What is stock photography?
Stock photography refers to photography that has been created on speculation of later making a sale. The photographs are still marketed to buyers who need use of those photographs, typically for advertising and marketing purposes. These photographs are licensed based on one of two licensing models; royalty-free or rights-managed.
Stock Photo by Alex Buntin.
Royalty-Free vs. Rights-Managed
‘Royalty-free’ simply means that once the image is licensed, the licensee can use that image in an unlimited quantity and placement and for an unlimited term. In other words, the user has worldwide rights to that image for both physical and digital media, forever. You retain the copyright, but the licensee can pretty much do whatever they want with the image (as long as it isn’t pornographic or defamatory, usually).
Rights-managed means that the terms of usage set with the licensee are specific. These terms are usually customized to fit the licensee’s needs. For example, you might license an image to be used only in a print brochure, at a specific size, in a run of less than 10,000. Any additional usage the licensee might require later would then need to be negotiated separately.
The controversy surrounding microstock:
Is microstock a sustainable business model for photographers? Many photographers don’t think so. Clearly there are those who have made it work for them, but it’s the exception to make a full time income from microstock, not the rule. Many photographers believe that participating in the microstock industry undercuts the photography market in general. How do you feel about selling royalty-free rights to your images for as little as 10-20 cents each? What are some pros? What are some cons? What are some alternative options?
The sustainable royalty-free stock movement
These agencies, sometimes called ‘midstock’ agencies, pay higher compensation to photographers, but still operate on the royalty-free model. These licenses tend to cost the buyer upwards of a couple hundred dollars (sometimes less for web-only licenses), and a high percentage of that fee goes to the photographer. Many photographers are choose to go only this route. Others choose to put their less desirable image up for sale with microstock agencies, and put their higher quality images up for sale on higher paying sites or with traditional agencies. Two companies that fit this model are Stocksy and 500px Prime
Traditional stock agencies:
These agencies, sometimes called ‘macrostock’ agencies, are serious business. If you are an experienced photography with a vast, well-organized, and keyworded library of images, consider contacting a traditional agency. Examples are Getty Images and Alamy. More agencies can be found in the 2014 Photographer's Market.
Marketing your own stock
Sites like www.Zenfolio.com and www.SmugMug.com offer ways to license your work on a royalty-free commercial basis through your website. They also allow you to set your own price for these licenses. The downside? You have to market your work yourself and drive traffic to your website, or nobody will know your images exist. So, you should be into marketing (or have someone on staff who is) if you are going to go this route.
Regardless of where you build a website, you can always show your work online and let potential buyers know that they need to contact you in order to get an estimate for licensing an image based on the specific usage they need. You can professional software tools like FotoQuote to generate an ‘industry standard’ rights managed usage license and demand top-dollar for your work
Your business, or your hobby?
A lot of photographers market their work in the microstock industry simply because they enjoy photography (or perhaps they are a professional) and they just want to make a few extra bucks on the side by uploading a few images here and there in their spare time. On the other end of the spectrum, some photographers earn a substantial with stock photography as their career focus. Where do you fall on this spectrum? If you are interested in making stock photography part or all of your career, just like with any business, you should be very careful about tracking your expenses and income to enable you to better focus your resources and efforts as your business progresses.