Looking for Supplemental Income from Stock Photography? Be Sure to Get Releases.

Looking for Supplemental Income from Stock Photography? Be Sure to Get Releases.

One of the first things I learned early on after becoming a full-time photographer is the importance of establishing a diversity of revenue streams. I’m not a traditional commercial photographer whose brand is predominantly focused in one area, or specialty, such as booking client gigs (weddings, maternity, etc), shooting products photography for companies, or catering to the swath of people who need headshots.

Rather, my business model revolves almost exclusively around establishing multiple revenue streams where I am paid to create varying forms of content using the photos I take. The more revenue streams I forge, the more money I earn from my photos while also lessening the impact of losing any given one. While many of these revenue streams are active insofar as I have to create new content in order to collect a new sum of money, one of my favorite aspects of my business is fostering passive revenue streams. 

The Benefits of Stock Photography as a Passive Revenue Streams

A passive revenue stream is one where you have the potential to collect revenue with minimal-to-no effort beyond the initial steps of establishing it. One of my favorite examples of a passive revenue stream for my particular business is stock photography. In my case, I’m partial to Adobe Stock because of the Publish Service built right into Lightroom Classic CC. That alone saves several steps (more on that in a minute). Also, I’ve worked at, and with, several organizations whose design team use Adobe Stock as their first destination for licensing campaign-related images, videos, and graphics.

Image by Brian Matiash | www.matiash.com

Unlike full-time stock photographers who go to great lengths to conceptualize, set up, and execute unique stock shoots, the bulk of my stock portfolio is comprised of photos that I’ve taken simply while out shooting. In some cases, these photos serve double-duty because, in addition to being used as stock, I may also incorporate them into another form of content in one of my active revenue streams.

Once every few weeks, I’ll carve out a few hours to browse through my entire photo catalog and add “stock-worthy” images to an Adobe Lightroom collection. Once the photos have been cleanly edited, I’ll add identifiable titles, descriptions, and keywords. Finally, because photos can be sent to Adobe Stock for review from within Lightroom Classic CC, the only thing I have to do is click the “Publish” button and wait for the license income to start rolling in.

You Seriously Didn’t Think It Was That Easy, Right?

The truth is that some of the most successful stock photography is borne out of anticipating the needs of the broadest population of those who… need stock photography, and will work within the rules of the stock agency, specifically around the requirement of releases. Unless your stock photography strategy is to upload a thousand photos of a forest or some remote wilderness, you’re likely going to need some form of a release.

You certainly can try. | Image by Brian Matiash | www.matiash.com

Virtually no stock site will accept your photos if they contain certain subjects or elements unless you can provide an appropriate, executed release. Do your stock photos have identifiable people in them? Then you’ll need a model release. Do they include a recognizable structure, like the Eiffel Tower with its night lights on, or location, like inside a museum? Well then, you best get yourself a property release. And then there are the restrictions around trademarks. I hope your Photoshop cloning skills are tight because you’re going to be removing a lot of logos.

It took quite a bit to seamlessly clone out the logos and branding from this tractor. But, it was ultimately approved into my stock collection. | Image by Brian Matiash | www.matiash.com

Why Releases Are Needed

It’s as important to understand why you need a release as it is to know when you need one. If you want to simply take a photo of someone, you don’t need a release. You can even sell a photo you’ve taken directly without needing a release. Also, you’re off the hook for needing a release if your photos will be used for news or editorial purposes.

On the other hand, you absolutely need to obtain a completed and signed release whenever the intent is to publish a photo you’ve taken to be used in a commercial way, or in a way that intimates the endorsement of a product, organization, or service. By providing a signed release to a publisher, or a publisher’s proxy—the stock agency—you’re indicating that the person(s) or place(s) in your photo are cleared to be used for just about any commercial purpose, except if it’s illegal or pornographic.

Making It All Work

In my case, whenever I go out on a shoot with family or friends, I usually ask in advance whether they’d be ok with signing a model release, just in case I get a photo of them that could work well for stock purposes. It’s no secret that one of the most needed types of stock photography is of natural and authentic people doing things naturally and authentically. Most of my favorite stock photos fitting this description have been taken on such outings, so having the releases lined up in advance is a big help.

For some reason, this random photo of my wife carrying produce from a farmers market is one of my most licensed photos. Who knew?! | Image by Brian Matiash | www.matiash.com

Most reputable stock agencies will provide acceptable versions of model and property releases for you to use (I linked to Adobe’s above). However, as you could imagine, it’s not always convenient to complete a release form that has to be printed out, written on, and scanned. That’s why I use a relic of an app called Easy Release (iOS | Android). 

With it, I can take the exact terms stated in Adobe’s releases and create a digital version with all the required fields. In fact, you can create different releases for each stock agency you contribute to. So, when I need to complete a new release, I start a new document and fill in the pertinent info, embed a photo of the person (you need a separate release for each individual and, in some cases, each shoot). Finally, I’ll have them—as well as a witness and a parent/guardian if you’re photographing minors—sign the document with their finger on my phone the same way you would when paying with Square, for example. From there, a copy gets automatically stored in my Dropbox for when I am ready to publish, and I can email a copy to the individual for their records.

Because my niece is a minor, I needed her parent's signature in addition to a witness. | Image by Brian Matiash | www.matiash.com

Stock photography can be a really fun and relatively frictionless way to make your photos work a little extra for you as a passive revenue stream. If you’re interested, I recommend checking out the Adobe Stock Contributor Guide to get a better sense of what is involved and whether you would be a good fit.

Brian Matiash's picture

Brian Matiash is a Portland, OR based professional photographer, published author, and host of the No Name Photo Show podcast. He is also an ambassador for Zeiss, G-Technology, Shimoda, and Wine Country Camera. Brian contributes regularly to a variety of photography publications, both online and in print.

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Micro Stock is a cancer to the industry.

Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.

@Johnny Rico, can you briefly explain why you think that, and what alternatives might be better?

Good info Brian.

Obliged, Leigh. Thank you!

I am working on this for 2019. But from what I have read, Adobe sucks at revenue sharing? and other sites as well in paying fees to photographers. If this is true any suggestions where one might submit work for stock considerations? I am not looking to get "rich" off stock, but would like to build some revenue if my work is worthy. Ken

I’ve only recently been contributing to Adobe. Historically, I’ve submitted photos and videos to Stocksy, a co-op agency where all members have voting rights, etc. They have a bit over 1,000 contributors last I checked.

With that said, I feel that it is in my best interest to diversify my offerings, as it were, by contributing to one or two other agencies (assuming I am accepted).

Thank you, that is helpful

I started shooting stock in early 2016, by the end of the year i was doing it full time. Now it makes up about 90% of my monthly income. If you want to make any decent money then going exclusive with an agency is usually the way to go as the rates are much better. It's also much less work than submitting to multiple agencies.

I'm an exclusive contributor for iStock photo, and as which my photo's also sell on Getty images.

nice and interesting article. how much adobe pays for each photo used ? for some it's a few cents

Nice article. Releases are vital for any photo with a recognizable person or building, whether you use it for stock or some other use. The problem is trying to make any money from stock/microstock. If you're not shooting stock full time, I suggest submitting subjects that are unique or hard to shoot (bald eagles in flight, erupting volcanoes, etc.), and see what people are searching for at the stock site, and submit any images you have for that topic.

Have Fun,

I'm a little confused about property releases. Do I need to obtain them for when I am photographing Big Ben and Eiffel Tower for example?

I have wondered the very same thing. It seems like reaching the appropriate party to obtain a release could be more difficult than it's worth.

There are two collections of photos used for stock, creative and editorial, usually when we think editorial most people think of red carpets or news etc but within stock editorial is for unreleased shots of building, people etc.

The photos uploaded in the editorial section are not allowed to be used for things like commercials or companies that are promoting a product, so therefore their sales potential is much less.

Creative is the collection where you would need Model releases and Property releases. With your above example of big ben, if the photo was of the city scape with big ben as a part of the horizon/ city scape then no you would not need a property release and would be ok for either the creative collection or the editorial. If it was just the Clock itself then if you wanted to use it as a creative image then possibly you would, this is case by case, depending on wether the building is owned by the government, private owned, ran as a museum etc. If it was a photo of somebody taking a selfie with big ben in the back then you would need a model release for the person, but then the emphasis is also on the building so you would likely need a property release from the building. For example just across the road from big ben is the London eye, That is ok as a cityscape shot, but it is not ok when it is the main focus of the issue. Often you can find this information on their website as they often have their photos rules.

Day time shots of the Eiffel tower for example would be ok for both creative and editorial but night time shots are not ok for either as the lights are technically an art piece by a designer so you would need a property release from him for his artwork.

Getty have a website where you can search for certain building and it will give you some information. For example here is there post about the Eiffel tower.


If you can get a Property release then i would always suggest getting it as it will increase your chances of sales because its less risk for the client.

Does that clear it up any? If not let me know, i'm happy to answer any questions.