Pricing stock photography: Commercial and editorial use

One of my images being used to promote a product in a trade magazine, which I achieved after a successful negotiation with Mountain Equipment’s Marketing Manager.

One of my images being used to promote a product in a trade magazine, which I achieved after a successful negotiation with Mountain Equipment’s Marketing Manager.

I’m currently negotiating a price for the commercial use of a series of images I’ve captured, which a UK company wishes to use for advertising purposes on a new website they’re designing. The difficulties I’m finding these days as a photographer is securing what I feel is a fair price for my images in an industry that, by and large (in a world of micro-stock, good-quality cameras, apps such as Instagram and a world that likes to share) is perilously close to the bottom in regards to the price of stock photography. I thought therefore I’d share the process I go through when a client asks me to provide them with a price for an image and what steps I take to secure what I feel is a fair price for the intended use.

Why do I care about intended use? In the photography business, photographers license the use of images to clients rather than sell images outright so they retain the rights to the image for future use. The car rental business is a common analogy, where, if you place yourself in role as the client, you’re hiring a car for a specific use for a specific period of time and the price you pay is appropriate to your usage. To add some complexity to the car analogy, there’s also the value of the photograph to you and how valuable it is to the client, plus how unique your image is (e.g. can your client easily get similar images elsewhere?). As a photographer, it’s important to understand these things and be diligent to ensure the payment you receive for your photographs is an accurate reflection of the usage you provide. There’s many considerations when it comes to licensing images and it’s really not so simple when you factor in there’s no agreed list of prices online that you can refer to for specific usage (such as those communicated online by a car hire firm). I often wish photographers were more open about the prices they receive (or charge) so we can do more as photographers to ensure as an industry that we’re being rewarded appropriately for what is, by and large, a very expensive occupation to have. (As an example, view my photography gear list).

1.) Pricing images for editorial use

The first thing I’ll do when I receive a request for use of an image by a client is to check the purpose. Is the usage going to be editorial reasons (such as a magazine) or for commercial use (e.g. for advertising purposes)?

If a client wishes to use my photography for editorial purposes, my next step is always to ask what they plan to do with the image (e.g. illustrate a cover, fill a double-page spread. use it in a table of contents, etc.). More often than not, the Editor or Art Director will also share the price that they’re willing to pay for that use (the common field of play in the markets I operate being the magazine sets the rates for editorial use rather than the photographer). In 2019, I find there’s little point negotiating this price unless my image is very unique but I’m not afraid to walk away if I think the value is too low (nor do I shy away from requesting additional fees if there is a creative writing to be delivered on top of the photography, e.g. above and beyond a standard caption). My main thought process is, am I happy with the price that’s being offered (see the accepting reduced rates section below) and what usage license will I offer in return.

When is editorial use not editorial use?

Editorial use I class as use by a magazine, newspaper or trade publication that’s purely for consumers’ information only, either for knowledge or entertainment. Editorial use by a company where the goal of the editorial piece is to help them sell products (e.g. on a blog) I something I'd class as commercial use.

(This is not always black and white. On one occasion, I had a puzzle. An editorial magazine wanted to use my image but the page they would use it on was being used to selling products for companies who had paid for advertising space. Is that commercial or editorial use? I decided it was editorial as I had no corporate client to bill the work to. It’s a tricky job pricing stock photography).


Don't be afraid to query rates. A returning client in 2019 offered me a specific amount for a double-page spread in their magazine, at a rate three figures lower then their previous commission. When I checked, politely, if that was due to falling advertising revenue, I received a reply saying that it was their mistake and I should bill for the higher figure.


2.) Pricing images for commercial use

The two types of commercial use licenses commonly offered by photographers are Royalty Free and Rights Managed. Both types of licenses have pros and cons and, depending on my client, one license may be more suitable for them than the other.

Royalty Free - A Royalty Free license is a license clients can purchase which provides them with the permission to use an image in perpetuity, in any fashion they choose, print or digital. In other words, I’m giving a copy of that image to my client along with a license that says they own that copy from then on (important - just the copy, not the copyright) and they can use the image how they wish without having to pay me any more money in the future. Royalty Free is a common license I’ll be asked to provide by clients working for smaller or medium-sized companies as most of these companies don't set aside the bigger budgets (or have a need) to pay for the exclusive use that is often offered under a Rights Managed license (see below). The advantage to me as a photographer in terms of Royalty Free licenses is that these are generally licensed for non-exclusive use and I can continue to license the image to other clients for the duration of any existing contracts (plus the transactions are fairly quick as there's no complex negotiation required).

Rights Managed - Images offered on a Rights Managed basis enable photographers to retain more control about how their images are used by a client, plus they give us the ability to re-license images once an initial contract has ended if our clients wish continued use outside the terms that have been agreed. I’ll grant a license for a specific use of a photograph, which I’ve agreed during negotiations with the client, giving them full permission to do what they want with the image but only within the parameters of that specific use. They only pay for what they need, which suggests the value I derive from those images is completely linked to the client’s use. Or is it?

3.) What price to charge for an image license?

The answer? Only you will know. If a client shares how they’re going to use your image but asks you what your price is, they’re putting you slightly more in the driving seat. On such occasions, the internet is your friend. Stock photography websites such as Getty Images share their prices online and you can establish what they charge their clients for editorial use. (I have in the past compared a few different stock agencies and calculated an average price but I’d caution against this as their prices can vary dramatically). I prefer to choose a single stock agency that I’m happy to use as a benchmark and revisit it regularly to see how their prices are changing. I also research rate cards to see if I can find out what magazines and newspapers are charging clients to purchase advertising space in their magazines and conduct lots of research before I provide clients with a quote (including asking other photographers what they charge and whether they feel the price I am proposing is undercutting the market). My primary goal is to arm myself with enough knowledge so I can make sensible decisions as to how to run my business (and please my clients) but in a way that doesn’t harm me or other photographers.

The general approach I take to agree a price is to;

  • Decide how unique my image is

  • Define how much it means to me

  • How much it means to my client

  • What the client’s budget is

  • Intended use?

  • Duration of use?

  • Exclusive or non-exclusive use?

  • Consider any price being offered against research I’ve conducted

  • Decide if the rate is appropriate for me

  • Decide my own price

  • Negotiate if appropriate

  • Share the image plus the usage license (including terms and conditions)

  • Finalise and close

Why would you choose to accept a reduced rate?

Sometimes, a magazine or corporate client will offer you a rate that is not comparable with the value you've placed on your image. You can negotiate, walk away or, alternatively, decide to accept that rate if you feel you’re going to gain in a different way. Chase Jarvis, an American photographer and creative entrepreneur has some good advice that I regularly refer to, about only accepting work when two out of three criteria have been satisfied. It’s based on commissioned work but the principles I think are good to keep in mind and can be easily adjusted for stock photography, by changing them to what’s important to you. It’s guidance I value and which helps me makes me feel that I’m making my business decisions for the right reasons.

Licensing images at reduced rates can harm yourself plus other photographers by making it easier for the market to drive the price down. It’s tempting to take what money you can get (accepting that clients have limited budgets) but your photography has a value (and if clients are approaching you, they value it too). My recommendation would be you establish a price that reflects the value of your photography and don’t accept reduced rates without negotiating as hard (but politely) as possible to ensure you’re getting something from the contract that is of sufficient value to you.

4.) Protecting yourself with image licensing contracts

It’s surprising to me how many photographers I know commission photo shoots or license images with little regards for personal or business risk management. For each and every usage license I provide a client, I protect both myself and my client by ensuring my invoice contains clear instructions on the terms of the license (including the duration of use and any restrictions) plus a copy of my terms and conditions, which outlines, amongst other things, that I retain the copyright and what risks the client is running if they use the image in a non-agreed way.

If you’re looking for a template for your photography terms and conditions, Lisa Pritchard’s excellent book ‘Setting up a Photography Business’ contains the wording I originally used for my terms and conditions, which I modified to suit my needs after consulting with a lawyer. In regards to stock photography, I've established what risks I am open to in regards to clients using my images in a way I’m not aware of (or have not licensed) and I make sure to protect myself (with my client in mind) as far as possible.

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