Self-Employed Photographer Dilemma

Posted on 8/28/2020 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

If you are a U.S. photographer hoping to earn at least a portion of your future living expenses from selling or licensing rights to the images you produce, it is time to seriously reassess your business plan.

If photography is a hobby. If the pictures you produce are for personal enjoyment and their earning potential is unimportant. If you have no need to earn revenue from your efforts, by all means continue to take pictures. But recognize that no matter how great your images might be, in all likelihood any future financial compensation you receive will be miniscule compared to the time and effort expended.

Things To Consider

In June 2020 there were 21 million unemployed Americans. But that doesn’t count a lot of small business owners struggling to stay afloat or self-employed individuals who have recently seen less demand for the services they provide.

According to the Small Business Administration (SBA) in 2019 there were 30.7 million small businesses in the U.S. About 23 million of them were sole proprietors with the rest being S-Corporations.

Some of the S-Corps were operated by a single individual with few, if any, employees. Back in 2015 the Census Bureau found that 84.9 percent of these small businesses had fewer than 20 employees.

Most photographers are sole proprietors working on an as needed basis. Few are salaried employees and able to collect unemployment when there is little or no work. They may not be technically “out of work,” but many have found that currently there is much less demand for the product they produce than was the case a year ago.

How Many Are Earning Less?

Before Covid-19 hit many photographers were earning barely enough to support their basic living needs with little or no cash reserves. The big question now is how long will it take to get back to where they were before the decline?

Since January many “salaried employees” were able to go on unemployment. That wasn’t an option for sole proprietors. In addition, the government launched the CARES Act that paid those who qualified as unemployed an extra $600 a week between April 5, 2020 and July 31, 2020. This sustained many for several months.

Now that extra money has stopped. The unemployed and underemployed are not going to be able to buy the necessities they need; let alone the luxuries they want. If they are not buying, then the manufacturers and suppliers will not need as many employees and they will not be rehiring.

People will not consume as they have in the past until they feel it is safe to do so. They will not go to sporting and entertainment events until it is safe to be in crowds. They will not spend in restaurants and bars as they used to. They will buy what they need online, not in retail stores. They are not likely to travel as much. The people whose jobs are related to these industries are not likely to be rehired soon, but they will be out there competing with the self-employed for the few available jobs.

Many of these unemployed are being told that there is a growing demand for photographs; that they can make money taking pictures. A significant number will start adding to the already huge and growing oversupply of images making it that much harder for photographers who were just making ends meet in 2019 to earn much at all going forward.  

When Will The Turn Around Come?

Meanwhile, the government is doing very little to solve the Covid-19 problem. Our leaders seem to hope that it will magically play itself out. They seem to believe that if they ignore the dangers and insist long and hard enough that everyone should return to their normal activities, Covid-19 will disappear.

The problem with this strategy is that while people need to earn enough to cover their basic needs, most people will not return to their previous consumption activities until they see evidence that Covid-19 is controlled and they the feel confident it is safe to resume normal activity.

The relatively small percentage of our population that can easily work from home, or have enough savings to see themselves through these difficult times, will remember this time as a minor inconvenience. But a high percentage of the population with little savings will need income from work to survive. These people may be forced to return to dangerous work environments in order to supply the basic needs of their families, but they won’t be the consumers they once were.

Those who had salaried jobs before will probably be the first to be called back. The sole proprietor service jobs will be the last to get back to normal. Many of them will never totally recover.

So What Should Self-Employed Photographers Do?

The first thing is to accept the realities of their situation depending on the kind or images they produce. If companies are trying to cut costs, paying someone to take pictures of various company activities will probably be the last way they decide to spend money. If a photographer has focused on covering sports, travel or entertainment there will probably be less need for that type of imagery until the economy is booming again. There will probably be less demand for nature and wildlife pictures.

Meetings and events will probably be curtailed for a long time. Many may become Zoom events where there is no need for a professional photographer.

Weddings, except among the wealthy, are likely to be smaller events. If brides are trying to save money, they may ask a relative, rather than a professional photographer to take pictures.

People pictures have always been in greatest demand. But, as people isolate it may be harder to find situation that offer such opportunities.

There is likely to be a decline in retail outlets. As a result, there will be less need for pictures related to retail sales.

There may be an increased demand for product photography since more and more products will be sold online, rather than at retail outlets. The only way to know what you’re buying will be to see a picture.

There may be a continued demand for photos for advertising, but it seems likely that stock photos will be used more frequently in order to cut costs. There is a huge archive of stock photos on nearly every subject and the images are being licensed at extremely low prices.

The one major agency where we have good data is Shutterstock. The average Shutterstock photographer has 257 images in the collection and earns about $0.50 per image annually, or roughly $128.50 per-year. Of course, a huge percentage of their 1,400,000 million contributors earn less than $128.50 per-year. Maybe as many as 7,000 (half of 1%) earn decent incomes for their effort and cost expended. Most of these have been producing images for a number of years and have over 10,000 images in the collection. At least two providers have over 1,000,000 images in the collection.

At current prices it is almost impossible for anyone early in their career to earn a decent income no matter how great their work.

The other major distributors are Getty Images, iStock, AdobeStock and Alamy, but none provide the detailed statistics about their operations that Shutterstock does. It is believed that Getty/iStock generates about the same annual revenue as they did in 2006. While they license rights to a lot more images now than in 2006 they license them at much lower prices. Given that they have many more contributors than in 2006 the net result for the average contributor is much lower revenue.

The number of suppliers to all the big agencies has grown dramatically in recent years so revenue earned by each contributor has declined. Many of Getty’s top producing photographers are earning about 10% of what they were earning in 2006.

If photographers place the same images with all the major agencies and some of the smaller ones they might earn as much as 3 to 4 times as much as they earn from Shutterstock alone, but for all but a very few that is still not enough to be the sole support of a family in the U.S.

There are many smaller suppliers, but most are struggling. In the best cases most see flat revenue growth.


If you need money to live, it will probably be wise to look for work that doesn't involve taking pictures as a way to earn it. The work may not be as interesting or exciting as photography, but it will be a way to sustain yourself and your family.

It is questionable whether the photography business will ever return to what it was 10 or more years ago, but if that does happen it will be several years from now, not in the near future.

Copyright © 2020 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


Be the first to comment below.

Post Comment

Please log in or create an account to post comments.

Stay Connected

Sign up to receive email notification when new stories are posted.

Follow Us

Free Stuff

Stock Photo Pricing: The Future
In the last two years I have written a lot about stock photo pricing and its downward slide. If you have time over the holidays you may want to review some of these stories as you plan your strategy ...
Read More
Future Of Stock Photography
If you’re a photographer that counts on the licensing of stock images to provide a portion of your annual income the following are a few stories you should read. In the past decade stock photography ...
Read More
Blockchain Stories
The opening session at this year’s CEPIC Congress in Berlin on May 30, 2018 is entitled “Can Blockchain be applied to the Photo Industry?” For those who would like to know more about the existing blo...
Read More
2017 Stories Worth Reviewing
The following are links to some 2017 and early 2018 stories that might be worth reviewing as we move into the new year.
Read More
Stories Related To Stock Photo Pricing
The following are links to stories that deal with stock photo pricing trends. Probably the biggest problem the industry has faced in recent years has been the steady decline in prices for the use of ...
Read More
Stock Photo Prices: The Future
This story is FREE. Feel free to pass it along to anyone interested in licensing their work as stock photography. On October 23rd at the DMLA 2017 Conference in New York there will be a panel discuss...
Read More
Important Stock Photo Industry Issues
Here are links to recent stories that deal with three major issues for the stock photo industry – Revenue Growth Potential, Setting Bottom Line On Pricing and Future Production Sources.
Read More
Recent Stories – Summer 2016
If you’ve been shooting all summer and haven’t had time to keep up with your reading here are links to a few stories you might want to check out as we move into the fall. To begin, be sure to complet...
Read More
Corbis Acquisition by VCG/Getty Images
This story provides links to several stories that relate to the Visual China Group (VCG) acquisition of Corbis and the role Getty Images has been assigned in the transfer of Corbis assets to the Gett...
Read More
Finding The Right Image
Many think search will be solved with better Metadata. While metadata is important, there are limits to how far it can take the customer toward finding the right piece of content. This story provides...
Read More

More from Free Stuff