For nearly a century commercial photographers have augmented assignment work by licensing images as stock. True, royalties are down from the highs of the 1990s, making it difficult to thrive on stock licensing alone. But revenue from stock can still be substantial and these days stock licensing is more valuable than ever. The passive income it provides is an ideal way for working photographers to keep the lights on during this period of severe economic slowdown.
Austin-based commercial photographer Inti St. Clair got her start in stock and has integrated it into her business for 20 years. She says now is the ideal time for photographers to step up stock submissions, and if they’ve never done it before it’s an ideal time to start. “Passive income in times like these is everything,” she says. “It gives me peace of mind that I’ll be OK—that I and my business will make it through these challenging times. It helped me survive the last recession and I know it will help me through this one. I’m incredibly grateful that I have a collection of stock imagery out there in the marketplace making me money every month. It’s paying my bills right now. It gives me the level of security to not be completely freaking out because all of my assignments for the year went away.”
“I think it’s the perfect time for people to go through their archives,” St. Clair continues. “I guarantee that all photographers have imagery sitting on their hard drives that has the potential to bring them income. I’ve been going through my archives and submitting available work I’ve already shot. My intention is to try and start shooting for it too once I've done that.” St. Clair’s current approach to stock is one she suggests other photographers try as well. She’s starting with a review of her back catalog to find work that’s suitable for stock. This can be practically anything. While certain subjects are always in demand—corporate and healthcare, in particular—it’s hard to predict what might be a big seller. The same goes for the work she will make specifically with stock in mind.
St. Clair recently hosted a virtual talk for about 50 photographers, offering advice for shooting and submitting stock photography. Here are some of the key points she made to help photographers get started with stock.
Begin With Free & Easy
Because of social distancing, it’s unlikely that new shoots will involve other people—at least for the moment. Instead St. Clair suggests photographers follow the same advice she’d give them even under normal circumstances: start by making photographs that are free and easy to produce.
That could include food photography, still life, landscape… virtually anything goes. For photographers doing double-duty as parents, family is the first place St. Clair would start.
“Because it’s so hard to make really big returns in stock photography,” she says, “the best advice I can give is that you create imagery that is either free or very inexpensive for you to create, and that it’s imagery that is easy for you to create. We all have things that we do and people who are in our lives who do different things. I love photographing kids. I wish I had children right now. I would make them model for me nonstop! My dogs are horrible models.”
Licensing images as stock requires a small legal hurdle to clear. Namely, ensuring a potential buyer that the people depicted have given their permission.
“Legal is a really big deal,” she says. “If anyone is in your picture—sometimes agencies will let it go if there’s a disembodied hand or something—but for the most part, if there is the essence of a person in a picture, you need a model release for them. There’s no getting around it.”
St. Clair says the Getty standard release—available in multiple languages here—is all but industry standard. For those who prefer a digital version, signed electronically on a smartphone or tablet, try EZ Releases for an app approved by major stock agencies. When shooting with a specific agency in mind, that agency is likely to offer its own guidance on releases for photographers to use as well.
Another release to consider is the property release. These are essential to protect the intellectual property of creators such as architects and designers whose work may appear in a photograph. The lighting at the Eiffel Tower, for instance, is copyrighted and may not be included in a stock image without a signed property release. This is good advice to follow for any identifiable structure in a shot. A streetscape or skyline that includes more than 3 buildings, however, is typically fine without a release. The Getty link above also contains the agency’s standard property release as well.
Speaking of intellectual property, St. Clair says it’s good to get in the habit of digitally removing trademarks and logos from images destined for stock. Because intellectual property law holds that an image can’t portray a trademark in a damaging light, and since stock photography could be used for almost any purpose, a visible trademark or branding of any sort in stock photography is verboten.
It’s hard to predict what’s going to sell well, so St. Clair advises photographers to shoot what they want and what they have access to. Another option is to consider what the agencies are asking for, as they typically send out periodic creative briefs to let photographers know what kind of work they’re looking for.
“How do you know what images will sell?” St. Clair says. “You don’t. Straight up, 100% honest, you do not know. I have images that have sold thousands of times that I look at and I’m like meh, whatever. And I have images that have not sold that I think are freaking amazing and are still in my portfolios. You just can’t predict it.”
In general, she says, look at the stock agencies’ websites and see what’s out there, then try to create work that fills in the gaps.
Shoot A Lot
Stock photography is a volume game that benefits prolific photographers. That said, there’s no requirement for how many images a photographer needs in order to submit to an agency.
“How many images do you need to get started?” St. Clair says. “One. But obviously, feed the beast. The best practice in stock photography is to constantly be submitting stock photography. That doesn’t mean you need to do a full shoot, that doesn’t mean that you need to send in an incredibly curated, amazing collection of highly saleable images every time. That means you need to submit all the time, on a regular basis, some photos. That could be one photo a week, honestly. I don’t know exactly what happens with an algorithm behind the scenes, but I do know that my images sell better if I am active. Submit every day right now, if you can. Or submit once a month, even if it’s just 10 shots. It will benefit you.”
Where To Submit Your Photos
With so many agency options available, deciding where to submit can be a real challenge. But St. Clair says that decision need not be so difficult.
“The question you need to ask yourself,” she says, “is how many agencies you want to be submitting to. Because you’re better off going with an agency and submitting regularly than you are submitting one shoot per year to five agencies. I do think not putting all your eggs in one basket is a really great idea. I am a perfect testimony to that because for a really long time I submitted all my content to an agency called Blend, and they folded.”
There are a lot of stock agencies and they all pay different royalties. (That’s the percentage of the image’s licensing fee that is paid to the photographer.) Some photographers choose an agency based solely on a higher rate of return, but St. Clair says factoring that alone may be a mistake. Instead she considers maximizing the number of eyeballs that will see her images because that leads to more sales.
“60% of nothing is still nothing,” she says. “You’d be better off getting 20% of something.”
The big players are Getty and iStock—the former for premium royalty-free photography and the latter a microstock platform. Microstock, as many photographers likely know, is based on a much higher volume of licenses at much lower rates—selling an image 100 times for a buck rather than one time for $100, for instance.
St. Clair says Shutterstock is likely next in terms of reach. Other popular agencies include Adobe, Alamy, Superstock and Cavan. In some cases one agency will have unique collections at different tiers and price points. Shutterstock’s premium image brand, for instance, is called Offset.
Then there are agencies that take a more unique approach to licensing, such as Tetra and Canva. Tetra submits images to several other agencies, significantly increasing the audience but substantially decreasing the photographer’s cut. Canva, meanwhile, offers a one-time, up-front payment—a single fee for images it chooses to relicense.
Other agencies are more tightly curated and particularly exclusive. Trunk Archive and Gallery Stock are higher end. They want artist exclusive agreements, but that’s where designers look to find images of celebrities, or those made by famous photographers. Stocksy is a photographers’ collective.
Wherever a photographer may choose to submit, the goal is to frequently submit the highest resolution image files possible. (An agency will typically consider a high-res image roughly 50MB.) But even smaller image files will do. An increasing number of agencies are even accepting smartphone images.
“It’s a volume game, full stop,” St. Clair says. “Especially in today’s market. You’re looking at lots of sales over time, that’s the philosophy.”
There are three types of exclusivity that impact a photographer’s contractual obligations to a stock agency. These are Artist Exclusive, Image Exclusive, and Non-Exclusive.
An artist exclusive agreement means the work of a given photographer is only available through that one agency. This limits the photographer’s potential audience, however it also garners the photographer a higher return.
A non-exclusive agreement allows the photographer to submit the very same images to multiple agencies simultaneously. This results in casting a wider net for potential sales, but also means a lower royalty on each sale.
St. Clair’s preference is something in between—an image exclusive agreement. This allows the photographer to submit work to multiple agencies, however limiting submissions from a given shoot to be exclusive at a single agency. She says it’s not truly limited to individual images and is more accurately thought of as “shoot exclusivity,” whereby submitting outtakes from the same shoot to a different agency would violate the agreement.
However a photographer may choose to proceed, the important thing is that they do proceed. Don’t wait. Get started. Do it now.
“You can have images up there and making you money a week from now,” St. Clair says. “Back in the day, sometimes it would take six months before my images were fully keyworded and online and selling.”
About the author:
William Sawalich made his first darkroom print at age ten. He earned a Master's Degree from The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. Along with portraiture, still life and assignment photography, Sawalich is an avid writer. He has written hundreds of equipment reviews, how-to articles and profiles of world-class photographers. He heads up the photo department at Barlow Productions in St. Louis.