazines of your choice are looking for new talent, they might have writing competitions that offer recognition for your work if you win. If you don’t, you could easily find the editor’s email and send them some more samples of your work. Putting your work out there and taking risks is a sure way of selling your photos.
Do a bit of research, and some email addresses to the top contacts within these industries, send them some samples of your work, direct them towards your website – and voila!
Get Your Legal Documentation in Order
One quick thing to mention about photography is that no matter what you are taking a picture of, everything needs some sort of permission for you to sell it. For example, if you shoot a photo of a group of people, you need their permission to feature them in that photo.
I’ll write up more details about business and legal documentation in another post. For now, here are things to keep in mind.
A model release is a document that is signed by the people in a photo that you intend to sell. This document permits you to sell it. It is always handy to have some of these on you so that you don’t come across any issues later when you try to sell the photos.
There is a way around this rule, though. If a person is unidentifiable in a photo, you don’t need a model release. This is why some videos you see a face blurred out. Those are the people that refused to sign. The same goes for photos.
Now, you aren’t going to sell a photo with a big blur over people’s faces, so this is where your creativity comes into play. You simply have to take a shot in a way that doesn’t show their face. A good example of this is a kissing couple; as long as you can’t see their faces or any identifiable feature such as a tattoo or scar, you can sell the photo without needing a model release form.
Photo Permission Release
Whether it be a person or their property, it is best to have permission to sell a photo of them or their things. Nowadays, everything someone has is copyrighted. Even buildings that were built after 1990 have copyrights. So, to play it safe, and to avoid a possible lawsuit, nip this one in the bud early.
Hiring a Copyright and Permission Release Attorney to write up paperwork for you to use later is your first step. You don’t want to write this document on your own because if someone does try suing you, you want the right paperwork that can’t be questioned in court.
Once you have your documentation drawn up, you need to be sure the subjects within your photos have given permission to have their photo or a photo of their property taken.
They’ll need to sign a Photo Permission Release before you can sell any photo rights with them in it. Be sure to let them know that once they sign, it’s a done deal. You won’t be able to take back a customer’s royalty-free photo after you have already sold it.
It is a good idea to keep all of this documentation and a copy of the photo in a safe location. This is just in case you need to prove you have the right to sell the photos. It would be a good idea to have this both digitally and on paper. If you need to show proof of permission when you are out and about, you can pull it up right there on your phone. This is a good way you can avoid any confusion in the long run.
Photography Business Licensing
In some cities, photographers are required to have a license for certain types of photography businesses. To know whether or not you need one, you will need to call your state licensing board and your local city hall. They will be able to clear up any questions you may have on licensing for a photography business.
This is an excellent time to ask whether or not you need a business license as well. If you are selling your work from home, you might not. But if you have somewhere that you run your business out of other than your home, you may need to get a business license.
Sales Tax Permit
This one is for almost everyone. If your state has a sales tax requirement, you will need to get a permit to sell your photography. Many states see photography as a product to sell, not a service. So, for you to collect sales tax on your photos, you need a sales tax permit, sometimes called a sales tax license.
For this, all you need to do is Google “how to get my sales tax number” and the state you live in, and you will be able to find the documentation you will need to fill out.
Know the Different Types of Rights
If you are planning on selling digital rights to use your photos, ensure you know what kind of rights you are selling. There are many examples of different types of licensing. These are the most common ones.
Commercial rights are any photographic rights you are selling to someone who plans to use your image to line their pockets – in other words, to make a profit. A good example of this would be for a commercial advertisement or business campaign. For this option, you could either sell photo rights royalty free or rights managed, as both are included. This is the most common type of right that a photographer usually must deal with.
Non-commercial rights are for photos that your customers are not trying to make any profit off. This is something you would most likely see on a high school student’s school project, or at a non-profit business like a charity or a homeless shelter. These types of sales are usually to non-corporate groups and are a lot simpler to manage that other types of rights as there are no monetary profits involved on the business’s end.
First Rights is just another way of saying “first dibs.” Anyone purchasing photo rights in this manner is really purchasing the right to use the photo before anyone else uses it. A good example of this type of photograph right is an image that a client is requesting for a movie or book cover.
These types of photo rights are generally used for a magazine. It is similar to selling a print photo, but you can only sell it once to the magazine. Serial Rights is a magazine buying full rights to be the only group to use your photo.
“When you sell first serial rights to a newspaper, magazine or periodical for a piece of work you’ve written, that media outlet has the right to be the first place to publish the article/story/ poem. After the piece runs, you’re free to resell it to another medium or to package a collection of your work into a book.”Source: Writer’s Digest
Be careful with this one. It isn’t hazardous in the beginning; however, it can lead to the exploitation of your artistic work. Under this clause, the buyer holds the rights to reprint and resell your photos without your permission. It’s best just to stay away from this one.
“A Non-Exclusive Licence grants to the licensee the right to use the intellectual property but means that the licensor remains free to exploit the same intellectual property and to allow any number of other licensees to also exploit the same intellectual property.”Source: Licensing – Exclusive / Non-Exclusive / Sole
Single-use rights are self-explanatory. With this licensure, you are selling your photo rights for one-time use, whether it be for one project or reproduced for one edition of a magazine. After the business or person has used the image for its intended purpose, they no longer hold the rights to the image and can be prosecuted if they continue to use it unlawfully.
Make sure you ALWAYS read carefully. It is always important to read all the documentation thoroughly before you sign it. If you don’t, you could end up selling all rights of your photo—even your right to use your own photo. For any photographer, this is the worst possible scenario imaginable.
The technicalities behind selling your photo rights might be a scary subject to think about, but it honestly isn’t as tough to master as it sounds. If you take your time and make sure you are in full control of all the decisions regarding your photography work, there shouldn’t be any issues further down the line.
If you are thinking of selling your work, ensure you have thoroughly researched all the necessary information. Make sure you know how you want to license your work: Royalty-Free or Rights-Managed, and make sure you know exactly what clauses your work will fall under when choosing the correct rights.
If you manage to get yourself into selling your photos as stock images for companies, big or small, the results can be fantastic – and you can end up making a decent wage doing so! So, whether you’re a full-time professional photographer or an amateur passing the time by practicing a new hobby and interest – give it a shot! If you do it all by the book, and read up extensively, then what have you got to lose?
All there is left to do is build your gallery and sell your photos. The choice of how and where you sell your photo rights is entirely up to you. But now you know that there are so many options that you won’t ever run out of ideas as to where you can sell them.
Thanks for joining me in over 5,000 words to explore selling photo rights! The is the largest post on YourPhotoAdvisor to date. Whatever you choose to do – stay safe, be mindful, and have fun!
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Roy is the leading content creator here at Your Photo Advisor. He is a hobbyist photographer that loves the business side of things. He blogs about IT, cybersecurity, business, and more at Davis Tech Media.