Licensing Photos for Revenue Starts with an Archive

It may seem obvious to some of you but I’ve presented this material enough to know that it’s best to never assume everyone understands what an archive actually is, how to create one, and, ultimately, how to leverage it for income. So let’s just start with a clear definition of a photo archive.

A photo archive is a collection of photographs. There, that was simple! There are photo archives dedicated to institutions such as the Smithsonian Archive, the New York Times Archive, or the legendary Time/Life Archive, all of which contain historic images. An archive can also be dedicated to specific subjects, such as an archive on civil rights or an archive on emancipation. An archive can also be all-encompassing and include subjects of all kinds, from everyday life with the family to images from far corners of the world. It is the all-encompassing archive that relates directly to freelance photographers.

To be sure, an archive does not magically appear overnight, nor will it serve any purpose beyond a static repository without your concerted effort. But those who understand the importance of an archive and dedicate time to creating and maintaining one will open a stream of potential income that would otherwise go untapped. But your archive must be accessible to others if you wish to leverage it for licensing revenue.

I’m often asked if my website with my portfolio is different from my photo archive. The answer is no, my website and my archive are both located at Which then leads photographers to ask if all of my images are on my website to which I usually answer, “no, only tens of thousands of them, but not every image I’ve ever taken.” Their eyes usually pop out and a few will look at me as if they just realized I’m nuts. No, I’m not crazy by putting twenty-five thousand images on my website. I’m just interested in earning licensing fees. That’s all.

Here’s the deal, my friends; if you think of setting up your website in a way that is standard for brick-and-mortar retail stores, you’ll get how an archive works. Let’s say you walk into a shoe store and begin looking around. What do you see? You see shoes in various colors, styles, and sizes, right? Great. You browse around and find a shoe you like but it’s a vibrant green color that isn’t exactly your style. What do you do at this point? Do you just walk out of the store, or do you ask a store employee, “do you have this shoe in any other color in size 10?” My guess is you would ask the employee who then tells you, “Sure, let me go in back and grab one for you.” Wait, you mean there are shoes “in back” where you don’t see them but you can still buy them? Friends, “the back” is the archive! All the shoes don’t have to be out front to be available.

It’s the same for freelancers with an archive. When someone lands on your website, it should be like walking into a retail store. The visitor sees your portfolio; also known as the work you want them to see when they first arrive on your landing page. This is just like the shopper who sees the shoes out front when entering the shoe store. However, your site, just like the shoe store, also has a “back,” or an archive, that allows for visitors to view more images. They can also view the images in your archive by landing on the portfolio homepage and utilizing a Search option on your site that is akin to asking a sales associate to “search” in back for a specific item. Or, perhaps you have a Galleries menu link that lists individualized curated galleries such as Lifestyle, Outdoor, Travel, and Sports for visitors to browse. Finally, and of vital importance, if you performed a professional workflow with keywords as recommended before uploading to your archive, search engines can find your images and visitors will be taken directly into your archive when the search engine link is clicked. In fact, the majority of visits will originate with Google and visitors will land on images that are not “out front” on your portfolio homepage.

Hopefully you now understand that having tens of thousands of searchable, licensable images in your archive does not mean they are all out front for people to browse. Instead, they are completely accessible when requested, just not in plain sight. This allows for you to control the look of your website so it’s not overly cluttered with images while also maintaining a licensable, accessible archive of photos. The reality is that most images are found via searches so it’s imperative that you make images available for people to find. Of course, the key to creating an archive is images, and there are basically two ways a freelancer can build one.

Ways for Freelancers to Build an Archive of Licensable Images

1. Spend Your Own Personal Time Photographing with Your Own Equipment

The most wonderful aspect of photography is actually getting into the field and shooting, and freelancers can do this any day of the week, any month of the year, and every year of their life. There is no requirement for you to be on assignment to create an archive. In fact, the photo world has a term just for this type of shooting; stock photography. Just get out and shoot. Create images of everyday life including your family and friends at work, play, on vacation, and at school. Whether hiking with friends, sitting in a café, or commuting to work, by bringing your camera and shooting images of normal life you are building an archive of licensable images. So many of my most licensed images come from this first category including a family vacation, a day trip to an air show, my son playing baseball when he was young, and much more. Here is just one example:

In 2006 my wife and I decided we would take a vacation to Hawaii with our son. As I have always done, I brought my camera and photographed as we hiked the famed Waimea Canyon on Kauai. I continued to photograph the nearly two-week trip and when I returned home I put the images through my workflow and uploaded them to my archive. A little less than a year later National Geographic Adventure magazine emailed to ask about licensing the image. It turns out they were putting together a story on family vacations and thought the image would fit nicely as the opener for the story. I licensed the image for one-time use for $750.

I’m the first to recognize that the image is not an image worthy of praise, exhibition, or award, which is precisely why the image was never out front on my website. It’s always been in the archive and discoverable by search engines or from someone searching my site specifically. Plenty of images that might not excite a photographer fit the need of designers, publishers, and others who are willing to pay for the use. The main purpose of having an archive is to appeal to a wide range of people and generate income for your freelance business.

Before we move on to the second way to build an archive, it’s worth noting that spending your own personal time photographing goes beyond just shooting everyday life, vacations, and friends on excursions. For photojournalists especially, it can also mean pursuing personal project work and ultimately making those images part of your archive. There are various reasons to pursue projects but chief among them is the desire to document something of interest without the outside control or interference associated with an assignment. This provides you with full autonomy to spend as much time and resources as you feel the project deserves but it also denies you assignment fees that would otherwise come from a client. However, with due diligence and an understanding of how to license, ingesting your personal project images into your archive can lead to licensing income that, over time, even surpasses the waived assignment fees. My long-term essay exploring immigration dates back to the 1990s and began as a personal project. It eventually turned into assignment work as publications delved into the issue and hired me to shoot their stories, but to this day many of my most published images were created on personal time and licensed to third parties. The image of the father and son peering through the US/Mexico border fence is a prime example. The image was shot in the early 1990s when I was venturing to the border on my own time, yet it’s been licensed many times over, including most recently by Newsweek, for over twenty years.

2. Photograph on Assignment for Clients While Retaining Rights to Your Work

It goes without saying that your goal is to not just create an archive, but to create a client base that will feed you paid assignment work so you have a steady stream of work. That leads us to the second way you can build an archive; photograph on assignment for your clients while retaining the copyright to your images. However, you must be reminded that US Copyright Law is crystal clear in that a freelancer owns the copyright to their work unless they transfer it in a written instrument, typically a Work for Hire contract.

WARNING: If you sign a Work for Hire contract issued by a client (most make assignment work contingent on agreeing to the contract), you do not own the images. If you do not own the images, you cannot place them in your archive. If you do not own the images and cannot place them in your archive, and cannot ever license them. In fact, licensing images after signing away your copyright would expose you to claims of copyright infringement of the photographs you actually created. Thus, a Work for Hire agreement transferring ownership of your images for a one-time assignment fee means you forego future income from those images.

Remember how I mentioned earlier that so many of the issues addressed in this book are intermingled? It’s never truer than it is when talking about contracts, copyright, and licensing! That’s because a client can take your copyright via a contract, which will prohibit you from licensing images from an archive. Please keep this at the front of your mind when developing clients. If you work with clients who treat you fairly and supply contracts, as examined in the Contract section, that allow for “unlimited use in original context,” then you benefit by being able to build your archive with all the images generated over time on assignment. If you choose to sign away your copyright to work with clients, the likelihood of developing a comprehensive archive that will generate future income for you is greatly diminished, if not eliminated.

As I did above in regard to the first way to build an archive, let me give you just one, real example of how you can build an archive via commissioned assignment work and license those images for additional income.

I was assigned to photograph the migrant crisis in November 2018 along the US/Mexico border by a non-profit client. As they normally do, they issued an assignment-specific contract, which clearly detailed the fee, payment schedule, and, of course, the rights to the photographs. The client received “unlimited web use in original context” and I retained all other rights, including copyright. I readily agreed and headed to the border.

Upon completion of the assignment, I delivered the images to my client and uploaded them to my archive. My client promptly displayed one of the images on their website (below left). Months later my client requested the same image for a different use in a special report they were issuing. However, since the original context was the original web display by the client, the request for use of the same image in a different special report meant an additional fee was required.

In summary, I received a licensing fee, in addition to the original assignment fee, for an image in my archive that I shot on assignment but was used by my client a second time in a different context (below right).

Another example will help drive home the necessity for having the images in your archive for third parties to discover and license at a later date. Whereas the above example revolved around my client using the same image twice that generated a licensing fee, the following example is just as common but revolves around a third-party request to use an image, not my client.

I was assigned to spend several days shooting an assignment for Sports Illustrated on a program for underprivileged kids, many the children of migrant farmworkers, to get involved in golf. As most feature stories go, the story had a principal subject who was a young boy named Jose. The story was published in Sports Illustrated magazine in 2011. The photo contract issued by the magazine at the time (which has substantially changed since) stated that I owned the copyright and licensing rights to the photographs produced on assignment. The images were delivered to Sports Illustrated and uploaded to my archive after completing my workflow. Once the magazine ran the story, I made the images searchable and available for licensing. Seven years later I received a request from ESPN to use the two images below in a feature the channel was producing on Jose who was now about to enter college as a top-notch golfer. In summary, a third party, ESPN, agreed to license the two images below for $1,000 that I created on assignment for Sports Illustrated, after the images were found in my archive.

The relationship between assignment work and licensing income is a key one when it comes to building an archive. Third parties who see the client’s work and simply Google the photographer’s name discover the images created on assignment for a client. With the images online, keyworded, and discoverable via search engines, it doesn’t matter if the photos are “out front” on your website for everyone to browse or in “the back” where people find them by searches. What matters is that they’re discoverable.

This article was a chapter excerpt from the new book The Freelance Photographer’s Guide To Success: Business Essentials (Routledge, 2021) by photographer Todd Bigelow and was published with permission. An exclusive discount for PetaPixel readers: from now through 11/30/21, use the code PPX21 at for 20% off this book plus free shipping.

About the author: Todd Bigelow is a contributing photographer to Contact Press Images who has handled assignment work for more than thirty years for some of the world’s leading publications, non-profits, and corporations. He is the founder of the Business of Photography Workshop hosted by universities and professional photography organizations nationwide, an adjunct professor of photography and photojournalism, and the author of The Freelance Photographer’s Guide To Success: Business Essentials, published by Routledge in May, 2021.

Image credits: Header photo illustration images licensed from Depositphotos