How Photography Can Make you Money In Your Sleep


Nicole Hill


I have kind of a big question for you: What would you say if I told you that you could literally start making money in your sleep with photographs you took a year ago? And no, I do not mean selling your gorgeous prints to your family and Instagram followers (which, to be honest, is a totally legit thing to do as well). Now, before you start thinking, “Wow, Nicole, you’ve totally lost your marbles,” let me explain. 

When it comes to making a career out of photography, I know how easy it is to fall into the predictable, steady rhythm of finding a client, shooting for said client, and stashing away those lovely photos in your increasingly sweet portfolio to help you get work in the future. But the thing is, if you play your cards right, these photos can keep earning you money even after they’ve started gathering dust on the hard drive in the back of your closet. I want to introduce you to a super important area in the photography industry that is drastically overlooked and highly underutilized by new photographers: image licensing. 

If you have no idea what I mean by “image licensing,” let me first tell you that you are NOT alone. So many photographers have never thought about or even considered expanding their business with the help of image licensing, so it’s no wonder that it remains a sort of golden egg of the photography industry. Literally every photographer should be doing this! So, what is image licensing anyway? In short, image licensing is basically a contract generated with the help of an agency that allows a business, brand, or magazine to use your images for a specific amount of time…for a price. 

And guess what? This is in especially high demand right now. Think of it this way: Because of how complicated our world is right now with the limitations of COVID-19, a lot of brands are unable to go out and produce their own photoshoots for the projects they’re working on. This means they are in desperate need of photographs for their advertisements, advertorials — you name it. And this is where you and your one-year-old photographs come in to save the day. By licensing your previous work, you’ll not only keep a steady stream of income for yourself, but the brands who are seeking out gorgeous work like yours will be willing to pay you for it, even if you originally shot it for something else. That’s a classic win-win situation in my book.   

It’s easy to get stuck in the mindset of photography being a sort of “time-for-money” business model, but if you do it right, the money doesn’t stop when the shoot ends. So, now you’re probably thinking to yourself, “Wow, yes, Nicole, sign me up, where do I start.” And I’m here to tell you exactly how to get signed on with an agency and make your work work for you. 

Make sure your website is top-notch

This is CRITICAL and probably the most important piece of the puzzle. As is the case with many things in the photography industry, you need to make sure you have a legit website and portfolio ready to back up your work. An agency (or any business for that matter) will not take you seriously if you only show them your Instagram feed, so make sure you’ve put in the time to design your website and portfolio so that it showcases how incredible of a photographer you really are. A little extra work here will really go a long way — trust me.

Research, research, research

All good things require a ton of research and finding the perfect licensing agency for your work is no different. Luckily, there are licensing agencies all over the world, so there are plenty to choose from and submit work to until you find the one that is the right fit for you depending upon the type of photography you do.

Put together a list of agencies, and submit

Once you’ve found a few agencies that seem like they might be the right fit for you work, put together a specially curated portfolio of your favorite, super high-quality, extra unique work to show them exactly what you have to offer. Remember, the more work you share that helps you stand out, the better chances you’ll have of being signed! They either approve you or give you feedback about what they’d like to see in your portfolio to be approved. It’s a great opportunity to learn about what your industry is looking for, so take the feedback in stride!

HOT TIP! Be mindful of the upcoming seasons, holidays, etc. Because those are the photos brands and magazines will be looking for. So, if you’re submitting work to an agency in the middle of the summer, make sure you’re submitting work that focuses on fall and winter themes, because that’s what editorial and advertising teams are starting to plan for. 

Sign on and get to licensing

As soon as you find an agency that’s a perfect match for you and your work, it’s smooth sailing from then on. Just send them your photos and they’ll do all the heavy lifting to get your images licensed and in front of potential buyers. 

Still feeling a bit skeptical? Let me give you a personal example to show you how far image licensing can take you. I’ve been with the same licensing agency for years now, and with their help I’ve been able to get photos published in Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar, and even in a six-page editorial spread in Glamour among many others. And, no, I didn’t have to pitch them or do any extra work. The CRAZIEST part of working with a licensing agency is that I literally got paid again for jobs that I’d already completed. So I worked a photoshoot, got paid by the brand, and as soon as my contract with the brand expired, got to sell the photos again to the agency and make more money. Now, I know this sounds too good to be true, but it’s not. All it takes is a little bit of business finesse and planning.

All you have to do is make sure that your original contracts have specific usage limits with your client, allowing you to retain full rights after a specific period of time, and bam, you can send those gorgeous shots straight to your agency and start making money — you guessed it! — in your sleep. This, my friends, is the magic of image licensing! You can take old jobs and keep getting paid for them, time and time again. Or you can take photos specifically for sharing with an agency and get them published without even having to find a client in the first place.

And, yes, there is yet another an added bonus to working with a licensing agency: when you make sales and get paid through a licensing agency, your checks are considered royalties, so you don’t have to pay the usual amount of taxes on them. Uhm, can you say SCORE?!

What’s better is that it doesn’t matter what genre of photography you’re in, there is always going to be an agency and a client looking for photos like yours. So, if you shoot weddings, food, blog photos, skincare, products — you name it — there’s going to be someone who wants to buy your photos for their project. 

For example, say Vanity Fair is working on an article about skincare and needs an image of an older woman smiling — if you just so happen to be a portrait photographer with just this type of photograph in your agency portfolio, Vanity Fair could see it, love it, buy it, and BOOM you’ve just been published in Vanity Fair. (No, I’m not kidding — this is literally what has happened to me and it’s amazing and totally possible for you, too!) And the same thing goes for travel photographers and National Geographic, or maternity photographers and Women’s Health Magazine. 

Now, don’t forget that all things photography tend to take some time, but it’s important that you’re using all the tools and opportunities available to you to drive your success. And this is just another tool that you can add to your photography toolbelt to not just help you make money, but to get you the bylines, credibility, and name recognition you deserve and that can totally change the course of your career. Just take it one step, or one photograph, at a time and see how far it takes you.

Because trust me when I say that even just one beautiful shot can pay off — big time.

AND If you feel like connecting with other female photographers who are on this journey with you, join our Private Facebook Community Group where you’ll be welcomed with open arms. It’s a place where you can share your work, find inspiration, and ask for advice from all of our amazing members. Click Here to join!


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meet the photographer


I've spent the last decade of my life traveling the world as a fashion photographer and I created Horizon Found to give you everything I wish I had when I was starting my career. Here you'll find community, inspiration, and education - to help guide you down the path towards building the photography business of your dreams. My dream is to use this platform to help build a supportive environment in the photography industry.


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