Learn How to License Your Photography Works

Great article by Gurpreet Singh

Protecting one’s work online has been a herculean task. In times like these, owning the copyright under law alone won’t help you against illegal downloads. However, image licensing definitely would, as it forms the core of sound business practice in photography.

A photography license is a contract in which the photographer grants specific rights to the client who wants to use your image(s) for a stipulated amount of time. The client is free to use the photos in any way that doesn’t go beyond the scope of the agreement. Sounds simple, right?

While there are legalities associated with it, it isn’t rocket science. Learn how to license photos, make a contract, grant the client the rights to use your images, and once the contract ends, the client can make no more use your images. The flip-side, however, is that this rarely happens. In most cases, the moment the client receives the images, everything spirals out of control.

What is a License?

As the photographer, you own the rights to your images. You can decide to license specific usage rights to a client that wants to use your photographs through a contract. The license allows the client to use images within the scope of the usage photography license agreement only.

Licensing doesn’t mean you have to pass a written exam while watched over by cranky, bespectacled government workers. It merely means that you’re giving rights to someone, preferably someone who gives you money in return to use your work for a particular purpose and a specific period.


Image licensing is one way to earn money as a photographer. What you do here is that you sell someone permission to use your work in a certain way in return for some monetary benefits. More rights the client wants, the more it would cost them. It also depends on the type of client who is seeking rights. If the client has a more extensive reach, then a photographer can charge more.

Since there are multiple factors such as the type of client, images, location, duration, etc. are involved, it is not possible to have a standard price set which everyone can use. It is best to find out what other photographers in your area are charging for the same type of images and clients and then set a rate accordingly. If you can deliver a similar standard of photos, then the prices can also be similar. Think of the rates as the rent the clients have to pay to use your images; you should charge your expenses and professional service charges separately.

Different types of licensing can be broken into the following categories:

Commercial Rights

Commercial rights enable the buyer to use your images for commercial purposes in communications designed to sell their products or services such as a catalog, brochure, or on some other form of advertisement.

Non-Commercial Rights

Things like personal websites, blogs, school newsletters, and other media where your image will not be explicitly used as a part of a for-profit/money-making activity come under Non-Commercial rights.

Exclusive Rights

Also known as Serial Rights, this is when you grant proprietary permission to use a specific image to a client. You may or may not want to do this since “exclusive” means you will not be able to resell that image to any other at a later time.

First Rights

First rights constitute the permission to use the image first off, and then you are free to resell your image at a later time. This image license typically applies to publications, newspapers, and magazines. When you want to sell photos to top photography magazines, consider granting them first rights. This type of photography license will give you the maximum flexibility once the publication has used your photograph.

Non-Exclusive Rights

Non-exclusive rights mean that you can sell your images to more than one person or entity. Include a clause wherein your client cannot further resell your images and make sure you understand the difference between exclusive and non-exclusive rights, so as not to make the wrong photo licensing agreement.

One Time Use

One time use is probably the best way to go in terms of licensing from the photographer’s perspective. This photography licensing contract lets you sell the right to use your image one time only, for one specific purpose to a client.

Rights Managed or Royalty Free

“Rights managed” is a little more complicated but is probably the best way for photographers to get into an image license agreement. Most image licensing websites use this model, wherein images have particular restrictions on use and different fees associated with each use. Rights Managed Images enable both the photographer and the client to arrive that the best fit of usage and exclusivity and do a photography license agreement based on the same. Here the client can use for additional purposes but mention it in the contract. If not, then they have to negotiate with the photographer for the same.

Royalty Free

In Rights Managed, a client has to pay the agreed license fee on the expiry of the license if they want it to be renewed. But in Royalty Free license, the client can use the image for any amount of time-based on the single initial fee. So, if a client wants to use your image on a product 10 million times, he would have to pay a one time fee to do that. Although there are some restrictions on the usage, overall, the buyer gets almost unlimited usage right from this photography license.

Creative Commons

If you are looking to gain exposure or contribute your images so that anyone can use them, Creative Commons licenses let you define the level of access you give others to use your photos. A lot of photographers use Creative Commons as a marketing strategy to bring exposure to their work through platforms like Flickr as it lets a broad audience see your images.

Copyright Free License

A copyright-free license is one type of photography license where the photographer gives away the copyright of the image for free. A photographer may do so to get publicity from the image. The licensee receives high-quality work which can be used commercially as well after modifications. The copyright-free license is different from the creative commons license as the images under the copyright free license are entirely free.

Putting together a Licensing Agreement

Coming to the whole licensing process, it begins with you sending the client its description so that the negotiation process can begin.

A license description is primarily used for three things:

  • Making an offer to grant the client agreed-upon scope of usage of the images. The license permits the specified usage of the photos and constraining others.
  • Stating what the client can do and can’t do with the images.
  • Protecting your images from unlicensed usage.

In most cases, the client is never satisfied with how much you are initially willing to offer. They’ll try to get more rights to the image, to use the image for various undisclosed purposes. You on your part should be all ears and open to changes. Look for a good sample photo license agreement while you are drafting a photography license. And when you are looking to protect your images on your online portfolio website, make sure to add a terms and conditions page mentioning that it is not allowed to download pictures from your website. And choose a platform which can disable the download if you want.

While you are working on the license description, be specific, choose the right words, and don’t play with the punctuation, a wrongly-placed comma can cost you a lot!

An ideal license description must contain the following:

Parties—When describing the photography license, make sure to establish the names of the parties involved; the licensor, licensee, and the End User (the party that will ultimately use the image).

Permissions—The license grants permission to the client for the specified use of the image, like what category/type of media to use the image, the distribution format, placement, quantity, size, duration, region, language, and exclusivity.

Constraint—permission can also be used as a constraint. The license start and end date is one constraint that allows your client to use your image in a particular duration only and once the license is over the client would have to pay you an additional licensing fee to use your image. If applicable, you can also put media, region, or product/service constraints on your image.

Requirements—This includes all those things that do not fall under either permissions or constraints. These can be anything, such as inserting a photo credit line with your image.

Terms & Conditions—These can be additional terms and conditions which include payment and other transactional details.

Image Information—Description of the image(s) associated with the photography license is one thing that you shouldn’t skip from the license description. The license description must define the number of images that may be used under the license.

Client Education

A client who is taking a license for the first time also needs to know about the type and clauses of the contracts. A client with big business may have already made many contacts before with a photographer, but one working on a small level may be doing it for the first time. It is vital that you explain to the client in clear terms what the photography license you intend to give means. Doing this would show that you have knowledge in your field, which would help them in sealing the deal.

In conclusion:

As a professional photographer, building profitable, recurring income streams based on your work is incredibly important, and Licensing your work lets you achieve that. Figuring out how to license photos doesn’t have to be overwhelming as there are plenty of resources available online that would help you navigate your way through the myriad of business, legal, and artistic considerations involved in licensing.

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