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One of the most frequent questions I get from photographers breaking into the field—“What is the difference between rights-managed images and royalty-free images?” It’s an important question, and the answer can mean the difference between making $500 on one sale and making $5,000 with a hundred sales.

Every image sold through a stock agency falls into one of two categories: RF (shorthand for royalty free) and RM (shorthand for rights managed). Up until about five years ago, most photographers in the business were keen to have their images categorized as RM. Rights managed means that the client pays your stock representative (and you) a much higher fee to have exclusive use of an image for a set time. The client also pays a scaled fee based on the usage of the image.

Let’s use National Geographic as an example. I have several thousand images in their collections that they regularly sell on my behalf (with a commission). Their rates are roughly based on the industry standard. So, say Google wants to use an image exclusively for up to five years on their website as part of an ad. They would pay $1,063.13 to have exclusive use for up to five years—not a bad sale for one day’s work, except National Geographic now cannot sell that image again for five years.

jad davenport

If National Geographic instead sells the image royalty free, Google would pay $325 and then have the right to not only use the image in the ad, but also to use that image however they like in any media for the rest of eternity without any additional fees. That doesn’t sound like a great deal—they could use the photo hundreds of times and I wouldn’t get another penny.

But here’s the catch. Companies no longer want to deal with rights-managed photographs; they don’t want to be restricted in how they can use an image and for how long. They want to buy the image and be done with it. The contracts are much simpler. So instead of purchasing my nice image of a seaplane flying over a beach in the Bahamas as a rights-managed image, they’ll simply look for a cheaper, royalty-free image on another site and I’ll lose the sale.

“The game has become one of quantity over quality,” my editor at National Geographic told me when she pushed me to recategorize most of my collection from RM to RF. “In the long run, you will actually make more money because you’ll sell the same images hundreds of times, over and over, rather than just selling them once.” The only images she urged me to keep as RM were those that required a special expense like hiring a helicopter or building a robotic camera. Any image that another professional photographer could reasonably replicate (including wildlife) should be classified as RF.

These days when I look at my monthly income sheets, where I used to see one or two big sales, I now see dozens of smaller sales. But my editor was right. Over the course of a year, my income actually increased. And a nice byproduct is that the stress of constantly negotiating contracts based on usages and time periods has gone away. So don’t be afraid of the shift—in the long run you’ll come out ahead.