Understanding Copyright in Photography

Stealing photos from Google or social media has been a quick solution for many, as photography copyright seems to be something too complex to deal with. It’s so easy to just copy, save, and include the perfect shot in your project. Less easy to deal with a potential lawsuit afterwards.

Indeed understanding copyright can take some time but it’s worth it. According to the World Intellectual Property Organisation, a photographer is granted copyright at the moment the picture is taken. What it means is that by saving photos without getting an author’s permission, you may be committing an infringement.      

You can finally stop stressing out each time you have to work with visual content because I’ve created a guide where you’ll find everything you ever wanted to know about stock photography copyright.

What is copyright?

The copyright is a form of intellectual property, according to which the creator of the work determines under which conditions the image can be copied, used, or shared. One can use the sign ( © ) to mark the copyright, which indicates the right to ownership.

According to the World Intellectual Property Organisation, a photographer is granted copyright at the moment the picture is taken. The photographer is the sole owner of the image, and it is illegal to use the copyrighted material for any purposes. There are two basic  types of rights:

  • economic rights to gain financial benefit from the use of the photo by others
  • moral rights to protect the authorship and object to any modification of the work

If you’re not familiar with photography copyrights at all, the only thing you should remember is that saving images from Google search, social media or any other place without getting an author’s permission is illegal.

What are the photography copyright licenses?

All stock photography platforms offer two most commonly used types of licenses: Rights-Managed (RM) and Royalty-Free (RF). The first one means that a purchased photo can be used only once. Meanwhile, the Royalty-Free license implies a non-exclusive lifelong right to use a photo for one’s purposes, however, within the bounds stated in the licenses of a particular stock photography company.

Suppose you plan to use a stock image for marketing purposes. With a Rights-Managed license, you are allowed to use it only once on one print or webpage. The Royalty-Free license allows for multiple use of an image but it’s equally important to comply with the rules of the license which has a limitation on the distribution of images.  

Another copyright license is the Editorial Use Only. According to it, photos are prohibited for commercial use or advertising, as these files may contain images of people without model releases, private property releases, famous trademarks, or other elements that require special permissions. What this means is that images marked “Editorial Use Only” can be used in articles, blogs, non-fiction books, or documentaries only as descriptive materials.

Visuals the rights of which have expired (content is older than 50 or 70 years), been forfeited or waived by the author become Public Domain and can be used for any purposes without requesting the author’s consent or buying it on stock photography platforms.

To find more photos free of charge, search for the Creative Commons copyright license. It is quite comprehensive and has 6 sub-licenses. Among which are:

  • Attribution CC that allows for modification of works as long as the author of the original image is credited.
  • Attribution-ShareAlike also requires a credit and means that any deviations from the original work will be under the same license.
  • Attribution-NoDerivs prohibits modifications but allows to use and share a photo for both personal and commercial purposes. Credits are obligatory.
  • Attribution-NonCommercial allows using images for personal purposes in case of proper attribution.
  • Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike says that commercial use is not allowed but you can modify and share the work.
  • Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs means that you can only share the image for personal purposes but modifications and commercial implications are prohibited.

The visuals under Creative Commons license can be found not only at stock photography platforms but also when using advanced Google search and opting for ‘free to use or share, even commercially’ or ‘free to use, share or modify, even commercially’ usage rights.

How To Make Money As A Hobbyist

There’s a myth perpetuated that photographers either do it for a hobby or they’re professionals making money. The truth is, the majority seem to float in the gray area between the two.

The false dichotomy that photographers are either hobbyists making no money or professionals making full-time money doesn’t take into account the sizeable subset of photographers who have full-time jobs, but still make some side money from photography. I did exactly this through my university degrees, and while it wasn’t large quantities of cash, it was important supplemental income. I remember at the time wishing I knew of more ways that I could earn a little on the side from my photography, and so to that end, I’ve decided to list all the ways I made money while technically still a “hobbyist.” I’d also like to kindly ask anyone who has had success in this area to share their methods in the comment section for those photographers interested in monetizing their hobby.

©Edgar Chomba


I’m honestly not sure if this is morally gray, but didn’t ever have complaints — quite the opposite in fact, as I had a lot of praise and thanks. Every year, I would go to a motorsport event with a press pass. It’s a relatively small event — albeit popular — and they granted me a press pass when I applied (which is much easier to get than people think). I shot the cars both racing and on show, and as a petrol-head, thoroughly enjoyed myself. I came back home and spent an hour here and there editing the photos into a reasonably large, but carefully curated gallery. I shared this gallery in every group and forum to do with the event and included my contact information for the drivers to buy a digital download file for them to own and print for private use.

The first year I covered my expenses, my time, and then some. Every digital file I sold was cheap (looking back, too cheap), and most drivers and people involved in the events bought a picture or three. I went back and did the same again the next year, and even now, I will happily do it again if I have no bookings on the relevant days. Events are a great way to network and potentially sell your work, though ensure you tread carefully, get permission from the organisers, and don’t go around photographing families and then trying to scalp them for money!

©Edgar Chomba

Paid Shoots

This is going to be contentious: I made money while a hobbyist by occasional paid shoots for people and small companies, where I charged less than a full-time photographer. In my defence (it’s really more offence), I’ve never had a problem with people who undercut, as they can seldom offer the same level of service, but it’s something I did if the opportunity arose. A lot of small start-ups, people, and companies who don’t care that much for photography will have a small budget to work with you. They can’t afford the full-time professionals — or just won’t pay that much — but have mild photographic needs you can cater to.

My words of warning on this tip: you’re going to need to do it properly. Get insurance, write up a contract, and act like a business to avoid getting stung; they won’t eat into your profits much.


Unfortunately with this method, it’s not possible for everyone. However, a sure-fire way of making some money on the side with your camera is shooting current affairs. I know photographers who have traveled to capture local troubles and newsworthy happenings and then contacted news and media outlets to sell the photos. I have done this myself too, and it’s far easier than I had anticipated. The internet has increased the demand for images and videos of current affairs tenfold, and the rates aren’t bad.


I left this last because not only is it the most obvious, it’s incredibly difficult to earn anything worthy of being called a side income. I’ve sold images through a multitude of stock websites over the years, both as a hobbyist and a professional, and it’s always been negligible. There are mitigating factors, however. Firstly, I have never shot with the express intent of it being a stock image. That is, I’ve never pandered to the trends and shot images primarily for commercial use. Secondly, I find the effort involved is not worth the rewards (it’s important to note I don’t shoot many images that are viable for stock agencies), particularly over other methods in this list.

With all that in mind, there are plenty of people who have made money from stock photography on the side. If you can get the ball rolling, there’s passive income to be had, but it requires effort to begin with, and then more importantly, consistency with updating your library of images for sale.


How To Prepare for the Leap From Hobby Photographer to Professional

My last article focussed on  what you really need to consider if you are looking into transitioning to a professional photographer and build a career out of it. Today, we get to focus on a few ways here and there in preparation of the leaping toy can do from this lucrative looking business, as many clients would want to put it.

In this follow-up, I will discuss what I believe to be the next and crucial step before you make the leap: preparation. 

Knowing what skills to focus on that will serve you well in professional photography life is important, but you’ll still find yourself in the same position as those who didn’t focus on them. That is, at one point or another, you will be at the precipice of hobbyist looking across the gap between the cliff faces to professional pastures; you’re going to have to jump like everyone else. So, how can you best have your affairs in order to sit neatly alongside your well-honed skill-set?

Looking back, I didn’t have enough of these affairs in order. That is, I didn’t have all the useful preparation in place, primarily because I wasn’t sure what it all was. If I could give a list of things I ought to have done before I jumped into photography full-time to give to former me, this is what it would look like.

Image Courtesy ©Edgar Chomba

1. Financial Reserve

It seems counterintuitive, saving money so that you can comfortably try to make money, but it’s correct. I’ve had a discussion on this topic several times with professional photographers.

The motivation for the debate sparking so often is that I didn’t build a nest egg before I went full-time. I stripped my outgoings to as low as humanly possible, committed to living like a hermit crab for a while, and decided that if I threw myself into the ocean without a life raft, I’d have to swim. I would have to swim. It motivated me, but it also nearly broke me.

The argument against this course of action is of course the relief of stress, and I wholeheartedly agree. I was at the edge of insanity many times in the first year, and although the drive did open doors for me, I’m not sure it was the best path. The more financial stability I have, the better my business decisions are, I believe. For that reason, I would suggest that if you’re in a position to build a financial reserve to float your photography turning into a small start-up business — which it is — then do so.

2. Education on Running a Small Business

On the topic of being a small business, education on running one is invaluable. Too often us, creatives have blind faith in the merit of talent and art winning out over all other facets of success, and it just doesn’t work that way. Look for online courses on running a small business (Udemy, etc.); you’ll be surprised how useful some of this information becomes. Speak to an accountant who specializes in small businesses, and ask for advice as well as a guide on how to best keep your accounts. Finally, if you can find someone who has done well in business, ask for a meeting with them or offer to buy them lunch to mine them for information and wisdom. This is one thing I did twice right at the start of my career and it served me well. In fact, one of them became somewhat of a sporadic mentor.

Image Courtesy ©Edgar Chomba

3. Find a Mentor

I have worked with spectacularly successful photographers since I started, albeit in the last two years or so. The little droplets of wisdom that, unbeknownst to them, fall from their brow, are priceless to photographers lower in the pecking order. By the simple act of helping them out, you can garner all sorts of important information on everything from business and networking, to composition and equipment.

4. Do Your Research

The next two tips are obvious to anyone who has looked into starting a business or venture and has completed their due diligence on the sector they wish to enter. However, us creatives can often bolt out of the gate without taking this vital step. I — for the most part — was one of those reckless folk. Ideally, you need to comprehensively research not only how a photography business works and what yours might look like, but the specialties you dream of dominating, who current dominates them, and what you’re expected to produce. I went a more “learn by doing” approach that — without a dose of luck — is unambiguously the worse of the two strategies. Take your time to get the lay of the land.

5. Have a Plan and Set Targets

Once you have a better understanding of what your desired industry looks like and what sort of part you will play in it, it’s time to plan and set targets. Really, this is two points. The planning phase is a direct extension of your research, where you set in place the direction you want to take your photography business right from the starter pistol. However, it has a symbiotic relationship with your targets. You will be planning how to effectively reach your targets, and your targets will be a mixture of short-term and long-term goals, with the former aiding your journey along your plan, and the latter being a metric with which to evaluate the success of your plan.