Is working with a stock photo agency a good choice for you? The answer might surprise you. The first step to deciding whether to work with a stock photo agency is to weigh the pros and cons.
- Markets your work
- Licenses your images
- Negotiates with photobuyers
- Collects payments
- Takes a healthy cut (sometimes 50 to 70 percent) for marketing your images
- Gives you little control of marketing your work
- Makes you compete with other photographers in the agency
- Can require exclusivity rights
- Restricts your access to photobuyers
Choosing an Agency
If you decide an agency is a good fit for your photography business, there are several steps you need to take before making your final decision.
- Find an agency that matches your photographic specialty or brand. If you photograph rural America, it would be pointless to sign with an agency that deals mostly in urban photography.
- Do your research. Do an online search of stock photo agencies to identify what type of photographers they prefer.
- Ask agencies for references. Contact their photographers to get a better idea of what it’s like working for the agency. Avoid any agency that isn’t willing to provide names and contact information.
- Visit an agency’s website. You need to examine the site’s search and navigation features as well as the type of results it turns up.
- Look for agencies that offer digital downloads. Photobuyers should be able to download high-resolution images immediately.
- Identify whether an agency is exclusive or non-exclusive. Exclusive means that the agency will not allow you to send the same photos to multiple agencies. Non-exclusive agreements, however, allow you to work with other agencies to get the widest possible distribution of your photos.
- Exclusive deals are usually best for photographers with a very specific or unique offering. Most editorial stock photographers opt for non-exlusive contracts.
What To Shoot
Agencies often issue guidelines for stock photos. You can get a good idea of the types of photos they’re looking for by their current publications.
Some agencies want their photographers to submit a minimum number of photos each month or quarter. Others allow you to submit as many, or as few, photographs as you like.
Most agencies have very clear rules for submissions. They generally cover details such as accepted minimum resolution in digital cameras, how to add keywords/data to your files and the size/ format of images.
When you sign on with an agency, you are entering a business relationship. Read your contract carefully. Some contracts are overly cryptic and filled with legalese. Get any clarifications from the agency in writing.
Contract negotiations are give and take. Don’t be afraid to negotiate re-writes or omissions for sections that make you uncomfortable, and don’t allow an agency to bully you into signing a contract or ignore the changes you suggest.
Many agencies have volume deals with major publishers. This usually means lower usage fees for individual images, but it can also mean the agency is likely to license a lot of images to a photobuyer.
Talk with your prospective agencies about this. It is up to you to decide if you want to have your images offered in this manner. Be aware that most agencies give buyers this option and that photographer participation might be mandatory.
Agencies rarely allow a photographer’s input on pricing. Industry standard rates are widely accepted for editorial use in America, but commercial fees can vary based on usage.
Agencies frequently work with stock photo agencies – often called sub-agents – in other countries, where fees are usually lower. You should be able to negotiate with your agency which countries/regions – if any – they will offer your photos. Sub-agents typically take a 40 percent cut of the sales they make, leaving 60 percent for you and the agency.
Agency Commission and Fees
Few things can turn a business relationship sour faster than a misunderstanding about payments, so make sure you’re clear about the reimbursement schedule.
Agencies traditionally charge a commission on the usage fees they get for your photos, usually 50 percent of the sale.
Often, agencies will not make payments to you until the client’s check has cleared the agency’s bank. Many agencies also require photographers to sell a minimum amount of work before they send payment.
Be aware that some agencies might charge you fees for cutting a check, hosting your images on their website and printing your images in catalogues or marketing materials.
Weigh fees and commissions against how big a cut the agency will give you of the photo licensing fees. You should also be prepared to wait a year or two before you start seeing consistent sales.
One important detail your contract should include is what happens in the case of a serious disagreement. The agency should provide you, or your representative, access to their books so you can make sure sales are being credited properly. Most contracts stipulate arbitration to be carried out by a licensed/certified arbiter in the state where the agency is located.
Reasons for terminating the contract should be specified, as should details like how the agency will discontinue or store your digital database and pay out the remaining account balance.