Last January a friend suggested I try selling my photos as stock photography and suggested a few sites. I thought about it and decided to give it a shot. Like I do before I leap in to something, I sought advice from my close personal friend – the internet. There was so much information, contradictory opinions, and legal speak that I walked away with a list of questions I needed to answer before I could dive in the deep end. The first hurdle was whether I was going to post my photos with exclusive or non-exclusive rights? In all honesty I had NO idea what this meant but it was important because everyone had an opinion and wrote about it like I should care. So first, what was it? Second, how did it apply to me if at all? As for the first question, exclusive rights means that once you post your photo at a website for licensing or sale, you are not allowed to post anywhere else to make money. Non-exclusive means you are free to sell your photos at as many non-exclusive sites as you like. Is one option better than the other? It seems everyone differs on this but I hope to share my experiences with posting non-exclusively.
So, why couldn’t I just join a stock photo site and start posting? I could, but not knowing the in and outs of exclusive vs. non-exclusive meant I’d be flying blind. When posting exclusively at one site, the ability to make more money per photo is greater. However, I thought it was better to post at many sites non-exclusively and make less money per photo in hopes of making a larger profit in the bigger picture. The disadvantage, as I read, would mean I’d be competing with myself because if a buyer wanted my photo they could shop around and purchase it at the lower price as all these sites differ in their pricing. The other disadvantage is that posting at multiple sites obviously requires more time; time to key word, time to upload, and some sites are just more user-friendly than others. All this time keywording and uploading means less time you’ll spend shooting. So I was settled on going non-exclusive, now I could find the sites and start posting? Well, sure, sort of…
Aside from exclusive and non-exclusive licensing, there are also two types of stock photography – commercial and editorial. Huh? I don’t shoot editorial, but as I understand it, the key wording is much different and sanitizing logos/trademarks isn’t necessary, but the photo basically needs to represent a newsworthy factual event and shouldn’t be edited. Again, this is my understanding as I don’t really shoot editorial photos. Commercial licensing, on the other hand, means sanitizing your photos; removing any trademarks, logos, branding, any information that can identify the item. If you submit a photo and it is refused for “visible trademark” or something similar, enlarge your image and hunt for it, it’s there. When you find it you can blur or clone it from the photo. The photo at the top of this page, Sundown, contains numerous items that would prohibit commercial use. First, the Wells-Fargo building needed to have the name removed as well as the red number celebrating the 150th anniversary of a law firm located inside the building. Next, all the advertising and logos needed to be edited out, most of it was next to the freeway but it was everywhere in this photo. Finally, you probably wouldn’t think of this and I certainly didn’t, but all of the graffiti in the neighborhoods and on the trains needed to be edited out. Yes, even graffiti because it’s a touchy area and is generally considered the intellectual property of the artist. Yes, they deface public and private property but we can’t have it in commercial photos without crediting them or getting a property release from the owner! See the same photo, above, for the sanitized version from a stock website.
Even shapes or designs are trademarked if the design uniquely belongs to a company. Also, just because a company went out of business doesn’t mean someone or somebody doesn’t own the rights. I once created a car calendar with this photo of a Studebaker Transtar pickup truck grill (right). Studebaker has been out of business for fifty years, my logic was that there was no way someone still held the rights to that. I was wrong, I received a nasty-gram telling me that the Studebaker Museum still owned the rights to the defunct company and my photo had been deleted, end of discussion and lesson learned. Well, there went a month from my car calendar… So just removing logos and trademarks might not be the only thing needed to make your photo legal, if you have people in your photo you’ll need model releases for them as well. I use an app called Easy Release that lets me do it right from my phone, the model can sign with their finger, and I can send it completed to myself making a model release easy and possible on the spot. Getting a model release after the fact can be problematic as you’ll need their information, then later send the documents to them so they can print, sign, scan, and send back to you. If the model has no scanner or printer, then what? So now you’ve got a model release on your phone, you have the model’s information and consent, so you can commercially license your photo right? Again, sure, sort of..
The photo at left is the reason I began using Easy Release. I was walking around a car show in San Diego a few years ago and a man came up to me and asked me to take a photo of a woman (Jennifer Moon) in front of his car. I generally don’t shoot portraits, but here I was, “Mr. I don’t do portraits,” with this woman standing in front of a car. After the shot, the three of us exchanged information and went our separate ways. Everything was fine until I went to license my new photo and needed a model release. However, fast forward to 5 months ago when I decided to give stock photography a shot; my issue was no longer a model release but her tattoos. Just as a graffiti artist’s work is intellectual property, each of the model’s tattoos were the intellectual property of EACH tattoo artist! If you’re shooting models or street photography, you may want to consider having model releases readily available.
Once I organized a couple of hundred photos that were able to be licensed commercially, I researched the sites I would try first using non-exclusive licensing. Some required a simple sign-up, one required an exam regarding the above information, and most required samples of my work. After getting accepted, all of them required a contract and my tax information. All of this was just to get started, now I needed to upload hundreds of photos at five or six sites, after time some websites panned out with sales and some didn’t. However, the point made earlier about “competing with myself” didn’t really occur because many sites didn’t want certain photos, so my inventory varies slightly from site to site. That brings me to this, if you have a thin skin, I don’t suggest stock photography because you will be rejected. You’ve spent your time working on a photo, making it just right, then have it rejected. My experience has been something like this; I shoot a photo that I think will be accepted at all of the sites and is really going to sell, and it doesn’t. Yet, a photo I think might have a chance at getting accepted does, and actually sells well and I never saw it coming! Only if I submit a photo and it is universally rejected will I re-edit to make it acceptable and try again. If it’s already on the other sites, I’m cool with being rejected at a few sites because it actually gives my photos variety at individual sites.
Lastly, getting serious about shooting stock has changed what/how I’ve been shooting. I used to go out shooting for my website, capturing whatever caught my eye or maybe shoot some local event, but all driven by my website. However, now I’m looking at upcoming holidays and go out hunting for specific subjects. For example, in addition to seasonal photos, after Easter I’ve been on the lookout for patriotic subjects (such as flags, cemeteries, etc.) for the upcoming Memorial, Independence, and Veterans holidays. At the end of September I’ll be looking for Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas themes to build up a repertoire to get larger each year. In stock photography, you sign a contract, why not treat it like a business? Searching for stock photo shots has actually help me put more photos on my website, and kept me busy shooting. Remember, selling exclusively means you can sell at multiple sites and sell the same photo many times. It’s like taking the time to build something you intend to sell and being able to resell it without having to rebuild the item each time. Stock photography has been very promising, last month I received a $120 deposit to my PayPal account. Not bad getting paid for photos that would have otherwise sat on my hard drive unnoticed.