Making Stock Photography Profitable

Posted on 3/16/2012 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (1)

If your goal is to earn a full-time living from photography -- and particularly stock photography -- you need to read this series of 14 articles. They were originally written in the summer of 2010. Since then the general state of the photographic industry has continued to go downhill. These articles discuss key aspects of the business and issues that those who want to earn their living taking pictures must consider.

There are a growing number of opportunities for photographers to earn some money from their pictures. But a career is an activity that provides a full-time living for the photographer and his or her family. Earning some supplemental income is possible. Earning the revenue needed to support a reasonable lifestyle, particularly in the USA, is becoming increasingly difficult.

If your only interest is to earn a little extra income from your photography you can still learn from these articles. They will help you understand the difficulties you will face and recognize the opportunities.

In the business of photography being a “professional” has little, if anything to do with the quality of the work produced. Many amateurs produce very artistic and “professional” looking images. Often the images are equal in quality to, or better than, images that are produced by “professionals” who earn their living taking pictures. Unfortunately, the quality of an image usually has nothing whatsoever to do with what a customer is willing to pay to use it. The price the customer is willing to pay is dependent on how he or she intends to use the image and the price of similar images offered by other sources.

Digital technology has made it possible to create and manipulate images in ways that were impossible in the film environment. Digital technology has made it possible for an increasing number of people to produce professional quality images and easily make them available for others to see, use and sometimes buy. As a result the odds of any particular stock image being licensed are infinitely less than was the case a few years ago.

These articles are not meant to dissuade anyone from entering the field of professional photography. Rather they are designed to give those considering spending time and energy producing images that can be sold or licensed with a realistic understanding of the opportunities and risks that lie ahead.

With that said consider the following articles.

Going Pro: The Print Market

One of the first things to do if you want to sell your still photographs is to understand who the individuals and organizations are that might want to buy your images. You also need to be aware of the changing trends taking place in each market.

Going Pro: The Internet Market

As little as five years ago, approximately 98% of all stock photo revenue came from print uses. There was little or no Internet and small business uses. Today about 20% of industry revenue comes from Internet and small business uses. The needs of these new customers were hardly addressed five years ago, as all traditional sellers focused on the high end of the market. Consequently, when someone wanted an image for these purposes they either took the picture themselves, or copied something off another Internet site and paid nothing for its use. In the last five years the demand for images that will be used electronically has grown dramatically.

Going Pro: Image OverSupply

So far in this series we've learned there is declining demand for images that will be used in print, and growing demand for images that will be used online and in electronic formats. Photographers just starting out should be aware of the number of images already in online databases and recognize that any images they produce will be competing against those that already exist.

Going Pro: Demand by the Numbers

In the last few years there has been dramatic growth in the use of images on the Internet, a market for images that virtually did not exist 10 years ago. Some believe that the potential for growth of the Internet is infinite, and that there will always be an ever-increasing demand for imagery.

Of Doom and Gloom: Accepting Averages

Phrases like "it's not all doom and gloom" pop up often, but those who offer such encouraging analysis are typically in the top tier of the profession. While their experience is certainly real and laudable if not amazing, is it representative enough to be touted as a roadmap to a successful career? Common sense, economics, mathematics and every available source of statistical information says no.

Going Pro: Marketing

If you have decided on a career as a freelance photographer your vocation will be marketing and your avocation, or sideline, will be photography. The marketing aspect of a photography business involves identifying potential customers, creating customer interest in the services you offer and building strong customer relationships. It is not unusual for self-employed photographers to spend 80% of their time in the marketing and administrative aspects of their business and 20% actually producing pictures.

Going Pro: Rise Of The Amateur

Many professional photographers are disturbed by the changes taking place in their careers. Photographers who dream of earning their living taking pictures will, at the very least, find that goal much harder to achieve than it was for their predecessors. Amateurs have taken over an increasing share of the business. And their share will continue to grow. The shift from professional control of the market to significant amateur involvement is irreversible and will accelerate. That doesn't mean that no one will be able to earn a living as a still photographer. But many fewer will do it successfully than was the case in the past. There is no way to predict the amount of the market amateurs will finally control, but it will be significant.

Going Pro: The Freelance Challenge

On Linkedin's Photography Industry Professionals discussion group, Brooke Fagel recently asked: "What's it like to be a freelance photographer?" These select responses provide a comprehensive picture of what a photographer faces.

Going Pro: Are Great Images Enough?

When you are a freelance self-employed photographer, getting to the level of earning enough to support yourself and your family is difficult. But you know you can do it, because you are willing to work hard and you produce great, unique images that are better than anything offered by the competition. Here are a few basic principles of the photography business to remember.

Going Pro: Selling Fine Art

Fine art photographs are an expression of the artist's creative vision, perceptions and emotions more than a realistic rendering of a subject. Peers may admire such work and judges may occasionally award a dollar prize, but in most cases such images are not deemed to have commercial value. Actually profiting from the creative effort is rare for most photographers who produce such images. They produce them because they feel compelled to do so, not for the money. However, John Math is proving that it is possible to profit from selling fine art images if you take a business approach and develop a marketing strategy.

Going Pro: The Wedding Option

Many who got into the photography business by shooting stock are finding that relying on stock income alone is insufficient and increasingly unpredictable. In looking for other ways to earn money using their photographic skills, some are exploring the wedding business.

Going Pro: Video

In theory there should be a major growth in demand in the near future for video. However, people have been making that prediction for more than a decade and the demand still doesn’t seem to be taking off. In fact, videographers who were among the leading sellers of video clips a decade ago are now reporting that their sales are down 50% from what they were just three or four years ago.

Top Pros Have Stopped Shooting

Many rights-managed and traditional royalty free production companies are having trouble finding photographers willing to shoot for them. Many of the photographers who were RM and traditional RF stars five to ten years ago have given up shooting stock, or at the very least dramatically cut the number of images they produce annually and the amount they are willing to spend on models and production costs.

Pros Stop Shooting: Point/Counterpoint

When I published "Top Pros Have Stopped Shooting" in my other newsletter Selling-Stock received an unusual number of comments from industry leaders. Most of those who commented had some disagreement with the positions I took in the article. Since PhotoLicensingOptions readers will have missed seeing these comments, I have printed them here along with an editorial response.

Copyright © 2012 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:  


  • Nicola Hill Posted May 12, 2012

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