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Photography Licensing Basics – what you need to know

by | Business

Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, we will receive an affiliate commission.

In this article, we’ll go through the basics of licensing when it comes down to publishing your catalogue. We’ll look at Creative Commons and Paid Licences in this article, just to give you a quick, solid understanding of what you may be getting yourself into when you publish on free platforms such as Unsplash or Pexels, or if you publish on paying counterparts like iStock and Shutterstock. 

Creative Commons

It’s important to know the different Creative Commons (CC) and licensing conditions. This will help you specify what users are allowed to do with your work. The four common licensing conditions you may need to know about include;

  • Attributions: Users must specify the source of the photos, explain changes made and also link the original work.
  • Non-commercial: Users are allowed to use and adapt your photos for free, but not for commercial purposes.
  • Share Alike: Requires users to distribute any modified works with the same licence.
  • No Derivatives: Users are allowed to copy, distribute, perform, or display photos, but they need permission from the creator before making any changes to them.

Paid Licences

When you publish your photos to a paid stock photography platform, it is absolutely essential that you understand the types of licences available to you. The licence you select for your work will determine your income and how your work is made use of in the real world.

  • Royalty Free (RF): This is the cheapest licensing method for your work. It is important to note that these are not FREE IMAGES. The user purchases a once-off licence to use your image and can use your image multiple times, in different formats, forever. Think of it as a ‘pay once, use forever’ licence. The Royalty Free licence is ideal for budget-conscious buyers. 
  • Extended: These are an extension of the Royalty Free licence model. Even though the RF licence is quite flexible, there are limits usually set on the reproduction volume and on use with resale products. An Extended licence allows the buyer or publisher to request extensions on the terms of the RF licence. This may be to allow them to reproduce the image beyond the set volume or use it on projects that are outside of the original terms. In terms of cost, Extended licences are pricier than standard RF, but useful when extra rights are needed and an RM licence (see below) is too tedious to set up.
  • Rights Managed (RM): Ranging up to thousands of dollars, the rights managed licence allows creators and publishers to control the way and extent to which their photos are used. What this means is that terms of use include time period, geographic location and reproduction. The terms of use can be negotiated on a cas-by-case basis between the owner and buyer. Additionally, a Rights Managed licence allows for exclusive usage rights, where the licence can be granted to a single person or entity for a limited period. As a result, the Rights Managed licence is ideal for agencies and brands who require exclusivity in their marketing and communications.

Why publish your photos to a free platform?

You may be thinking about where to publish your photos online as you consider publishing your catalogue online. A great place to start, and to test your style of photography is with free photo platforms. Think Unsplash, Pexels and others.

You may be more interested in making the big bucks straight away, but the exposure these sites can bring you as a photographer can be phenomenal. Designers heavily rely on free stock images to bring their designs to life on Behance, Dribbble, and other creative platforms. You’ll also find free stock photos on many websites, social media pages and even advertising campaigns.

If you run your own portfolio, or photography business website and have live social media channels, this is also an excellent way to drive people and potential customers to your website and social channels.

It’s easy to think that the free platforms can devalue your work, but they are a great way to get your name and work out there on platforms that are known for providing designers, marketers and businesses with high quality, relevant, creative work.

Why publish on paid platforms?

To be blunt – for the big bucks. Paying stock photography platforms pay out a percentage of their sales of your images to you, and if you are able to generate relevant, timely content for their users, can be a lucrative source of income. You do have to be meticulous about what you upload, paying attention to your subject framing, colours, sharpening and other technical details, as well as taking the time to properly tag and catalogue your photos to ensure they’re approved by the platform and are easy for the user to find.


Wherever you decide to publish your photos, it’s vital that you understand the licensing involved. Pay attention to the licence type you select on your preferred platform to ensure you have control over where your images are shared (if that’s what you want), and that you are paid fairly for the work you produce.

That’s it from us this week – we’ll be back next week with more advice, guides and more. If you haven’t yet, be sure to sign up for our newsletter for the latest from the team at Luks.

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