Licensing Images In Today’s Market

I’m regularly contacted by photographers wanting to know how they can license rights to their images in today’s market. Recently I was contacted by a nature and wildlife photographer whose work was excellent. This photographer regularly conducts photo workshops where he teaches others how to take great scenic and wildlife pictures. Here’s what I told him.

The challenge is getting your images where customers can see them. Two good specialist wildlife agencies in the U.S. are Animals Animals/Earth Scenes and Minden Pictures. However, today most customers are going to large online databases to find the images they need.

Among the agencies that license images at rights-managed or traditional royalty-free prices are: Getty Images, Corbis, Alamy, Veer, Masterfile, Superstock, AGE (Spain), Marutius (Germany), Picturemaxx (Germany), and FotoSearch in the U.S. (FotoSearch doesn’t accept images from individual photographers, only agents and production companies.) In addition there are four microstock sites –,, and – that you may want to consider.

Ask Questions Before Signing a Contract

Most of these major RM and RF marketers not only accept images from individual photographers but also from many smaller agencies. If you put your images with a smaller agency with a good reputation chances are that some of the images will end up in one or more of these major databases.

Before signing with an agency that licenses work as RM or RF, ask for the names of the distributors that represent their work. Also try to determine the percentage of the agency’s gross revenue that comes from direct sales to customers as opposed to sales made through distributors. The problem with distributor sales is that the photographer has to give up a double cut of the fee paid.

One of the first things to decide is whether you are committed to licensing your images as RM or traditional RF, or whether you are willing to accept the microstock philosophy of volume sales at much lower prices. If you license your images as RM there is a possibility of getting multi-thousand-dollar sales, but such sales are very rare.

Both Approaches Can Pay Off

The odds of making a big advertising sale in today’s market are about the same as winning the lottery. It’s not that your images aren’t good enough to compete at that level. It’s that they will be competing against so many other reasonably good images. If you put your images in traditional RF the top price you can get is less than $1,000, but the odds of making a sale at all are about twice as good as having an image on an RM site.

Today, very few photographers are earning enough from stock sales alone to support themselves. On the other hand I think there are about the same number of microstock photographers earning in excess of $75,000 a year as there are traditional RF or RM photographers earning at that level.

Making Your Choice

I estimate that worldwide in 2010 there were about 1.5 million RM and about 3 million RF images licensed at traditional prices. During the same period more than 100 million uses were licensed at microstock prices. Chances are if you go the microstock route your images will get used 75 to 100 times more frequently than would be the case if they are licensed as RM.

But while the odds of a microstock image being licensed are much better, the price per license often will be very low. You need to decide if you will be upset when some company uses one of your snow-covered mountain scenes for a website promoting a ski resort or selling camping equipment, and pays less than $10 for the use.

Which approach will work best for you? Before you decide, read more about rights licensing in my next post.

5 Responses to “Licensing Images In Today’s Market”

  1. Good overview Jim, thanks.

    For me I will not bother with the micro market and have my pride and sense of injustice preventing sale of good images for great usages for near zero money.

    But there will be others who will be excited about having their images used for nothing, it is part of the 'being famous is everything' culture we live in.

    At some point, they will also need to pay their bills though 🙂

  2. I think it bears mentioning that Getty has their images priced so low that they have devalued the market to the point that it's hard for almost anyone to make a living with stock or editorial photography.

  3. I really appreciate Jim's article and his non-judgmental approach to providing information.

    Choosing how to market and sell our images is a very personal decision for each of us and I don't believe one approach is morally superior to another.

    Having good information like this to help each of us make the best decisions possible for ourseleves and our images is essential and I really appreciate Jim's insights in this article.

  4. I wonder if Paul McCartney feels like selling a Beatles song for 99¢ is an affront to his "pride and sense of injustice." I think earning a buck or two on an image sold a thousand times is better than earning a couple hundred bucks on one or two occasions.

  5. Well, considering Paul McCartney was paid millions by a record company to record those songs that's not even CLOSE to being the same thing.

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