The Stock Photography Guide for EyeEm Photographers


A few weeks ago, I have written a short Contributor Guide on the EyeEm Market and how to use it as photographer. Since there are lots of photographers on EyeEm who have no experience in selling licenses to their images, I thought it might be a good idea to add some more details to the legal and business aspects of this business.

Typical use of stock images: Concepts for advertising

Typical use of stock images: Concepts for advertising

Who will be buying your images on EyeEm Market?

First of all the term “buying images” is actually not appropriate: The buyers of stock images do not really buy an image – they just acquire a license to use the image. What's the difference? First of all: You still “keep” your image in the sense of copyright. The buyer only gets a digital copy to be used in his advertising or an article but you retain the basic right of ownership to your creation.

Also, image licensors are looking for an image to support their current content, be it a blog post, a magazine article or a product they want to advertise. They are not interested in looking at our images, they want their viewers, readers and customers to notice our images long enough to gain interest in the article or product.

So, let's have a look what stock photography is about – or not.

Stock photography is not journalistic photography

Problematic: People without releases, trademarks in the background (© Michael Zwahlen)

Problematic: People without releases, trademarks in the background

There is a certain market for editorial photography – documenting current history is what newspapers and magazines are doing all the time. But there are specialized services and agencies covering those needs, and professional photographers are being paid to provide that kind of imagery.

The more general stock photography business is about advertising and commercial uses of images. Therefore, your images do not have to represent the world as it is accurately. In fact, in some cases it can not be an unchanged truth. Advertisers need images the are allowed to alter to their needs. This is opposite to the journalistic ethics but – as said – this is stock photography, not editorial.

Stock photography is not art photography

While some stock images are “hand crafted” with extensive photoshopping and an artistic view, this is not a necessity – in fact, candid snap shots (if you keep the rules of stock photography in mind) might work much better than an image that looks like something you would love to see hanging on your wall.

The typical stock image buyers are planning to “use” the image as a part of their end product. Therefore, they usually need images that can be changed and altered, either using only parts of the image or by adding text, logos or other elements to it. The more option you offer with your images, the more likely it will be used by different buyers.

No watermarks on stock images

Considering that buyers are licensing your images to promote their products, it is quite obvious to understand that they don't want to pay for a license to promote yours. While it is understandable that you want to protect your creations from being used, copied and shared illegally, this is not an option for stock images. Consider the stock market places like a gallery selling your prints – would you print your image on a canvas for buyers to look at with a watermark? Most certainly not.

While we're at it: Yes, you will find your stock images to be used illegally eventually. The more images you have and the longer you license them, the more likely some of them will be used without a license, no matter what you do. It is part of today's digital world. Inform the agency that represents you with details of the use, and hopefully let them handle it. But you should also be aware that it is highly unlikely to get money out of a private person using your image in a blog post, nor from a company having its location in some South East Asian countries. If you absolutely do not want any of your images stolen ever – keep them on your hard disk and do not publish them in the internet.

The legal side of licensing images: Model Releases

Could you recognize yourself if one of them was you? Yes. So you would need four model releases to license this image.

Could you recognize yourself if one of them was you? Yes. So you would need four model releases to license this image

Considering these things, we have to approach stock photography also from a legal side: In some countries, it is pretty much okay to take pictures in the public – and publish them. If someone in a public place is doing things, you can document that. But already at this stage, we have to consider that laws vary from country to country, and while taking a picture in country A is totally okay, it might not be legal to use this image in country B.

Add to that a potential commercial use: As said above, this is not journalism and therefore not protected by the “freedom of speech” or “freedom of the press” laws. To use someone's likeness in a commercial context requires that person's agreement. That is why stock agencies are asking for “model releases” along with images showing recognizable people.

There are some exceptions when you can use images showing people also for commercial purposes: If you just happen to shoot at a crowded place but the image clearly is not about the single people, you can get away without releases.

Classic problem #1: Street photography

If you start taking pictures, eventually you will focus on a field of photography that suits your preferences. And one of the popular kinds of photography is the documentary kind called “street photography”. Basically taking pictures of random people doing things.

This is generally a problem: For true street photographers it is vital that the subject of the image is unstaged. It is supposed to document the world and how people act and interact in it without interference.

This kind of photography is not suited well for stock – if you are into street photography, you can still sell art prints of your works, publish books or put them on your blog and become famous. But if Henri Cartier-Bresson is the one and only photography you admire, stock will not be the perfect outlet for you to make money.

Another legal issue: Trademarks, Copyrights, Brands and Property

When selling licenses for your images, you also have to keep in mind: Our world is full of protected items. Just like you get to have a copyright in all the images you take, other people and companies have intellectual rights in their creations.

The most common intellectual property stock photographers have to face: Trademarks. For one because they happen to be everywhere around us but also because corporations (especially the large ones) are heavily protecting them because they are part of the value of their company. If you close your eyes and imagine a white “f” on blue background, what do you see? How about an illustrated blue bird? Which company produces those sneakers featuring a Swoosh on the side? And how does a classic Coke bottle look?

These are all images you are mentally connecting to a certain company, its values, its reputation. And the corporations holding the rights on those designs do not like someone else to use those items in their advertising.

Classic problem #2: Architectural photography and cityscapes

Besides street photography, another popular area among photographers is architecture and city pictures. Here we commonly run into the second problem: Today most cities

But also buildings themselves might be trademarked or copyrighted: Architecture can be considered a form of art. As most of us know the Bauhaus design style is crossing all borders between typography, industrial design and architecture. Whenever a building is “more than just functional”, it can be protected. The Sydney Opera House could be the best known case of a protected design.

In case of architecture, there are two potential ways to get “around” the limitations: If you take cityscapes, there usually is no problem including buildings that might be copyrighted. Only when one single building is the main focus of an image, you might have to think twice if the image is suitable for stock.

Classic problem #3: What you wear and what you use

Nice candid shot but hard to use for stock: Design on the shirt

Nice candid shot but hard to use for stock: Design on the shirt

EyeEm is telling us that candid shots of your friends and family doing interesting things will be what sells best – and when you try to get more informed about stock photography, you will hear the same from other stock agencies. The problem is that most of us are not really “suitable for stock” most of the time. We wear Adidas shirts and Nike shoes, use our Samsung phones and Apple iPads, drink from a coke bottle and eat fries from a McDonald's bag. All of these will not be usable in stock images because they contain logos and trade marks.

There are only two ways around: Plan your shots or get used to Photoshop. The more experienced stock photographers have drawers full of props that are logo free – from shirts to cardboard cups without logos and trademarks.

If you don't want to prop up, there is the obvious other solution: Photoshop. In some cases, it is just easier to shoot the image as we go and later clone out the small logo on the shirt. If you are getting into selling licenses for your images, the clone brush will become a good friend very quickly.

Shooting in (or of) non-public environments

Finally, the location you choose might become an issue as well. As long as you are outdoors in a public space, there is most likely no one who can keep you from taking images and offer them for licensing as well. But the borders between “public” and “private” might be not visible all the time: Entering a park through an open door in many cases already means that you have left the public space. Sometimes even leaving the public street and entering an area between some buildings on a walkway already is being on private grounds. I have been (kindly) sent off from several locations in the past by security personnel (hint: Show an understanding and stay kind to them as they are just doing their job, I always found it is not worth my or their time getting into an argument).

Train stations can be private property - shooting allowed or not? Also, lots of trademarks in the background

Train stations can be private property – shooting allowed or not? Also, lots of trademarks in the background

While your images might not obviously show that you have been on private property, you might still get into trouble later. For example, many zoos allow visitors to take pictures but will try to stop you from selling images for money. And in many cases, the distinct pattern in the fur of a tiger will be enough to prove where the image was taken.

Even more obvious shoots will be taken indoors in a cafe or a private apartment – or even show a private home from outside. In those cases, the agencies are likely to ask you for a property release, showing that you were allowed to shoot in that location. Just don't be disappointed if you can not get it. It just means that your image is not suitable to be sold as stock.

Stock is a tiny subset of photography

All in all, it is not easy to be a stock photographer and offer licenses to your images. While you are the holder of copyright in your images, there are many other rights to consider. Just make sure you know about the tiny and big problems you might run into. And if you want to make some money, find ways to get around them.

And if – after reading this – you decide that all of this sounds too complicated, don't feel bad about it. There is a whole world of photography that is much less complicated. You can still produce art, sell prints, hang your images in a gallery, sell photo books or show them off on EyeEm to your peers. There is nothing wrong with your images just because they can't make it up on a market place for commercial buyers.

However you decide to proceed: Good luck (and good light) for all your future shoots.


About Author

Michael Jay has started as a hobbyist stock photographer in 2001. He also worked for a stock agency in client relations and marketing for several years. Today he distributes his images through several microstock, midstock and macro agencies around the world.


  1. Chelsea Erika Pascua on

    Very well said! Thank you, this is a very helpful article for a noob like me. Very illuminating – thumbs up!

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