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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.