Stock Photography As A Career

Posted on 10/26/2020 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (6)

Hopefully this story about my photo career will help young photographers understand how difficult it will be to make long-range plans for their future. Many businesses are changing at an increasingly rapid and unpredictable pace. Whatever you think you want to do in your 20s may turn out to be impractical, or unfeasible, sooner than you expect. What seem like an exciting opportunity today may soon disappear.

Being able to support oneself, and any eventual family you might have, is the key goal. Hopefully, your work will be enjoyable and fulfilling as well. But unless you are independently wealthy these cannot be the first priority, or only goals. Industry changes will occur more rapidly than was the case in the past. As your career develops always spend some time considering other options if the work you have chosen doesn’t develop as you hoped.

My Story

When I was 14 my father died suddenly at age 53. We didn’t have much in the way of economic resources. My mother hadn’t done paid work since she was married, more than 20 years earlier, but she managed to find work as a secretary. My mother was able to earn enough to cover our basic need, but if I wanted anything extra, I needed to find a way to earn my own money.
Shortly after my father died a neighbor introduced me to photography by showing me how to process film in his photo darkroom. Finding photography interesting, I found a job at a local camera store where I worked after school and on Saturday’s for the next 3 years.

During my high school years, I took pictures of friends and other activities in my free time. Some of my work won awards in the local county fair competition.

When it came time for college, I decided to major in photography at Ohio University. I had no idea what kind of photography I wanted to do to earn a living. I knew a local photographer who operated a portrait studio. He seemed to do very well so I thought I might eventually shoot portraits and weddings. I had no idea how I would get those jobs.

I learned a lot in the first two years at OU, but after my Sophomore year I had the feeling I needed to practice what I had learned before going on to finish college.

At that time every man who reached 18 had an obligation to serve two years in the military unless he was in school or had some physical disability. I decided to get my service obligation out of way with the hope I would be able to practice the skills I had learned before returning to finish college. Minimum Army service was 2 years. The Navy and Air Force required a 4-year commitment. I choose he Navy because it seemed to offer the best chance to work as a photographer.

After military training and Navy photo school, I was assigned to the naval base in Yokosuka, Japan where, as a new recruit, I worked mostly in a photo lab processing film and making prints.

After a year, I was given the opportunity to be the first Navy photographer to work at Pacific Stars and Stripes, a military newspaper headquartered in Tokyo. There I spent my time traveling to U.S. military bases all over Asia, working with experienced reporters, and photographing all types of news events. My pictures regularly appeared in a daily newspaper that was delivered to service men in every branch of the military all over Asia.

After that experience, when my military tour was finished, I decided I wanted a career as an editorial photographer. This was the first change in my original plan.

I talked to friends in the business and went to New York to show my portfolio and get advice. In general, the editors I talked to recommended that I finish my college education, but not major in photography. They suggested that my navy photo experience had already taught me everything I might learn in a university photo curriculum, and that I concentrate my studies in other areas to get a broader education. Based on their recommendations I went to UCLA and majored in Political Science.

I received a Bachelor of Political Science degree. However, on the day the rest of my class  received their diplomas, I boarded a plane to return to Tokyo to launch my freelance photography career. No salaried photography job for me.

During the summer of 1963 I struggled to produce much of anything that earned any money. At one point I was covering a story of an American who had sailed alone in a small boat across the Pacific. It turned out he didn’t want coverage and he pushed me with all of my camera gear into Tokyo bay. Fortunately, friends from Stars and Stripes days helped me re-equip so I could still work.  

While in Los Angeles I had worked part time one summer at the United Press International photo lab. In September ’63, I was contacted by the UPI Tokyo bureau chief who was looking for someone to go to Saigon and fill in for a month as the UPI’s official photographer until they could send someone out from New York to be their full-time photographer.

I was happy to take the job. At the time, Vietnam was the only Asia story any interest to Americans or Europeans, although in 1963 it still wasn’t much of a story. AP had a full-time German photographer based in Saigon and there were 3 of 4 western freelancers who occasionally made short, few-day swings through Saigon. After a month the UPI photographer from NY showed up and I decided to stay in Saigon because it seemed to offer the best opportunity to produce pictures that might be of interest to publications.

In October I covered Buddhist demonstration in opposition to President Ngo Dinh Diem and operations where U.S. advisors worked with the Vietnamese military. On November 1, 1963 General Duong Van Minh launched a coup to overthrow Diem. That day, I was the only western photographer in Saigon shooting color film. Earlier that year Life Magazine had made a decision to try to only use color photos of the week’s major news event on its cover. One of my pictures was used on the Life cover and a color photo I had taken the week before of a Buddhist monk self-immolation was used inside.

With those credits, I became the go-to Vietnam photographer many journalists would choose to illustrate their stories when they flew into Vietnam to cover the developing war. In a relatively short period of time my pictures were used in major newspapers and magazines around the world as well as on 11 Newsweek covers. My work was represented by Black Star, one of the major editorial stock agencies in the world.

In 1964 while covering an eagle-flight operation with a company of Vietnamese troops and two U.S. advisors, I was shot through the leg and ended up in the military hospital in Saigon. But, in two weeks, I was back walking the streets covering Buddhists anti-war demonstrations.

My sweetheart from UCLA days came to Vietnam in 1965 and we were married there. I continued to cover the war and work out of Saigon until the spring of 1967. At that point my wife and I returned to New York. I had the vision of being freelance photographer in New York, but there was no need for a war photographer in the big apple. There were lots of very experienced photographers who knew more about the city than I did and had developed good contacts with the editors. I was basically starting at the bottom. It was not a productive year.

I was interested in politics; my wife was pregnant and about to give birth to our first child. We didn’t want to raise that child in New York, so we moved to Bethesda, Maryland in the suburbs of Washington, DC.

I enjoyed covering events at the White House and on Capitol Hill, but again no one needed a war photographer. There was an abundant over supply of experienced Washington photographers who had good contacts with all the major media. I got some editorial work and assignments to cover some PR events, but it was difficult to earn enough to cover living expenses in a city that was much more expensive than Saigon. I began to look for better paying corporate assignments.

In 1970, I was hired as a staff photographer for Aviation Week. I had made contact with one of their reporters and done several shoots for them when I was in Vietnam. I liked photographing airplanes and covering aviation, but there was one big problem. They paid a reasonable salary, but they had not budgeted for the transportation costs necessary to go to aircraft factories and other aviation instillations around the country. Consequently, I spent many days as a receptionist at the front desks of Aviation Week’s Washington office. After a year I quit that job.

I met an LA Times feature writer and illustrated her weekly feature stories for a couple years. In addition, I built up a PR clientele. I was also able to capitalize on my international travel experience and get many assignments that involved international travel, particularly for Peace Corps. During all this time, going back to my Saigon days, I was sending stock pictures off to Black Star and other international stock agencies, but assignments remained my major source of income.

At best, I was a competent journeyman photographer. I could provide the client with what they needed on deadline. But never in my career would anyone mistake my work for that of one of one of the few great photographers.

The next big career change started in 1976 when Congress passed the Copyright Act that gave photographers ownership of all the images they produced, unless they specifically signed away those rights. Previous to that all the photos a photographer shot on assignment was owned by the assigning party. The photographer had no other rights to use those images.

Now, photographers could establish fees for specific assignments based on how the images would be used and retain the right to license uses of the same images to other customers for additional fees. This was a big boom to the stock photo business.

There was an increased demand for stock images, particularly of political personalities. Now, on days when I didn’t have an assignment commitment, I would shoot pictures I thought might be in demand as stock.

Transitioning To A Career In Stock Photography

I began to see that stock was an important source of supplemental income. In the late 70s and 80s PR assignment work was still my bread-and-butter, but I began to spend more and more time shooting stock and learning what kind of images were in greatest demand. Also, more and more customers who before 1976 had a low opinion of the quality of stock images began to check out stock sources when they needed an image before turning to an assignment.

For customers the advantage of stock was that they would know the image they were buying was exactly what they needed for their project. And they could negotiate the price. With an assignment they had to pay the photographer a fixed fee and expenses regardless of the end results. Often the resulting assignment images were not exactly what the customer wanted, but they were stuck with working with what they were given. Assignments also tended to be more expensive than stock.

Nevertheless, from the photographer’s point of view usage fees were very reasonable. It made sense to devote time to producing stock, even if many of the pictures never sold. (On average the usage fees in the 80s and 90s were 10 to 20 times what customers are willing to pay today for pictures they want to use.)

In the 1980s I was very active in the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) and began to encourage other photographers to get involved in the stock photography side of the business. Many photographers asked questions and it got to the point where I was spending a lot of time every week advising others on how to get started producing stock.

From 1987 to 1989 I served on ASMP’s national board. In the early 80s ASMP had produced a Stock Photo Pricing Handbook that many photographers used when trying to determine what to charge when licensing various uses of their stock photos. While I was on the board there were discussions of updating the Stock Pricing Handbook, but it was decided not to move ahead with that project.

After leaving the board I decided to produce my own pricing guide in order to make it easier for photographers to determine what to charge for various types of uses. I published the first edition of Negotiating Stock Photo Prices (NSPP) in 1989. (Later, this book was updated 4 times with the 5th edition published in 2001.)

(See this story for an idea of what recommended prices were like in the first edition and how prices for photo uses declined after that time.)

Once NSPP turned into a profitable venture, I decided it was time to try another publishing venture. In 1990 I began publishing an 8-page bi-monthly, subscription newsletter called Selling Stock. In it I reported on the latest industry developments relative to licensing rights to stock pictures. In 1995, I decided to add an online subscription service to my offering and published new stories on a more frequent and timely basis. Later I dropped the print version all together.

In 1993 my daughter Cheryl and I decided to set up a small stock agency called Stock Connection. Eventually, Stock Connection represented the work of over 400 photographers from around the world.

The mid 90s brought a number of changes. First, while still regularly shooting assignments and producing new stock images, I turned over nearly all the operations of Stock Connection to Cheryl and began to focus much more of my time on writing stories for the newsletter.

Also, in the late 90s it became increasingly apparent that the photo industry was moving away from film and toward digital capture. For a photographer to be competitive it was necessary to buy new equipment and learn how to use Photoshop and Lightroom effectively. It also meant that when working photo assignments it would be necessary to spend significantly more time on post-production and proportionally less time on working with photo subjects and actual image capture.

I was in my 60s and felt I wouldn’t have enough time in my working career to reap the benefits of additional equipment expenses, and new skills training.

At the same time the demand for information about industry changes was growing and I enjoyed reporting on the stock photo industry more than schlepping heavy cases of lighting equipment to assignments where I produced the same type of images, I had produced hundreds of times before.

At that point I decided to stop seeking new photo assignments, or doing stock shoots, and concentrate my time on daily reporting of the changes taking place in the stork photo industry.

That turned into a very satisfying endeavor until the mid-second decade of the 21st century. As I have reported in many different ways () pricing for stock photo uses hit a peak around 2007 to 2009 and then began to steadily decline. More and more of my newsletter readers began to see their annual revenue fall as they worked harder and smarter at producing new stock pictures. Many started to leave the industry.

The demand for the information Selling Stock provided continued strong until about 2015, but at that point a significant number of people were leaving the industry and no longer needed the information I provided. By 2017 subscriptions were in free fall.

Meanwhile, Cheryl and Stock Connection had a successful 20-year run, but by around 2015 she was experiencing enough of a downward trend in sales that it no longer made sense to try to sustain her stock agency business. At that point, while still continuing to operate the agency on a minimal basis she began to look for new ways to use the knowledge and technology skills she had developed at Stock Connection.

In 2016 she established My Memory File to help individuals and families organize, preserve and share the personal photos they had in their personal collections. Given the current ease of capturing good photos, most families now have many more photos than they can easily track. Few have done any editing. In addition, many have prints that now need to be digitized in order to have a complete and efficient organized tracking system.

This has turned into a good and growing business still related to photography.

Now that there is less demand for stories about stock photography, I am spending more and more of my time scanning prints for Cheryl and her business. In today’s world it is interesting that families are willing to pay more for help in organizing their personal images than many advertisers are willing to pay for the stock pictures they want to use. Consequently, for many scanning prints for others is now a more lucrative business than trying to produce stock pictures or write about the stock photo industry.


As the reader can see from this recitation there is no way I could have predicted in the early years how my career would develop. Technology and new discoveries have brought about dramatic changes in many industries and photography is certainly no exception. Moreover, as knowledge grows and expands the changes are occurring at an ever, increasing faster pace.

A skill learned early in your career may no longer be needed by the time you become proficient. I was lucky to be born in 1936 when change occurred at a much slower pace. I could choose a line of work and was able to continue to function in it, in a very broad way, through my entire career. Changes were relatively slow for my generation.

People born in the 90s or early 2000s will find that they must adapt to new developments and changes much more frequently than was the case in the past. It will be important to continually explore new options and be alert to new opportunities. The effects of the current recession are likely to last for years and bring about totally new changes and new directions for the economy.

If photography is your chosen profession, or just a hobby, enjoy it while you can, but look for other options and be ready to move to something totally different in the not too distant future.

It helps to launch a career and make career moves at a time when demand is growing and there is limited supply. Now is possibly the worst time to attempt to launch a career in photography.

Other stories readers might want to check out include:

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


  • Ron Graham Becker Posted Oct 27, 2020
    Jim, your career has obviously been very interesting. You seem to have had lots of exciting experiences. I commend you on all that you have done. Life does present us with different challenges.
    Thanks for sharing this story.
    Ron Graham

  • Linda Huhn Posted Oct 27, 2020
    Charming and wonderful story about your exciting life and achievements. Bought your Negotiating book years ago. I'm nappy for my few stock successes, but yes, the time to hang it up is long past. Thanks, as always, for your candor. Linda Huhn

  • Linda Huhn Posted Oct 27, 2020
    Make that "happy" not "nappy." Linda Huhn

  • David Lawrence Posted Oct 27, 2020
    Interesting story, Jim! Thanks for sharing. I remember meeting you back at one of the ASMP board meetings. (I was a chapter president at the time).

    David Lawrence

  • Yvette Cardozo Posted Oct 28, 2020
    So true. So many changes. I managed to slip into stock for enough years that the returns were decent. And then....And I know what you mean about shifting careers, though mine haven't been nearly as radical.

  • Bas van Beek Posted Oct 30, 2020
    Those were the days...we all thought that the internet was THE invention for showing and selling images. We all never knew by then how this would effect prices. I recently bought on eBay a 6/7 Pentax set. Never was a stock shooter, always a stock seller but from all the shooters we represented the sound of this huge shutter was like a cash machine for the photographers knowing what was demanded. But there is still money to be made, also for the free lance photographer. No cloud shots, but (daily) editorial. What a great Life cover shot Jim!

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