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Licensing? You Mean I Don't Own These?

Updated: May 22, 2023

An agent might be quoted $200/set for a small home while a designer may pay $400/hr + per photo fee. Confused? It's all about usage.


A commercial shoot's objective is to bring in an ongoing stream of clients


Photographs are intellectual properties copyrighted to the creator. It may sound a bit confusing and overwhelming so let's put it into a relatable perspective.


When you purchase a $0.99 track from iTunes, you're actually paying the musician or distributor who owns the intellectual property a tiny permission called a personal use license. This means you can listen to it as much as you'd like on your phone or computer but does not mean you now solely own and represent the work and creativity involved in its making and sell or give it away to others. If a friend would like the track, they will need to purchase their own license. A different license may be sold to a company who is using that very same track on a national Super Bowl commercial, and they definitely pay more than $0.99 as its goal with the track is to be part of a large production, gain as much attention and buyers of its product as possible. Now that you have the light switched on, let's get down to few common photo licensing types and what you can and cannot do with your license.


Residential Real Estate

In this market, an agent only needs the images for and until one buyer says yes, and photoshoots and turnaround for this genre is blazing fast. Photographers typically only have an hour or two to shoot these homes as-is and must deliver in a very short window of time so it's quantity over quality. This type of license is the lowest cost of all licenses. Usage is short term for the life of a single, active listing limited to promoting the property for sale. They can use it on MLS, social media and printed media. They cannot use it as a banner on their website promoting the brokerage. They cannot give or sell the images to another agent who's listing the same house years later, or to the architect/builder/homeowner.


Commercial Real Estate

On properties exclusively for business purposes, commercial spaces involves the sale, purchase, and lease of including but not limited list of the following spaces:


- Office

- Retail

- Hotel

- Restaurant


Similar to the usage of residential real estate but price and workflow differ. Where license terms for residential averages a few days to months, commercial real estate licenses are for an extended use as it stays on the market much longer. Same usage of Residential Real Estate's can's and cannot's apply.


AirBnB/Short Term Rentals

Workflows for this leans towards the design genre and require extended shoot time to perfectly stylize and light every image. The audience is expanded as the objective here is ongoing business by bringing in a steady stream of renters. Images of short term rentals are typically used for up to a few years before stylings are refreshed and need another set of images.


Commercial / Design / Architecture

This genre is where photographer's creative and technical expertise shine. The purpose of this is to show the space in its peak form and demands absolute perfection as a hard representation of the designer or business. Full day shoots may produce 10-15 images as every detail is fine-tuned, with post-processing taking a few days to weeks. Client collaboration, art direction, a wider variety of equipment and intensive effort in post-processing. Completely different from real estate right?


With exceptions such as corporations requiring elaborate productions easily reaching 5-7 figures with set usage durations, licensing for small scale, local companies and firms or individual designers is generally without an expiration date to use for their direct website and portfolios. Additional licensing may be required for publishing, packaging and other printed marketing beyond a local area.



The key to determining an image's worth is usage length, distribution area, and how they are to be used. Licenses are for a single client and never to be given, sold or distributed so always direct them to the photographer to obtaining their own.


Terms and Conditions vary from photographer-to-photographer although there is a sort of industry standard. It would be a good idea to become familiar with your provider's to avoid accidental copyright infringement and possible lawsuit. Lawsuits may lead to having to pay hundreds or thousands per image, and that's never a fun time for anyone.


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