Making Up For Declining Stock Photo Sales

Posted on 11/16/2016 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

As I pointed out in a previous article I recently contacted a number of very successful photographers who, in the 90s, earned most, if not all, of their income from stock photography. After 2000, and despite a lot of continuing hard work and cost cutting, many saw significant earning declines and eventually had to look for something other ways to support themselves and their families.

Some who had started their careers doing assignments for clients were able to make that a growing part of their businesses. But, many I talked with have found it increasingly difficult to get assignments compared to what had been the case in earlier years. For those assignments that continue to be available customers want to pay a fraction of of what they paid for similar work five or ten years earlier.

Some photographers have turned to wedding photography or writing, others started selling real estate and still other have become Uber drivers.

To make up for lost stock income Rob Casey started a paddle board business, wrote two paddling guides and launched a certification program. None of these activities earned as much as stock had “back in the day,” but they are a supplement. Now, he is focused on online courses and e-books to round out his seasonal income.

Daniel J. Cox was awarded Outstanding Nature Photographer of the Year by the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) in 2013. Among his most personally satisfying accomplishments were two cover stories for National Geographic magazine. However, currently he earns 90% of his annual income from organizing photo tours.

He says he is still producing hundreds of thousands of images per year, but does almost nothing with them. “We will only sell them to clients willing to pay a reasonable fee. If not, I’m happy to let them lie dormant on my hard drives.”

I know of a number of other very experienced and formerly very successful stock photographers who are still actively producing images, but are not making those images available for stock photo licensing. Creating the image is only part of the cost. Once they have a digital capture, they must edit, correct selected images, keyword and go through the frustrating process of submission to a stock agency in order to make the image available for licensing. They have concluded that investing this time and energy is just not worth the effort given the likely return at today's rates. It is not even worth hiring someone to handle all these administrative tasks.

Some still hold out the hope that the market will change and customers will actually be willing to pay higher prices for the images they need. If that happens then they may submit some of the images they have collected. While such a change seems highly unlikely, like Dan Cox they will be happy to let their images lie dormant.

In the late 90s Larry Aiuppy was earning $150,000 a year from his stock image collection. In 2015 he earned $2,943. However, he was lucky. He has had a fall back position based on a lifelong involvement in fly fishing, including 30 years teaching fly fishing and fly casting, and roughly twenty years involved in outdoor print media as a freelance photographer and writer mostly involving fly fishing. He has had assignments for some of the largest magazines and companies in the industry (Field & Stream, Outdoor Life, Fly Fisherman, Orvis, Winston rods, etc.). Given this background he was able to fairly easily segue into wholesale fly fishing tackle sales as a traveling manufacturer's sales representative in the Northern Rocky Mountain states. He retired four years ago after 10 years of traveling sales.

When the stock photo money was good back in the ‘90s, he was smart enough to pay off his mortgage, wipe out all outstanding debts, and invest a large percentage of it in the (equities) stock market.

Bill Bachmann used to be a major advertising assignment shooter and also had a huge stock image collection distributed by a large number of agencies around the world. Now he focuses more on producing video clips and says the market for them has been growing each year. He also conducts workshops, writes books and organizes photo tours.

Peter Bennett teaches classes at a photo school, leads workshops and does personal tutoring. He also sells fine art prints of his work. In addition, he has developed a photo organization business where he helps personal clients to organize their photo collections. For more about this opportunity check out APPO.

He says “it is not enough to work hard and produce better and better still images. There are too many variables and factors beyond the control of any individual. Producing excellent work will always increase your chances of higher revenue, but search algorithms are always changing and there is almost no ability to affect how your images will appear in search results.

“Reaching art buyers and researchers has become very difficult for individual producers. Previously, success was due in large part to the personal relationships I had with buyers and researchers at various publishers and magazines. Turnover in those positions has increased dramatically over the years and re-establishing relationships with new buyers has been very difficult.”

Peter & Gerogina Bowater said, “we lost interest in the stock business a few years ago as we were thoroughly disgusted with the way a lot of the agents operated.  We know that there are hundreds/thousands of our pictures out there and that someone is profiting from them but it's not us.”

They have started seriously printing and selling Fine Art prints. They also mount, frame and stretch the work when requested. Peter said, “Our prices for an A1 don't go much higher than 500 or 600 Euros for a limited edition of maybe 16 or 20 prints. We sell a lot of smaller prints from 300 to 400 Euros down to peanuts.

“We live in the back of beyond. The village has a population of 600 and is not particularly sophisticated. It's a farming and wine producing area. The Festival Arts & Vigne which lasts 8 days in August is the best time to sell prints because there are lots of visitors who are more likely to buy than the locals.

“Perhaps, sadly, we've made more money in the last 10 years out of improving houses, selling them and buying a less expensive one. We also grow our own fruit and vegetables on quite a large scale,” he continued.
For Justin Black the decline in stock sales started in 2001, he has seen some good years for since then largely through direct licensing. Presently about 75% of his income comes from nature photo workshops and tour operation, through his company, Visionary Wild, LLC. About 20% is sale of limited edition prints, and the remaining 5% is stock.

This is only a small sampling of how photographers have dealt with the declining fortunes of the stock photo business.

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:  


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