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If you’re looking to turn your photography hobby into photography income, there are a lot of options. However, before you put anything out there for sale, it’s important to understand one important concept.

When you sell a photo, you’re not actually selling the photo.

Let me explain.

When someone pays you money for your photo, they are really just buying the rights to use that photo.

From the moment you click the shutter, you, as the photographer, are the copyright holder of that image. Unless you specifically sell off and let go of that ownership, you’re simply selling a license to use your shot. 

Deciding where and how to sell your photos is really a matter of choosing the way in which you want your photos used. The beauty is, when you put your images out there for sale, you get to set the terms. (If this all seems a bit overwhelming, don’t worry! I’m going to break it down for you.)

The entire stock photography industry is based around this concept—it’s a way to connect photo buyers with images that can be used for their projects.

Let’s look at two common stock photography licensing models to give you an idea of the options out there:

#1. Rights managed 

Under this type of license, a photo buyer purchases the right to use a photo for a specific project or type of use. It could be a book cover, an advertisement, or a website, for instance.

Rights managed licenses will spell out the particulars of where the photo will be used, for how long, and the intended audience.

For this type of license, the buyer often pays a higher rate, especially if they want exclusive use of the photo for a period of time.  

Rights managed fees tend to be higher, sometimes reaching hundreds or even thousands of dollars depending on the usage.

#2. Royalty Free

With this model, a photo buyer pays a one-time licensing fee in exchange for the right to use the photo indefinitely for a range of present and future uses.

The genre of stock photography known as “microstock” is where this type of license usually comes into play. The buyer picks out an image from a stock photo site and pays a relatively small fee to use the image under a broad license.

Royalty amounts vary a lot when it comes to stock. To give you an idea, I have made anywhere from $0.25 to $40 per image with microstock sales. The amount depends on the particular agency and the size of the image sold.

The idea with microstock is that even though each individual sale amount is small, it’s made up for with quantity. It’s not uncommon for popular photos to sell hundreds or even thousands of times.

What is the best model to choose as a photographer?

It really comes down to whether you want to tightly control the use of your photos by managing the rights you sell, or whether you’re ok with putting them into wide distribution through microstock.

Either path can be successful. Rights managed photos tend not to sell as frequently, but you’ll get a higher fee when they do sell. Royalty free (microstock) is all about a high volume of small sales.

If you’re just starting out, you’ll find that the royalty free market is easier to break into. Sites like Shutterstock, AdobeStock, iStock, and Bigstock make it easy to apply as a contributor and begin building a portfolio right away.

Selling rights managed photos through more traditional agencies such as Getty can be tougher to break into and typically has a longer and more in-depth application process. However, if you’re an established photographer with a solid portfolio, this could be a great option.

Although licensing jargon such as royalty free and rights managed can sound intimidating, it really is just two different approaches to making income from your photos. 

And understanding the basics of photo licensing is the first step in choosing which route to follow as you go down the road of selling your photos.

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[Editor’s Note: Learn more about how you can fund your travels and make an extra income with photography, travel writing, blogging, and more in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.  Sign up here today and we’ll send you a new report, Five Fun Ways To Get Paid To TravelA Quick-Start Guide, completely FREE.]

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