2010 Photographer Income Survey Results: Down

Posted on 7/13/2010 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (2)

There were 251 individual responses to the online survey, which was posted in May and designed to measure photographer income trends. The majority (81%) of respondents were from the U.S. and Canada. Almost 6% were from the United Kingdom. No other country had more than 5 respondents.

For 133 of the 251, revenue was down more than 5% in 2009 than in 2008 (probably in most cases a lot more than 5%).  For 56, revenue was in the plus or minus 5% range, and for the remaining 62 responders, revenue was up more than 5%.  Of the latter group, 41 of 62 were in the early stages of their careers (1 to 4 years), when revenue can be expected to grow.

Revenue fluctuations: “I just took your survey and I have one big issue with your questions. You ask if your income in 2009 was 5% greater or lesser than 2008 and then you ask again if 2010 income was 5% higher, “I just took your survey and I have one big issue with your questions.  You ask if your income in 2009 was 5% greater or lesser than 2008 and then you ask again if 2010 income was 5% higher, lower or the same.

"I think that by just looking at a 5% variance, I believe that you are missing the profound changes we had last year.  For myself, my loss in 2009 was much greater than 5%, and again in 2010 it is a much larger change upward than 5%.  In fact, I believe after running a photo business for 20 years that a 5% variance is normal from year to year.  In fact, people I know went through 30-50% change from year to year.

“Most photographers can suffer a 5% change but have a real hard time handling a 50% change. The other interesting but unknown issue is, how much have people bounced back? If you suffered a 50% loss in 2009 and are only experiencing a 5% reversal in 2010, you are still in deep doo-doo—but if your 2010 bounce is 30-50%, then you might be ok.”—Zave Smith
Note that one reader questioned the design of the survey—particularly the 5% measurement benchmark for revenue fluctuations. Zave Smith feels that just looking at a 5% variance does not allow the survey to reflect the profound changes of last year, when Smith’s revenue and that of others have dropped by a much greater margin (see inset at left).

Of the 133 respondents who were down in 2009 compared to 2008, 59 are seeing a continued decline of more than 5% in 2010 compared to 2009. Less than a fifth (42 respondents) say income is about the same this year as in 2009. The remaining 32 report that sales are trending upward more than 5% compared to 2009.

Overall 2010 revenue is down by more than 5% compared to 2009 for 92, about the same for 88 and trending up more than 5% for 71.

We asked respondents to only list their income from providing photographic services of one type or another. About a fifth (54 people, 21%) of the respondents had no income at all from licensing stock images. For another 54, less than 20% of their photographic income came from licensing rights to stock images. This would tend to indicate that these people are either doing assignment work or possibly working in some type of staff photographer position.

Sales were significantly down for the responders who specialize in stock photography: 35 of 57 people reported declines in 2009 compared to 2009, and 6 said sales were about the same. Close to half (24 of 57) continue to experience declines in 2010 compared to 2009.
Almost a quarter (57 people, 23%) of those who responded to the survey earned more than 90% of their income from stock. Of this group, sales for 35 were down more than 5% in 2009 compared to 2008, and 6 reported that sales were about the same. Only 16 of those who focus exclusively on producing and selling stock saw sales rise more than 5% in 2009, and most of these were relatively new to the stock photo business: only 4 of those who saw sales growth earned in excess of $75,000, and the individual with the highest gross sales in this group is a microstock shooter. As for 2010, 24 of the 57 stock shooters continue to see declines compared to 2009, 23 are leveling, and 10 are moving up in excess of 5%, but that still may not be enough to get them back to 2008 levels.

Top earners

Respondents were asked to choose the range for their 2009 gross income, with the highest choice of $300,000 or more and the lowest choice of $0 to $10,000. Almost 8% of respondents (20) earned more than $300,000. This number is surprising, considering responses to Selling Stock’s 2007 and 2008 surveys. The format of the 2010 survey was adjusted to obtain a better response rate, so the numbers are not directly comparable to previous surveys, only 5 people out of each 238 responses in 2007 and 136 in 2008 earned more than $500,000.

A surprising 8% of respondents—16 in the U.S. and 4 in the U.K.—said they earned over $300,000 in 2009.
Of the 20 who say they earned over $300,000 in 2009, four are based in the U.K., one in Belgium, one in Germany, and the rest are in the U.S.  Sales were down in 2009 by more than 5% for 14 respondents in this group, up by more than 5% for 4, and about the same for 2 when compared to 2008. So far in 2010, sales for 8 or this group are down more than 5%; they are about the same for another 8 and up more than 5% for 4. For nine of these 20 top earners, more than 90% of their income came from stock licensing. The rest earned significant portions of their photographic income from doing other types of photography.


Earnings for the median person on the list were between $30,001 and $50,000, with 15% of respondents (39) falling into this category. Previous surveys have demonstrated that for most stock photographers, expenses are roughly 40% of gross revenue, if all expenses related to that part of the business are taken into account. Thus, someone who has $50,000 in sales has a net pre-tax profit of about $30,000. Expenses can vary greatly from photographer to photographer, depending on the type of work being done.

About a fifth of the survey respondents said they earned over $100,000 in gross revenue. These earnings may be comparable to a number of iStock exclusive contributors.
A total of 56 had over $100,000 in gross revenue. It is interesting to compare this number with the earnings of top iStockphoto sellers. At least 28 iStock contributors, and possibly as many as 42, had more than 45,000 downloads in the last 14 months. Extrapolate for 12 months, and that works out to about 39,000 downloads in a year. On average, non-exclusive iStock contributors (most of this group) earn about $1.30 per download, and exclusive contributors earn $2.60 from the main collection. However, exclusive contributors now have the opportunity to earn even more when their images are licensed from the Exclusive or Vetta collections or under extended licenses. Therefore, iStock exclusive contributors who are licensing many fewer than 39,000 downloads a year may be earning more than $100,000 annually.

Low earners

On the other end of the spectrum, 107 (or 43%) of survey respondents earned less than $30,000.  Around a quarter (59, or 24%) earned less than $10,000. Only 24 of the 107 were relatively new to the business and had been selling images for less than 4 years; all the rest had been in the business longer.

There was a fairly even spread in the number of years the respondents have been in the photography business, with a slight skew toward the more experienced: 34 have been in the business 1–3 years; 48, 4–6 years; 52, 7–15 years; 50, 16–25 years; and 67, more than 25 years.

U.K. income figures

Coincidentally, the British Photographic Council has just released its 2010 photographer survey measuring calendar 2009 sales results as reported by a whopping 1,698 responding photographers. (Amateur respondents were excluded from calculations.)

The average (mean) freelance photographer profit was £18,821 (approximately $27,000), compared with a mean staff salary of £34,535 (approximately $51,000). Only 19% of freelance respondents said they made a profit of £30,000 ($44,000) or more, compared with 35% of the staff photographers who said they earned a salary over this figure.

More than a third of staff photographers (41%) said they were paid between £20,000 and £30,000, but only 15% of freelancers reported earnings in this range. Close to a third of freelancers (29%) said their profit was between £1 and £10,000, while 16% did not make a profit in 2009.

Only a third of the respondents said they had spent 91% or more of their working life as a photographer.

U.K. figures are not much different from U.S., with almost a third of photographers responding to a recent British Photographic Council survey reporting significantly lower earnings in 2009 compared to the previous year.
Half of respondents said their turnover had fallen in 2009 compared to 2008, while 31% said theirs had risen and 19% said theirs was roughly the same as 2008. Almost a third (29%) described their 2009 turnover compared to 2008 as “significantly lower.”

One respondent said, “With everyone owning a camera of some sort, most people do not recognize the skill required in producing a good picture. I can see photography as a profession slowly dying—apart from a few customers who do appreciate quality and are prepared to pay for it.”

Another added, “I feel this next six months is critical to my survival. I have been a successful photographer for 10 years…but now competition is so fierce and prices on the slide, it’s getting very hard to see it’s worthwhile continuing as a full-time photographer.”

Copyright © 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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