What to Do When Your Image Goes Viral on the Internet

Many of us have been there. You upload your work to a social media platform only to find out months later that your photos have gained the attention of the masses. Immediately you start getting bombarded with emails, phone calls, and publications start reaching out. You quickly realize the moment you have always been waiting for is happening right now, but a new reality also sinks in: you have no clue what in the world you are supposed to do with all of this attention. In this video I sit down with Mike Kelley to discuss some of the steps you should take to capitalize on your viral photo series.

Obviously the term "viral" has a different meaning to everyone. In most cases, your work will never reach the viral status of an ice bucket challenge, a depiction of a decapitated president, or even an ass shot of Kim Kardashian. But who knows, you might be that lucky person who takes a photo of the Ridiculously Photogenic Guy, a dress that looks white but also gold, or Beyonce having a stroke during the Super Bowl. The range of virality could range from hundreds of thousands of views or hundreds of million views. Either way, if you have an image that goes viral, chances are it will become a pretty impactful moment on your life. 

What you want to do with that quick moment of exposure is up to you, but as professional photographers our goal is usually to capitalize on the exposure in a way that helps our business and/or get paid as much as possible for the art we have created. If you are reading this and aren't a professional photographer then maybe your goal is simply to have a great story to tell, but for the majority of us, the goal is usually to help promote our work and ultimately our business. 

My Viral Story

Most Fstoppers readers will be pretty familiar with the handful of viral content I have been fortunate to have go viral. The very first project I ever had a part in creating was actually one of the very first Fstoppers Original videos called "The iPhone Fashion Shoot." I clearly remember sitting in an airplane with Lee Morris as we headed back from filming a video with a relatively unknown Peter Hurley. The idea was pretty simple: we wanted to take professional looking photographs on the worst camera we owned. I suggested an old 3-megapixel point-and-shoot camera and Lee suggested we use a camera that didn't even have a flash. On that flight the "iPhone Fashion Shoot" was imagined, and we spend the next week planning out the video and photos. You can see that video below.

When we released the "iPhone Fashion Shoot" video, Fstoppers was a relatively small blog and we were still trying to figure out how to produce interesting content for our readers. The initial release of the video was definitely the biggest thing we had ever done up until that point and I think we had reached 10,000 to 20,000 views in the first 24 hours. Over the next 48 hours things really started to take off, and within 7 days of releasing the video I believe it had something like 200,000 views on YouTube. At the time we were also publishing our videos on Vimeo as well, which looking back probably hurt the viral nature of the video on YouTube. However, in about two weeks time the "iPhone Fashion Shoot" gained about a million views on all platforms. Our Twitter account was blowing up, our email account was going crazy, and the traffic on Fstoppers went from 1,000 page views a day to more than 40,000 overnight. It was a crazy time especially considering how relatively young YouTube was and that video essentially helped launch Fstoppers to the world. The traffic created from the "iPhone Fashion Shoot" would not be broken for almost two years, but in the end that video would hardly even be considered "viral" by today's standards.

The Stun Gun Photoshoot

Let's jump ahead four years to 2014. As a wedding photographer, I was primarily preoccupied with shooting weddings and of course building up and running Fstoppers.com. As other fellow photographers will understand, my creative urges were bubbling up inside to the point where I knew I wanted to do something fun and silly that wasn't related to the photography I did day in and day out. The quirky idea I had been floating around for years was to take photos of people the moment they were hit with a stun gun. In August 2014 I finally said enough with the idea, and I forced myself to knock out the project. To be honest, I knew the photo series and resulting slow motion video would get shared a lot online but I had no idea just how big it would become. Within a few days of releasing the video below, the stun gun photoshoot had surpassed anything Fstoppers had ever done. You can read the original stun photoshoot article here.

The YouTube count had reached 1 million views within 4 days of being released, and the number of people contacting me was insane. I could literally refresh my email every 20 minutes and find that another major publication was interested in running my story. I had local newspapers from around the world contacting me. Tiny websites and blogs I had never heard of were embedding my video and asking me for additional information for their posts. A day or two into the viral moment I began receiving emails from larger news organizations like the Huffington Post, Daily Mail, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. People from all over the country were contacting me for interviews, Skype calls, licensing deals, and photo publications. It was surreal, insane, and completely overwhelming. I had absolutely no idea what to do with all of the exposure but I knew that each of these publications was not like the others. Obviously a blog post by eBaum's World was very different than a published article on Huffington Post which was different than a national television segment on CNN.

Luckily I was able to call up a bunch of my fellow photographers who had experience shooting and selling content to some of these larger media groups, and they were able to help me along the way. Ironically, one of my good friends, Architectural Photographer Mike Kelley, had also had some overnight success with a few of his photo series. As the wave of emails and phone calls came in, I spent many sleepless nights trying to figure out what to charge for this type of exposure and what to charge for that type of exposure. As a wedding photographer, licensing my work was not something I was able to do with my clients so this was all new territory for me. In the end, I'm sure I negotiated the short end of the stick with many of the publications that reached out to me, but I was able to gain some pretty great exposure with brands that I will forever be able to associate my work with which is valuable in and of itself. All in all, I made several thousands of dollars with licensing deals for print and television and made over $10,000 alone on ads through YouTube.

Mike's Story

Mike Kelley is a great friend of mine, and over the years he has been able to produce several viral photo series as well. I don't know all the gritty, little details as to how Mike created, executed, and capitalized on his photo projects, but what I do know is that he has done an excellent job using personal projects to advance his career. These personal projects have helped him stand out in the highly competitive market that is Los Angeles while also allowing him to make a significant portion of his income from fine art print sales. Shameless plug, in Mike Kelley's latest tutorial, "Where Art Meets Architecture 3," he devotes a significant portion of the tutorial to licensings and using personal projects to market your photography business. If you are interested in architectural photography, you might like the promo video below.

For those of you who do not know Mike's work already, Mike is an amazing architectural photographer based out of Los Angeles. His humble beginnings revolved around shooting real estate photos for small $100,000–$300,000 homes. As his career continued to grow, Mike focused on higher end real estate clients as well as more commercial clients such as architects, interiors designers, and high-end home builders. While Mike was building up his portfolio in Lake Tahoe, he knew ultimately he needed to make the big jump to Los Angeles and start competing with the larger, more established architectural photographers. As the story goes, Mike wanted to make his portfolio as big, exotic, and impressive as possible so for his first personal project he set off to Iceland to photograph the unique Nordic architecture found on the island. I still remember him asking me if I wanted to go "travel around Iceland in a van" and turning it down because I thought Iceland was nothing but ice. What a mistake that was not going. Below you can see a few of Mike's images from Iceland, and while they themselves did not necessarily go "viral," I know how important these images were in Mike's career. Without these images, Mike's career would probably not have, pardon the pun, taken off as fast as it had.

Mike spent his entire savings to travel to Iceland and capture unique architectural images.

Wake Turbulence

Mike's most successful viral photo series by far stems from his one-off airplane composite image called "Wake Turbulence." This image went massively viral within the aviation sector and even got a lot of attention from local and national news outlets, worldwide publications, and even Snoop Dogg Instagrammed it on his account (can anyone find that link from his massive IG page?). The success of "Wake Turbulence" gave Mike the confidence to then self-fund a worldwide "YOLO" trip around the globe as he reproduced the same style image using airports from Germany, New Zealand, the UAE, Japan, the UK, Switzerland, Brazil, Australia, and more. With the combined exposure from the original photo, "Wake Turbulence" has taken off to new heights as the project continues to gain the attention of news organizations, fine art collectors, advertising agencies, and aviation companies around the world. 

In addition to "Wake Turbulence," Mike has had some other photos and series go fairly viral including an aerial series documenting the Port of Los Angeles shipping strike that took place in 2015, his recreation of Pan Am's golden age of flight, and to a lesser degree his Kickstarter book "LA Airspace" which captures the city of Los Angeles from above. Although "Wake Turbulence" is by far Mike's most successful photo series to date, I hope you can see how these four or five unique photo series collectively have helped Mike put his work in front of millions of potential clients and buyers.

Let's Talk About the Money

The real purpose of this entire article and video is to help photographers understand the power that a viral photo series or image can provide your business. There are some very real tangible monetary values that these photos can provide, but there are just as many intangible benefits to having your work spread like wildfire across the world. We discuss all of these in the video but I'll outline a few quickly here as well.

Exposure

Exposure is one of the most powerful tools you can use to get your work in front of potential clients as well as help brand your business. There is a reason companies like Coca-Cola, Miller Lite, Ikea, AT&T, and thousands of other companies pay to have their work on all sorts of advertising platforms. They are paying to have their brand recognized by millions of people. The problem photographers face is that 1) when their work goes viral they usually aren't the ones in control of how their image is presented, and 2) their viral content is almost always void of their actual company name, logo, or even byline underneath the work. So how does exposure serve as a useful benefit if you aren't making any money off of that exposure? 

Free exposure can put your work in front of millions of people.

The answer is a little complex but my basic belief is that the photograph itself is your branding. If an image of yours goes viral and you do nothing whatsoever to capitalize on it monetarily, that image can still serve as a great marketing tool for you. As long as you leverage that image in your marketing material and website portfolio, many times people will recognize that image and instantly have a connection to your work that they would not otherwise have. The power of brand recognition cannot be understated. Remembering an image gives your viewer a subconscious kick in the ass, and sparks an emotional connection to you, the photographer, that cannot be denied. When someone has seen your work somewhere else, it reminds them that you are successful, in the public eye, and your work is being used by other art buyers and advertisers. Even if your work was completely 100 percent stolen and you yourself aren't aware of the publication, people will still find an excitement in your work that they would not otherwise have had. 

A great example of this can be found in Noam Galai's "Stolen Scream" video when he first discovers his image has been ripped off. Immediately his coworker shows interest in buying one of his shirts simply because she had a personal connection with the work. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from Noam's story so I highly recommend watching the video we produced with him below.

Backlinks

Backlinks are another super powerful, yet non-tangible tool you can use to ride the wave of virality. Assuming your work hasn't been blatantly stolen (and trust me, it will be at a rate of 20:1), one of the easiest and cheapest ways to negotiate the use of an image is to ask for a backlink to your website. Backlinks are one major criteria search engines like Google and Bing use to value the usefulness of a website. If your website has tons of backlinks from massive publishers like CNN, The Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post, BBC, RT (Russia's news organization), or The New York Times, then your website is going to rank higher than other less "verified" websites. Other more social media based sites like Facebook, Reddit, YouTube, and Twitter can also drive tons of traffic your way as well, and are often used to help get the ball rolling. Getting the ball rolling is one of the most important aspects of making your photo series viral, and sites like Fstoppers, Petapixel, and Digital Photography School are a few great resources in helping promote your photos in the first place since we all focus on photography in general.

Backlinks from major publications can be valuable in and of themselves. In this case, I was paid 500 euros from the Daily Mail.

Now, it's important to understand that having more backlinks and a high page rank on your photography website doesn't necessarily equate to more success. What it does help with is placing your photography website and brand higher up the search results so when someone is looking for a photographer in your town, market, or genre they ultimately find you first. Mike Kelley and Peter Hurley are two great examples of photographers who have used backlinks and free exposure to help make their architectural and headshot websites rank on the front page of Google for their respective photography genres. In the long run, that value can be worth way more than a one-time payment from a news publication who runs your image for a small fee.  

Licensing

OK, here we go. Licensing is by far the best and most complex way to make actual, real money off of a viral photoshoot. Licensing is the bread and butter of commercial and advertising photography, yet so many photographers have absolutely no idea how to negotiate and draft up a licensing agreement. Most portrait and wedding photographers are used to dealing directly with a client, and they agree on a simple fee that basically equates to the photographer working "for hire" while still retaining the copyright. Deliverables are agreed upon either as proof images, a USB drive of high-res images, some prints, or the option to buy individual images and once that sale is done you never hear from the client again. With large companies, formal license contracts are usually used to outline the specific use of your images so that they can control the liability they may face publishing editorial or commercial photos they did not take themselves. Sometimes these contracts are as simple as an agreement through email that is fairly loose in contractual terms and other times a full, well designed license agreement is needed. Network television rarely ever runs anything without a license (more on that later) and depending on the size of the news publication they may or may not need a formal license but will always get something in writing showing you allowed them to run the image or video.

Editorial

So how much should you charge a company to run your content? That my friend is the $1,000,000 question. As many of the YouTube commentators have argued, Mike and I don't give you specific numbers because those numbers are very hard to set in stone. Let's first talk about editorial publications. These publications are more than likely going to publish an article about you the photographer and use your images to tell the story of the photoshoot itself. Many times you will find that a publication like this is worth the free press and backlinks alone as described above, so you might not charge them anything. It might also be a great way to help feed the fire that pushes your photos to becoming viral in the first place. However, if the article is not going to promote you and your website and it is aimed more as a sensational piece that uses your images to promote something not directly about you, I would suggest charging that company to use the images. I have found that for most small local news publications up to the larger online-only news publications, a good rate is somewhere between $75 to $500. What you decide to charge is part of the negotiation game but for me personally that is a good ball park figure.

You also have to consider if the final publication will be web only or actual print. In the case of print, they are probably charging money to purchase their printed copy so they have a budget to spend on editorial licenses. For me, I value printed publications less because they cannot give lifelong backlinks. Therefore I typically charge more for print than for web (but it is really cool getting those tear sheets from printed work). Obviously web publications make money off online ads but depending on the size of the website, those ads may be generating thousands of dollars per article or tens of dollars per article, so it really helps to know the readership of that publication. The more eyeballs on that website the more you can charge. So while a relatively small niche website might only have $20 to pay for an image, The Huffington Post might have $150 or $300 depending on the demand of your photo(s). Keep in mind, those backlinks from larger websites are also very valuable to you long term so you might want to negotiate a lower price but require a link to your website or blog be included.  

A great resource to use to determine the going rate of a single image is to use a license calculator like this one from Getty. Here you can input the type of use, format, usage specs which include the circulation, size of distribution, and duration, and finally the target market. This will give you a great idea of what Getty would charge for a stock image used in any particular publication and serve as a decent starting point for your own negotiations. Keep in mind, if you have created a truly viral image it is probably one of a kind and should be valued significantly higher than a normal "stock" photo. I know Mike Kelley is friends with the guy who captured the Michael Jackson stretcher photo from a helicopter and every year he makes bank because he has the best image that represents Jackson's death. Another great resource Mike highly recommends is the site Who Pays Photographers which has an updated spreadsheet showing real-world rates from publications ranging from Vogue to Bleacher Report. Finally, another great resource to use in determining the readership of any given publication is to look on their website for a media kit. These media kits are often used to sell advertisers ad space, but it should give you an idea of how much that publication charges for space as well as how large their circulation is locally or worldwide.

Use a stock license calculator to get a ballpark estimate of how much your images are worth.

Commercial

The most likely way your viral photo will be used is in the editorial world where the photo itself is the story. However, every now and then you will also find that a large corporation or commercial entity wants to use one of your photos for advertising purposes or for any commercial application that does not apply to any sort of editorial story at all. This is where your usage license can become very lucrative. If you have ever heard people talk about those large $60,000–$150,000 advertising campaigns and have wondered where all of that money goes, usually a large chunk of that budget is spent on the licensing of the final images. The day rate of any given photographer might be $5,000 per day but the licensing they make off one or two images could be worth 2–5 times that amount. 

I never would have guessed this image could have been licensed commercially, but it has.

I've personally made a few thousand dollars licensing my "Stun Gun Photoshoot" images to commercial companies. In every one of those situations, the final campaign did not even hint at the fact that the people in the photos were being stunned by a stun gun which is pretty hilarious. I also found myself using as many resources as possible to figure out a proper licensing usage fee for these jobs since it is not something I do on a weekly basis. My best resource is of course my other photographer friends who work in the commercial world day in and day out. Aside from using other photographer friends, you can also use online calculators like the one mentioned above as well. Another interesting resource you can use is FotoQuote Pro which is a photo pricing guide in software form. The cost of this software is $149 which isn't bad at all compared to other programs aimed towards photographers, and it will give you real-world quotes on all sorts of commercial projects. 

Mike has also told me he has had great results consulting companies like Wonderful Machine. Wonderful Machine is a pretty popular consultant group most photographers will be familiar with and they help facilitate the gap between brands and photographers. Another one of Mike's go-to consultants is called Creative Picnic. They are basically a marketing agency for photographers so if you are feeling completely out of the loop on pricing your work, they can most definitely give you some good advice. I haven't personally used either of these services but I know Mike has worked with Wonderful Machine in the past and is currently using Creative Picnic as his photography agent. 

In the end, pricing your work for commercial clients is a huge beast of a conversation to tackle. I've had some mild success in this arena, but the main point I want to get across is that these companies have tons of money to spend on their commercial campaigns so do not undersell yourself if you are approached by someone wanting to do something bigger than simply an editorial story. Fstoppers is currently working on a tutorial on the business of commercial photography where we will go into the nitty gritty details of all things licensing, marketing, contracts, proposals, and working with editorial and commercial clients. If you want to take your photography business to the next level and peruse this sort of high-end clientele, I highly recommend signing up for our presale mailing list below. 

Subscribe for More on Fstoppers Upcoming Business of Photography Tutorial

Conclusion

Phew, if you made it this far reading then you probably can understand how exhausted I am writing all of this material. Making any of your work go viral is an art itself and it's not easy. Sometimes you will plan a shoot around it being viral and it will flop, and other times you will casually release a shaky video from your iPhone and next thing you know it's being posted on every blog and newspaper around the world. I hope through this article and video you realize how powerful and valuable a viral photoshoot can be for your brand, and also how lucrative it can be as well. Professional photographers should do anything they can to push their businesses to new heights. Sometimes that involves working for free or freely giving your images and videos to a company for increased press, backlinks, or viral exposure. Other times growing your business means cashing in on those editorial and commercial licenses. After all, putting money in our bank accounts is the ultimate end goal of any career or profession. 

Don't get discouraged if your photo series does not go viral. These things take time and are extremely unpredictable. Also don't get frustrated when small websites or sites that host user-generated content rip off and steal your work. Sites like Reddit and Imgur are all built around intellectual property theft, but at the same time those are the very sites that will often start the whole process of making money from larger clients too. Without an initial push from someone, chances are you alone can't get your work in front of enough people to make it go viral on its own. Sometimes you have to issue cease and desist letters and other times you might not hear back at all while you weigh the possibility of legal action (which can be a pain in the ass and rarely worth the effort if the infringement is an individual or tiny publication). 

A funny story I'll add here at the end involves Viacom and Comedy Central. Every major company that has reached out to me has either had my explicit permission to run my images or has paid a license fee we both agreed on. Every one of them except Viacom. If Viacom had reached out to me about being on Comedy Central's show "@Midnight," I probably would have been super excited. Up until that moment, I had never been featured on Comedy Central, but I grew up watching Chris Hardwick host MTV's "Singled Out" so it was a pretty fun story having him and Drew Carey comment on my work. I wound up not sending a letter to Viacom and I never pursued legal action (maybe I should have).  

Should I have sued Comedy Central or use the appearance as leverage later? Let me know in the comments

As I was uploading this YouTube video, I noticed it kept getting marked as containing copyrighted material from Viacom. This really made me angry because clearly the video clips I used from Comedy Central were used as commentary on the very content I helped them create for their show. I wound up disputing the copyright claim through YouTube's backend and added a snarky little note to Viacom saying how shitty it was for them to dispute my video when they flat out ripped off my content without contacting me in the first place. Mind you, they used my photos, an edited version of my "Stun Gun" video, and even showed unrelated photos from one of my websites. It was all flagrant violations that was broadcast out to a worldwide audience. Granted it was hilarious content but stolen content nevertheless.

Let me know your success and failures when it comes to issuing editorial and commercial licenses of your own in the comments below. I hope to write more articles about this topic so we can all pull the veil of secrecy off our industry and get more money into the hands of content creators like you guys. If you have any general questions for me or Mike Kelley, leave them in the comments below and we will both do our best to answer anything you throw at us.

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14 Comments

Wow, that's a monster of a post. I hope other people appreciate this as much as I do. This info really isn't available anywhere else I've seen.

Patrick Hall's picture

Yeah the editors hate me. We need to see what the longest post on FS is; I didn't even get to discussing copyright and infringements

Patrick Hall's picture

I knew it...should have covered copyright as well

Great post mate! :)

Michael B. Stuart's picture

So since I can see the word count/views widget, I swapped the 2 in my head and thought the 1007 views at the time was the word count. I was probably about 2k words in when I started thinking "man this 1000 word article reads long."
I'm glad I stuck with it though. Some great advice, and stories. It seems that steady hard work towards something is a great foundation, but a little luck, timing, and outside the box thinking can make a world of difference.
Congrats on your successes, and yes -> sue Viacom! ;)

Louis Tinsley's picture

Great post Patrick! Super in depth, but one of the most most helpful articles I've read in a while.

Kirk Darling's picture

I didn't see anything mentioned of registering the copyright. Fortunately there are so many ethical companies willing to pay you anyway.

Patrick Hall's picture

Mike and I talk about it in the video. Honestly I was so burned out from writing that I'll have to save that topic for another post :)

Jeetendra Bangera's picture

Very interesting and inspiring post Patrick. Cheers!

Réjean Brandt's picture

'Goes viral for longest post'. Thanks so much for taking the time to put this awesome post together. So much great info to learn from. Cheers!

Andrej Grznar's picture

wau! fantastic work Patrick, so many great insights! Thank you!

Ty Poland's picture

This is great Patrick, Thanks for posting it!

congrats on your marathon post! also learned a bunch