Which Agency Offers The Best Royalty?

Posted on 11/19/2012 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (3)

A photographer recently asked if I could point her to a chart that shows what royalty percentage each stock distributors pays its photographers so she could better determine which offered the best deal. She added, “I recognize that there were a number of factors involved -- home territories, partner agents, image collections, number of photographer’s images licensed, rights managed, traditional royalty free, microstock – so hopefully the chart would take all these factors into consideration.”

My Answer

There is no chart that clearly identifies which agency offers the best deal to its photographers.

The first thing to recognize is that royalty percentage is only one small part of the equation. 20% of $100 is more than 100% of nothing. In addition to royalty, the other important part of the equation is having some idea of the number of times your images are likely to be licensed by each agency.

Unfortunately, that will vary with every photographers and it is unknowable until you put some of your images with an agency and see what kind of return you get over a period of time. It depends on the kind of subject matter you shoot, the market demand for those subjects and the availability of other images that can fulfill the same client need. There are lots of photographers receiving 20% royalties who earn more on an annual basis than others who receive 50% or 60% of gross revenue.

Things To Keep In Mind
  • About 80 images are licensed at microstock prices for every 1 image licensed as rights managed.
  • About 40 images are licensed at microstock prices for every 1 image licensed at traditional royalty free price levels.
  • The prices for microstock are going up. The prices for RM are coming down.
  • Traditional RF prices are often higher than RM because (for the most part) they are not negotiable. (However, Getty with its Premium Access, and some other distributors, offer volume users substantial discounts on both RM and RF. Thus, it is impossible to know what the price for an RM or Traditional RF image is likely to be for any particular usage.)
  • Prices for premium brand microstock images are often higher than the prices being charged for RM.
  • Prices at all agencies are constantly changing.
The fact that on average microstock images are licensed more frequently than RM or Traditional RF doesn’t mean that your images will be licensed that frequently. Last year Shutterstock licensed rights to more images than any other stock photography site. Shutterstock licenses its images at microstock and subscription prices. On average, each image in the Shutterstock collection was licensed about 3 times.

Quality is important, but each buyer defines quality in a different way. The images buyers tend to purchase are often not what a panel of professional image creators would define as high quality.  Fortunately, you can go to most microstock sites, search for particular subjects, organize the search returns by most downloaded and see what customers are buying. You’ll be surprised at some of the things that sell frequently. But, if you shoot a picture exactly like one of the most downloaded, I guarantee it won’t sell as well.?

Still Not Satisfied

After my initial response the writer was still fixated on percentages. She said, “Still curious though, what would you say the range of % offered to photographers today is? Would you say that 20% is the lowest that you've ever heard of, and 60% is the highest?”

iStockphoto starts at 15%. In the traditional environment a high percentage of the images are licensed by partner agents, not direct to the customer by the prime agent. In such cases the partner agent (sub-distributor) retains a large percentage of the fee collected. Typically, a photographer’s contract says she receives a percentage of what her prime agent receives. Thus, if the fee was $100 and the partner agent retains 60%, the partner agent sends $40 to the prime agent. If the photographer has agreed to a 20% royalty then the photographer receives 20% of $40 or $8 (8% of the gross sale price).??Or your agent could license your images through Getty Images. Getty does bulk deals called "Premium Access" with some customers for fees that work out to be as low as $5 to $10 per image licensed. Getty keeps 50% or more of that and submits the rest to the prime agent. If you have a 20% or 40% deal with your agent you can figure out what you will be receiving.

Agencies negotiate different percentages with different partner agents and these percentages are nearly always hidden from the image creator.? Normally, it is argued that partner agency percentages are trade secrets.

On the high side, T3Media has launched a licensing service call Paya that offers 80% royalties.  PicturEngine has proposed a system where photographers can advertise their work and retain 100% of the fee they collect for usage.

Percentages are meaningless when it comes to trying to predict what a photographer might earn from any particular agency or distributor relationship.

Copyright © 2012 Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of www.selling-stock.com, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to: http://www.jimpickerell.com/Curriculum-Vitae.aspx.  


  • Christina Vaughan Posted Nov 20, 2012
    If I may say, Jim, I think you miss an opportunity to comment on a deeper issue here and it is the one of how do we as an industry attach value to the photography we represent in a changing world where there is an over supply of ubiquitous content? In the past decade within our industry, we have seen decreasing value attached to the photographer and photography and as a result, we have seen a decline in the ability of photographers to invest in high quality productions. Because there are less production values, the customer attaches less value to the image and prices come down. As prices come down, there is less money to reinvest and a vicious cycle of low quality content and low quality prices pervades. Today, there is a greater need than ever before for our industry to reinvigorate premium creative stills licesning. Through our brands Cultura and Image Source, we see that customers are still able and willing to pay high prices for quality images. If we want to see more quality imagery, we need to invest further in Photography and our Photographers. We do this by quality art direction, creative intelligence and also putting our photographers’ images in front of more buyers’ eyeballs than any other company, having the largest international network in the world. That’s our job, our brand and our business.
    BUT there is one additional factor. In my role of President of CEPIC, I have been fighting at EU legislation level for better recognition of the value of content creators . This has encouraged me to review our own business too and from December, we will have additional incentives in place to reward continued investment and to help develop strategically important areas of our collections as driven by the customer. Image Source will be paying out some of the highest royalties to premium professional photographers in the industry, This royalty comes from one of the most respected and established stock brands in the world and creates a virtuous circle of quality Photographers, quality Photography, quality Art Direction, quality Marketing, quality Distribution. All this equates to higher pricing, an investment in premium content and a greater return on investment for Photographers. It’s a win-win for all – the Customer gets better images, the agency gets to sell more at higher prices and photographers get a better return on investment which in turn allows them to reinvest in quality imagery

  • David Sucsy Posted Nov 25, 2012
    The beginning of your answer is good, but it deteriorates from there. Ultimately, this article ends up as useless.
    If you had quoted some actual income numbers or even percentages of some of the top stock photographers (Yuri Arcurs comes to mind), this article could have been far more helpful.
    Bottom line, this article has wasted 2 of my credits, and the time of most of your readers.
    I appreciate what you have done over the years and are continuing to try to do, but for your service to be something that we are willing to pay for and is useful to us as photographers, you need to do better than this.

  • Anita Najda Posted Nov 29, 2012
    I think one of the most important variables missing here is the role that smaller agencies/production companies play in covering the costs it takes to get images to the market. Companies like Image Source, Blend Images, fStop (my employer) and others spend significant amounts of money editing/keywording/retouching/processing images on behalf of photographers, and then typically distribute those images to a very wide network of distribution partners. Yes, they take a percentage for their efforts, but a real study of this topic would weigh many more variables than you've covered here. Derick Rhodes - http://fstopimages.com

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