Are Photographers Leaving The Stock Business?

Posted on 3/25/2016 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (1)

A Korean subscriber recently asked the following questions. “I notice you say that many photographers are unable to earn enough money and end up leaving the market. Is there any specific number that you can prove? How many photographers/contributors were there in the past and now?

The answer to your question is rather complicated. I cannot provide a specific number of photographers who have stopped producing stock images, nor how much that number has declined in the last 10 or 15 years. Now, there are unquestionably many more photographers trying to sell the images they produce than there was 10 or 15 years ago.

The problem is that most stock producers – and the number is increasing rapidly – are not trying to earn a living taking pictures; they are just having fun and hoping to earn a little extra pocket money.

Shutterstock says they currently have over 100,000 contributors and in 2015 the royalty they paid these contributors totaled around $124 million. That means that the average contributor earned $1,240 during the year. A very few contributors earned quite a bit more. The vast majority earned quite a bit less. (By the way, illustrators tend to earn more per image than photographers. In addition, illustrators tend to have fewer images in the collection and their images tend to sell more frequently than the images of photographers.)

Dreamstime says they have more than 200,000 contributing photographers, but their gross annual revenue is much less than Shutterstock. Thus, the average each photographer earns is much less than the average for Shutterstock.

Several years ago iStock said they had over 100,000 contributors. iStock’s gross annual revenue is somewhere in the range of $200 million. That means that the average contributor earns around $400 a year.

From these numbers it is obvious that most photographers are not earning enough to support themselves. They must have some other means of support. And for most that other means must be very significant because what they are earning from stock photography isn’t adding much of anything to the overall income necessary for most people to survive.

While there are still a few photographers earning a good living, or a significant portion of their living, from stock photography that number is declining rapidly. Clearly, stock photography has become an occupation for amateurs.

What Happened?

I have no hard figures of the number of people engaged in the stock photography business in previous times, but if was many fewer than today. When I first became seriously interested in stock photography in the mid-70s, most people thought that the only way to be a professional photographer was to work on assignment. Anyone who needed a picture sought out a professional photographer to do the work for them. Assignment photographers discovered that if they put the outtake from their assignments with stock agencies they could sometimes make a little extra money.

The demand for stock began to grow and a number of professional photographers began to focus a lot of their efforts toward identifying the kind of images stock photo buyers needed and producing such images on speculation. The stock photo business grew and many photographers were able to turn stock photo production into a career.

Around the turn of the century several changes in the business began to occur.
    1 – Technology made it possible for image files large enough for professional use to be delivered over the Internet.

    2 – Technology made it possible for large searchable databases of images to be developed. Customers, anywhere in the world, could go online, search for the images they liked and download files large enough to use for their projects. Previously, if a buyer wanted a stock image they would have to contact a stock agency; describe what they needed; a selection of film images would be shipped to them by Federal Express; they would those submitted to see if any would do the job; negotiate rights to use the image and ship back any they decided not to use.

    3 – Often, image buyers produce some of the images they need themselves. Many of these images have potential non-competing uses for others, but up until Internet speeds reached a certain point there was no easy way share such images with others.  

    4 – These buyers discovered they could share such images with colleagues via the Internet and in the process maybe make a little extra money.

    5 – Online sites – iStock, Shutterstock, Dreamstime and others – were developed with basically this principle in mind. Since the reason for doing this was more about sharing with colleagues  than earning money initially the fees charged for such image uses were very low.

    6 – Prior to 2000 stock images were produced mostly by professional photographers and very serious amateurs. Now every photographer could participate in the market.
As this new market developed we have seen a huge oversupply of images relative to demand and average prices for all images have fallen dramatically. There has been some increase in demand over the last 15 years, but nowhere near enough to offset the falling prices. In general, the industry has seen little or no growth in the last decade, and maybe longer.
    (Many disagree with my assessment of industry growth. They point to a few companies that have seen huge growth -- Shutterstock in particular. I think most of this growth has been the result of taking market share from others and driving many smaller companies out of business. The simple fact is that nobody has enough detailed data on actual, worldwide sales to say with assurance whether the industry is growing, or not. A significant portion of the sales have always been made by privately held companies that are not required to accurately report their figures. A lot of interpolation is required to come up with any gross revenue number.)
Finally, I would point to one Korean company you may know something about. Getty Images makes a significant number of sales from its Premium image collection through Multi-bits, its Korean portal, for gross sale prices of $1.25 each. The contributor gets a royalty share (often only 20%) of that figure.

The actual fee charged for Multi-bits use may be higher and the operators take a fee off the top before paying the remainder to Getty. When reporting a “gross sale” to contributors, it is common in the industry for the parent company (Getty in this case) to report what it receives, after a distributor’s cut has been deducted.

At this price how many times does a unique image have to sell before the image creator can cover his costs, let alone make a profit. My estimate is that only about one out of every 7 images in Getty’s collection sells once annually.

Is it any wonder that photographers have stopped producing?

Copyright © 2016 Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to:  


  • Tibor Bognar Posted Mar 26, 2016
    For a stock photographer who is in mid-life, the only rational decision is to sell the cameras and learn a new trade. I've recently heard of several very long and well established stock shooters whose income is 10-15% of what it was ten years ago. Most of these people are in their 60's, sitting on a huge inventory of images, stable financially, unwilling to start a new career from zero, so they try to hang on as long as they can. But for a younger person there is no future in stock.
    Tibor Bognar

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