February 19, 2019

Stock agencies – what do you give up when you sign up?

Photo by: Jon Tyson

A stock photography agency is essentially a middleman between you as a photographer and the licensors of your work. Typically, the agency takes a commission from each sale. For photographers, working with a stock agency can help get your work in front of new audiences, expanding your profile and opening new revenue streams. At the same time, however, working with stock agencies often means you sign away control of how your work is used, and can also devalue your work when it comes to licensing images directly.

Plus, in the case of copyright infringement, agencies tend to favor their clients rather than their photographers, which can make it extremely difficult and in some cases impossible to pursue a claim. With all this in mind, it can be tough to weigh the benefits and disadvantages of working with a stock agency. What rights do you give up when working with a stock agency, and is it worth it for the income it generates?

To answer those questions and more, we’ve pulled together insight from Pixsy’s vast experience and expertise to create a comprehensive guide.

What is a stock photography agency?

The Internet is hungry for images. From large-scale marketers to individual bloggers, everyone needs pictures to enhance or illustrate their content. Stock photography agencies exist to serve these diverse, constantly changing requirements, selling imagery en masse to a wide range of industries, often at a lower price point than through independent photographers.When you sign up to sell images via a stock agency, you agree to do so within the price structure offered by that agency.

Your photos can then be downloaded by the agency’s clients and you relinquish control over how they will be used.Normally, stock agencies pay a commission to photographers from each sale, with the percentage depending on the agency, their model, and their market.  Alamy, for example, pays 40 percent (dropped from 50 percent in February 2019), while the likes of Adobe, Fotolia, and Shutterstock offer 33 percent. This article provides a detailed overview of the major stock agencies and their various features and payment structures. Meanwhile, this complete guide explains how to sell stock photos online.

What are the advantages of signing up to a stock site?

For some photographers, selling through a stock agency makes good business sense. If your images fit the requirements of an agency that works in a niche and/or with a select number of photographers, you’ll have less competition and a higher potential to generate revenue. Similarly, for photographers starting out or those wanting to expand their reach, agencies represent an opportunity for boosting your sales – even if it’s most likely a relatively small passive income (thanks to ever-increasing competition).

Tip: If you decide to go ahead, check whether the stock agency you sign up to offers royalties. Agreeing to your images being sold under a royalty-free license means they can potentially be used for multiple purposes, while you only receive a one-off payment. Allowing your images to be licensed royalty-free also makes it much more difficult for you to determine unlicensed usages, and to pursue copyright infringements for unauthorized use.

What are the disadvantages of signing up to a stock site?

Your work can be used for morally questionable causes

It can be exciting to see your image used in a marketing campaign or cover story. But when you upload your work to a stock agency site, it’s impossible to predict where it might end up. And as technology makes media increasingly manipulable, a growing number of industries and individuals are using stock photography for more sinister means, from fake news to political propaganda.

Similarly, for your models, the unexpected consequences of appearing in a stock photograph can range from embarrassing to life-changing (and not in a good way).

It’s hard to identify valid licenses of your work

Stock agencies will not disclose the name of their clients, the licensor, in sales sheets that are provided to their photographers. Photographers will commonly only receive information such as the type of usage, the dates and terms of use, and geographic factors - making it difficult for you to match licensed vs. unlicensed uses, and requiring you to follow up via email to confirm the status of licensure.

Often, stock agencies are slow to respond to photographers’ queries as to whether a particular usage is licensed or used without authorization, sometimes taking months to respond.

It could lower the amount you can charge for direct licensing

Stock licensing prices are generally lower than you would charge as an independent seller. Having those prices listed publicly online can, therefore, reduce the amount you can ask for when contacted directly to negotiate a license, or when a licensing agent like Pixsy acts on your behalf. At the same time, it lowers the potential license fees you can request when pursuing cases of unauthorized use of your work.

It’s much harder to pursue a copyright claim

As we’ve already seen, stock agencies typically prioritize their client, which means that when it comes to resolving disputes, photographers are at a significant disadvantage. A close reading of many stock agencies’ terms and conditions reveals photographers’ interests are of little concern in cases of image misuse or mismanagement. These contracts typically include indemnities against the agency that allow them to extend licenses or retroactively apply licenses if and when one of their clients is contacted regarding an unauthorized use of your work (that previously didn't show up on your sales sheet).

Some agencies – Getty being the main example – require exclusivity. When you sign up, they become your exclusive agent for all images you upload – as well as for pursuing cases of infringement. If you want to take up the case through another a service, such as Pixsy, you need to get written permission from Getty before proceeding.


  • A stock agency sells your photographs on their platform and typically pays you a commission per sale.
  • There are pros and cons to consider when deciding whether to work with a stock photography agency.
  • It can help get your work in front of new audiences and open new revenue streams.
  • It often means you sign away control of how your work is used.
  • It lowers the publicly listed price so can devalue your work when it comes to licensing images directly.
  • It's often difficult to tell if your images have been misused or the terms of the license violated.
  • In the case of copyright infringement, it is generally much harder to pursue a claim, because agencies prioritize the interests of their clients.

Start monitoring your images today

Free to sign up

24/7 image monitoring online

Powerful dashboard & tools

Send takedown notices worldwide

Get compensated for stolen images