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Selling Your Photos: Stock Photography

Apr 13, 2008
Stock Photography agencies can be something of an enigma to beginning photographers. Unless you understand how they work, and what they expect from photographers, it can be difficult to begin selling your work through agencies. This article aims to give an overview of the stock photography business for those new to the industry.

What is a Stock Photography Agency?

Stock photography agencies are essentially a big library where buyers can search for a specific image they need to illustrate something, be it a magazine article or commercial advertisement. Buyers license the image and pay a fee to use it. The amount of the fee depends on the publication, size of the reprint, circulation and length of use. If your image is chosen, you receive a commission.

How do I start?

To begin selling your images through an agency, first they will have to accept you. This will usually entail submitting a selection of your images for assessment. If the agency likes what they see, they might offer you a contract.

From there on it's a matter of submitting images regularly. Agencies need to keep their collections up to date to be competitive, and so expect regular contributions from their photographers.

One thing to remember is that, all things being equal, stock photography is a numbers game. The more images you have out there in the big wide world, the more chance you stand of making sales. Look at stock photography as a long term proposition. It can take a long time to build your collection and begin to make some sales. The good news though, is that everything you do is accumulative. And eventually, if you've put in the hard work, your stock collection could become a passive income, like having a share portfolio.

What do agencies expect?

All stock agencies expect images to be technically perfect. This means no dust or scratches, color casts and pin sharp. They can't sell a sub standard image to a buyer and so won't accept them into their library. Agencies also have differing requirements as to image size and file type that they will accept. It is important to read the requirements for image submissions carefully before sending in your own.

Agencies also differ in the amount of images they require from you. Some will state you need to submit a certain number each year, others will have no minimum requirement. All this will be written into your contract, which you should read carefully before signing to ensure this is the right agency for you. In particular, find out if the agency requires exclusivity (ie. You are unable to submit to any other agency) or image exclusivity (you are unable to submit the same image to any other agency). Also, find out what you need to do if you want to cancel your contract. What is the notice period you need to give? What happens to your images after your contract is cancelled? The last thing you want is to have your images tied up somewhere that I just not working for you without anything you can do about it.

So how do I choose an agency?

You may have noticed that I haven't mentioned any agency names here. This is deliberate. There are hundreds of agencies all over the world to choose from and all of them are suited to different photographers. You may want the prestige of being with a big name agency but find that you have very little control over your images and how and where they are seen.

On the other hand, a smaller agency with fewer contributors may offer a better chance of your photos being seen and thus purchased. They might also offer higher commissions to photographers as they try to build their library and gain more market share.

It is important to look at an agency carefully before joining. Do your images fit the material they offer? Do they expect more than you can provide? Do they pay a suitable commission? What is their customer service like? If you ask a question, are they able to give you a useful answer?

Selling stock photography is a long hard road. It is competitive and takes a long time to see results. However if you stick at it and choose the right business partners, it can be very rewarding.
About the Author
Mark Eden is a freelance travel photographer and writer, and the founder and director of Expanse Photography, a photographic services company offering fine art, limited edition prints as well as stock and assignment photography and publishing services. Mark can be contacted through the Expanse Photography website http://www.expansephotography.com.
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