Where to Place Your Agency Images: Royalty Free or Rights Managed?

Should your photography be placed as Royalty Free or Rights Managed when submitted to an agency? This is a tough question for many working outdoor and nature photographers. Where are you going to make the most money is the primary consideration.

The question is not an easy one to answer, but if you have looked at your work and compared it to similar imagery in both these licensing models, you will gain a better understanding on where your work might do best. The first thing to understand is the difference between licensing models and then you can determine where to place your work.

When a photographer negotiates a fee and license’s an images usage they are managing the rights granted for those image uses. If they continue to license it and receive fees for each additional usage from the same client, they are managing the rights of the usage and being paid for those uses. This is Rights Managed: the photographer receives a fee every time the images are used. 

Royalty Free (RF) grants the buyer unlimited use for one fee. The client can then use the image any way and anywhere and anytime they choose without further compensating the photographer. This is also where Microstock fits in; an RF model that grants unlimited use and this model is also the lowest price per download.

Which one would you prefer? Most would answer that they would prefer to be paid every time the images used but this has become increasingly difficult with the dominance of royalty-free and now Microstock. It has become a matter of market economics.

In the Olden Days

The question used to be:  “When a client can buy a photo for $99 and use it as they wish and forever, why would they want to pay you $200 and then pay again every time they wish to use the image?” Today, in some cases, the question now is “Why pay $99 when clients can find images for $1 or $5 or $10?”

I don’t sell as Microstock, but I do place average images in my agencies RF collection where prices run from $29 for a low resolution to $149.00 for a high resolution. I also will move a RM image that has been on file for years and may not be performing well or anymore and move them to RF.

Outdoor and nature photographers in many cases spend a lot to produce their product considering travel expenses and such. So that makes it important to consider not so much how you want to make money but how you can make money.

If you are new to selling your work you may be inclined to look to make any sale no matter the profit, just to make a sale, any sale. This is understandable since you are getting started. The experienced photographer is going to know where an image will do better because of attention paid to what’s going on in the industry, current trends and issues, and know their area of specialty.

The problems associated with deciding between RF and RM don’t come solely from the photographers. If you submitted your work to several agents you may find one that thinks image ‘A’ is RM while the other agent thinks image ‘A’ is an RF image. They both may be right but it shows the lack of standards and differences of opinions and makes the decision difficult.

More money will be made per sale in RM, but more actual sales may be made in RF or MS. If you decide everything you sell will be RM through your agent there will be no guarantee of success. An RM image today needs to have the quality and characteristics to earn the right so to speak, to be an RM image.  They have unique qualities such as difficulty to obtain, conceptually unique, or images that are one-of-a-kind. In fact, today, my most successful RM images have all the ingredients of being one-of-a-kind and that’s the criteria I use to establish whether an image should be RF or RM. It’s not an absolute rule, but is closely followed.

Rights Managed or Royalty Free?

Do a serious evaluation of your work. Does much of it have those one-of-a-kind characteristics or are many of your shots similar to what other photographers also shoot? Take El Capitan, Delicate Arch, Zabriskie Point. Everybody has shot those locations.

A search on Getty for ‘Delicate Arch RF’ turns up 67 average looking shots. A second search for Delicate Arch RM brings up over 90 results. Of these, most looked quite similar to the RF versions, meaning nothing substantially differentiates them creatively or uniquely from the RF versions. There were a few cool shots but generally they look a lot like the RF.

Are yours shot taken on average days in average conditions? If they are then what’s available on the RF sites may be considerable competition for your images. If your work is unique in any way then RM may be the best earning path.

Obviously nobody knows your business better than you, so if your stock agency is already selling your unique images and your average ones as RM and doing well, then there is nothing to consider. On the other hand if you are not selling enough work through your agent then you may want to consider your approach in determining the license model on an image by image basis. If you decide to place images in RF then place them where the return is enough to pay your costs. And finally, your agency may also tell you where they are willing to represent your work and this at least provides some guidance that you an agree to or not.

Here is how I determined my licensing model on these images. You might have done it differently and if so please leave a comment:

photo photoghraph photography cracked mud nature

Placed in Royalty Free

I have a thing for cracked mud, but I am not the first to shoot it of course. There is nothing unique or rare nor a big demand, so RF it is at my agency.

photo photoghraph photography eroded mud nature

Placed in Rights Managed

More unique for sure, although there is someone out there with something similar. I’ll take my chances and place this in RM.

photo photoghraph photography aspens fall color colorado nature

Royalty Free

Colorado in the fall. Pretty average image.

photo photoghraph photography aspens fall color colorado nature

Colorado San Juan Mountains

Much more unique and possibly one-of-a-kind. RM definitely.

photo photoghraph photography cracked mud california death valley nature

Royalty Free

More cracked mud. We have all seen it large in a foreground. I have also had this image in the files for 15 years and it’s tmie to move it to RF.

photo photoghraph photography aspens fall color colorado nature

Rights Managed

Definitely more unique so RM it is.

photo photoghraph photography aspens fall color mountain biking california

Royalty Free

This image is 6 years old and outdated due to the jackets they are wearing so over to RF.

photo photoghraph photography aspens fall color mountain biking hood river oregon

Rights Managed

However this image does not have an issue with outdated apparel and is great action so it will stay in RM for some time.

To aid in determining the best place to fit your work into your agencies collection, spend some time looking at the work on the site that is similar to yours. Evaluate how competitors work is placed and then make the best decision you can, for your sales and your business.

Have an opinion here? Please leave a comment.

Related Posts: I tried, But I Just Cant Get Microstock Numbers to Crunch

Good Book:

stock photography selling marketing

Digital Stock Photography