Working with Agencies

Many photographers find that handling stock sales directly is too much administration and prefer to have their images with a stock photo agency. On this page I will look at what working with an agency involves.

What is a stock photography agency?
The difference between an agency and an agent
How does the relationship with an agency work?
Finding a stock photography agency
Some tips from Alamy

What is a stock photography agency?

I interviewed Alexandra Bortkiewicz from Alamy and asked her to give us some input on submitting to a photographic agency.  You can also watch a video of Alex outlining the kind of images required by global markets.

Figure 2: Interview with Alexandra Bortkiewicz from Alamy on being represented by a photographic agency

The difference between an agency and an agent

Its helpful to recognize the difference between a photo agency and a photo agent. Often photographers are disappointed with agencies they are working with because they expect them to behave like an agent. There are no hard and fast rules here but let's draw out some of the major differences.

A photo agency

Photo agencies are quite often called 'stock libraries' because their emphasis is on the stock of pictures they represent. Supplying pictures to a mass of different clients, most of whom simply need images to illustrate something, a photo agency is usually more interested in the subject matter of what you have captured than in your particular creative vision. They tend to be more interested in your pictures than in you as the photographer. They would obviously value you and your creative vision, but primarily in terms of the number of pictures you can produce and what your creative vision does for the subject matter, which is what they are selling on to their clients. Photo agencies tend to major on licensing images operating on numbers - high numbers of contributors, high numbers of pictures and driving high numbers of sales every month. For this reason, they tend to be very buyer focused. They have sales people constantly interacting with clients and turning around picture requests from clients within minutes. There is always a rush and a shortage of time in a picture agency. If there isn't, you should be concerned!

Photo agencies also tend to want to get your images out to as many markets as possible. So they do the hard work of setting up relationships with subagents and feeding your images through to those agents in different parts of the world. Relationship with subagents gives an opportunity to make sales in markets that you or your agency could never penetrate yourselves.

As a photographer your experience of a photo agency may be somewhat disappointing. You may get the feeling that you are not the centre of their world. It is true, you are not, the buyers are! But this is as it should be and they are doing you a great service in keeping the buyers at the centre.

You may not get the individual attention you would like and most of the answers to your questions are likely to be available in a FAQ section on the photo agency's website. This is not because the photo agency does not want to be friendly but simply because the economic model does not enable much attention to be given to you. Often this is because the photo agency is giving you up to 50% of every sale they make and they have to bear the costs of all the systems, marketing and sales. That means that their profit margins are very small. That is why they are always in a rush to get back to their sales clients and turn around another sale. Don' be put off by this. It is to your benefit that they are madly getting on with this work. If your commission is 50% you are earning as much as they are on every sale without bearing any of the costs they are bearing. Rather seek to understand how this market works and work with it. There are good returns to be made if you can put your ego aside for a moment, and sell the mass of your stock photography through this channel.

A photo agent

Photography agents are not primarily focused on licensing, although many of them do license pictures as one income stream. Photo agents tend to focus on higher margin income streams such as fine art prints, exhibitions, assignments and major funded projects. Photo agents are primarily interested in you and your creative vision rather than in your pictures and the subject matter of your pictures. Private agents like Shutha team member Dominique Le Roux and gallery owners fall into the 'photo agents' category as do high end organisations like Magnum Photos, Agence Vu, VII, Noor or Panos Pictures. Not primarily focused on low margin stock sales, agents tend to focus on rarity. For this reason standards are very high and they only tend to deal with a few very gifted photographers. And unlike photo agencies, they demand exclusivity and they tend to want to take over all your sales and marketing. You can find yourself owned by them and beholden to their work on your behalf. Of course there is lots of individual attention and your work tends to be leveraged to a range of different markets from book publishing to fine art to stock and to landing you assignments.

Some photo agencies are also photo agents. Getty Images, for instance is primarily an agency. Yet it has a section called Reportage where a select group of photographers are cared for and promoted along the lines of a photo agent.

The Choice

´╗┐While having a photo agent might be seen as the ideal by photographers, usually this comes at a high price. If you are contracting an agent on an individual basis, you will be paying handsomely for the service. The bar to get entry to be represented by a gallery or an agent-like organization is extremely high. You have to have developed a unique creative vision and come to the attention of such organizations usually through winning major international awards and grants. So not many photographers even have the choice of being represented by an agent.

So in writing this section we are focused on photo agencies as these tend to be the ones that are focused on stock photography sales.´╗┐

How does the relationship with an agency work?

The normal flow of a relationship with an agency would be something like this:

  1. Find out what you can about an agency and make contact
  2. Apply to be represented by them
  3. Finalise a contract with them
  4. Supply images regularly
  5. Notify them when you upload with an email or link to a gallery
  6. Receive sales reports and payment from the agency
  7. Continue to regularly supply relevant and updated imagery

Finding a stock photography agency

There are a lot of stock photography agencies out there, but not all of them are open to working with individual photographers, or anyone but the big names. Here are some points to consider when choosing a photographic agency:

Reference

If possible, get a reference from someone who knows the agency and check that they are reliable, that they pay and that they are good to work with.

Image type

Spend some time on their website getting to know what kind of images they sell and what markets they are targetting. Match the kind of images you create to an agency who sells similar types of images, for exampe a photographer who takes pictures of architecture or industry might connect with Construction Photography.

Technical specs

Find out what kind of file size and quality they require, and check if you can supply it. Here is an example of Africa Media Online's submission requirements.

Metadata specs

Find out how they want captions/metadata supplied and check if you can supply it.  If you are going to supply more than one agency, you may not want to supply to agencies with very different requirements. Here are Africa Media Online's metadata requirements.

Image supply

Find out how the agency wants you to supply the images (for example, only on harddrive or only by ftp) and check if you can fulfil this at minimal cost; you want to be able to supply them with regular updates of images.

Commission

The commission taken by an agency on the sale of your images usually varies between 40% and 70%

Credit lines

Check what credit lines the agency will give you. Standard credit lines when images are sold through an agency are Photographer/Agency  - in some cases when an Agency uses subagents the credit line may be Photographer/Agency/Subagency. In some cases your name may be dropped and it becomes Agency/Subagency. In this case you would still be paid, you just would not be credited. It is often also not possible for agencies to ensure credit is always given depending on their agreements with subagents and also the publication that is publishing the image. The Economist, for instance, never credits pictures.

Territory

The concept of territory is becoming much more difficult to monitor with online sales. However, you may still want to try and limit sales to a particular region so that you can use different agents in different territories.

Rates

Different countries tend to have very different base rates for sales. You may decide that the rates charged in some nations are lower than what you are prepared to accept. However, you need to bear in mind that the sales made would be sales you are not likely to be able to make yourself.

Exclusivity

Some agencies ask for exclusive rights, which means that you cannot place those images with any other agency.  This is more ideal for the agency in that it gives them greater leverage to get you better prices. However, you should only give exclusive rights if you are sure that the agency is going to do a great job of selling your images and you do not have an interest in selling your images in any other way.

Subagents

If you join an agency, that agency will more than likely be making direct sales, as well as using a network of distributors or sub-agents. When your images are sold through a sub-agent, the sales price will then be split with both the sub-agent and the agent as both have played a part in making the sale. The resulting amount per image that comes the photographer's way is less. However, these are sales that you would never have made yourself. So although the income per image is less your total picture sales increases.

Contract

Look through the contract that they want you to sign and see if you can agree to it. The contract will have reference to the commission taken, whether the agreement is exclusive or non-exclusive, what territories the agency may sell into and whether they can use sub-agents. Here is an example of a representation agreement on the Africa Media Online signup site.

Some tips from Alamy

I interviewed Alexandra Bortkiewicz from Alamy and asked her to give us some input on submitting to a photographic agency.  You can also watch a video of Alex outlining the kind of images required by global markets.

Figure 2: Interview with Alexandra Bortkiewicz from Alamy on being represented by a photographic agency