Freelance photography tips: selling to stock libraries


Stock photography – we don’t need to tell you it’s a competitive business. But we can tell you how to give yourself the best chance of successfully selling your pictures…

You have a growing collection of images you’re sure could sell. You’ve tried local door knocking and it’s fallen on deaf ears. You’re bored with prints too; everyone looking and no one buying. You dream of recognition and escaping the payroll. Selling your photos through stock agencies could be the answer. Many of the UK’s top photographers – David Noton, Charlie Waite, Joe Cornish – are businessmen extraordinaire and have used libraries to climb the ladder. So what’s stopping you? UK landscape photographer David Clapp shows you how to play the stock market and what to expect along the road to success.

Getting contracts with subject-specific stock agencies and learning to diversify, that’s the key to financial gain

1. How a stock library sells your shots

Traditional stock agencies sell images from contributing photographers to an ever-fluctuating client base. All of them are now internet-based, selling images either from digital cameras or scanned transparencies. Whether their use is for magazines, newspapers, websites or digital mediums, the images are sold based upon five main criteria:

– Rights managed (one-off commercial use), editorial (reportage in newspapers) or royalty free (many uses for the same image) Depending on this licence, the following criteria may apply:

– Magazine, book, calendar, website banner etc.

– Quarter page, A4, A3, billboard or digital dimensions.

– How many copies are to be made, UK or worldwide?

– Is the image to be used once or for a period of time?

Agencies like to specialise, supplying subject-specific work – such as wildlife, architecture, travel, regional – to regular clients. Most try to create a market niche, promoting a database of stylised and consistent quality imagery. Other agencies pride themselves on the opposite, catering for all styles and subject matter. This approach has been questionable in times past, as some agencies disregarded quality on their quest for volume, lowering their prices simply to up the sales. But it’s this situation that created a blueprint for another type of agency – ‘micro stock’.

Micro stock libraries like to stack it high and sell it cheap. They stay afloat like linked rafts, selling low-cost imagery by spreading the same stock through a chain of multiple agencies. Looking for an acceptable image to spice up the village fete flyer? Who would want to pay £70 when they can pay 70p? Although a photographer makes little on the sale of an individual image, the agency can sell the same images many, many times.

Agencies offer photographers 2 forms of contracts: exclusive and non-exclusive. Each has its place and photographers can hold both types of contracts with multiple agencies. Usually the photographer is still able to market any image held by the agency directly, which keeps sales potential unrestricted.

Images managed under an exclusive contract can’t be placed with any other agencies, but those same images can usually be sold by the photographer directly (you’ll need to check the small print – sometimes only ‘non-commercial’ promotional use is allowed). Images managed under a non-exclusive contract can be placed with other agencies, as long as they also operate a non-exclusive contract. These images command lower prices, but can be placed with many agencies to compensate for this reduced earning potential. The photographer is also free to market these images directly.

Most stock libraries ask for a minimum period of 5 years, to help them nurture the photographer’s potential. Good relations and good sales can only flourish from mutual commitment.

2. What sells?

Buyers love everything from straightforward nondescript landscapes to lifestyle and workplace interaction – but it has to say something and be pitched to the right client base. Getting contracts with subject-specific agencies and learning to diversify, that’s the key to financial gain. Produce pictures that can be put to a whole range of uses, no matter what the subject. Think outside the box, too, as ‘conceptual’ shots are popular for illustrating dry news stories and business magazines. Shoot every orientation (portrait, landscape, square, panoramic), and think about front covers as these can yield high profits – although leaving space for text and titles feels strange at first. Fill memory cards full of variety, process every usable image and then put those images with the right agencies.

3. How to think ‘stock’

Get into the right mindset when you intend to make money from your pictures:


– shoot for calendars, tourism, magazines, websites.

– learn to spot interaction, contradiction, juxtaposition, anything thought-provoking that may sell within and outside your specialisation.


– sticking to the ‘golden hours’ shows a lack of business sense.


– stock photography requires well thought out and flexible plans, but above all a relentless disposition and punishing self-discipline.

4. Know your rights!

It’s vital that, as a potential contributor, you understand that images are sold with different usage rights which have an effect on their monetary value.

Images sold in this way are sold to a client with certain restrictions. The buyer is buying a licence to use the image, depending on intended use, medium, size, length of licence and distribution (regional, national or worldwide). The more flexibility required by the buyer, the more expensive the cost. An A4 magazine cover sold for national distribution for 1 month will command a much higher fee than the same size image positioned inside that publication. Yet a smaller image required for an entire year inside a worldwide publication can command an even higher price. The buyer is also getting assurance that the image will not be published within the same period by one of its competitors; the rights are carefully managed. A purchase history can also be requested.

These images are sold with far fewer restrictions. The buyer is able to use the image for multiple uses. If a company requires an image for both digital and paper media, it may be far cheaper to license a royalty free image than a rights managed image. Should their needs change, the buyer doesn’t have to license the image again.

5. Keep it legal

When shooting images on private property or pictures that contain people as their main subject (or even pets) a ‘release’ is required. It’s a signed document that states the model or property owner agrees the images can be used by the photographer for commercial gain (either with or without restrictions agreed between the two parties). Agencies require any releases to be submitted with restricted images, so buyers can be made aware that they’re free to use them without being be sued by an angry property owner or model.

So what happens to images that don’t have licenses? Are they of any use? You photograph a celebrity leaving a boutique, or a spectacular interior to a historical building, can these be sold commercially? Yes, they can, as ‘editorial’ imagery. Shots of building interiors can be used, so as long as there were no obvious signs stating ‘no photography’ when the images were taken. Exterior shots can generally be used without requiring a release as long as the image wasn’t taken while you were standing on private property.

6. Adding detail

It’s your responsibility to embed descriptions, contact info and keywords so that the agency can slide your submission into their database trouble free. The agency will usually supply the photographer with guidelines. Some also supply a Photoshop template if their requirements are more specific. Image data can be input using a specialist program like Adobe Bridge, or just using Photoshop’s File Info template (found in the File menu). Bridge is far more intuitive, as data can be input on batch.

First provide a detailed description of the image identifying the subject, the context and location: ‘Light reflecting on maram grass, a colourful sunrise across the sand dunes at Bamburgh Castle, on the beach near Budle Bay, Northumberland, England, UK.’ This description is packed full of information.

In terms of keywords, more is better. Agencies will remove inappropriate ones and also add their own to fit in with the ‘collections’ that your work matches. The main concern is that generalised keywords like ‘landscape’, ‘flower’ and ‘rock’ will be of little use to them, but may be useful in categorising your own archive. Where is the landscape? What is the Latin name of the flower? Is the rock sandstone or granite? Add conditions (stormy, still, calm) and feelings too.

7. Focus on quality

If you decide to start working towards selling your work through stock libraries, you may need to consider the quality of the equipment in your kit bag. Most professionals buy flagship digital cameras as a way of protecting their future sales. It’s not because they demand the absolute best, but because they require the largest file size possible to maximise sales potential. You could already have a camera that an agency would accept, but all too often it’s poor lenses, careless photographic technique and shoddy post processing that get a contract turned down.

Ensure you use the best glass you can afford. This doesn’t mean spend £1000’s on premium glass. You may be surprised to learn that there are plenty of ‘alternative lenses’, decades older and often far superior that can be adapted to fit your system. Do your research. Using older Contax, Olympus and Nikkor primes could be the answer on a budget.

Make sure your pictures are pin sharp. Using a solid tripod at every opportunity or shooting with image stabilisation will help greatly. Agencies check all shots at 100% so you’ll kick yourself if that jaw-dropping sunset is better appreciated as just a sharpened web JPEG.

Learn to pull the best from your imagery with competent processing. Agencies are rarely interested in shots that display obvious computer tampering; excessive HDR, soft focusing effects, over-saturation and poor cloning will all usually confine your work to your home hard drives. It’s important that you’re ruthless when choosing images in the first place, too.

Stock photography is about developing a sharp sense of business acumen. It’s crucial that you learn to wear different ‘hats’ and develop a detachment from your artistry. This is business. Become a visionary behind the camera and an unbearable critic at the computer. Edit your work by detaching yourself from the memory; no one else can feel how special your life may have felt at the point you pressed the shutter release. To an editor it’s just another image that must tick certain criteria or it will not sell – that’s all that counts, it’s nothing personal. Discussing why images were rejected will only help refine your skills, so see your failures in a different light.

8. Can you hit the required file size?

Most consumer DSLRs produce TIFF files that fall short of the 8-bit 50MB 300 dpi limit agencies require. For instance, after processing even a Canon EOS 5D image as a 16-bit TIFF, you end up with a 72MB file. Once converted to 8-bit the image is just 36MB. (You can find out this information for your own camera by opening the file in Photoshop and clicking on Image >Image Size). However, by increasing the file size using Photoshop it’s possible to ‘up-res’ an image without degrading it. Check a stock library’s submission guidelines to ensure they accept interpolated images first though.

  • Vanessa

    First of all, I love you. I don’t mean to sound creepie, but…. fuck it. I will be stalking this site/ur articles from now on, to soak up your genius wisdom + no BS approach to GOOD QUALITY INFO. Ugh, hard to weed out the bad ones to find the good.

    Oh, so also, I should thank you for your awesomeness online.

    3rd, what is the best resource, in ur opinion, to go from >beginner to >successfully profiting from selling stock images online?

    And by beginner, I mean, I’m a photography virgin, aka Im fucking cluess and do not even own a DSLR (yet).

    Please help! #Desperate