Can Stock Photography Be A Profitable Activity?

Posted on 4/28/2020 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

Considering the cost of producing stock photos, it is hard to see how an average annual return of $0.49 per-image accepted into a stock photo collection can be enough to cover out-of-pocket costs let alone provide any kind of hourly return for time expended. Hourly return will certainly be far below the U.S. minimum wage.

So what are out-of-pocket cost? There are camera and computer cost, but those may seem relatively minimal. There may be costs for props, models and transportation to the location where the pictures are taken. The bigger costs in many cases may be the time required to correct the digital capture, manage model releases, caption, keyword and upload the digital files to an agency. Then we also must consider the time spent in planning what to shoot and getting to the location where the pictures will be taken.

Professional photographers who pay models and rent locations say that on average total costs to produce each accepted image (and not including all time considerations) is about $15.00. (People images tend to be in greater demand than other subject matter that might require less out of pocket costs.)

Some may say, “I can produce pictures for less because I’m taking pictures of my kids in the backyard, or a meal I just prepared, or while I’m shopping or on vacation. But think carefully about all the after shoot time requirements.

Often photographers try to solve this dilemma by submitting lots of similar images of the same shot to their agency in hopes that everything will all be uploaded. Thus, it they can get 30 slight variations of each situation they shoot accepted, they might at least least break even in a year. That doesn’t tend to work. While some variations of each situation are useful, 30 is usually way too many.

So how did I come up with my $0.49 average annual return?


Shutterstock, because it is a privately held company, is really the only place we can go to get broad based statistics about actual sales. They don’t provide everything image creators need to know to make good shoot-planning decisions, but they are by far the best source of information. And the fact that they are the second largest licensor of stock images and footage in the world gives us a good indication of where the industry stands as a whole.

Getty Images and its subsidiary iStock is the largest stock image distributors with gross annual sales of about $850 million. We have been able to do some analysis of their sales here.  But we have much more detailed and comprehensive data from Shutterstock.

Keep in mind that Shutterstock has over 1,000,000 contributors. At least half of them and probably closer to 80% are making on average less than the $0.49 per-image-in-the-collection per-year. A few top producers make more and a very small percentage who have managed to concentrate their shoots on the type of subject matter in high demand manage to earn enough annual revenue from full-time work to earn a reasonable annual wage for time expended.

Shutterstock reported $650.5 million in annual sales in 2019. In addition to sales made through, this figure includes some revenue from other sources.

First of all, it includes revenue from their Offset brand which is a very small collection (estimated 1.2 million images) that are licensed at much higher prices than images found on the Shutterstock website. I estimate that Offset’s annual revenue at about $25 million.

In addition, the $650 million includes revenue generated by, a wholly owned subsidiary brand owned by Shutterstock. BigShot has roughly 91.5 million images in its collection, about 27% the size of Shutterstock’s 340 million image and footage collection.

It is important to recognize that a significant percent of the image in the BigStock collection are the same images as are in the Shutterstock collection. In the company’s earlier years some photographers only uploaded their images to BigStock. Now Shutterstock tells its contributors that if they wish Shutterstock will automatically upload accepted images to the BigStock collection as well as Shutterstock. Thus, the total number of unique images in the two collections combined is probably not much more than the Shutterstock collection alone.

It is interesting that while the Shutterstock collection has 18.5 million footage clips, BigStock only has 104,035. Prices for video clips and still images on BigStock are the same, and significantly lower that single clip prices on Shutterstock. They are even lower than Shutterstock’s new discount subscription pricing for still images. The fact that video clips are being given away for such low prices may explain why so few video suppliers have agreed to allow Shutterstock to upload the clips they accept to BigStock.

Because the BigStock brand is not promoted anywhere near as heavily as Shutterstock, I suspect their total annual revenue is much lower than the size of their collection might indicate. Thus, I estimate it at no more than $25 million.

Shutterstock says that when they report images in their collection, “We exclude content from this collection metric that is not uploaded directly to our site but is available for license by our customers through an application program interface, custom content and certain content that may be licensed for editorial use only.”

This would include the 40 million news, sports, entertainment and archival photos supplied by ITV in the UK. One would think that most of the ITV collection would be footage clips, but it turns out that only 185,796 of the 40 million provided are footage. All the rest are still images.

Revenue Per Image

Thus, a significant portion of total revenue is not generated by the 340 images and video clips in the Shutterstock collection. If we divide $650.5 million by 340 million pieces of content, we get $1.85 in annual revenue per image in the collection. But the actual revenue these 340 pieces of content generate is probably under $600 million and that would make the average gross annual revenue per-image in the collection about $1.76 or less.

We also need to consider that footage clips sell at much higher average prices and thus proportionally generate more revenue-per-unit-licensed than still images. While we don’t know the number, or percentage of revenue from footage sales relative to still image, the average revenue per footage clip in the collection is probably higher than revenue for still images. We also believe the percentage of footage sales relative to still images has been increasing.

At the end of the year footage represented 5.4% of total content. Thus, if 10.14 million of the total 187.8 million licenses were for footage uses they would represent a larger share of total revenue than stills. I suspect the demand for footage might have been even higher.

About 28% of 2019 gross revenue was paid out to contributors. Thus, if the average piece of content earned $1.76 for the year the average contributor would have received about $0.49 for each piece of content they had in the collection. Still image creators and illustrators probably earned less than footage suppliers and the footage suppliers may have earned a little more.

We mentioned at the beginning some creators try to beat the odds by uploading lots of similar from each shoot. They know that customers have different needs and hope by offering many variation each customer will be able to find exactly the right image for their particular need. It is important to note that in all of 2019 there were only 187.8 million licenses while there were almost twice that many pieces of content (340 million) in the collection.

But, it gets worse. We know that many of the images licensed were licensed multiple times so the actual number of unique images licensed was much less than 187.8 million. Based on Q4 2019 activity only a maximum of 14.4% of images in the collection were licensed. The actual percentage was probably much less because some of the images that were licensed multiple times leaving well over 85.6% of the images in the Shutterstock collection unlicensed in the quarter. You’re not going to beat the odds by uploading tons of similars.   

That’s why your total annual income divided by the number of images you have in the collection is so important.

Multiple Agencies

Another way to beat the odds is to put the same images with multiple agencies. It you can get $0.49 per-image-in-the-collection, and you can put the same images with 10 other agencies and get the same $0.49 from each one of them then $4.90 a year isn’t that bad.

But it doesn’t work that way. None of the other agencies produce as well as Shutterstock.
Photographers who have big collections with multiple agencies still find that Shutterstock represents 30% to 50% of their gross annual revenue.

The top agencies to be with after Shutterstock are Adobe Stock, iStock, Alamy and maybe 123RF and you’ll still be lucky to get 2 to 3 times what you earn by just having your images with Shutterstock.

Finally, there are a few top image producers with years of experience and huge collections who earn significantly more than $0.49 per-image-in-the-collection. I talked to one recently who says he is earning about $9.00 per-image. But, if you’re just starting out you shouldn’t expect much more than $0.49, or less, for a number of years.

Copyright © 2020 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


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