Digital photography – Royalty free v Rights managed v bespoke.

 Typically solicitors need photographs in the following circumstances:

  • Individual portraits for use with profiles in pitches and on web sites
  • Team shots – for web sites, brochures or PR purposes
  • Environment/concept shots for marketing collateral.

In the years before digital photography, I can recall the tedium of inspecting (sometimes) hundreds of small proofs on a contact sheet – trying to compare which faces had the best expressions and choosing final images with the use of a magnifying glass.  There could be a delay of weeks between the photo shoot and receiving the final prints, especially if several people were involved in choosing the images.

Now in the digital age the process is so much easier and quicker.  A photographer came in to take some portrait shots on Friday and today (Tuesday) I have chosen the preferred images and received the high resolution digital files. 

Digital photography has made our lives in marketing so much easier, but with the many advantages come a few downsides.  Sadly photography is now perceived to be “so easy” that some firms think they do not need to engage a professional photographer.  Too often we see amateur photographs on law firm web sites that are characterised by poor lighting and composition.

Doing it yourself is a false economy. We always recommend that a professional photographer is engaged for portraits and team shots.  Make sure you look at their portfolio and give them a clear brief for the type of pictures that you require. 

When it comes to other photographs that you might use on your web site, in brochures and advertising, you now have three options:

  • Commissioning bespoke photography
  • Rights managed images
  • Royalty free images.

In each option there is a trade off between cost and exclusivity.

A bespoke photography commission will provide you with unique and exclusive images, but you will need to budget for the photographer, a studio or location, an art director, props and lighting.  

At the other end of the spectrum is the ‘royalty-free’ option.  Royalties are usually paid each time that a piece of creative work is used, however under a royalty-free agreement the creator may accept a one-time payment and the purchaser may use the image as many times as they wish.

Royalty-free images are typically available via mainstream photographic agency web sites such as Getty Images,, Shutterstock.

In addition there are a growing number of microstock sites, who source their images almost exclusively via the Internet, usually from a wider range of photographers than the traditional stock agencies and will accept images from amateurs and sell their images at a very low rate from a few dollars for a very small image for use on web sites.  As well as photography, many of these sites now sell vector images, videos and music.

Whilst the cost of royalty-free images is very low, there is a very high risk that you might see the same image used by another company and possibly another law firm.  The best photos are also the ones that are used the most.  

When you start searching for pictures to illustrate a typical legal service, such as moving home, personal injury, wills, you tend to find that there is a relatively limited number of quality pictures that fit the brief.  In the area of employment law, if you are looking for an ethnically diverse team, you soon start to recognise a very small pool of models, who appear again and again. You can burn a lot of time searching for suitable images.

So if you want something that you can be confident will not be used by a competitor, then you need to consider paying a little more for a rights-managed image.   In this instance, the owner of the image grants you permission in the form of a licence to use the image in a specific way for a specific period of time for an agreed fee.  The rights owner, will control use of the picture in this way and will make sure that it is not used by another law firm.

For example, I recently purchased the license to use an image for two years on a web site and in a brochure.  To agree the price it was necessary to specify the sizes that each image would appear and the print run of the brochure.  In the early stages these details were rather fluid and so several price options were evaluated before we came to a decision.

In comparison to the royalty-free option, purchasing rights-managed images is terribly complicated as there are so many permutations to the cost calculation which takes into account the medium (web, print email), the size, quantity, geography and length of time.  Sometimes a number of these elements are undecided and so it is difficult to put a firm price on a particular picture.  Each picture has a different price structure, so you cannot estimate across several images in a whole brochure.

When deciding on your photographic strategy, it is important not to underestimate the amount of time required to create a brief, search for appropriate imagery and agree pricing.  Alongside this you then need to balance the price and benefits of unique and exclusive images against the risk of a cheaper alternative appearing on the web site of one of your competitors.


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