Strategies for Licensing Your Own Images


Photography: Andrew Brooks

With photography stock dominated by two exclusive agencies and microstock so saturated that sales figures rarely now cover the cost of an image’s production, photographers hoping to sell licenses need new ways of delivering photos to buyers. For many, and particularly for part-time photographers who might once have been drawn to iStock or Fotolia, that means selling licenses directly from their own website — and overcoming the challenge of finding buyers, quoting prices and handing over the images.

Klaus Herrmann, for example, used to be a computer scientist. Over the last couple of years, he’s made a name for himself as an amateur photographer, offering advice to other enthusiasts exploring High Dynamic Range photography. Earlier this year, he began the process of building a new career in image-making and teaching.

“It was one of those moments where you know that not taking the opportunity will haunt you for the rest of your life,” he said. “I could have stayed in my old job, but I would always have looked back and asked ‘What if….’ So I quit my job, and I am taking a chance.”

Herrmann’s website promotes his educational products but his store also pitches both prints and image licenses. License sales number no more than one or two a month but with prices based on the usage fees for Rights Managed images rather than bargain Royalty Free rates, those single sales made on his own represent hundreds of potential downloads on a microstock site. The inventory on a stock site would have needed to be much larger and Herrmann’s sales aren’t subject to commissions of between 70 and 80 percent, the amount typically taken by stock sites.

Andrew Brooks, a professional photographer in the UK, is doing even better. He has been licensing his own images for about seven years when he began receiving direct requests from new clients. He now sells between eight and ten licenses a month from his website, adding an extra revenue stream to his commissions and prints. (The image above was used by Kellogg’s, Aardman Animations and JWT Advertising, and was seen by 8 million people during a commercial break in one of the UK’s top television shows.) The sales allow Brooks to make use of his back catalog but more importantly they give him control of both his images and his relationships with the people who want to use them.

“I want to know where my images are going, who’s using them and how,” he says. “As I sell prints and have exhibitions, I want to make sure my pictures don’t get overused and are featured in interesting places. Also dealing directly with clients can lead to long term commissions and new projects, plus [they] extend my networks.”

Promotion and Negotiation

While the benefits of selling your own stock are clear, though, the process isn’t. Both Herrmann and Brooks use Internet marketing to bring people to their sites. Herrmann relies on sites like Flickr and 500px to show his work and bring in buyers; Brooks uses Twitter and Facebook to keep his profile high. Each year, Brooks also creates a list of agencies and companies to approach directly.

Making the sales and delivering the images is a challenge too. Buyers on stock sites need only push a button to purchase an image, download it and use it immediately. While some website templates do allow photographers to make sales that easily, photographers who want greater control over pricing and usage —  or just a simpler website — need to push buyers through an enquiry and negotiation process. Both Brooks and Herrmann provide a form at the enquiry stage that asks for information about the required licensing period, the sector in which the image will be used and the media that will be using it. Herrmann then checks stock sites like Getty and the Association of Photographers Usage Calculator to generate a current price for comparable images and similar usages.

“For me, the biggest challenge is still to find the right price,” says  Herrmann. “It can be very hard to set the price for an image license as it is depending on so many factors.”

The negotiation process usually takes him a couple of days. Brooks tries to get things moving as quickly as possible and says that he can make an agreement within a couple of hours, an important consideration for buyers on deadline.

So both photographers obtain real financial benefits from selling their own stock. Both use the websites from which the sales are made as hubs whose spokes lead to community platforms from where they draw their buyers: photo-sharing sites for Klaus Herrmann; social media sites for Andrew Brooks. Both also have to negotiate the prices for their licenses directly, a difficult balance between audience, media and keenness to sell.

But both photographers have a couple of other important factors in common.

You Have To Be Unique

Each also specializes in a unique niche. Klaus Herrmann is an expert on HDR; Andrew Brooks has a clear style and a quality that’s visible in both his rural and urban photography. That ability to stand out and offer buyers something that they can’t buy at a lower price and with a click of a button is vital, says Brooks.

“If you want people to be using your images then your work has to be unique to you. If a client sets their heart on an image and nothing quite like it is available by any other photographer then if puts you in a strong position if you’re selling the images yourself or through an agency.”

And neither photographer depends on the revenue their stock sales generate. For Klaus Herrmann, the occasional stock sale adds to the educational products he’s hoping will form the backbone of his business. For Andrew Brooks, they help to pay the costs of images he’s shot in the past and by talking to the buyers directly — rather than through a stock agency — they may lead to commissions for more work in the future.

The difficulty, of though, attracting the buyers and negotiating the sales does mean that selling your own stock is still largely a luxury for small producers.

“Traditional stock photographers are always better off using agencies,” warns Herrmann. “If you have a big portfolio that is targeted to stock photography clients, spread your work over as many platforms as possible and let those agencies do the work for you. If you sell licenses only occasionally, and if your work is not really the typical stock photography work, you probably will find that putting in on some stock photo website will not result in a big profit.”

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