Thirty keys to stock photography

Well, I asked for it. Ten years ago I suggested on one of Alamy‘s forums that stock photography was nothing like art, photo club or personal photography. You might have pictures which have won contests, pictures good enough for a friend or two to have asked for prints and still have them on the wall. You might have pictures from a decade or two during which you have happened on some wonderful sunsets or visited great places at just the right time.

But you might not have anything which would work in the stock image market for unreleased editorial or released royalty-free, the two big volume markets which exist.

Why do I say these are the two volume markets? Two important stock image sites say it for me. One is represented by iStockphoto and Shutterstock, the main repositories for royalty-free images at very low prices. The other is Alamy, arguably the main source for unreleased editorial and illustrative images.

Royalty-free pictures are not an intrinsic evil. In fact, for the most part the term is not accurate as the images are licensed under a set of rules which make it very clear you are not free to do what you want with them. Their uses are fairly restricted and that’s why iStockphoto offers extended licences. It would be more accurate to term the genre hassle-free; no print runs, no date or time limits, no size constraints other than the size of the digital file you get.

What has been an intrinsic evil is the association of RF with tiny fees, dollar downloads, cent payments. It would be a cut-throat business, but the photographers supplying it arrive with their throats already cut, all the site owners have to do is hang ’em up to bleed into the corporate bucket.

Alamy also offers Royalty-Free, but as statistics over the years have shown, it’s at far higher prices than typical Rights Managed usage. Just as with iStockphoto, you can only designate an image for RF sales if you have valid model releases for any human components appearing in the image, and/or property releases for any identifiable branded or privately owned element. Unreleased images, and that means nearly every picture everyone has ever taken in their pre-stock existence including their own family snaps and self-portraits, must be restricted to licenses which are appropriate. However, Alamy does not require you to upload the release with the image as it once did – you can now simply say you have one, and can provide it if asked.

That means they are not going to earn thousands as key images in a major international advertising campaign. Nor, as we know, are those iStock RF images despite having all the releases in place. They will earn the same few tens of dollars for a large file whether it’s projected on to the surface of the Moon by laser or used to liven up an invitation to your mum’s 100th birthday party.