Cutting Out the Middleman

Licensing Stock Photography Yourself

February 20, 2018 , , Barry Kidd
Abby, in red was this years winner of the the 2018 Ms Motorama Bikini Contest. Christina, in bule was the runner up.
Macro of photo of a bullfrog's face and eyes

If you’re a photographer that has ever tried to license stock photography through any of the stock photo sites, macro stock sites, and have failed there is an alternative. It even can potentially generate better results and much higher fees while allowing you to keep 100% of the profits. Minus what you pay in taxes that is.

This is not a get rich quick scheme. It’s not a midnight infomercial with fake applause that’s intended to sucker the depressed and forlorn people of the world into giving me their cash. It’s just me, few things that I have learned and I’m passing it along to you because I’m in the mood to do so. Some of it’s fact. Much of it’s my opinion and you know what they say about opinions. 

If you’re looking for the genie in a bottle, magic money or some other stupid shit then stop reading now.
Licencing your own stock photography isn’t easy and it takes a lot of work on your part. There’s also no such thing as overnight results but it can be done. If this sounds like something you may be interested in then keep reading. If you’re looking for the genie in a bottle, magic money or some other stupid shit then stop reading now. I can’t help you.

Before We Start

Before we begin that it’s important to point out that I don’t license my images as stock photography often and it’s certainly not the focus of my business. Potential clients contact me randomly. It may happen three or four times a year or three or four times in a given week. Basically, it happens when it happens. There is no rhyme or reason as to how often or what type of license is needed. I’m not here to pump sunshine up your ass or sale you anything. I’m just passing along what I have learned. Perhaps you will benefit from it. Perhaps you will not but in the end it’s really up to you and no one else.

There’s no way that I could live off the income that I get from licensing images as stock with nothing else coming in. Regardless it’s always a welcome addition and helps with my annual gross. I like to call it “surprise money”.

Even though I don’t license often I can earn more, often many times more, from one singe license than the average contributor to the stock sites can earn from licensing fifty or even hundreds of images. It’s really hit and miss. The fee all depends on the usage that the client wants.

Licensing images for stock yourself also has the advantage that you are cutting out the middleman. You set the fee and you get to keep 100% of it.

Everything Is Negotiable

It should also be pointed out that the stock photography business is more like a yard sale than anything else.  Everything is negotiable.  The question is, how far will you go in your negotiation?  I’m always willing to be fair and deal with my potential clients fairly.  At the same time I will never allow myself or the use of my images to be taken advantage of.  Negotiating a fee is sometimes the fee it’s self.  Sometimes it’s more useage for the same fee.  It all depends on the wants and needs of both you and your client. In the end be ready to negotiate. It’s going to happen. 

A Quick History of Stock Photography

The stock photography business really got its start in the 1920’s but during the 40’s, because of World War II, it really took off. From the 1920’s through the 1980’s stock houses would typicly operate by taking a 50% cut on all the images that they licensed. It may seem like big cut but in truth it was a fantastic deal.

The stock houses could get a photographer’s photos in front of more potential clients than a single photographer could ever have dreamed of.
The stock houses could get a photographer’s photos in front of more potential clients than a single photographer could ever have dreamed of. Stock houses made their profit on bulk but they also had a huge overhead that had to be covered. Stock houses had to maintain a large staff. They also had to keep, maintain, preserve and protect massive quantities of black and white prints and color slides. They had to pay salaries, lease property, pay for electric, trash and plumbing. There were also little things like post-it notes, paperclips and pens. Most of all the had to get images in front if potential clients. All of this cost a fortune to do effectively.

Back then, everyone would benefit from the system. The Photographers, the shock houses and the clients.

Everything Changed

With the rise of the stock sites in the early 2000’s everything changed. It’s been a downhill ride every since and only keeps getting worse. Todays stock sites, more specially macro stock sites, don’t have the massive overhead that the old stock houses had. Of course it’s not cheap but it’s no where near the cost of running a full blow stock house back in the day.  Regardless they set lower fees and take a larger percentage. 

Of course this was expensive but they didn’t have nearly as much overhead nor the massive reasonability that the old shock houses had. Photographers could upload their photos and everything ran on auto pilot. This allowed them to offer a license for practically nothing. The early contributors to the stock sites made a killing like never before. Life was good. Some photographers were now driving around in Lamborghinis rather than worn out used cars for the first time ever.

It also allowed many more people to contribute that never had in hopes of earning income with their cameras. Sadly, this was short lived and the new system was a business model that was doomed to fail for photographers and even many of the stock sites as the market became over saturated with images.

The Difference Between the Two

These days stock photography sites take as much as 80/20. I’ve even heard of some that may be taking 85/15  and the images can license for as little as $5.00. Do the math. That can be as low as  $0.75 for the photographer.  Depending on usage you can earn perhaps as much as $300 – $1000+ for the same usage if you were to license the exact same image yourself.  Further more, if you are getting only one buck for every photo licensed you’d need as many as many as 2500 – 6500 just to pay off your camera body alone!  Tell me honestly.  How many of you have actually licenced that many images on the stock sites these last few years?  If you license it yourself you would have paid off that same camera body with perhaps 2 – 6 images.  Perhaps even less depending on the usage of each image.

In the end doing business with micro stock photography sites is a numbers game.  The more you contribute the more income you can make. Photos generally need to be generic in nature and many contributing photographers are certainly shooting beautiful images.  Even so, I just don’t see any advantage in it for the average guy.   

An Analogy

Imagine for a moment that Burger King decided to start selling their products for no more than 2% of the price that they sold for last week.
Imagine for a moment that Burger King decided to start selling their products for no more than 2% of the price that they sold for last week. They also offered a deal where, for only $150 you could eat there as often as you like and eat as much as you like for a full year?

McDonald’s would have no choice but to do the same. because people are always looking for a deal and everyone would stop eating at McNasty. It wouldn’t be long before both burger joints went out of buisness. The only people that benefit from the whole mess if the beef industry because they are now selling more beef than ever before.

No One In Their Right Mind Would Do This

It’s obvious that no burger joint would never do this. It just wouldn’t make since. No one in their right mind would try to institute a business model like this.  Right?  Wrong! That is exactly what photographers have done and it has practically killed our industry across the board. It’s affected not only the stock photography business. It’s had a negative effect on photography in general across the board. This is becouse it has completely changed the public’s perception of what good photography is worth. Like anything else, value of photography is based on supply and demand. Supply has sky rocketed while demand has gone down. This decreasees the value of what all of us do and for every gig we land.

Who’s to Blame

We photographers, as a group, have done this to ourselves out of greed —
Almost every photographer out there blames the stock sites for this down fall. Sadly it’s not the fault of the stock sites. Not even close! They, like every business and every consumer, were just trying to get the best bang for their buck. Yes, it’s underhanded and not a good business model but no one put a gun to the any photographer’s head and made us except such shitty terms.

We photographers, as a group, have done this to ourselves out of greed and desire to license our images and we have only ourselves to blame. Basically photographers have decided that 75 cents today is far better than 1500 bucks tomorrow and in the literal since of the word! Mind you that I’m talking about photographers as a group. Many of us have not contributed to this down fall but it has certainly effected all of us. Even the contributor to the stock sites that was driving around in Lamborghini 15 years ago can barely earn a living with stock images and nothing else today.

Is There Still Hope

Yes, there is still hope and we can still earn a fair fee from licensing our photos as stock. No, most of us shouldn’t expect to earn our living from it but we can generate good income from it. In fact each of us can generate more income than the “average contributor” to the macro stock sites. More importantly this is where we  actually get to the question. “How do we go about finding people to license our images?”

Before we even get into it, I think the proper question isn’t how do we find people to license them but rather how do they find us?

Stock Photography Need Not Be Great Art

First off, it’s important to understand that licensing an existing image for stock is never about great art. While it’s true that contributing to the stock site should have an artistic flare when you license your self this is not the case. I am certainly no artist and never pretend to be. I’m just a dude that takes pictures of stuff. In order to license an image, it simply has to be something that a potential client feels best describes the story that they want to tell. There is no rhyme or reason that decides that other than the client’s preference. Even so when you have an image that does in fact tell that story you can license it for a fair market fee. Not the chump change that has become the norm.

When we license our images we do so based on the usage that the client wants or needs. These include things like size on the page, size of the print run, distribution, how many languages etc. Is the distribution going to be local, natation or international? If it’s international then how many countries? Is it editorial, advertising or even a complete marketing campaign? All of these factors in to the fee that you charge.

Myself? I rarely shoot just for stock. I have under special circumstances but not often. I’ll get to those situations below but for now we’re going to talk about the average image and being found.

Good Solid SEO

The key to being found is through good solid SEO or Search Engine Optimization for your website. This includes both internal and external SEO.

Internal SEO

For internal SEO we have to pay close attention to every aspect of the pages and post on our websites. I can’t teach it here as it’d require hundreds of pages of information. It can be learned however but the best way to get started is to just do it. We learn as we go. None of us are SEO gurus out of the starting gate. We do however get better as we go. As our sites grow get better and gain more authority so does our skill at SEO. There is so much info out there but the standards change so fast that most of it is out dated before you ever even read it. My advice is to learn the basics and then just do it. So often people get so wrapped up in doing it correctly that they never really just dig in and do it.

Your images will be found and you can achieve top organic ranking in Google Search
Despite what you may hear from anyone success with SEO isn’t only a result from what you do with you’r site. If you work at it you can benefit because everyone else too damned lazy to bother with it themselves. That is the simple truth of the mater.  If you’re one of the few people that actually apply good SEO then you will be found. Your images will be found and you can achieve top, organic ranking in Google Search for various key words and even image searches. This doesn’t happen overnight. No matter what anyone tells you there is no such thing as an instant fix. It takes time. Months and even years.

A Long Slow Process
Macro of photo of a bullfrog's face and eyes that I shot just for fun. It has since been licensed as a stock photography image several times.

Macro of shot of a bullfrog’s face and eyes that was snapped just for fun. Its since been licensed as a stock photo several times.

If you insist on instant success this is not a path that you need bother traveling. You’ll be disappointed and like 99.8% of website owners you’ll quite long before you ever see any results. It takes time and dedication. Regardless if you plan on spending years growing and building your photography business then it only makes since to grow and build your website at the same time so that it grows as your business does. It’s OK if you’re getting very few hits to your site when you start. With proper technique, more will come.

That way when someone is making an image search on “Big G” for say, bullfrog eyes they will see your image of a frog at the very top of the page. If it feels right for their needs they will contact you and offer to license it. From there you negotiate a fee. If you come to an agreement then you have earned an easy $300, $900 or even a few thousand dollars for something that you photographed just for fun on your own time. It’s always a win, win situation. That’s why I call it surprise money!

My own advice is to use a content management system like WordPress as it give you complete control over your SEO. Unlike simple web builders like SquareSpace etc. Those are all junk. They will say that they work and are great tools but that’s just marketing. Nothing more. They are all junk as far as SEO and good SEO is way more important than slick design.

External SEO

External SEO is far more important than internal SEO. Basically, External SEO is about links back to your site from other sites. For the most part, we have little control over external SCO. Yes, we have some but not a lot. We can link back from all of our social media accounts and it helps but we get real ranking when other quality sites link back to us.

It should be pointed out that links back from bad sites can actually hurt your Google ranking but that’s another story for another time. Good links however come from like-minded sites or at least a post that, in our case, is about photography. Even where good sites are concerned not all backlinks are created equal. A back link from “bubba’” isn’t going to help you as much as a link to your site from

The very links best come from educational sites and even those have a pecking order. For example, a link back from Harvard University or the Smithsonian Institute is solid gold Google magic that can potentualy help send your site right to the top of Google search. On the other hand link back from York College certainly doesn’t hurt but it doesn’t carry nearly the same weight as a link back from the Smithsonian. These types of links can’t be asked for or even bought. They happen over time when someone likes what you do or say.

Targeting Specific Stock Photos

As my travels took me up and down the East Coast I’d stop at these small little know battlefields and snap a few shots.
Last is when I target specific concepts just for stock photography. This is something that I don’t do often. When I do it has to be something very special and something that potential clients want but can’t easily find. Once I have an angle I don’t talk about it to anyone. It’s my secret. In short, I’m incredibly shallow and don’t want the competition to get in on my action. Below however is an example that may help you out as the time for it has long since expired.

Anyway, the Civil War was fought from April 12, 1861 through April 9, 1865. As a result from 2011 though 2015 was the 150th anniversary of the war. Throughout that four-year period many publications were writing stories about the various battles that took place. If a battle was fought in May of 1862 there would be one or more stories about that battle in papers and magazines all over the country for the May 2012 issue of a given publication.

For big battles like Gettysburg and Fredericksburg images are a dime a dozen. For smaller yet important battles like both of the Battels for Drewry’s Bluff quality images are hard to come by.

As my travels took me up and down the East Coast I’d stop at these small little know battlefields and snap a few shots. Then I’d inform many different publications that I had photos that they may need or want in the coming years. I’d only send one or two good shots but I’d include a stock list of what else I had and the locations I’d photographed.

Friend to Friend, The Masonic Memorial at the Gettysburg National Cemetery is a perfect example of stock photography for very specalized needs.

Friend to Friend, the Masonic Memorial, Gettysburg National Cemetery. This image was once licensed for publication in a history rag. 

Important Stuff

If you think you may want to license your images for stock photography you need to know the rules and terminology. Even if you don’t this is info that, as a photographer, you’ll want to brush up on incase you are contacted out of the blue one day.  It never hurts t be ready in advance just incase. Terminology is important and I could write a small book on that subject alone. Regardless the post at this link gives a good run down. It’s much easer to just point you to decent info rather than typing out my own version.

Hope This Was Helpful

I hope this helped in some way. If it was, drop me a line and let me know.  If you have any questions please feel free to ask.  

More info on a few other things that I believe may help those new to the business side of photography can be found here.

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