Earning A Living In Stock Photography

Posted on 1/13/2011 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (2)

For many photographers seeking to earn some, or all, of their living producing stock images, one of the most important decisions in 2011 will be whether to retire from the stock photo business or get into microstock. Many photographers who are licensing their images at rights-managed or traditional royalty free prices have seen their revenue decline significantly in the last couple of years. They are also skeptical that it is possible to earn any significant money licensing images at microstock prices. As a result quite a few are choosing to get out of the stock photography business.

Several experienced rights-managed shooters continue to argue that it is impossible to make money selling pictures at microstock prices. They say microstock is only for hobbyists, not “real professionals.” When we point to the exceptions like Yuri Arcurs, Lise Gagne, Sean Locke and a few others who are earning high six figure and in some cases seven figure incomes they argue that these photographers are able to do it only because they were early adopters and have built extremely large collections over a number of years. The skeptics say it is too late for anyone trying to enter the field now.

With these thoughts in mind, the experiences of Denmark photographer, Daniel Laflor, are instructive. From his blog we know that Daniel started producing stock photography as an assistant to Yuri Arcurs in August 2008. Five months later in January of 2009 he went out on his own and in his first year as a microstock photographer represented by iStockphoto he produced about 1559 images and had about 6,500 downloads. It is unclear when he went exclusive with iStock, but that probably occurred as soon as he reached the 250 download requirement.

In 2010 he added 5,500 images to his iStockphoto collection. This is significant because none of the 197 top iStock producers that we have been tracking in the last two years added that many images to their collections. Only one added a little more than 4,000 and only seven added more than 2,000 images. It is unclear how Daniel was able to get so many images accepted by the iStock editors, although when looking at the quality of the images in his portfolio they are certainly exceptional. Even his mentor, Yuri Arcurs, only added 1,484 to the iStock collection in 2010.
By the end of 2010 there were over 96,000 total downloads of Daniel’s images from the iStock collection -- a 1461% increase for the year. Thus, during 2010 he had in excess of 89,000 download. Based on what other iStock exclusive photographers tell us about their returns-per-download he should have averaged at least $4.50 per download which would mean that he earned in excess of $400,000 for the year. We have no information as to what his expenses might have been, but if we look at the images in his portfolio he clearly had significant expenses for models and sets. We also suspect that he employs significant staff in order to produce that many images from a wide variety of productions in a year. It is also unclear how much experience he had as a photographer before he started assisting Yuri.

There are less than 16 other iStock contributors who had more downloads in 2010 than Daniel and given the number of total images in his collection, he is on track to move ahead of many of them in 2011.

While there are a number of things we don’t know about Daniel’s experience, in two-and-a-half short years from the time he first started producing stock he has managed to reach an amazing level of income that most stock photographers never achieve, regardless of how they choose to license their images.
If a photographer chooses to get into microstock then the next question is whether to put the images with multiple agencies or pursue an exclusive arrangement with iStockphoto. It is interesting that unlike his mentor, Yuri Arcurs, Daniel has chosen to be exclusive with one agency rather than place his images with many agencies. This is a clear indication of the dramatic shift that is taking place in the microstock world, particularly since the beginning of 2010.

iStock’s move to raise the prices for photos they represent exclusively, to allow exclusive photographers to get even higher prices for a select group of photos of the photographer’s own choosing and to introduce new, even higher priced collections has dramatically changed the microstock landscape.

It is also worth noting that Daniel has learned a great deal from Yuri. That has undoubtedly given him an advantage that others will not have. We understand that in some cases they work together on shoots sharing models and sets, and presumably the costs. If you look at Daniel’s images side by side with Yuri’s it certainly appears that many might have been shot in the same studio with similar sets and the same lighting style. I suspect, also, that we might find many of the same models, but I will leave that research to my readers.

Even, Daniel’s and Yuri’s web sites have a similar design and layout. Both of these sites are a tremendous source or information for those interested in producing microstock images.
Daniel’s experience is one more example of what is possible in microstock. But only a very small number of those who choose to license their images as microstock will ever achieve this level of success just as only a very small percentage of those who choose to license their images as rights-managed will ever have six figure incomes from stock.

Copyright © 2011 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.  


  • Jonathan Ross Posted Jan 13, 2011
    Great post. Daniel was mentored, this is an area that is almost non existent in Micro. The idea of mentoring has often created better photographers than their mentors over the history of their business. This to might happen to Daniel.
    I read his posts and he seems to be one of those that has the business moxie and the personality to rise to the top. There is still a lot of money to be made in stock if you can learn to adapt to the changes when they take place. Well Done Daniel, here is to a great 2011 for you.
    Stock is not made for everyone these days so I believe we are bound to see a changing of the guards. Because of this I believe it is never to late to join up if you can produce.

  • Shannon Fagan Posted Jan 15, 2011
    I agree, great post. There are many books and blog forums devoted to the subject areas of 'how to break into stock' . . . but fewer and fewer mentors will become available as the market continues to shift and evolve. My start into the business was in large part due to a two-year mentorship by Getty Art Director Rolf Sjogren from 2001-2003. Without a mentor's constant and reliable support, my comprehension of what to shoot, and how to shoot, would certainly not have evolved as quickly. Mentors provide psychological support and the instructional knowledge goes far beyond making selects and directing shoots. Crowdsourcing will continue to be responsible for an overwhelming majority of the industry, but mentoring will produce the experts.

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