It’s All About The Money

Posted on 6/18/2014 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

Sixty years ago when I decided to become a photographer, my goal was to earn my living doing something I enjoyed that was interesting and challenging. It has been that. But for me taking pictures has always been the thing I did to “earn a living.” It was never about creating “art,” or taking pictures just for fun that had no potential for economic gain. There is nothing wrong with focusing on photography as an art form; or just one’s personal enjoyment, but that wasn’t the way I approached it.

Recently, I read a blog post by Nicole S. Young, a successful microstock photographer with over 70,000 image downloads.

Among the points she made was that “Every so often” photographers would ask her “what photos sell?” or “what types of image should I upload to make money?” These questions bothered her because she felt photography should not be approached from a position of “money-first,” but rather how to be a better photographer.  She said her goal in helping other photographers is to “Teach photography, NOT How to make money.”

Her position got me thinking. There in nothing wrong with her approach to photography.  People engage in photography for a variety of reasons. But, I think it might be important for me, as the author of an online newsletter about the business of photography, to make my position clear to readers.

My primary goal as a photographer has always been to earn enough money to provide a comfortable lifestyle for myself, and my family.

I almost never shoot pictures just for my personal enjoyment. When I was shooting it was always a business – about making money. My photography was always about figuring out what a client needed and delivering it. That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy what I was doing, but I also got a lot of enjoyment from knowing that I had successfully satisfied the need of a particular customer.

As a stock photographer often I wasn’t shooting for a specific client. That didn’t make it easier, it made it much harder. In order to make money I had to figure out what future buyers were likely to want and shoot that not only to the best my ability, but better than any other stock photographer would have to offer on the same subject. From a practical point of view that is impossible because you never know what someone else may produce before the client has a need. But that doesn’t mean photographers should ignore the requirement.

Stock photographers can learn a lot about what is or isn’t currently in demand. They can learn about trends. They need a realistic understanding of the competition. They need to calculate the odds of potential buyers seeing their images. Just being represented by a good agency doesn’t guarantee that your images will be seen.

They can also track the sales of their images to determine which specific images sell and which don’t seem to be in demand. If some images aren’t selling, creating better, more artistic pictures of the same subject matter may not increase sales.

Photographers can’t just shoot what they like, or what they feel like today and expect it to sell. For me the challenge of trying to figure out what will be needed a year or two down the road was one of the things that kept photography interesting.

But, if the money wasn’t there then for me it was time to find another career that would meet my family’s economic needs.

There are loads of people out there creating great art that is under appreciated from an economic point of view. I hope none of these people are trying to support themselves on the strength of their “artistic vision.” I hope they realize that perfecting their art will not guarantee economic success.

There are also a number of excellent photographers who may not be earning enough from their photography to support their family, but with the contribution of a spouse engaged in other career the family unit is doing just find. I wouldn’t call these photographers “professionals,” but the images they produce are certainly satisfying the needs of many customers, and I’m sure, giving the photographers themselves a lot of enjoyment and satisfaction.

For 35 to 40 years I earned my living producing images. But when in order to continue to compete it became apparent that I needed to totally re-equip and learn a whole new set of skills I decided to transition into an allied profession where I could use what I had learned as a photographer and maybe help others understand the business. I continue to earn a small portion of my income from licensing rights to my stock image. But, now the majority of my income comes from my newsletter and consulting.

Had I chosen back in the 90s to focus all my energies on improving my photography and marketing my work, it is highly unlikely that I would be in as good an economic position, or as happy, as I am today. The business has changed dramatically and while there are still a few very successful photographers, most of my contemporaries who have continued to put all their energies into producing images are less successful today than they were in the early 2000s.

The prime motivation for a significant portion of photographers is to learn how to take better pictures, to maybe make a little money on the side, and to know that others “Like” their work. For other photographers it is “all about the money.” The co-existence of these two groups with equal access to the market has dramatically changed the business of photography.

So What Are Some Takeaways?

1 – Being a professional is not about shooting what you love, it’s about shooting images that people want to buy.
2 – There is nothing wrong with just wanting to be a better photographer and create images you love. But, don’t expect those images, no matter how technically and artistically great, to necessarily generate enough revenue to support yourself.
3 - Supply and demand is a fundamental concept of economics and the backbone of a market economy. Prices fall when there is competition and oversupply. In this industry there is no way to control or limit the supply.
4 - Demand for photographs for traditional media is flat or growing slowly at best. The market for images is not growing faster than prices are declining.
5 – Many part-timers and amateurs are producing great images of a whole variety of subjects. They are able to easily show these images to buyers. Since profit is not a motivator for them, they often make the images available at very low prices. Buyers often choose these images rather than images created by full-time professionals.
6 – Unfortunately, from the perspective of many buyers the cost of production has no relation whatsoever to what they are willing to pay for the images they want to use.

Copyright © 2014 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:  


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