Picture agency

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A picture agency is a company that markets picture material, i.e. photographs , illustrations and sometimes also film material (so-called footage ). In German, the terms picture agency or photo agency and picture archive or photo archive may be used synonymously. In the English-speaking world, however, a distinction is made between a photo agency (a photographer's agency ) and a photo archive (a pure picture archive).

The creation of photos for picture agencies, i.e. in stock, is called stock photography , the opposite is commissioned photography .

The customers of picture agencies are primarily the editorial offices of print and TV media and advertising agencies .


Basically, a distinction can be made between two types of picture agencies:

  • Purely commercial image archives / photo agencies that actively market the image material stored with them by free professional or semi-professional photographers in return for a percentage share of image users. Most photo agencies have this business model. In some cases, however, the agencies also produce their own material with employed or freelance photographers.
  • Photographers' cooperatives, in which photographers come together to have better control over their image material ( copyright ) and to share the profits among themselves. There are sometimes different levels of ownership (senior or junior partner) as well as salaried employees.

Purely commercial image archives or photo agencies can in turn be divided into three main categories: the universal agencies, press photo agencies and special photo agencies. Universal agencies market image rights from various areas (e.g. advertising, editing, art, entertainment, etc.). Press photo agencies almost exclusively offer press photos, while so-called special photo agencies deal with a certain topic, for example food and drink, art or medicine.


Essentially, a distinction is made between licensed material (also called “rights managed” or with the acronym “RM”) and image material erroneously called “ license free ” in German (in English “royalty-free” or “RF”).

While image material subject to licensing is subject to a usage or license fee depending on the type and scope as well as intended use, "license-free" images are acquired once (or "licensed") and can normally be used an unlimited number of times, for an unlimited period of time and in different media or industries be used.

As a rule, all rights have been clarified for both licensed and “license-free” image material so that the images can be used in any context and for any purpose (especially advertising). If people are visible in the pictures, then there is usually a signed “model release” that releases prospective licensees from subsequent claims made by the people shown. This normally does not apply to places and objects to which third parties have rights. An example that is often used is the Eiffel Tower at night. The rights to the pictorial reproduction of the nighttime lighting for advertising purposes are handled very restrictively by the owners. Incidentally, the Eiffel Tower during the day is unproblematic in this regard.

In contrast to people on RM and RF images in a creative, advertising context, model releases are unusual in the editorial area. The possibilities, regulated by press law principles, to depict people in an editorial context without explicit approval, normally do not require model releases. However, if such motifs are to be used for advertising, the consent of the person depicted is again essential.

Both RM and RF motifs are used for advertising purposes. The images in the RM area tend to be more exclusive, of higher quality and more up-to-date, as the series are often produced by the photographers or photo agencies with a view to current and future trends. This leads to the fact that in the RM area - based on a specific advertising use - higher license fees are usually incurred than for RF licenses. For less exclusive uses - for example the below-the-line area - the trend in advertising is therefore towards RF images. In addition to the mostly more attractive price models, the simpler licensing and the unlimited use of once licensed materials are further reasons for this development.

In the editorial area, license-based image material is mainly used. In almost all cases, the current image material offered by press agencies requires a license. Lately there has been a trend towards bringing both "worlds" (RF and RM) closer together or merging under the heading of "easy licensing".


One of the first large stock photography agencies was founded in 1920 by H. Armstrong Roberts and is now known as RobertStock.

One of the first commercial image archives was the Bettmann Archive, founded in New York City in 1936 . The reason for this is the introduction of photography into press coverage. For the first time, the Bettmann Archive levied license fees for professional image material. Over the decades, it has concentrated on high-quality recordings of historical significance. Photographs marketed through this archive became widely known: be it the invasion of American troops in Normandy on D-Day , Marilyn Monroe on the New York subway shaft during the filming of The Seven Year Itch, or the pictures by Lewis Hine on the construction of the Empire State Building in New York during the economic depression.

The “Photo Library” by press photographer Willy Römer was a good example of picture agencies in Berlin in the 1920s . Its extensive archive survived the Second World War, an exception, as a result of which many recordings from the time of the Weimar Republic have been preserved.

The Paris-based image archive Magnum Photos , founded by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa and others, has made a name for itself as an institution that has shaped the zeitgeist, epochs, aesthetics and understanding of photography in general . Between the 1950s and 1970s, this agency dominated the illustration of the world's great magazines , be it Time Magazine , Newsweek , Life , Stern or Paris Match , and thus shaped the idea of ​​classic photo reportage. Magnum also made a special contribution to protecting the copyrights for the photographers and ensuring adequate payment.

In addition to the classic press photo agencies, agencies that made their photo material available to the advertising industry (e.g. Mauritius Images and ZEFA ) or covered special topics, such as Okapia KG (nature and science photography ) founded in 1954, were increasingly establishing themselves . What the picture industry had in common until the late 1980s was that it was mainly medium-sized companies that were active here. Only a few archives were able to gain significant market shares and grow to corporate size.

With the increasing digitization of production ( desktop publishing ), the framework conditions for the photo agencies also changed. The market leaders Getty Images and Corbis are now multinational corporations and the largest picture agencies in the world, each with over 70 million digitized images, the majority of which can be accessed and licensed via the Internet. What these agencies have in common is that they have only recently, i. H. Established in the late 1980s and early 1990s and - equipped with enormous financial resources (Corbis is owned by Bill Gates , Getty Images was founded by the billionaire heir Mark Getty and is now a listed company) - systematically acquired the rights to comprehensive Have secured image collections. The strategic background of the entry into the picture business observed today is likely to be the realization that intellectual property or digital goods are the "oil of the 21st century" (Mark Getty). The market for digital images is also predominantly in the B-to-B area - in contrast, for example, to the DRM market for digital music, which is developing rather problematically and is difficult to control.

The takeover activities of Corbis and Getty Images as well as the strong tendency towards a comprehensive digitization of the image materials have profoundly changed the predominantly medium-sized agency landscape in recent years. While numerous well-known archives were taken over or closed down, new agencies have emerged in the course of digitization and have offered their image material digitally from the start.

In addition to the classic image archives, so-called microstock agencies (also called SMRP: Stockphoto Micropayment Royalty Free Portals) developed. They offer images from a price of less than one US $. These are made available by amateur photographers who will then share in the proceeds. The low prices can also be explained by a very reduced range of services. While there were only three to four serious competitors in this area in 2005, today there are likely to be more than 30 platforms worldwide. The best known of them (iStockphoto) was taken over by Getty Images in 2005 for US $ 50 million.

Between the high-priced classic picture agencies and the low-priced microstock agencies, another market has emerged in recent years: the so-called midstock agencies . On the one hand they are characterized by low prices, but on the other hand they offer a full agency service. The country with the largest international agency density and the most connected technology providers is Germany.


Anton Holzer (ed.): Business with pictures. The past and present of photo agencies , special issue of the magazine Fotogeschichte , issue 142, 2016, Jonas Verlag.

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Corbis takes over the Zefa picture agency. In: handelsblatt.com . December 19, 2004, accessed February 14, 2015 .