Behind the Scenes – Stock Photography Business Q&A


Hello my web friends!

Many, many, many of you are asking me about stock photography and I thought it would be easiest to write you a post about it. So if you’re interested in the stock photo business, pour yourself a nice espresso drink, pull up a chair and get yourself comfortable because I’m about to bombard you with information.

I have been a stock photographer since 2009 and I am licensing my food photos to buyers either directly (i.e. a buyer purchases a license directly from me) or through stock photo agencies (i.e. a buyer purchases a license for one of my photos from an agency that I have a contract with).

There are many things to know and consider when licensing photos as stock and I’ve put together the main points below. I hope they are helpful, clear and answer the questions you have, but if not, please let me know in the comments. I’ll be happy to continue the conversation about this topic. :)


What are stock photos? Stock photos are photos that are available for buyers to license and use. In other words, instead of hiring a photographer and asking him to create a specific photo the buyer finds an already existing photo and purchases a license that allows him to use that photo.

How does a stock photo sale work? When a buyer purchases a stock photo she doesn’t buy the actual photo, instead she buys a license to the photo and that license allows her to use that photo. The copyright to the photo stays with the photographer.

What types of licenses can a buyer purchase? There are two main types of stock photo licenses, one is called rights-managed (RM) and the other royalty-free (RF). (Royalty-free is a misnomer because it doesn’t mean free (as in no cost)).

What is a rights-managed license? When a buyer purchases a rights-managed license he pays a one-time fee for a specific use of the image. The important word here is “specific.” The buyer has to specify where, when and for how long he is going to use the image. Should he decide to use the same image again for another use later, he will have to buy another license.

The buyer determines the specific terms of the rights-managed license. For example, he may want to use the image exclusively for 12 months in North America. That means that the photographer cannot sell another license to the same photo to a different buyer who wants to use the photo in North America during those 12 months. (He can sell other licenses after the 12 months are over. He can also sell a license for usage in, say, Australia during the 12 month).

The main reason why buyers sometimes want to buy rights-managed licenses is because they want to make sure that the image they buy a license for doesn’t show up all over the place because other buyers (including competitors) have bought a license to the image as well.

What is a royalty-free license? When a buyer purchases a royalty-free license she pays a one-time fee and can use the image for as many projects as she wants and doesn’t have to tell the photographer what she is using the image for. At the same time the photographer can sell licenses to that same image over and over again to as many other buyers as he wants and when he wants. The buyers don’t know where and how the image has been used by other buyers.

Rights-managed versus royalty-free from a blogger’s standpoint: In my view, the only licensing type that makes sense to sell for a blogger is royalty-free. A photo that has been published on a blog has most likely been shared on social media sites and other aggregator sites, such as Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, etc., with or without the photographer’s knowledge. That makes it impractical to sell a rights-managed license (unless the buyer doesn’t request any restrictions on the usage of the photo). That is one of the reasons why I offer all my photos for royalty-free licensing only.      

What is a stock photo agency? A stock photo agency is a company that licenses photos to buyers. The agency has contracts with many photographers, who submit their photos to the agency. The agency handles all transactions, does all the marketing and advertising and in returns keeps a percentage of each sale.

There are a number of stock photo agencies out there, targeting everything from low-budget to high-end markets. If you want to check them out, here are a few examples of some well-known stock photo agencies (I have contracts with some of them):

How do I get a contract with a stock photo agency? To get a contract with a stock photo agency simply look up the application process for the agency you want to work with and apply. The application generally involves sending a link to a portfolio and submitting a few high-resolution sample images. 



  1. Mary says:

    Thanks for the great article Nicole! Stock photography is something I hadn’t really considered because it seemed a bit intimidating. If you work with an agency, do you create unique content or submit blog images already on your site?

    • Nicole B. says:

      You’re very welcome, Mary! I do both, I submit my blog images and in addition to that I create non-blog food photos and submit those as well.

  2. Tara | Smells Like Home says:

    Thank you for posting this! I’ve been considering doing this recently so it’s nice to have the terms explained in plain English. Do you have any experience with or have you heard anything about the Flickr stock photo platform that came about in the past year?

  3. Noha @Matters of the Belly says:

    Nicole! Thank you so much for this great breakdown, seems so much simpler now!
    I do however have a question that is confusing me a little. When i looked at some of these stock agencies, i noticed how vastly they can differ in price! For example a site like offset sells photo licenses for $250-500 per photo, whereas shutterstock can be as little as a dollar! How do we decide which way to go? And it doesnt make sense to sell the same photo on both because why would anyone buy the license for $250 when they can do it for $2? Or am i missing something?

    • Nicole B. says:

      Yup, the differences in price are enormous and different agencies target different markets. The contracts also differ from agency to agency and some put certain restrictions on whether you can or cannot sell the photos elsewhere or at what price point. As for deciding which way to go, I’d suggest taking a close look at the photos you see on each agency you are interested in and see where your photos would be a good fit.

  4. Janie says:

    Brilliant post, thank you for sharing! I’ve been looking at joining a handful of stock sites, and I appreciate the time commitment necessary to build up a big enough portfolio with any one agency to see a return. Do you have any thoughts on which ones to join as a starting place?
    Janie x

    • Nicole B. says:

      You’re very welcome, Janie. You are absolutely right, it takes time and effort to build up big enough portfolios to make an income, it’s very similar to a blog really. :) It’s hard for me to say which agencies would be best join for someone because it’s different for everyone.

  5. Victoria says:

    Thank you for this post! I have thought about getting into stock photography, but I wonder if I’ll feel weird having my blog pictures show up on someone else’s blog or website. Do you find this to be a problem?

  6. Ben G says:

    Very interesting read. My first thought is wondering how lucrative is the stock photography business? Obviously it would depend on your photography skills, but if you are decent photographer can you make a decent monthly income from it, or is it completely hit or miss?

    • Nicole B. says:

      Hi Ben, yeah, it depends on the quality and quantity of your images and timing also has a lot to do with it. I got in at a time when it was still fairly easy to get established and make good money. Getting started is certainly much harder now as the stock libraries have grown tremendously. In that respect it’s quite similar to food blogging.

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