Cautionary Tale

Posted on 11/15/2016 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (3)

If you think hard work, and continuing to produce better and better images is all that’s needed to make money in the stock photography business, think again.

Here’s the story of one very successful photographer who started in the business in the late 1970s. He is not only a hard worker, but a very intelligent manager of his business. He studied market demand carefully.   He tracked and analyzed his licenses in detail, searching for insight into trends, demographics, styling, lighting, and any other clues that would enable him to create images that had the highest added value in the industry.  He employed a support staff of six employees, invested in models, props, sets, location and equipment in order to focus on producing the kind of images that were in greatest demand. His investments were wise, not wasteful.

His work was represented by one of top agencies in the industry during the 80s and 90s. He was the top producer for his agency. In 2000, his peak year, the royalty payments to him were almost $1,000,000. Obviously, significant expenses were required to generate that kind of revenue, but he also had significant profit. Much of the profit was plowed back into the business to build an archive that he expected to provide some funding for retirement. (At that time most stock producers believed that a good stock photo library could be an important retirement resource.)

In 2000 his agency was sold to another leading agency for a price speculated to be between 80 and 120 Million dollars. The owners who had operated the agency successfully retired with a massive payout.  None of the purchase price was shared with the photographers whose efforts helped build the value of the agency. Unfortunately, because of contract restrictions, he was unable to remove his images from the new agency.

With the same library of images, within 3 years the photographer’s receipts with the new agency dropped by 2/3, to the range of $350,000.   

The photographer started again to build a new library from scratch, continuing to produce more and better images. He worked harder and smarter, utilizing all the knowledge he had learned in his 25 years in the business. He found new outlets for the work, including becoming a founding member of a photographer-owned agency. In 2014 he finally accepted the fact that it would cost him more to produce new images than he could ever hope to recover through licensing. With the expression “The juice just isn’t worth the squeeze” in mind, he decided he had had enough.  It hurt too much financially and emotionally to see the lower and lower prices paid for his imagery.  At that point he retired, and has had very little to do with the industry since.

By 2015 his annual royalties had declined another 70% from the 2004 level and 90% below what he was earning in 2000. Based on the first 9 months of 2016 his royalties this year will be lower than this year and 93% below his 2000 level.

Relatively happy with his retirement, the photographer now pursues other interests, including volunteering his time, to give motivational lectures to high school students whose families have immigrated from other countries, and teaching computer skills to senior citizens.

When he closed his studio in 2014 he filled a panel truck with all the slides and slide pages of his 30-year career and took them to the dump. (All the important images had already been scanned and he still has those digital files.) Later, he thought that he probably should have checked if there was any value in “silver recovery” from all that film.

This photographer’s experience is unique only in how successful he was at one time. I recently contacted a number of photographers who, in the 90s, earned most, if not all, of their income from stock photography, and were very successful. After 2000 all continued to produce more and better images, but despite having more images of greater quality in their collections their revenue began to fall. At first most made efforts to cut costs and work more efficiently. At some point most had to find other ways to earn the bulk of their income.

For virtually all of them the revenue they earned from stock photography in 2015 was less than 15% of what they had earned in 2000.

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:  


  • Peter Dazeley Posted Nov 16, 2016
    how will the next generation of stock photographers be able to afford to create?

  • Richard Gardette Posted Nov 19, 2016
    And the next question is : who are the smart ones who continue to fill the tanks of Shutterstock with "Over 800,000 new stock images added weekly" ?
    Aliens ?

  • Douglas Peebles Posted Nov 19, 2016
    Well I guess the good news is that my stock income is "only" down to 24% of what is was in 2000. However I just finished processing and submitting photos from a 3 week Asia trip and that may be the last time I do that.

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