How To Price and License Your Photos

In Master Photography Roundtable by Jeff Harmon1 Comment

The Master Photography Facebook group has had a lot of questions posted recently about how photographers go about pricing and licensing their photos.  Most have never done this before. Here is the advice from an expert, Jim Harmer, a trained but non-practicing attorney who also spent over 10 years as a professional photographer.

Photographers should provide single-use, limited printing size pricing directly on their website and contact information (email) for negotiating a license according to use and budget for uses outside of that.

Make Sure Your Images Have Licensing Information

Make sure you as a photographer are fully ware of important changes that Google has made late in 2020.

Google has updated Google Images Search so that if your photo has the right information around it, or inside it, they will show a big LICENSABLE badge on the photo.  This makes it really clear to people doing searches for images that your image is not free and has to be licensed.

Check out the full details including a step-by-step illustrated guide on the five pieces of licensing information you need to embed in your images for Google Images Search to do this as well as Get Ready For 2020 Changes to Google Images Search podcast on the topic.

Maybe some of this question about licensing has come as a result of listeners taking that advice and getting interest from people finding them in Google Images Search!

How To Price a License

We want to help every photographer with a process they can use to price and license their photos.  The answer you tend to hear with this kind of thing is that the price is what the market will bear.  Great, the photo is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it. That is not helpful.

How about this then, a 3 step process to pricing your images

  1. Upload your photos to a portfolio website in a way that search engines can find them
  2. Directly state single-use, limited print size licensing at a reasonable cost
  3. Include an email address for negotiating licenses for other purposes

Portfolio Website

You aren’t going to sell any images that people can’t find. Potential customers don’t know to start off at your website to find the images they are looking for, we all know they start at Google. You have to put your images on a website in a way that Google can find and understand.

Search engine optimization. It’s pretty critical to connecting potential customers to finding your images. You can invest a lot of time in something like blog posts that not only tell Google about your images but also help potential customers learn about you as a photographer.

Or, you can invest a small amount of time in using photography specific websites like Squarespace or Zenfolio (among a huge group of others) to show off your image portfolio and include a couple of sentences that tell a very small part of the story Google will be able to use as answers to searches.

Whichever way you go, make sure you install Google Analytics on the website. It is free and it will help you understand how many people are looking at your images.

The amount of effort you want to invest will be up to you, but this is a pretty important part of pricing because you can’t really judge how the market values your photos if nobody is actually looking at them.

Single-Use, Restricted, Inexpensive License

After making sure the search engines can find your images and draw traffic to them, now you can test the market to see how your images are valued.

There are multiple approaches that can be taken here, ranging from an email address for all licensing queries and no direct pricing quotes to a full listing of all prices for all types of licensing.

Here in 2020 we think that neither end of that spectrum is great for photographers or their potential clients. The email address, or even worse a phone number, being the only way to find out the pricing on a license to use the photo is not something most people are willing to do today. It carries this stigma of that old adage “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it”.

At the other end of the spectrum you don’t give yourself any room to negotiate pricing that will work for you and the potential client. Again, the client is less likely to engage when the prices are listed and they are outside of their budget.

We recommend you directly state a single-use license that can be used to print the photo to a fairly small size at a very reasonable cost. Something like $20-$50 or so if you have no idea what it should be.

After you get that out there, if you aren’t getting any requests to license your photos something has to be adjusted. Either the price is too high, or nobody is finding them. If the price is too high, you lower it. If nobody is coming to your website, you have to invest more in the search engine optimization.

Email Address For Bigger Licensing Needs

Now for the fun stuff for photographers. The exciting possibility that a potential client may be interested in a bigger license of your photos than covered by that inexpensive single-use directly stated on your website.

After getting past the initial excitement that you have someone interested in a bigger license where you can make more money, ask the potential client what their needs are for the photo and what their budget is for the project.

It is not uncommon for a photographer to sell a license for $2,000+ instead of $50 because the potential client had a budget for that amount. It may take a long time for you as a photographer to produce photos that are worth that to the market, but as you invest time in your craft and make sure people can find your images this is very possible.

It helps to create groups of photos that all belong together. Check out this Fine Art Photography Business Tips episode for more information on that.

Royalty Free vs Rights Managed Licensing

You may have heard one or both of these terms in relation to content that has to be licensed. These aren’t strictly terms, though they end up in legal documents frequently. These are terms content industries have created over time to mean specific things.

Royalty Free

When you grant a “royalty free” license to a photo, you are allowing the client who buys the license the ability to use the images as many times as they like without having to pay you further.

Usually this is something like allowing a client to print as many copies of a photo at any size they like for personal use. They don’t have to come back to you if they want to make a new print at a bigger size.

A royalty free license certainly could stipulate terms like the client able to print as many 8×10 of the photo as they like for any use, but if they want to print at a larger size they need to purchase a new license from you to do that. You just have to be as clear as possible about the terms of the license as to how the client can use your image and royalty free means they can use that license many times.

This does not mean you are transferring OWNERSHIP or COPYRIGHT of the photo, or at least you should make sure that is clear as you work out this kind of a license with your client (who may not know that).

Speaking of copyright, Jim also cleared up for me that there isn’t a lot of legal meaning behind having the © symbol in the contract or embedded in your image. Something like “Copyright 2020 Jeff Harmon” with the year being the date of publication is sufficient in the United States.

Rights Managed

This has a meaning in the content industry for something where the terms of the licensing are exclusive (the photographer cannot license the image to another client) and/or high volume (a book cover or t-shirt).

Each use of a rights managed license is negotiated by the client independently. They often have terms like unlimited use of the image for a specific use over a specific amount of time.

For example, Jim licensed a photo to Nikon at one point that they used in a blog on their website. Nikon had to pay a licensing fee to use the photo on their blog every two years the blog post was online.

Nikon could show the image to an unlimited number of people reading the blog post, but the license only gave them the rights to use it that way for 2 years. They were also restricted from using the image for any other purpose.

Again, with rights managed licensing, you want to be clear about the terms of the license. You should also be clear that you are not transferring ownership or copyright to the client, unless that is what you want to do.

Legal Paperwork For Photo Licensing

Unless you are doing a really large deal for licensing your photos, like in the tens of thousands of dollars or more, photographers don’t really need to be overly concerned with a wordy “legalese” type of contract.

The goal of the “contract” portion of the license is to make sure both sides are extremely clear on what the license allows the client to do with the image and how much the photographer is being paid for that use.

Jim spent some time looking at a lot of free licensing contract templates available online and wasn’t really happy with any of them. It may sound self-serving, but his recommendation is the photographers contract bundle ($15) he created several years ago when he owned Improve Photography. He sold the website a bit ago and no longer benefits from the sales of the product, but he is the author of the contracts in the bundle – including a licensing contract.

If you do use a written contract that requires signatures, Jim says that it doesn’t have to be ink signatures for most contracts. Remember the goal is to clearly establish the expectations for both you and the client, the signatures being ink or digital shouldn’t be a big problem if that is abundantly clear.

Though a digital signature (a graphical image of a person’s signature, not the digital signature algorithm that can be applied to a document using a digital certificate – which would be really good) is easier to fake and might be something more easily disputed if something went to court.

If the deal is a big one, you should retain a lawyer trained in the field to help you. Otherwise, Jim says an email is likely sufficient. Send the client an email clearly outlining the rights the client is getting to use the photo and how much the client is agreeing to pay you for the photo. Ask them specifically to reply stating they agree.

Now neither of use are your lawyer here, so don’t take this as legal advice. If you are concerned at all about a license deal, retain an attorney to help you!

Stock Is A License Killer!

One of the things that will hurt your ability to license your photos to clients more than almost anything else is listing your images on a stock website. Nothing wrong with doing that if you created the photos specifically for stock and intend to make money that way. Just don’t expect to also license the same images on your website.

Nothing legally preventing you from trying to sell an image as both stock and licensed from your website. The clients just have no reason to work with you to license the image when they can get it for next to nothing on a stock website.

You also can’t reel that back in. Once you put your image on a stock website, you have really sprayed it out to the world, and you just can’t undo that. From that point forward, if you ever encounter your image being used anywhere, you won’t know if they legally licensed it through stock or stole the image.


Jim: LaCie 6big ($4,000). Jim bought this back when he was shooting a lot of still images and preferred it over Drobo devices. Be sure to check out this LaCie 6big Review from my friend Greg Benz.

Jeff: Dot Tune Auto-Focus Microadjustment (AFMA).  Just did this on a couple of lenses and camera bodies for a friend of mine.  It improved the focus so much!



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