Pursuing A Stock Photography Career

Posted on 2/8/2018 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

I’ve been hearing more and more complaints from experienced photographers about the low royalties they are receiving for the use of their images – often less than $1.00. In many cases these low figures result because the primary agent with whom they placed their images is using a secondary distributor to actually handle the licensing to the customer.

If the image is being licensed as RF a customer might pay $10 to license use of the image. The distributors keeps 80% of the fee, and remits $2.00 to the prime agent. The prime agent then pays the creator 20%, or less, of what it received from the distributor. In one recent case the creator received 16% of what his agent was paid or $0.32 on a $10.00 sale. That’s a little over 3% of what the customer actually paid to use the image.

Photographers who hope to earn a portion of their living from licensing rights to their images may need to start thinking about a new marketing strategy rather than relying on the traditional stock agency system.

Many of the elements necessary to make such a new strategy work are already available. Others are not that far down the road. For the most part what is needed is for the photographer to make a concerted effort to move away from the old agency system and toward a new strategy that gives the creator more control and a much higher share of the gross fee paid by the customer.

Among the elements of this new strategy are:
    1 – Building your own image database rather than placing your images with a stock agency.

    – Recognize that more and more image users are finding the images they want to use, not at stock agencies, but either by doing Google searches, or just in their normal course of daily activities of reviewing Internet sites.

    – Make it easy for those who see one of your images online to find and make contact with you. Support the development of something like the ICL.

    – Place images on Pinterest, Twitter and Facebook to give potential users a chance to see what you do. (This will work best if something like item 3 is already in place so those who like one of your images can easily find how to contact you.)

    – Use good Search Engine Optimization (SEO) so people searching Google for the subject matter you have to offer will find your images or your site. (Check out Todd Klassy’s experience.)

    – If you have a specialty, identify some customers that might need what you have to offer and market to them regularly.

    - If you’re uncomfortable negotiating, or not always available to handle requests, find someone who will provide that service for much less than 97% of the gross fee collected.

    – Consider an automated system of pricing that allows customers to choose from among a variety of use and pay with a credit card or PayPal. (There would also need to be a system to deliver a hi-res file to the customer once such a transaction is completed.)

    – Work with an organization that will track unauthorized uses, and collect when a fee when an unauthorized use occurs.   

    – If some of your best selling images from the past are no longer selling recognize that it may simply be that no one is seeing them any more. In large stock agency collections older images that haven’t sold in the last few months get buried so far down in the search return order that no one sees them anymore. You might have more success if you pull those images out of the agency collection where they currently reside and post them on your own site, or even Pinterest or Twitter. If you have Item 3 working for you customers will still be able to find you when they see your images.
When handling sales directly you may make a lot fewer sales than if the images are in a major stock agency collection, but if you get 100% of the fee paid by the customer, rather than 3% or 4% it doesn’t take very many sales to earn a lot more money.


I want you to consider the increasing number of people who use Google to search for images. In November, I did a story on Todd Klassy that I urge you to re-read.

Todd specializes in agricultural stock and pictures of Montana. These subjects are not what one would think of as being in high demand. He has his own website. None of his images are with agencies. When customers interested in using one of his images find his site he asks them to send an email identifying the image they want to use and answer 4 basic questions. One of the questions is: “How did you find my photo?”

In 2017 he made 147 sales. Most photographers won’t consider this number significant. Some Shutterstock photographers make that many sales in a day. But, the average fee per license was $601.42. That’s over $85,000 and he keeps all of it!

He regularly posts images on Pinterest and Twitter. Of those 147 sales 5 resulted from the customer seeing his image on either Pinterest or Twitter. 142 of the sales resulted from customers finding his image through a Google search.

He has good images. He presents them well and is a very good negotiator. My bet is that almost nobody initially found his site because they were searching for “agricultural stock photos,” “Montana stock photos” or toddklassy.com. They found his photos by doing a Google search for a particular subject. Maybe it was a visual search of an image they had seen somewhere else? Maybe it was because of his good SEO?

The important thing is that more and more people are finding the images they want to use at locations other than stock agencies. As an industry we are missing out on this new marketing strategy.

In coming weeks I will explore the 10 points outlined above in more detail.

Copyright © 2018 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 www.selling-stock.com, 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: http://www.jimpickerell.com/Curriculum-Vitae.aspx.  


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