Editorial Stock Photography

What is stock photography? Basically, it describes photographs produced ahead of a specific publishing need. The stock photographer makes a bet that the photographs produced will be needed, and thereby produce income for the photographer. One of the best things with stock photography is the freedom to produce the images you want to produce. The downside is that there are no guarantees and if you’re not in tune with the market you might end up producing thousands and thousands of images that will never generate a single cent.

When I photograph ballistic experts at the crime lab using their new Kevlar Bullet Trap, I invest my time making a bet that I think a publisher will want to use these images. I not only need to know the topics I photograph (to know that I’m photographing things the way they should be done, the specific aspects of procedures that are significant, etc.), but I also need to know the market. It’s important to know current trends, technical developments, and I should have at least a handle on the idea of trends in the near future. If I’m good, I make money licensing my images to a variety of publishers. If not, the images collect digital dust on my hard drives without generating any income.

Stock photography is like stocking shelves in a store. If you stock the shelves with the wrong products there will be few to no sales.

Before we go any further with breaking down the basics on Stock Photography, take a look at Mikael Karlsson’s 2010 Photobuyer Survey Report. This is a report Mikael produced for PhotoSource and through them they’re offering photo.net members a discount. $14.95 instead of $19.95.


Stock Photography Myths

There are a fair number of myths circulating about stock photography. You commonly hear things such as, “You need to have ten thousand photos to even get into an agency”, “all stock photos sell for peanuts”, and “these days you can’t make a living from stock photography”.

None of these statements are true. A recent thread on the Alamy forums, a stock photography agency, have participants reporting individual sales of between $500 to $27,000 recently. You can get into most agencies with less than 100 images, and you can most certainly make a living as a stock photographer.

Is it easy? No, obviously not, otherwise a lot more photographers would be making a living as a stock photographer.

This article will concentrate on editorial stock photography. There are two general fields of stock photography for publication. Editorial and Commercial. In a nutshell, commercial is advertising, editorial is pretty much everything else.


One very persistent myth has to do with the need for releases: model and property releases. Many people claim that as soon as the photographer is getting paid for the image usage, releases are needed. This just isn’t true. If your photos are used editorially in the United States there is no need for a release, as long as the images are not used to slander/libel. Some publishers require releases, but that’s a different matter. I photograph cops arresting crooks, high risk drug search warrants going down, crime scenes, arrests, inmates in prison and related topics and I never obtain releases. My images are used by big national US book publishers (primarily college level textbooks), magazines, newspapers, and a wide variety of publishers abroad. No publisher I work with has ever requested a release for editorial usage. So, don’t limit yourself and think that not having releases make your images useless as stock images. Out of all the thousands of images I have with Alamy, maybe five are released. These images are licensed all the time for a variety of uses. I mark the images as not having releases and I provide accurate captions and have never had any issues.

The Importance of Captions

Accurate captions are incredibly important if you want to get into editorial stock photography. Editorial photo usage is a lot about illustrating an idea/concept/topic and/or to show things that are hard to describe accurately with words. A good example of this is a photo of a police Tactical (or SWAT) team making entry to serve a high-risk search warrant. Take this photo featured on the right. It shows 1920 Squad from the Street Narcotics Unit with the Kansas City, MO, Police Department serving a high-risk warrant. The man about to land hard on his backside refused to follow instructions from the officers to get down on the ground.


The photo illustrates many of the aspects of serving these kinds of warrants. It shows the team moving in formation, working together as a team, it shows the obvious problem with suspects not co-operating. The photo illustrates the initial aspects of serving high-risk warrants and is easy to understand even to someone who has no experience with law enforcement. These are all reasons that this photo works well as a stock photo.

Consider all the various things this photo can be used to illustrate. Just a few examples: War on drugs, how law enforcement can be a dangerous profession, how important team-work is for this type of unit, how the police operate in a military manner to stay safe in high-risk situations, how the police interact with individuals that are refusing to co-operate, etc. Think about how many more examples you can think of.


Without accurate caption information, this photo would be much less usable though. Why? Because often the individuals that source photos for usage does not have the expertise to know what a photo illustrating the need they currently need to meet looks like. They need to be able to rely on the photographer to accurately caption their photos. As an example, look at the close-up photo to the left. Without caption information would you know that it is a photo of meth? People sourcing photos for publishers, especially text-book publishers, source for a huge variety of subjects and it’s virtually impossible to have the knowledge to know – without caption information—what each such photo would look like and what the contents would be.


Content is what makes a photo a marketable stock photo. Again, it goes back to the need to illustrate. A photo of a gorgeous pasture during the first light of day or a perfectly executed technically difficult portrait isn’t typically as marketable of a stock photo as a photo of a veterinarian examining a sick pet, just to mention one example.

Technical aspects are important. Photos are most often submitted to publishers as digital files and they, naturally, need to meet the basic technical criteria. Technical specifications vary, but generally speaking files shouldn’t have any sharpening applied (for publishing this is something best done by the printer), and unless you really know what you’re doing color correction is also best done by the printer. Basically, the less you mess around with the photo in post, the better. Deal with obvious issues like sensor dust but try to limit yourself for pretty much everything else.

Publishers have specifications and often they offer guidelines to submitting your images. Follow these guidelines. If the publisher is asking for submissions as jpg don’t send tiff files. If they are asking for the caption info to be entered into the description field, do that. It basically comes down to following directions. It doesn’t matter what you think. Submit the way the potential client wants you to submit—even if you think they’re wrong—or risk ending up on the list of photographer that client avoids like the plague. It’s really pretty simple. If the manufacturer of your watch has decided the only power source for your watch is to be the internal battery, no matter how much you want it to be solar-powered it just isn’t going to happen.


Agencies or Do-it-Yourself?

Let’s assume you’re technically competent to use your camera and let’s assume you’re able to read and willing to follow directions from the publishers. So then, what are the practicalities of starting to offer your images as stock? There are two main options:

  1. Sell/license directly to publishers.
  2. Sign up with an agency.

Both options have pros and cons. Let’s look at some of these in more detail:

Option One: Sell/license Directly to Publishers


  1. You get to keep 100% of the price/licensing fee.
  2. Over time you’ll develop a business relationship with publishers that will allow you to be more responsive to their specific needs.
  3. Over time you’re likely to start getting want-lists from publishers that often need the type of images you make.
  4. Over time you’re likely to become a preferred vendor to some publishers meaning they’ll go to you first with any image needs.


  1. You need to do all your own marketing.
  2. You need to do all your own negotiating with publishers over usage terms, fees etc.
  3. You need to set up a web site where publishers can find (and possibly download high-res versions) your images.
  4. You need to set up a system for tracking image usage and re-usage. This is especially important when you work with text-book publishers where the same image is very often used over multiple editions.

Option Two: Sign up with an Agency


  1. The agency will take care of all marketing and selling/licensing.
  2. Your images will reach a far greater number of potential clients compared to doing it on your own.
  3. You can concentrate on shooting more images and build your image archive rather than marketing.
  4. The agency will have connections making it possible for your images to be seen in markets that would be very difficult for you as an individual photographer to reach.


  1. The agency will take a cut of any sales, typically 50%, leaving you with the rest.
  2. You have little control over how your images are used.
  3. You are dependent on the agency to cultivate relationships with publishers leaving you with no connections of your own.
  4. Very few agencies give guidance on what images are needed leaving you guessing. When you work directly with publishers you’ll get feedback from publishers regarding what they need, what they’re having trouble finding, etc.

It is up to you which option you pick. You can certainly pick both. The only time when you can’t is when you sign up with an agency that is exclusive—that often means that the images you place with that agency you can’t place with any other agency or market and sell by yourself. If you want to keep your options open, sign with agencies that offer non-exclusive contracts.


Stock Photography Agencies

Alamy is the agency I would recommend as one of the best agencies around for editorial stock photographers. The deal is 60/40 in favor of the photographer. Most agencies are more focused on the commercial stock industry but most large agencies also have editorial offerings.

For news, there are the wire services such as AFP, AP Images, Reuters etc as well as agencies such as Black Star. As far as news/features go set the aim high and go for Magnum, VII Agency, and Agence VU. It is also worth looking into Corbis, Getty, Masterfile, Gamma Presse as well as working with places like The New York Times Agency. It is important to keep in mind that you need to find an agency that fit your work.

There are a lot of agencies out there aside from the big, well-known names listed above that specialize in one way or another. The first step is to visit the website of any agency you’re interested in and checking to see if they offer the type of images you produce. There’s an excellent resource to find agencies available at www.aphotoeditor.com/2008/02/27/stock-photo-agencies/.


Finding a Publisher

To find publishers that use the type of images you produce, the library and the Internet are really valuable tools. Go to the library to find books on what you shoot. For me for instance I’d look in the True crime section as well as Forensic Sciences, criminal justice, law and related topics. Look through the available titles. Note who the publisher is and any imprints. Checking out the images in the books will give you a good idea of the type of images the individual publishers use. This can also give you a good idea of what looks outdated and are in need of updating. Do the same thing in the magazine section. While you’re in the library also pick up the two reference books Photographer’s Market and Writer’s Market. If you’re anything like me you’ll want your own copies that you can underline, mark, use over and over again etc. Both these books contain information on publishers including what kind of images they’re
looking for, how they want you to submit, what they pay etc. If nothing else you’ll learn a fair bit about how to submit, price ranges, etc. The most crucial thing is to write to an actual person when you’re sending in pitches, promotions, submissions etc. Visit the publisher’s web site to get up to date information on the proper person to send your items to. Google is obviously a great tool to find publishers. Set aside a couple of hours a week to search for publishers and you’ll soon be able to build your own marketing list. Target your lists well and rather narrowly. It’s better to send a promotion to 100 very well targeted publishers than sending 10,000 out to recipients from some rented list.


Stock Photography Lingo

Finally, let’s look at some of the terminology of the stock photography industry.

Licensing types – There are two main licensing types. Royalty Free (RF) and Rights Managed (RM).

RF – typically – mean that the client pay you once for the photo but get to use it for eternity for whatever they want (aside from re-selling it typically) without you getting any further payment.

RM – means that you license for each usage individually and get paid for each usage individually. Typically RF sell at a higher initial price, say $350 for a high-res file. My own personal preference is RM and on average my images license for $200/usage.

Micro agencies – Agencies like “iStock”:, Shutterstock, Dreamstimes etc that license images very cheaply and rely on high sales volumes rather than high sales values.

Tearsheet – Pretty much what it sounds like, a sheet torn out of a magazine, book etc. Typically this is used to show others that your images have been published, but also as a memento for yourself. Don’t ask the publisher for a tearsheet. If you need one, buy a copy of the book/magazine etc.

Comp copy – Complimentary copy of magazine, book etc where your images are published. Again, don’t ask the publisher for one, just buy one. Publishers typically frown upon photographers that are “high maintenance” and part of this is to ask for comp copies, tearsheets, call constantly, etc. Look at it like when you have just purchased a new car. Would you want the car dealership to call you one week later to try to sell you another car?

One-time usage – Meaning the publisher is allowed to use your image once, for a specific usage.

Print-run – How many copies of a book, magazine etc that will be printed.

Chapter Opener – When an image is used as a chapter opener. This is typically worth 25% more compared to what an image would render for the same usage. If my image in a specific book would be licensed for $200, the same image used as a chapter opener would bring in $250.

Inside usage – When an image is used on the insides of a book or magazine, as opposed to on the cover.



Stock photography might seem quite complicated, especially taking into consideration how much information out there that is plain wrong. If you break it up and look at editorial stock photography by itself, things immediately become far less complicated. Pay attention to details. Submit to publishers the way they want it. Take care in preparing your images and make sure you add caption and copyright information embedded into your digital files.

Don’t get into editorial stock photography to make a quick dollar. It doesn’t work that way. This is a time and numbers game. The more images you have out there, the more sales you’ll make—assuming your images are marketable. It takes time and it takes patience. Lots of it. But hang in there because the rewards are worth it.

In the next article on stock photography we’ll look at Commercial Stock photography and how it differs from editorial stock photography.


Originally an investigative reporter in Sweden, Mikael Karlsson worked for many years
covering neo-Nazism, organized crime, international organized crime, armed conflicts and other similar topics, based in Europe and the Middle East mainly but working with a global scope. Mike picked up photography by necessity when no photographers could be found to assist on a series of articles in the Middle East and the photography aspect grew over the years. Early on after moving to the United States in 1998, Mike’s focus turned to law enforcement. He wrote an article about criminal street gangs, but had trouble finding good up-to-date stock images to illustrate his points, and Karlsson soon discovered his niche. Starting out covering only law enforcement working mainly with the Street Narcotics Unit and the Gang Squad of Kansas City, MO, PD Karlsson soon added Corrections (prisons), Forensics and similar topics to the coverage. In addition to crime and law enforcement photography, Mike produces numerous reports and guides on editorial stock photography for PhotoSource International, in addition to offering consulting services on the same. He also writes for a small group of trade magazines in his native Sweden. You can find out more by visiting his website www.arrestingimages.com.

Example Editorial Stock Photography

11381112 Prison photo – Note the lack of stereotypes. Juvenile watching TV, looking
pretty much like any other kids, clothing aside. Prisons also in real life
are nothing like what TV and movies make us think they look like.
10444166 Fatal traffic accident. Showing things the way they really are.
Accidents are horrible. In this one a young female driver was killed on a rural
11381111 Drugs – one of my best selling images for many years. Although it hasn’t sold
for a few years now it sold more than 20 times over a period of five years
bringing in over $5k.
10444195 SWAT – explained in the article. 1920 Squad, Street Narcotics Unit KCPD.
High-risk drug warrant.

Original text and images ©2010 Mikael Karlsson.

Sign in or Sign up to post response

    • Mikael:

      Indeed, it was brillantly described! Only one thing remained to be better detailed though: exclusivity/non-exclusivity have their own prices. Do you think that you elaborate a bit more about it?




    • To post a reply Sign In
    • This is a great article. I was just thinking of doing stock photos and just didnt know where to start. Now I have a stepping stone.

      Thank you for your time.

    • To post a reply Sign In
    • Thanks for a great article. I was resistant to the idea of stock photography because I didn't think I could make any money without tons of model-released images, but now I see that with patience and persistence I might be able to sell some photos in my portfolio for editorial use. Thanks again.

    • To post a reply Sign In
    • Thank you for a very well written and informative article. I appreciate your gift of time and knowledge. I never even knew there was a market for editorial stock photography.


    • To post a reply Sign In
    • Thanks folks for your kind words and I am glad you're liking the article!

      Yes, more articles are in the works and I'm always interested in what you would like to read about so please feel free to send any suggestions for future articles my way.

    • To post a reply Sign In
    • Very informative article full of valuable tips for marketing and possibly getting published.

    • To post a reply Sign In
    • Confidence building when I thought stock agency was no longer a good option to build upon.

    • To post a reply Sign In
    • Thanks for writing the article Mikael.

      Your success demonstrates the advantage of developing a niche in the stock world.

      In your case it's crime and punishment, a much in demand subject for news / text-books etc.

    • To post a reply Sign In
    • Very informative. thanks!

    • To post a reply Sign In
    • Good looking photos are an important part of a good looking website. A few easy adjustments can make a big difference. These are a few standard adjustments I try to make to all the photos I use, both on the web and for printing.



      find lawyer

    • To post a reply Sign In
    • I'll crop the photo before I start editing the color so I don't have to deal with the large areas of white and tan colors. The photo on the left is what I end up with after cropping.



      find lawyer

    • To post a reply Sign In

Sign in or Sign up to post response