By Janet Smith

The stock photo industry, with its decreasing returns to photographers, has left many wondering whether it's worth jumping into the game. 

But no matter what you think of today’s royalty rates, distribution outlets or the industry in general, you can take specific steps to protect your creative rights and the marketability of your images.

First and foremost, it is critical you register the copyright for your images with the U.S. Copyright Office. While your copyright is secured upon the creation of the image, registration allows for recovery of statutory damages should someone infringe your copyright.  

Putting an image out on the Web without appropriate identifying information is like chucking it into a black hole, says David Riecks, a professional photographer and consultant on photographic metadata.

Just as a reporter should include who, what, where, when, why and how in a story, he says, photographers should include identifying information in their images files.

“It’s surprising how many people don’t have basic information with their images,” Riecks says.

It’s particularly surprising given how easily digital images are copied, shared and any connections to their creators — and rights holders — broken. Images lacking identifying information will be put at even more risk if an orphan works exemption is added to U.S. Copyright law. Such an exemption, already law in several countries, would allow the use of an image without licensing if its owner can’t be located.

Consistent use of metadata also helps those who use images. They need licensing metadata to determine their rights to use an image; contact information to ask about licensing rights; and caption information to identify who or what is in the image, the now defunct Stock Artists Alliance pointed out in its 2006 “Metadata Manifesto.”

Avoid Orphaning your Photos

Riecks recommends six ways to keep your images from becoming orphan works.

  • Add metadata in camera.
  • Add metadata post-capture.
  • Watermark your images.
  • Choose carefully where you upload your images.
  • Join the PLUS Registry.
  • Register your images with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Camera Bits Home PageSoftware tools that help photographers process images, such as Camera Bits' Photo Mechanic and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, allow you to create templates to “stamp” the image files with identifying metadata as your computer ingests them, Riecks says.

He includes in all his images descriptive caption information, a headline to sum up what the image shows and a basic set of keywords.

“Unless it’s hundreds of images,” he says, “it shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes.”

After you’ve determined your “worthy” shots, Riecks says, craft a better caption and add keywords to flesh out the information.

Metadata are “bread crumbs,” he says, leading you back to an image you need to find.

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Home Page“Over the 20 years I’ve been involved, it’s gotten much easier,” he says. “The compatibility between programs is better. XMP, IPTC, there was a time they weren’t always synchronized. A lot of that has settled down.”

Riecks publishes Controlled Vocabulary, a Web site with many useful best practices about embedding metadata in IPTC fields of images destine for stock sales. 

PLUS Registry

“One of those fields you should fill in is your rights-based information: creator name, contact information, copyright notice, PLUS ID if you have one.” Riecks says. “That will tie into the PLUS Registry and help people find you.”

 PLUS Registry Home PageIf you’re licensing directly to a company, you can stamp in specific rights to that company, he says.

“The No. 1 mistake a photographer makes is not doing anything,” Riecks says. “If it seems overwhelming to add metadata to your images, then draw a line and say, ‘From here on forward, I’ll do it.’ Then when you have time, go back to older images and add information.”

The PLUS ID is part of the PLUS Registry, the next phase of a nonprofit global effort to develop standards for identifying rights and rights holders for photographs.  The registry uses unique IDs connected to remotely stored information, allowing potential image users to identify and locate an image’s owner and the rights associated with that image.

Even without a name or PLUS ID, you will be able to upload a low-resolution copy of the image to the registry. If it’s in the registry, the registry’s image recognition function will find it.

The registry is still being developed. Beta testing of the system involved more than 20,000 registrants from more than 140 countries. PLUS officials report that the testing, which included NPPA members, resulted in revisions to support use by businesses of any size and an expanded hub design, so that a search of the PLUS Registry will also search other connected registries – and vice versa. 

The registry addresses a big problem – stripping of metadata from images in the review, prepress and publishing process.

Riecks says, “It’s amazing the number of places that strip metadata during resizing. Even the date stamp is gone. Why? It’s the mystery of the ages. It could be complete ineptitude. Metadata does take a tiny bit of space. More importantly, it takes some processing time. Given a large volume, it could have an impact. Most either keep it or wipe it clean. It’s usually everything or nothing. … I tell people to avoid Facebook and test any social medium they are using, especially if they plan to use it as a back-up.”



An important metadata field includes a set of words that might be used to describe the picture. The right keywords can make the difference between your images sitting idly in a database and successful searches yielding sales.

Riecks’ Controlled Vocabulary website also offers best practices on keywords. The most crucial and fundamental best practice is including a well-written caption that answers the who, what, where, when, why and how of the image.

For example, under “where,” the site suggests asking these questions:

  • Where is the subject located? (and is this important?)
  • Would a researcher use the location/city/state/county field in order to find the image?
  • Is the area part of a larger region?
  • Is the activity occurring inside or outside?

Riecks notes that most people do better with specifics than generalities when keywording. “Think wider,” he advises.

“On the first batch, use specific keywords that work for you,” he says, “but then go wider. You need to think like the person searching.”

Geographic location is always helpful in finding an image, Riecks says.

But he and others warn that adding keywords not germane to the image is counterproductive.

Scott McKiernan, CEO and founder of Zuma Press (and NPPA vice president), says, “I like to tell people to describe the photo to someone who can’t see it. Do it without embellishing, bringing in something you don’t need. …  Don’t repeat things. That can count against you in some search engines.”

Riecks says, “Alamy makes everybody break out their keywords. Some people were putting in keywords that had nothing to do with the image so that it would come up in searches. That’s a very bad practice.”


Before signing with a stock agency or distributor, it’s important to understand the terms of the relationship and what you can expect when it comes to marketing your images.

  • What commission will the agency or distributor charge?
  • Does it require exclusive rights to the images submitted?  
  • Does it have any sub-distributor agreements with other outlets and how will that affect the royalty fees that come to you?
  • How will the agency ensure that your work is seen?
  • How does its search and retrieval system work?
  • What are the requirements for submitting images?
  • Will you have an editor to work with?
  • How big is their library?
  • What types of images do they sell?
  • Are images presented chronologically?
  • How often are you expected to submit new images?
  • How will you be paid and how often will you be paid. Some distributors require that sales reach a certain dollar amount before a payment is made.
  • What happens if you want out of the agreement?

“All the contracts are long and complex,” says Jim Pickerell, industry observer, author and consultant. "Try to understand the contract terms, but they all favor the agency owner. … The only way you’ll know if a contract is 'fair’ or not is after you’ve worked with the agency for a while. Then you can decide whether the revenue generated is worth the effort you are putting into production.”

McKiernan advises consulting an attorney, not just peers, about a contract.

But contracts, he says, don’t have to be complex to be workable.

“Don’t make unreasonable demands or requests,” McKiernan said. “Judges can see through that if a dispute ends up in court. … Put yourself in the place of the person licensing your photo or making an assignment. If they ask for something unreasonable, you can ask why they want that. Now at least you’re talking. It’s got to work for both sides. … It’s a relationship, a partnership. A contract should outline what we’re supposed to do together. It becomes a reference once you’ve signed it.”


Janet Smith is a freelance writer based in Colorado. Formerly, she was the editorial page editor and managing editor at the The Island Packet in Hilton Head Island, S.C. She is a graduate of the University of Kansas with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in business administration.