Money for Nothing?

SO! - you have had your pictures accepted by a picture library / agency, can you now sit back and relax while the money rolls in? Well, in my experience at least, not exactly. Although potentially a useful source of income, there are several quite time-consuming hurdles to get through before your pictures are actually available for sale - at least it is proving quite time consuming for me, but if you have better ways of doing this, please do tell!

I have included a few sample images of pictures that I have had accepted by libraries.

Frost on blackberry leaf (drum scan from Kodakchrome original)

Frost on blackberry leaf (drum scan from Kodakchrome original)


I don't know quite why I am writing this as there seems to be quite enough competition already with thousands - no - millions of fantastic images available for reproduction already with the work of perhaps tens or hundreds of thousands - and maybe millions - of photographers represented in picture libraries around the world. However, as someone who has recently got around to submitting pictures to some libraries, I have learned quite a bit and hope some of this experience may be of interest to others.

However, please note that all that follows (apart from any correspondence added to the end) represents my personal views only and is based on my experience; I accept that this may or may not be typical / representative. Therefore, do not rely on anything herein to determine what course of action you should take. I will resist saying 'You are advised to seek legal advice before relying on any information herein', but you are!

Permission to use, not Copyright

First and foremost it is important to realise that (unscrupulous outfits aside), what is being sold by agencies is the right to use a particular image for a particular use or set of uses, not the copyright in the picture itself - this is retained by you, the photographer. You must check the small print yourself of course, but many libraries also allow you to carry on selling your images directly (and sometimes through other libraries) in addition to the sales they make. But please do check - there can be restrictions and in particular the type of licence can impact on what is allowed; see below.


Naturally, once a proper commercial picture library says "Yes", there is delight at having your images accepted, especially if you have had one or more previous rejections. The intention here is not to reduce that joy in any way, merely to make sure that you are aware of what is needed next so that you can capitalise on your success with the minimum delay.

Poppies growing in a Devon field at dusk (drum scan from Kodakchrome original)

Poppies growing in a Devon field at dusk (drum scan from Kodakchrome original)


Perhaps you have yet successfully submitted any images? If so, what sort of pictures will be of interest? Look around the web at the online catalogues of libraries and you will find that pictures are required of absolutely everything under the sun (and in fact, under, on and beyond the moon!) Technical quality is very important - you must meet exactly whatever technical requirements are specified. This includes (minimum and maximum) size limits, colour space, level of sharpening (often zero permissible), format (TIFF generally - JPEGs, PSD etc are rarely acceptable) and naming conventions (this can be a bit of a pain if your files are named automatically using, for example, underscore or other special characters which are not allowed by some agencies).

Requirements do vary between agencies, so it is worth researching who needs what beforehand so that you don't waste time submitting to an agency that requires, say, a minimum file size of 50MB if you do not feel that your images will stretch to this size successfully.

There is plenty of information available online and in published articles about what sort of images different agencies require, and the aesthetic considerations, although having said that, if you specialise in dull, underexposed, blurred images of (for instance), the contents of London gutters, there is probably going to be an outlet for your work somewhere (and you may have the advantage that, if this turns out to be a lucrative market, you may face little competition from others - at least for a while!)

Storm tree (digital camera original)

Storm tree (digital camera original)

Digital / Analogue?

Is it still possible to submit 'analogue' images - ie film, prints or slides? As of 2005 the answer still seems to be yes, but for a diminishing number of agencies. The vast majority of libraries now expect digital submissions - either from digital capture, or scanned images from transparency, etc.

Although we can all do scanning ourselves and the hardware is getting more and more affordable, I would recommend you use a professional bureau unless you have the time and high standard of equipment to do this properly. This is all more expense of course but the way I look at it is they are the scanning experts while I want to invest my time in photography and marketing my work.

Preparing images for submission

I have found Photoshop (I am currently still using Version 6) to be fine for modest upsizing using the Bicubic method although some libraries recommend the use of other dedicated resampling tools. You need to pay particular attention to any artefacts, moiré patterns, etc appearing (or being exaggerated) by resizing. Some agencies prefer original size image files, even if these are smaller than their normal 'minimum'.

Whether scanned or from digital cameras, you must 'proof read' your digital images to ensure that they are absolutely flawless before submission. Using Photoshop or your tool of choice you must methodically examine the whole of every image (especially edges on scans) and use invisible spotting techniques to remove all evidence of dust on the sensor of a digital camera, dust, hair etc on scanned slide images, scratches or fungus growth on old transparencies, etc. This takes time and has to be done to a very high standard if images are not to be rejected - much higher than one might have done purely to produce an A4 print for one's portfolio.

To actually send images to a library, one usually has to send CDs or DVDs with digital images. Personally, I am not aware of any libraries that allow uploading of images - yet but I am sure this will come - although we are typically dealing with large files of course.

Blue dawn, Ravenglass, Cumbria (drum scan from Kodakchrome original)

Blue dawn, Ravenglass, Cumbria (drum scan from Kodakchrome original)

Licence Types

This is a very confusing area (at least, it confuses me). In brief, there are two main types of licence (license if American) rights being sold by libraries:

  • Traditional - 'per use' rights. This means that an image user purchases each permission to use an image separately. Within this classification there are two variations:
    • Non-exclusive where a buyer pays a licence fee each time they use the image, but another buyer can also purchase and use the image under the same licence
    • Exclusive (or 'Rights Protected') where a buyer obtains exclusive use of an image under the terms of the licence
  • 'Royalty Free' where the buyer pays a one-off fee - they do not have to pay royalties to the image owner for each use of an image


This is another confusing area IMHO with lots of 'must's and 'must not's bandied about but with, it seems to me, little clear guidance other than 'get someone to sign to indemnify you against any use of the image of any person or building or other stuff for any use at all ever'. Well perhaps that overstates it slightly, but all this does start to get heavy when all you wanted to do was have a few photographs available for use in magazines etc.

In keeping with the previous other topic, there are two types of releases that must be considered:

  • Model release for images which depict people
  • Property release for images which show property, landmarks, logos, art and so on ...

You can find suitable sample model and property releases around the web, but note that these are documents open to possible legal scrutiny, so they must be applicable to the law of your country - because of this, you may want to get some official legal advice.

Just to ensure that the lawyers have plenty of earning opportunities, it seems that even when a signed model or property release is available additional considerations may mean that the property release in itself is not sufficient, for example if the picture in which the subject is portrayed is used in connection with a sensitive issue.

Facilities for image contributors

As far as I know, all libraries require keywords to be submitted by the photographer. Some libraries have a separate 'tree' structure which requires manual selection using their online system rather than inclusion of keywords alone.

It is worth checking if your chosen target library is geared up for the whole process involving submission of image details to be carried out online after images have been submitted, or do they need to be keyworded within or alongside the image before submission? Typically in the latter case, data has to be included in the image file as IPTC information (entered with Photoshop or via another tool)

Personally, I prefer online submission of details through the website as this means that if I get myself organised, I can submit a CD of images and then, while the library is uploading the images, I can prepare my captions and keywords ready for immediate updating when the images are available on the site.

I like to add description and keywords in my image database software (Imatch) and then either cut and paste into an online system or into IPTC fields via Photoshop, etc. I am working on an Imatch script to reliably load IPTC data into the right fields within Imatch, but am not yet confident enough to do this! If you have such a system working on Caption and Keyword fields in particular, please get in touch.

By using Imatch in this way, all relevant information is in one place for updating - and if in the future I submit the same picture to another library (or submit pictures with similar keywords to the same or another library), I can simply use the existing data that I have stored.

What about picture buyers?

Facilities for users of libraries vary also - some allow searching online by all comers, others require that someone seeking a particular image submits a request that is then processed for them (presumably by a human with a knowledge of the image database). It is your decision which you think will suit people searching for your sort of picture best.


Thank you for reading this far.

As with any income-generating activity, there may be more to image libraries than meets the eye of a photographer looking to turn some of their intellectual property into a funding stream for their 'habit'! However, it is possible to do - do not let initial rejection deter you; persevere as long as you can look at existing pictures in libraries and say "My pictures are at least as good as those - and different enough to be saleable to the right buyer". Once accepted, take care to do everything the agency requires, choose keywords carefully, and do not delay - the quicker your images are fully searchable and purchasable, the sooner they will start returning on your investment in them.

If you want to comment on (or correct) this article please contact me. I do not currently have an automatic way for you to append comments to the article, but if you indicate whether you are happy for your comment to appear on the site (with or without your email address for contact), I may add it.

The man in the pub, Woolwich, London (digital camera original)

The man in the pub, Woolwich, London (digital camera original)


Last updated: 23 May 2005