Licensing your Photographs :: Digital Photo Secrets

Licensing your Photographs

by David Peterson 8 comments

If you've ever considered turning your hobby into a profession, you've probably heard the term "licensing." But if you aren't completely sure what that means, don't worry, you are not alone. Licensing is a many-faceted concept and it can be difficult to keep it all straight. Let's clear it up.

Licensing doesn't mean you have to pass a written exam while watched over by cranky, bespectacled government workers. It simply means that you're giving rights to someone--preferably someone who gives you money in return - to use your work for a certain purpose and for a specific period of time. Different types of licensing can be broken into the following categories:

Commercial Rights

Commercial rights mean just that--for commercial purposes. A person or entity that buys one of your photos with the intent to use it in a catalog, brochure or on some other form of advertisement is using that photo for commercial purposes.

Non-Commercial Rights

Non-commercial rights include things like personal websites, blogs, school newsletters and other media where the image isn't part of a money-making endeavor. Now as you may have guessed, the line between commercial and non-commercial can sometimes be a little fuzzy, so if you do decide to start marketing your images make sure you understand these two categories beyond what I've briefly written here.

Serial Rights

Serial rights apply exclusively to magazines; when you sell a publication serial rights you are essentially giving them exclusive permission to use that image in their magazine. You may or may not want to do this, since "exclusive" means you will not be able to resell that image to another publication at a later time.

First Rights

Depending on your perspective, first rights may be preferable to serial rights, because the only use you are granting is for the publication to be the first to use the image. When you give someone first rights, you retain the right to resell your image at a later time.

Non-Exclusive Rights

Non-exclusive rights sound great, because on the surface this form of licensing means that you can sell your images to more than one person or entity. Unfortunately it also means that the person or entity you are selling to may include a sneaky little clause in their contract that also allows them to sell your images to another person or entity. When considering this form of licensing, make sure you know in advance what you are getting into.

One Time Use

One time use is probably the most favorable form of licensing as far as you, the photographer are concerned. This form is exactly what it says--you are selling the person or entity the right to use your image one time, for one specific purpose.

Rights Managed

"Rights managed," is a little more complicated than the rest of the above forms of licensing. Rights managed images have very specific restrictions on use and different fees associated with each use. They can also be given various levels of exclusivity. An image used in a full page ad in a magazine, for example, will have a different fee than an image used in a banner ad on a website that receives 5,000 visitors each month. And the licencor can also request limited exclusivity for that image if he or she wants to prevent competitors from using it in similar advertisements.

Creative Commons

Finally, you might want to consider using one of the excellent Creative Commons licences. Digital Photography School has an excellent tutorial on Creative Commons licencing, but in short, this licence gives you lots of freedom to define the level of access you give others to use your photos.

If you upload your images to Flickr, you can choose the level of licence and allow others to use your images as long as they attribute you; or can't make derivations on your work; or only use in a non-commercial way. Or any combination.

A lot of photographers use Creative Commons because it can allow your images to be seen by as wide an audience as possible. If others see, and like, your work, they are more likely to purchase stuff from you - particularly if you sell licences to your images on your website.

Where to Sell Your Photos

Now that you know the whats of licensing, you're probably also interested in knowing the wheres. Believe it or not, that question is actually even more complicated than the first one.

The Internet has made it very simple to license and sell your images, so simple in fact that the competition is unlike anything that the photography market has ever seen. "Microstock" sites like istockphoto allow almost anyone with some skill to upload and license their images online. The downsides to these services are many, however. The first is that these sites and others like them will often charge a 70 or 80 percent commission fee on any image you sell, and you may have to price them low in order to be competitive. The second is that these marketplaces are so over-saturated with photos that it can be extremely difficult to stand out from the crowd, and even more difficult to get your images accepted.

The alternative, of course, is to license images on your own site, which has its own set of problems. You can use sites like Flickr or social media such as Facebook and Twitter to help market your images, but you also need to have a healthy understanding of search engine placement, and, of course, the ability to build and maintain your own website. You will also need to understand something about how to upload and distribute your images, or else you will need to pay for a software package or service that allows you to do this.

What types of images should you sell?

Regardless of whether you market your images on microstock websites or on your own website, the types of images you choose are important. Most buyers are not interested in artistic photos, such as those you might see in a gallery. When evaluating your images for licensing as stock photos, look for those that could potentially be used to illustrate a concept or idea. An image of an apple, for example, could be used to illustrate an article about elementary school education, or one about healthy eating. It could also be used to sell apple juice or apple pies. A macro image of a beautiful pattern made by early morning frost may be stunning, but there aren't many practical applications for it, so it probably won't do well as a stock photo.

Start with simple objects shot against a white backdrop

Objects on white typically do well as stock photo images because they are very simple to manipulate in photo editing software. They can very quickly and seamlessly be cut out and pasted into almost any ad or editorial design, which makes them easy for a designer to work with. To sell these types of images you will, of course, need a good macro lens and a basic indoor photography setup.

People pictures

Pictures of people do well in stock, but again they will need to illustrate an idea or concept. I'm sure you've seen websites with images of smiling customer service reps, frustrated computer-users and coffee-drinking businessmen pointing at whiteboards. These images can be used for a lot of generic purposes, and as such are highly sought after by small business owners who are building websites, brochures or other advertising products. Other kinds of people pictures sell well, too--pictures of kids can be used in parenting publications, and photos of people playing sports or engaging in recreational activities can help illustrate articles about sports or travel destinations.

One thing to keep in mind when shooting images of people is that you will need a signed model release form if you intend to profit from those images. You can't sell someone's image without their permission.


To sell travel photos, you will need to find a unique perspective for every photo you capture. Remember that the Tower of London has been photographed millions of times, and most of those photos were shot from the exact same or a slightly different perspective. To make your Tower of London photo stand out, try shooting it from ground level, with a large raven in the foreground. Or take a shot of a tourist gazing with trepidation at Traitor's Gate (but don't forget to get your signed model release form).

Whatever image type you choose, remember that it will need to look enticing even when displayed at thumbnail size. Your goal is to get your potential customer to click on the thumbnail, which will then lead them to the full sized image, pricing and purchase information.

The second thing to remember is that you will need to choose keywords for every image you are attempting to sell. That great stock photo of an apple needs more than just the keyword "apple" to describe it. You can also use "fruit," "healthy," "white background," "red," etc. Images without good, descriptive keywords are doomed to languish unseen, no matter how sale-able they actually are.

Selling stock images can be fun and rewarding, but don't expect to get rich quickly this way. Uploading, categorizing and adding keywords to your images can be time consuming, and you can't expect big bucks, especially if you're using one of the microstock sites to market your work. But the thrill of making that sale can be a reward in itself, and the extra pocket cash doesn't hurt either.

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  1. Gwen Rea says:

    Most useful and practical articles. SO much appreciated, photographers are the best and those that share their wisdom like this deserve to go far. Well done and God bless you.

  2. R Lynn BC says:

    Thank you so much for your tips they have been so helpful I tell all my friends about your detail tips

  3. Roni Eilbert says:

    Excellent job. I really loved what you had to say, and more than that, how you presented it in the Licensing your Photographs by Digital Photo Secrets blog. Too cool!

  4. Jerrywhyte Obamwonyi says:

    As far as am concerned am of the opinion that any photos can be sold so long its having all the legal rights but its good for a beginner to starts off with your suggestions here so as not to fall victim of any photographs copyright laws and infringement acts

  5. Subhanil says:

    Thank you,I got lots of tips.I want more knowledge.

  6. Robert Kerr says:

    My favorite time is anytime.

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