An Open Access Photo Library

Microstock might have hit the stock world like a kick to the shins, but it carries one big advantage and one giant disadvantage. The advantage is that anyone can now earn from their photography. Photographers no longer need to be professional full-timers to license their photos and they’re free to upload as many or as few images each month as they wish. The disadvantage is that the pay is terrible. With sales starting at a dollar a download, photographers can receive just cents for an image that may appear on a website with millions of readers — and then be used by the same buyer on ads, marketing material and anything else for no extra payment.

Traditional stock companies, on the other hand, might return hundreds of dollars — and often, thousands – in royalties for image use. Even if you’re uploading and selling enough licenses to bring in a useful additional income, as some microstock photographers are doing, that’s still a high price to pay for open access.

Open Access is not the Same as Free Access

fotoLibra, however, attempts to provide all of the advantages of microstock with none of the disadvantages. The company, which describes itself as a “picture library,” allows anyone to upload images, has no submission panel and does not demand a large portfolio. In the three years since it launched, fotoLibra’s collection has grown to a quarter of a million images of which only four have been rejected for being inappropriate (although 750 are turned down each day for failing to meet the company’s technical requirements).

“We accept all images because our taste cannot be the same as the buyers’,” Gwyn Headley, the company’s founder and managing director told us. “Recently I saw one image on the site which I felt must have been uploaded as a mistake because I personally thought it was so bad. I pointed it out to a colleague, who told me it had just been sold to a theatre company for £450. Let the photographers choose what they feel will sell.”

Open access isn’t the same as free access though. fotoLibra charges photographers to store their images with the company and make them available for sale. For £18 (about $33 USD) per quarter, photographers receive 5 GB of storage space; £45 (about $84 USD) per quarter increases that to 100 GB and boosts the royalty rate from 50 percent to 60 percent. A free membership also allows photographers to upload twelve pictures once to try the site out. According to the site’s blurb, at least one free member has uploaded one image and sold it five days later, receiving a royalty of more than £1,000.

If a business model that allows anyone to join, demands payment from photographers but markets images on both a royalty-free and rights-managed basis for traditional rates sounds unusual, it does at least reflect the company’s origins. Gwyn, a book publishing consultant, had run a specialist picture library for about twelve years, offering images of architectural follies shot mostly by himself and about two dozen other part-time photographers. His work in publishing had also brought him into contact with many of the leading players in the picture library world, so he knew the value of images, he says. When a burst water tank wiped out 120 years of family photographs, he developed a plan to allow photographers to store their images on servers and added his photo sales knowledge to allow them to sell their pictures too. Even the monthly subscription price was based on the cost of a roll of Fujia Velvia film in Gwyn’s local camera shop.

Today, the site has more than 19,000 members of whom 71 percent are based in the UK – fotoLibra works out of a national park in Wales – and the remainder from some 151 different countries. About a third of the British photographers are professionals, mostly working in the high street and wedding photography business, but contributors also include Linda Wright, the Wildlife Photographer of the Year. Although photographers can choose whether to offer their images on a rights-managed or royalty-free basis, about 80 percent of the images are rights-managed.

Wanted: Images of Knights Jousting

The images are marketed hard. While many stock companies rely solely on online advertising to bring in buyers, fotoLibra is a regular at book fairs, where it’s able to pitch directly to publishers face-to-face. Members also receive a newsletter that includes picture calls for specific subjects. Topics have ranged from “knights jousting” and “Nigerian schoolrooms” to “American people interacting with each other” and “San Francisco.” In general though, the demands tend to be very specific.

“The point of the fotoLibra Picture Call is that we ask for clearly defined situations and locations,” explains Gwyn. “[A] generic shot of the Chicago skyline is great, but every picture library has millions of those. fotoLibra needs and gets specific places like ‘Animal Kingdom pet store, 2980 North Milwaukee Avenue.'”

Because of the level of specificity, the results of the picture calls tends to vary according to the topic. A call for “colorful greetings cards,” for example, has brought in 529 images of which most are suitable; “Nigerian schoolrooms” produced about a dozen submissions. The calls have never drawn a complete blank. Occasionally, a client will also ask fotoLibra to find a photographer for a commission. That’s not a service the company pushes but it has happened four times this year.

Unlike Gwyn’s original photo library, fotoLibra does not specialize. Asked what sort of images the company needs most, Gwyn replied with a blanket “everything” but then referred specifically to images of people.

“My personal beef is not seeing enough people face-on or close-up — we always seem to have crowds of people with their backs to the distant camera,” Gwyn says. “I think scare stories about invasion of privacy and people running to lawyers trouble a lot of photographers and hamper their confidence when it comes to getting in close. It doesn’t seem to trouble the paparazzi. And they manage to sell their pictures.”

Images submitted to fotoLibra do not have to be exclusive but if an image is licensed on a rights-managed basis, it has to be removed from other outlets for the period of the license, an important consideration. The rewards though can more than make up for it. Although fotoLibra has more than 1,000 different prices to offer buyers depending on what they plan to do with the image, the average sale price is £51 ($95 USD). License a few images at those prices and you can give microstock its own kick on the shins.

8 comments for this post.

  1. Andrew Said:

    Interesting, but I have to admit I'm dubious of any photo library that requires photographers to pay for storage space. Why not just sell your photos through Alamy? And what's wrong with a photo library being selective about the photos they sell? If you accept anything, you'll get rubbish, surely?

    Has anybody tried selling photos through FotoLibra? I'd be interested in hearing about your experience.

  2. Viqi French Said:

    It's astonishing the number of photo libraries that I keep learning about anew. Thanks for telling us all about this one.

    But even more fascinating are the varieties of business models they're adopting. While there's quite a bit to be said about the assumed quality of images you'll find on a site where photographers must pay to play, this does make one wonder about the quality here and there.

    I'll have to click over to judge for myself.

    PS -- grab my free photography selling report:

  3. Embassy Pro Books Said:

    I agree with not making photographers pay for storage space, it will for sure scare away some from posting their photos but if a photo sells than a percentage for storage might be appropriate.

  4. Bateleur Said:

    Hmmmm ... paying to have your images put up for sale?

    No submission assessment? Anyone can upload anything (if they pay)?

    Sounds like a recipe for a stock of rubbish that would be rejected by any conventional agency.

    So I did a check. I searched on the word 'business'. Then again on the word 'dog'

    Try it yourself, and see what you get ...

  5. Jacqui Said:

    'Conventional agency' is exactly what fotoLibra sets out NOT to be. Have a look at this image:
    I didn't think it was that great, but who am I to judge? The buyers decide, and one buyer judged it was worth spending $900 to buy limited usage rights for this image.
    Professional buyers don't search by words and bland and generalised as 'business' or 'dog' (I don't understand the point Bateleur is trying to make here). They tell us to do their searches for them!

  6. tom collier Said:

    I chose fotolibra for the very reason you have to pay to sell your wares. That very reasonable fee is enough to scare off most of the garbage that finds it's way onto free for all libraries. If you are confident in the quality you provide then they WILL sell.Actively marketing our work rather than just sitting on the fence is anouther plus, as is regular newsletters picture calls and advice on what to supply is all good information and well worth the money. How often do you see picture credits to Alamy in high quality publications/ Not that often me thinks.

  7. Mario Cruz Said:

    I read this thread and visit the site, seems interesting to me and i decide to signup for the free version. I think that 12 photos is a small amount to test it, but in the end, i was sepnding nothing, so i decide to upload the 12 photos and try the service.

    Too luckly for me, i was the 20.000th user of fotoLIBRA and i get a gold membership for that.

    I'm very happy with the service, the proccess it's easy, the site has great features to help manage and organize the collections.
    I don't get a sell yet, but it's part my fault cause i've just uploaded 3 photos now.

    I definitly give it a try (and upload more photos) and be sure that i'll come back here and tell about the experience.

  8. Jim Walker Said:

    I have been a "member" of fotoLibra for several years. I have sold pictures to book publishers through fotoLibra that I would not have had the exposure to. Sure, I would like to sell more, who wouldn't. The only negative is that the site is based in the UK, and, of course, has more call for UK and European photos, and I live in the US. Unfortunately, I have not found a US based stock photo agency that has a business model as good as fotoLibra. When you have to pay for the privelidge of storing and marketing your photos, you tend to only want to upload your best shots. I intend to continue my association with fotoLibra for the foreseeable future, and hope I can come up with one of those $1000 images.

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