Licensing Stock Photography; my three best “selling” photographs…

Swamp Dog is often asked “What’s your best selling photograph?” This is honestly an easy question since with photography it appears common, even if you have thousands of great photographs people rave about, just a small handful of images rise to the top as images which appeal to the point they are licensed again and again. (note: I use the term “selling” loosely since photographs are rarely “sold” but, rather, are licensed much like music for TV commercials)

Possum Man is an image made in Florida at a backwoods “Possum Festival” where the folks attending were exceptionally rural, most especially Mr James Woods, the Possum King. The Possum King looked at me, lifted the possum and exclaimed, “I’m gonna out-grin him!” I’d say Mr Woods did a fine job… Although many of my photographs have been licensed as stock photography, this is my only major award-winning photograph which has performed well as a stock photograph.

I have exactly three images (only) which fall into this category I thought might be interesting to those of you who are, well, interested… If you’re not familiar with “stock photography,” it is basically pre-existing photography – images I made yesterday or before – which may well have a market beyond the original purpose for which they were originally created, be the original motivation an assignment or just for fun.

Although the Possum Man image has been published many times, this Hallmark greeting card has been an ongoing usage for several years.
(Greeting card © Hallmark Licensing, Inc)

Existing “stock” photographs are often licensed – like a TV commercial licenses a famous tune for a 30 second spot – for various client uses including advertising, websites, brochures and dozens of other scenarios where appropriate photographs are required. Licensing stock photography for your project is a bit like “renting” a photograph for a specified time frame and usage. When a photograph is licensed, specific uses are allowed or not allowed, often based on the fee.

This image will appear as an ad in “Reader’s Digest” within the next couple of months. Sugar Buck, my most licensed dog picture, truly came as a shock since it’s a scanned black & white negative, one of my early colorizations created just for fun with a minimal amount of effort directed at “coloring between the lines” or creating accurate color. This image was intentionally imaged so the grass doesn’t look real and, in fact, the image was done at about 4 am one morning as “art.” (most imaging done at 4 am must be deemed “art”) The fact the world’s largest stock agency wanted this image was a surprise but the fact it has been repeatedly licensed to the world’s largest pet product companies blew me away… Perfection in imaging or photography can be highly overrated since, in general, imperfect imaging can be appealing, if it conveys the right look & feel. The imperfect imaging here may well have attracted those looking for something slightly different. Again, this is another photograph which exists due to my obsessive picture-making, no matter whether working as a photographer or just goofing off making pictures, like here, my all-consuming hobby as well as my profession…

Here at and at my CatDog website, we’ve made some great stock sales but have preferred to license usage of my photographs ourselves, rather than working through the ever-changing world of worldwide stock photography agencies. Photographers who exclusively focus on stock photography can do extremely well with great talent and in knowing how to get thousands of images placed with stock agencies worldwide. However, doing so can be much like a full time job so photographers who primarily shoot assignments for clients, often lag behind full time stock photographers in stock sales.

The gold picture below is another image which has, surprisingly, proven itself valuable in the world of stock. This liquid gold photograph, one that’s a bit abstract, has literally been published dozens of times, often in surprisingly major ads and other uses.

One night in bed watching TV, an infomercial for oldies – “Hits of the 80’s” (or was it the 90’s) – came on advertising a 15 CD set of the hit tunes. At the end of the commercial, the 15 CD’s were shown and ALL had this image as the cover!??? Again, go figure… (when images are with major stock agencies, the photographer often has no idea where they are being used so this came as a surprise)

When you’ve been in the photography business for a while and have made hundreds of photographs you honestly love, the images which rise to the top in stock photography as “best sellers”, so to speak, are sometimes baffling in the sense of “Go figure… Who would have thought THAT picture would be my best seller???” Conversely, photographs you feel represent your absolute best are, quite frequently, never licensed even once.

As part of my ongoing mission in life to convince the world to carry a camera everywhere, it might be worth mentioning the golden/liquid photograph was made after taking my camera with me to the bathroom while doing architectural photography in an amazing mansion. After washing my hands in what appeared to be a very high gold-content metal sink, I noticed water beating up on the golden basin – which looked as if it had been waxed, like a car.

Stock can be a bit puzzling… Always take a camera to the bathroom… You never know…


Gary Parker - March 25, 2014 - 9:08 PM

Hi Erika,

I wish I had the magic answer regarding Licensing stock photography but that’s not the case. Stock has become a tough business for all photographers other than long time, career stock photographers with millions of images already placed with stock agencies – and their incomes are generally much-reduced, I hear through stock photographer friends. I license my own photography direct-to-client but plan to build a stock photography-specific website. If you have a large body of high quality work you could license images yourself then maybe you should build a stock photography website and keyword it with great keywords and metadata. However, if you have little time then be aware stock is a time-intensive business.

There are websites where you can license your work – like the site you mention and and probably others I’ve not had reason to check out. I’m currently investigating ImageBrief, fwiw. At the surface, it looks like a reasonable idea. Check it out but do read the Terms of Use before submitting photographs since it’s critically important to know what you’re getting into. Terms & conditions often have irritating requirements or restrictions on how you can personally use your own submitted images.


Erika - February 11, 2014 - 10:32 PM

Hi Gary,
I just happened to google how to license images and your website popped up. It is so funny because my son just sent that exact Possum Man birthday card to my husband and we thought it was a great pic!! I am a frustrated photographer in Tx and wondering how to go about trying to get my images licensed. Do I go directly to uploading to the stock websites like shutter stock or try to get an agent? I have limited time and $ and wondering if you could give me the tips to get started on this. If you prefer certain sites to others that is helpful too! It is overwhelming to say the least! Thank you!
Flower Mound, TX

Veer @ Sell Stock Photography - July 21, 2013 - 10:27 AM

Hi Gary Sir,

I search for Google who is best selling photograph and i see your site Nice photo and nice post your all there pic is interesting and u are right the photographer often has no idea where they are being used so this came as a surprise.

Gary Parker - May 17, 2013 - 3:31 PM

Thanks for your comments, Lois and Jen!

Jen, we’ve been doing national ad campaigns for years so many agencies know us as a place to browse for stock. Also, we’ve done various types of promos which have landed in most potential ad agency clients email or snail mail for years.

The fact the golden picture of beads of water in a gold sink ended up being licensed again and again came as a total shock… It’s amazing the images you feel are your very best often never work as stock whereas images you would never dream might work well sometimes sell, so to speak. It’s a true go-figure sometimes.

Jen - May 15, 2013 - 2:24 PM

If you aren’t using an agency, how are these companies finding your photos, and how are you coming up with prices for licensing? That last image is so interesting, I would never guess it would be one of your top three…just found your blog a few days ago and enjoying it very much.

lois - May 5, 2013 - 12:01 PM

This was very interesting knowledge Gary, thank you for all that. I hope that you get a lot more ‘stock’ out of your photos, lol…