Selling via Picture Libraries - Stock Photography

After a discussion on Google + yesterday I thought I might take the time to explain the different ways to sell via picture libraries and the issues of model or property releases. I won't pretend that this is simple because its not, but I will outline some general guidlines as to which way to sell various images.

There are two basic ways to sell. This applies to conventional libraries and now many Microstock libraries.


This is selling an image for a one-off payment. This usually allows unlimited use by the purchaser. With some libraries however royalty-free goes further, in that purchasers are allowed to change the image, combine it with others and pretty much do what they like with it. An image with recognisable faces of people will never be accepted for royalty-free without model releases signed by all the recognisable people in the images.

Images with trade-marks, logos or that include private recognisable property will again not be accepted for royalty-free without property releases, signed by the owner of that trade-mark, logo, property etc. 

However this is somewhat complicated by the fact that different libraries have different criteria as to what kind of file requires a release, and you can only find this out by looking on each libraries website to see what they sell as royalty-free.


Images are sold for a specific purpose only. And a licence is issued. The image can only be used for the purpose agreed between the library and the client. If it is required again, say the following year, a further fee has to be paid. These images, also often described as editorial, can be mostly used without either a model release or a property release, but they usually have to be used in a way that doesn't misrepresent who and what is in the picture. Many libraries also don't allow them to be used for advertising, in that they are used to make the purchaser money. Unfortunately many libraries administer these licences in different ways and have different terms and conditions. Some libraries wil also only accept images for licencing or editorial use if the images haven't been edited or photoshopped in any way. They also require the date, time and place it was taken. Editorial is generally taken to mean images used in books, magazines, newspapers and on information / news websites.

Images can also be sold as licenced or editorial with model and / or property releases and in many cases this proves an advantage.

Some examples.

There is no problem offering this image as royalty-free, no recognisable people or property and I took it on public land. However with certain libraries I can choose to sell this as either royalty-free or licenced.

No library would accept an image like this for royalty-free selling without model and property releases. However many would accept it for licenced selling and /or editorial use.

Things aren't that simple however. The above image has been accepted by some libraries as royalty-free without a model release as they obviously believe it has no recognisable person it in. But some have refused it because they think it does have a recognisable person in it. So its a question of different criteria for different libraries. The image would be accepted as a licenced / editorial image by most libraries.

A house interior shot on private property. Again this will never be accepted for royalty-free without a property release signed by the owner. Plus these days many clients might be reluctant to use it as licenced or editorial without a release as well. 

The above images is another one of these grey areas. Shot from a public road, many libraries would accept this as a royalty-free image without a property release so long as any house number, house name or other identifying feature is removed but some of my libraries would not accept it without a release.

I can't think of a library that would turn this down for licenced / editorial use.

I should also mention the Eiffel Tower situation. The company who light the Eiffel Tower at night are draconian in their pursuit of anyone who publishes an image of what they consider their copyright - the lighting patterns at night. It is now the case that virtually no library will ever accept an images of the tower lit at night without a property release, which of course is impossible for most photographers. This is for royalty free and licenced.

Conditions like this now apply to many other places. In Europe I know this applies to the London Eye, many French chateaus and English stately homes. The National Trust in the UK which looks after historic buildings also refuse to allow images of their properties to be used without permission, though this is softening a bit since they have apparently never taken anyone to court and everyone knows it!!

The situation with licences and royalty-free is therefore quite complex and varies from library to library. If you are planning to contribute to one library only, then its not difficult to find out quite quickly what they will accept for each form of selling. If you contribute to many, as I do then its often a case of send it them and see what they do.

The problem of course is that we are often unable to get a release. Going up to strangers or the owners of property to get them to sign a release is obviously out of the question in many cases. Logos and trademarks though can often be removed in Photoshop and the image below is a "generic" postbox. I've removed everything that identifies it as the Royal Mail in the UK. It can now be sold as a royalty-free image without the need for a property release.

So if you are interested in selling via libraries, you need to know which will suit you. Several microstock libraries are royalty-free only, so there is no opportunity to sell images without releases for licenced / editorial use. If you take images with lots of people and signs etc. in them, then a conventional library like Alamy is probably the better option. Street photography for example can almost never be sold as royalty-free or via most microstock libraries.

Many photographers if they are shooting lifestyle images with people in, start off with family and friends and get them to sign model releases. If they then do well and progress to shooting with models then again releases can be signed. As I've indicated before my house interiors are possible because two members of my family buy old run-down properties, renovate them and sell them on. I take pictures when they are finished and they sign a property release for me.

Just one final story. Yuri Arcurs, pretty much the king of stock and the man who apparently sells over 1,000,000 images a year managed to pull off a shoot at a famous casino and persuade the owners to sign a property release. This is obviously a different world to most of us, but it shows what you have to do these days. There are many who say that photography is becoming bland because of these restrictions and thats possibly true. But if you want to market your work through a library or agency, you have to be aware of what is required. There are still markets for all sorts of work however and its a case of finding what is right for you. Assuming that you want to sell your work in this way that is.

N.B. to see more on the cameras and lenses featured in this post click on the relevant labels (tags and keywords) below.
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