Licensing Images In Today’s Market


I’m regularly contacted by photographers, some with excellent portfolios, wanting to know how they can license rights to their images in today’s market. Recently, I was contacted by a nature and wildlife photographer whose work was excellent. This photographer regularly conducts Photo Workshops where he teaches others how to take great scenic and wildlife pictures. Here’s what I told him.

The problem is in how to get your images where customers can see them. Two good specialist wildlife agencies in the U.S. are Animals Animals/Earth Scenes and Minden Pictures

However, today, most customers are going to large online databases to find the images they need. Among the ones that license images at RM or traditional RF prices are: Getty Images, Corbis, Alamy, Veer, Masterfile, Superstock, AGE (Spain), Marutius (Germany), Picturemaxx (Germany), and FotoSearch in the U.S. (FotoSearch doesn’t accept images from individual photographers, only agents and production companies.) In addition there are four microstock sites –,, and – that you may want to consider.

Most of these major RM and RF marketers not only accept images from individual photographers but also from many smaller agencies. If you put your images with a smaller agency with a good reputation chances are that some of the images will end up in one or more of these major databases. Before signing with an agency that licenses work as RM or RF ask for the names of the distributors that represent their work. Also try to determine the percentage of the agency’s gross revenue that comes from direct sales to customers as opposed to sales made through distributors. The problem with distributor sales is that the photographer has to give up a double cut of the fee paid.

One of the first things to decide is whether you are committed to licensing your images as RM or traditional RF, or whether you are willing to accept the microstock philosophy of volume sales at much lower prices. If you license your images as RM there is a possibility of getting multi-thousand dollar sales, but such sales are very rare. The odds of making a big advertising sale in today’s market are about the same as winning the Lottery. It’s not that your images aren’t good enough to compete at that level. It’s that they will be competing against so many other reasonably good images. If you put your images in traditional RF the top price you can get is less than $1,000, but the odds of making a sale at all are about twice as good as having an image on an RM site.

I estimate that worldwide in 2010 there were about 1.5 million RM and about 3 million RF images licensed at traditional prices. During the same period over 100 million uses were licensed at microstock prices. Given the number of images available at RM and RF prices the chances of any particular image being licensed are very slim. For example, Alamy has about 27 million images in its database. Based on figures published two years ago they will probably license rights to about 200,000 individual usages in 2011. Thus, at Alamy less than one out of every 100 images are licensed in any given year.

The odds of a microstock image being licensed are much better, but the price per license will often be very low. You need to decide if you will be upset when some company uses one of your snow covered mountain scenes for a web site promoting a ski resort or selling camping equipment, and pays less than $10 for the use. If so, then you don’t want to offer the pictures for sale as microstock. But, chances are if you choose the microstock route your images will get used 75 to 100 times more frequently than would be the case if they are licensed as RM.

Today, very few photographers are earning enough from stock sales alone to support themselves. On the other hand I think there are about the same number of microstock photographers earning in excess of $75,000 a year as there are traditional RF or (RM photographers earning at that level.


Svalbard Glacier - SimpleFoto


You need to recognize that there is a tremendous oversupply of nature, wildlife and landscape images. (The same is true for almost every other subject matter.) Your images are certainly much better on a quality and artistic level than most of the images out there, but unfortunately that isn’t all it takes to make sales. Getting the images seen by potential customers is the big problem.

Here’s a list of the number of images in a few categories at 4 of the major distributors.



domestic cat


Getty Images




















Statistics show that the vast majority of customers choose an image from those found in the first 300 reviewed in a web search. Very few look at more than a few hundred images in any category before making a decision either to buy, or go somewhere else. So the question is how do you get your images shown in that first 300. Customers can’t buy what they don’t see. At most sites the newest images uploaded play a major role in the sequence images are shown. This means that newly uploaded images have a chance of being seen in the first weeks or months after being uploaded. But it won’t be long until they are pushed down below that 300 level.

Using additional keywords to define specific aspects of an image may keep your image high in the search returns for a longer period of time – assuming some customers actually use the words you’ve inputted to search for images. Specifics don’t always help because many customers are looking for more generic images.

Algorithms Rather Than Professional Editing

Twenty years ago customers would call a picture agency for research, describe what they were looking for and the agency’s researchers would go through the files and pick a selection of images that they thought would fit the customer’s needs. The researchers got to know the best images in their collections. They would continually go back to older images they liked because they had developed a sense of what their customers wanted. New images weren’t sent out just because they were new. Now, all that personal visual judgment is gone. At the RM and traditional RF agencies the personal judgment of image quality and appropriateness of the subject matter has been replaced by computer algorithms that are heavily dependent on words.

The microstock sellers (iStockphoto, Shutterstock, et al) do offer a variety of ways for the customers to organize search returns. One is usually the number of times an image has been downloaded or purchased. There aren’t any good public figures on how frequently customers use any of the sort options, but it is believed that a significant percentage of customers sort on number of downloads when it is an option. This gives the customer the benefit of quickly seeing the images that a huge number of other customers found useful and purchased. In one sense the picture research principle is still working. But, it is now much harder for that new image that has just arrived to ever get seen unless the customer is smart enough to do a search for “newest” images as well as a separate search for most “downloads.”

Take iStockphoto for example. The top selling waterfall image has been licensed over 2,000 times; mountains, 1,500 times; domestic cats, 1,500 times; and tigers, 1400 times. I encourage you to go to iStockphoto, search for the subject matter in your collection, sort by downloads, see how many times some of the images have been downloaded and how long they have been on that site.

Look at some on the first page, but also look at the 100th and 300th image to see how quickly the number of downloads falls off. This will give you a good idea of the demand for that subject matter.

Traditional sites (RM and RF) don’t offer a variety of search options like the microstock sites do. With traditional sites the search order is pre-determined by the distributor and the customer must take-it-or-leave-it. Traditionals do use complex computer algorithms that attempt to bring certain images to the top, but often they are based on which images will generate the most revenue for the distributor (lowest royalty percentage for the creator) rather than a visual judgment of image quality and appropriateness that a good editor might make. In some cases weight is given to the number of times an image has been viewed, put in a lightbox, or licensed. Part of the problem is that the information about how the algorithms work is considered proprietary and not shared with the image suppliers.

Industry Trends

More and more customers are going to the microstock sites to find most of the images they need. Microstock prices, while still low, are going up. Price for RM images are going down as the sellers of these products try to compete with microstock. Many RM images and now being licensed for prices lower than microstock The proportional share of images licensed as RM relative to the share licensed as microstock is declining steadily.

Most of the RM companies (Alamy excepted) will want exclusive rights to the images (and similars) they accept. To maximize earnings it is important to have your images in as many different places as possible so they can be seen by the broadest possible cross section of customers. You can put the same images with multiple microstock sites plus Alamy on a non-exclusive basis.

For more information check out:

Getting Images Seen

2011 Stock Photo Market Size

Average Return from iStockphoto

About The Author:

Jim Pickerell has been involved in the stock photography business for almost fifty years as a photographer, Macro agency owner, and newsletter editor for the last 20 years. He has lived through the industry changes and is often able to supply useful perspective to those new to the business. Jim publishes, a subscription service and where readers pay to read individual stories. To receive a FREE email every Saturday that includes summaries of the new stories posted the previous week click here, and then click Subscribe to confirm.
Posted on December 22nd, 2011 in Editorial | tags: ,
  • gemmy

    Thank you Mr Jim for sharing you ideas and experience with us. Like your other articles even this one helps in understanding the trends in stock/microstock sites.