How to sell food images to photo stock libraries
On the surface, selling stock images seems like an attractive, quick and easy way to make an extra few bucks. Who hasn’t thought of digging through their backup system, uploading a few images and making a bit of regular extra cash. Can it really be that easy?
Photography is a very competitive industry, with high overheads and inconsistent workflow. As a result, photographers are often looking for other revenue sources.
Where do you start?
The most important thing to comprehend is that selling stock images is like every other business venture you might set out to conquer. It takes preparation, effort, consistency and longevity to make your mark. Despite what many hope, this process is not a small-effort with high-return scenario. Forget the idea of grabbing the dregs from your dusty hard disk at the back of a cupboard — batch uploading to a few stock sites — and watching the $s roll in. If you want to make money from this, it will take strategy, time and effort (lots of effort!).
Why it’s so hard
There are literally billions of photographs online. Everyone (and their dog) who has purchased a camera, of any description, consider themselves a breath away from being a professional photographer. Even a mediocre photographer will score a lucky shot on auto-mode with the right lighting, moment and filter. To stand out in the crowd, even as a talented and experienced professional is hard.
There are sooooo many food photographs in stock libraries. Hot tip: selling food images that include people is slightly easier because it’s a lot more hassle shooting images that include people, so there are less of them to compete with.
Will you make money selling your images to stock libraries?
The short (slightly cynical, but likely realistic) answer is probably not. This is, not unless you’re willing to put in countless hours, thousands of images and significant effort.
Initially, you will spend a large number of hours producing, editing and curating your images. Even if you only submit images that are already edited, you still have to go through the process of signing up for the stock libraries that you would like to submit to. Next, you have to write all the descriptors and metadata for your images, without which your images will never show up in a search. Finally, you have to size and upload the images.
So let’s say everything goes to plan. You only spend five hours on effort (post-shoot) and you successfully upload 100 images. Two months later you decide to check the stats. You might discover that a couple of your images have been licensed by a few people in far-flung locations, which is exciting. Until you see the bottom line.
Those images might have been licensed as part of a package, or for online use only, or as part of a discount day. You discover that you’ve actually made $7.30 from the combined transactions (hypothetical figure only). Suddenly you realise that you will only receive payment when your earnings balance reaches US$100. Then, you might start to feel resentful that Aisha in Kazakhstan (fictitious example), who has 2m followers is using your image on her trending blog post — reaping the full benefit — while you receive no credit and a paltry $0.17c as a reward, that you can’t even cash-in until you reach US$100!
That is the grim reality for most people who submit their images to stock libraries. The libraries are the ones making the money, not the photographers.
Having said that, there are the rock stars.
How do they make money?
Well, they are 110% focused and extremely strategic. First, they look for the niches with high search rates and low image availability. This involves a lot of research. For example, Instant Pot cooking is enjoying a massive interest, particularly in the US at the time of writing. There are however, very limited examples of Instant Pot images available in stock libraries.
For shots with a human element, they have sourced a willing group of volunteers to act as their unpaid (or low-paid) models.
They produce images that will be topical at specific times of the year, e.g. ‘Christmas flat-lay images’. PLUS they will add a unique, contemporary twist or technique to make their images stand out from the crowd.
They upload thousands of shots. All of those shots are carefully curated, meticulously planned, beautifully lit, thoughtfully composed and expertly retouched. To make a return it’s a numbers game, so the more you upload, the more likely it is that you'll make money.
They upload shots that they don’t think will be successful, along with those that they have high hopes for. It’s amazing what can become a trending image.
They have developed their own style over time, through trial and error and niched in a genre that they excel in. (e.g. food!)
They watch for topical trends and subjects to start appearing on social media before they even hit general media. For example, fermented foods are currently a trending topic, but there are limited high-quality stock images available at the time of writing.
Upcoming major events that will likely get global attention are always worthy of imaging. Think of the Olympic Games for example, throw a few flags together and food imagery relevant to the country hosting the games and you could have a trending shot.
These are very basic examples to illustrate the concept. With practice and over time, good stock photographers may even start to pre-empt upcoming trends.
They are in it for the long haul and don’t expect financial reward overnight. They chip away month after month, year after year, honing their craft and responding to the feedback they receive from the stock libraries.
They submit new images to every shout-out that the stock libraries issue.
What you need to prepare before submitting your images
So if you’re still feeling compelled to jump in, what do you need to actually get your shots online?
Well-exposed, beautifully composed images (sometimes when I see what has been accepted by some stock libraries I wonder if this is still a requirement!)
The shot needs to have a clear area of sharp focus, no visible over-sharpening or over-smoothing, any chromatic aberrations fixed, any dust spots removed. Realistic colour balance (step away from the saturation tool!) Beautiful lighting. Preferably story-telling or evocative/emotive subject matter. No over-compression in the jpg (which will downgrade the quality of the file) and preferably originally shot in RAW format.
No visible logos in the shot
This requirement is becoming increasingly difficult to navigate in our over-saturated world of advertising. This includes packaging, implements, napkins, baking tray logos, cutlery etc (#flat-lay nightmare!). Watch out for any markings on any props you might use to accessorise your shot. You can remove them in post-production of course, but you have to do a convincing job.
A descriptive descriptor
It is important to understand that when someone is searching for an image, your shot is in competition with millions of others. The images that have the best search engine friendly metadata are much more likely to make it to the top of the pile. Your descriptor should express as much of the who, what, when, where, how and why of the scene as possible. You should spend plenty of time researching appropriate keywords to link with your images also.
A signed model release form
If you have a person in your shot and you can’t supply a model release form you can’t sell your image. If you falsify a model release form, it is legally considered fraud. Shots that have been taken in a public space that feature people that you don’t know, that you don’t have model release forms from, can still be sold to some photo libraries, but only under an ‘editorial’ license. (see below for licensing).
A signed location release form
This requirement is often overlooked but again it is a non-negotiable. If your location is recognisable, you need a location release form. This is often less of a problem for food photography, but an important consideration for most other genres. Even if the setting is your friend's house, you still need your friend to sign the form so you can supply it to the stock library. Public locations might also require a location release form. It is illegal to photograph many public properties for commercial gain without a permit (and a permit is usually accompanied by a hefty fee). For example, the Opera House in Sydney is quite actively (and sometimes aggressively) policed by guards to dissuade photographers from taking commercial shots. Forget about selling that shot of your coffee & croissant with the Opera House blurred out in the background!
Even your local beach might require a permit for you to produce a commercial shot there. You will also likely need public liability insurance to be permitted to take the shots. Check with your local council for rules/regulations.
Be prepared for rejection
Even if you are a very experienced and talented photographer, you may still have images rejected. There are a variety of criteria that libraries use to select images, and they don’t often share the exact criteria. They do however generally share solid guidelines which you should read carefully. Even if you are rejected, don’t take it as a reflection on your ability. It might just be the case that the image didn’t fit their particular criteria at that time (maybe they just received too many images of vegan breakfasts that week!). If you find rejection hard, it might be better to join the kind of library that is known for being more disclosive about their reason for rejection.
If you don’t live in the U.S. be prepared to fill out tax forms
The US has tax treaties with many countries around the world. If you are based in a different geographical territory and you are selling to a US company (which a large proportion of the stock libraries are), they are required to withhold 30% of your payment to give to their tax office (known as the IRS). To avoid this heavy hit you need to supply a completed US tax form which confirms your residency in a country with a tax treaty. Even then, don’t expect the full amount. In Australia, depending on the type of financial transaction, they will still withhold between 5-15% of the payment. Usually, 5% applies to image license fees. Then, you still have to pay tax in Australia on the payment also. (article continued below)
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Which stock libraries accept image submissions?
Almost all of them.
There are countless stock libraries, but here is a synopsis of the ones that I am personally aware of and what I know about them. (Please feel free to comment if I have made any errors or missed an amazing library that you know about…)
Getty images are a giant stock library with who have been in the business of swallowing up other smaller stock libraries for a while to become even more gigantic. At one stage Getty was perceived as a very high-quality premium library, but over the years this perception has reduced. They still have amazing high-quality images in their library, but there are also lower quality images available for sale now also. Their price points have also reduced considerably.
Getty seems to have dropped the bar somewhat since they acquired iStock. Prior to the acquisition, iStock were snapping on Getty's heels because they were presenting as a much cheaper alternative.
You still have to apply to join their library and certainly, not everyone will be accepted. Your application is automatically reviewed for use by either Getty or iStock, so it increases your chances of being accepted. Don’t expect to bolster your retirement fund with either outcome though.
Getty also has an arrangement with Flickr, which is a self-described image hosting service, generally populated by amateur photographers. Getty’s agreement allows them to scour the library for images that they like and invite owners to sell them via their channels. Most Flickr users are so excited to receive such an invitation that they sign up without much further consideration. Flickr users can also proactively opt to offer their images for sale via the Getty agreement.
Getty has a dubious ethical history. Ever hear the one about the professional photographer who generously donated her portfolio of images to a library for public domain use, only to find them for sale on Getty. She subsequently received a letter threatening her for using ‘their’ licensed images…
Shutterstock are also a very large stock library. Again you can submit your images for review. If you are accepted you will be allocated an account and you can start uploading. Some contributors consider that Shutterstock offers quite good feedback when images are not accepted. When you’ve licked your ego-wounds better, this could be considered valuable support to hone your skills and improve.
Adobe joined the stock library party relatively recently. They offer the technical advantage of being able to submit your images to your account directly through Adobe Lightroom. Similar to the previous two libraries, a sale can often result in only a matter of cents.
Alamy seems to have a more ethical approach than some of their other counterparts. The % they offer is higher than most libraries. They don’t demand exclusivity (more about this below), and they donate a portion of their profits to charity. It is apparently difficult to have your application accepted by Alamy.
Stocksy is a refreshingly different type of stock library. They have a co-operative business structure, and all their contributors have a voting right as well as a dividend share in profits. Additionally, they offer a good % licensing fee in comparison to many of the other sites. Becoming a contributor is hard. They haven't been accepting new contributors for the past two years. An invitation to submit work for contributor consideration is currently open at the time of writing. Their library is carefully curated, so even if you do get accepted as a contributor, you will still have to work hard to get your images accepted also. They also require exclusivity. If you want to sell your images to a stock library, ethically this one would be top of the list for me.
I came across Stockfood by accident when I was researching for this article. I am shocked that I wasn’t aware of it previously. It is a specialist stock library for food photography and it has actually been around since 1979 and the company was founded in Germany. In addition to images, they also manage food editorial feature articles, which is pretty exciting. Joining the library is by invitation only but you can send samples of your work for consideration by email.
No article about stock libraries would be complete without something about Unsplash. Unsplash’s founders had the innovative idea of convincing people that sharing their images for free, for commercial use, is a great idea. Somehow an enormous number of people have been duped by this outrageous concept.
Reading some of the sobering accounts from people who have shared their images for free, is quite saddening to me. Sometimes they have discovered people in other countries profiting from the sale of their images. Oftentimes big corporations are using their images without any remuneration, or credit. It appears that Unsplash is in the business of profiting from exploiting gullible contributors. Once you submit images, you can't unsubmit them. Having said that, I did also receive positive feedback from one prominent food photographer. She said that for her Unsplash is a great source of traffic to her website and it has also brought her paid work. However, from all I have researched I have to conclude that her experience is in a tiny minority. (I'm very interested to hear positive Unsplash stories if you have one… and you’re not a founder…)
Earlier this year (2018) Unsplash secured a 2nd round of funding “to help fuel their vision for a new economic model around photography”, from a company involved in Blockchain technology. They don’t say exactly what this economic model will be but they do say “It won’t be a model where photos are going to be paid for with cryptocurrency. It will be a model that leverages the unprecedented distribution Unsplash photos gain to bring as many opportunities to contributors as possible while maintaining the open, free-to-use principles of the community.” To me, reading between the lines that say, “we still don’t plan to pay you in any way, instead we want to profit even further from brainwashing you into thinking that other people ‘liking’ and downloading your images for free somehow offers you some currency in popularity”.
In our ever increasing culture of vanity kudos, I’m sure many more will continue to be duped into contributing.
This is by no means the definitive guide to licensing. To get the full scoop you need to research further. Licensing is actually a very complex legal area. This is just an overview and should definitely not be considered as a legal guideline.
Licenses you award to the stock libraries
When you agree to share your images with a stock library, you will sign a contract giving them certain rights to your work;
A non-exclusive arrangement means that you will also potentially sell your images via other stock libraries also. Only certain stock libraries offer this flexibility.
You will only offer your images for sale via the website that you have agreed to this license arrangement with for an agreed period of time. This usually means you can’t sell them directly from your own website either.
Licenses stock libraries award to their customers
Rights-managed means that the stock library will negotiate with a potential purchaser for the specific use they have in mind for an image. For example, if a buyer would like to display the image at a small size, on a website, for 6 months that would be a lot less expensive than if they would like to print say, a full page in a magazine with a print-run of 100,000 copies.
A royalty-free license means that the purchaser can use the image however they like without an extra fee, and as many times as they like for the same brand. So they could display it on a website, in a full page magazine ad, in a brochure, and on a poster — all for the initial fee — with no restriction on duration or geographical area. Usually however, if the buyer would like to receive direct monetary gain from an image, e.g. printing on anything for resale, like a t-shirt, they would usually need to pay for an extended license.
An extended license
As above plus, this license usually sets out terms for a royalty for any income that occurs as a direct result from the use of the image. For example, x% per unit for 500 t-shirts printed. X% per unit for 1000 calendars printed, or a flat fee of $xxx for 500 t-shirts printed, etc.
Editorial usage only
If you have people in your photograph that you don’t know, and you don’t have a model release form from them, BUT it was taken in a public location, your image can be offered for sale for editorial use only. This also applies to locations that you don’t have a release form for. This means that the image can be used to illustrate newsworthy and current events in a newspaper or magazine article or in educational material.
Creative Commons licenses allow creators to voluntarily share their images on flexible terms that might not include any financial return. There are 6 different derivatives of Creative Commons licenses. From just requiring a credit in exchange for the usage, to allowing only non-commercial usage, etc. There are a range of options that can be selected.
Selling your copyright
I would suggest avoiding this scenario if at all possible. For starters, if you do decide to sell your copyright, make sure that you are being paid a reasonable premium for the exchange. If you sell your copyright, you are giving up the right to display your image in your portfolio, unless the new copyright owner agrees in writing. Licensing is a bit like renting your house out, whereas selling copyright is like selling your house, forever.
Important note: In Australia (and many other countries) if you are shooting for ‘domestic’ purposes, e.g. weddings, personal portraits for non-business use, baby/pregnancy images etc. the person you are photographing is automatically the copyright owner and you need their permission to reproduce their image in your portfolio.
If you are shooting for commercial purposes, ie. anything business related, you are automatically the owner of the copyright and have full rights to share those images in your portfolio. Having said that, ethically you would never share your images before the customer has released them publically first. (or you won’t be in business for long!)
A special 'thank you' to Emma Dawson at The Food Blogging Collective for suggesting that I write an article on this topic.
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Hi I'm Fran, a professional photographer and designer based on the Gold Coast in Australia. I’m a lifelong creative, passionate about producing drool-worthy images that provoke emotion and make you hungry!
My obsession is teaching others how to achieve the satisfaction of realising their creative vision too. I also love to produce high quality visual books (especially cook books) for my clients.