Commercial or editorial license?

When you work with stock photographs, both as a contributor or a user, you will come across the terms commercial and editorial license. There is a distinct difference between the two, regarding the intended and allowed use of the image. However there is often confusion about this subject. I will explain the differences between the two and give some examples. Hopefully you will never be in doubt in what is the correct license for your image!

The difference between commercial and editorial in a nutshell

In short, the difference between commercial and editorial photography is the intended use of the photo. Simply put, commercial photography is used to endorse a product or to earn profit. Editorial photography is used to tell a story or back up a story. This explanation, however, is heavily simplified and there is much more to it. Keep reading to learn all about it.

Commercial or editorial in stock photography

When submitting stock images to a platform you will in most cases have to indicate whether it is commercial or editorial content. This is an important choice, because it will affect the way your image is reviewed and also the sales potential. Commercially licensed content tends to sell better, since it has more use cases. So, the obvious choice seems to be always go for the commercial license, right? Well, that’s the difficult part, because that’s not always a possibility.

Some platforms, like Shutterstock, are very strict in the contributor choosing the correct license type. Choosing the wrong license instantly results in declining the image. You can off course resubmit using the correct license, but that means extra work. Others are more lenient in their reviewing process, but hold the responsibility with the contributor. This means a mistake can potentially get ugly, when a user that buys an image gets into legal trouble because of a wrong license type. Because of this, it’s extremely important to know your stuff!

The commercial license

When trying to sell or promote a product or service, all content used must have a commercial license. For examples think of advertisements, product packaging or promotional material. Images with a commercial license can not contain recognizable (parts of) people, brands or copyrighted property. 

One of the best things about the commercial license, is that these images can used for both commercial and editorial purposes. Having a commercial license potentially widens your client base. Sometimes, however, it can produce challenges if you want to be able to offer your images for commercial license.

Image restrictions

The list of things that are not allowed for commercially licensed content is very extensive. Photographing people or brands recognizably speak for themselves, but many other things you may not be aware of, are protected by copyright. For example many buildings and bridges that you can find throughout the world are protected, because the copyrights lie with the architect or the owner. 

An other often overlooked one are animals that have an owner. These can be pets, or the animals at the zoo or the circus for example. Animals in the wild are fair game. Graffiti and tattoos are also notoriously overlooked when it comes to copyright. Cars are in a league of their own. Not only the brand logos are off limits, even the distinct shapes of some cars can be a reason for images to not be commercially licensable. 

Editing out copyrighted content

An often used method to submit photos that contain copyrighted property as commercial, is to edit out certain parts of the photo. For example if you photograph the back of a laptop, you can use software like Adobe Photoshop to remove the logo from the laptop. After that you can submit it as commercial license, since there are no more visible logos in the image.

The release form

There is way to make an image with recognizable content be eligible for a commercial license. All you need is a signed release from the person in your image or the owner of the property that is shown in your image. And property also means intellectual property (e.g. copyright). Off course you will need a separate signed form for every person and/or property in your photo.

There are two different types of release forms you must use. There is the model release for persons and the property release for any (intellectual) properties you want to use in your photograph. Most stock photography agencies offer forms you can use. You can print the forms and scan them after they have been filled in and signed. An other option would be to use an electronic form from one of the agencies, or use one the apps that can generate digitally signed release forms.

Easy release pro

I personally use the app Easy release pro for creating release forms. It is a very useful app for iOS and Android that can generate both model releases and property releases and the forms are widely accepted by agencies. 

You can fill in the form using your device and then have the model or property owner sign digitally. When the form is signed, you can export it to pdf or jpg so you can submit it to your stock agency. Another useful function is the link with Dropbox, so you can send the forms directly to your cloud storage.

Use one of the buttons below if you want to check out the app in your app store.

The editorial license

Editorial photography is used mostly to support a story. Editorial content can be divided into two types, namely documentary editorial content and illustrative editorial content. You can find editorial photos in news articles, on websites, in magazines and books and things like that. Basically every use that does not require a commercial license, can use editorial license. This means that the rules for editorial are a lot more lenient then for commercial license.

Editorial captions

Many stock photography platform require you to ad an editorial caption to your photos when you submit them. They want you to ad information about when and where the photo was taken. Mostly this consists of the date, city and country that have to be added to the description of a photo in a set format. If you fail to ad the information correctly, this can result in a rejection after the review process.


Keywording for editorial is mostly the same as for commercial license. There is just one exception, and that is that you can not use brand names or other references to copyrighted content at some agencies. For example you can not ad the keyword “iPhone” when you want to submit a photo of a person talking on the phone as editorial. General keywords without copyrights like “phone” or “mobile” would be acceptable.

Documentary editorial content

Documentary editorial content is content that captures a real moment as it happened. Nothing is staged, everything you see is exactly as it was, like a documentary. It is good practice not to edit these photos too much, maybe just a correction of the horizon and some minor color grading. The photo should depict a real scene as it naturally occurred. Therefore for this type of content it can also be acceptable to have a lower quality image.

Illustrative editorial content

In illustrative editorial content on the other hand, a scene is most often staged in way it depicts a subject of interest. The content can be creative or conceptual, but it must portray an idea that can illustrate a story. An example would be an article about young people playing basketball, with an image that shows a low angle shot on a basketball court where someone is wearing Nike shoes. The fact that copyrighted brand logos are shown in this photo would be acceptable as it is illustrative to the article.

Player on a basketball court


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