Succeeding as a Stock Photographer: Way Forward

Posted on 8/31/2010 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (3)

Recently on Linkedin Jacintha van Beveren observed that “The old photography business model is gone,” observed and asked if the road to survival and future success is through “creativity and flexibility or stubborn protection.” Neither.

Photographers who want to try to earn a living in the photo business must accept that the business has changed dramatically and forever.
Creativity or stubborn protection will not work. For the most part, customers do not pay more for stock images because they are more creative. Customers who buy stock do so because it fulfills a need at a price they can afford. Yes, there are exceptions—some pay more for exclusivity or what they judge to be higher quality—but these buyers are so few in number that a business strategy of catering primarily to this customer segment is unlikely to generate enough revenue to sustain a business.

Stubborn protection will not work either. Photographers may refuse to license rights to images until customers agree to pay what photographers feel images are worth, but all that will do is slowly limit the number of sales photographers will be able to make as more and more customers discover other—much less expensive and perfectly satisfactory—options. By operating in this manner, the photographer may retain his “self respect”, but he is unlikely to remain in business for long because after all what we are talking about is business.

Photographers who want to try to earn a living in the photo business must accept that the business has changed dramatically and forever. They need to develop a whole new operating strategy, including:

  1. Recognize that major publishers are no longer a major portion of the market. The combined total of spending by small businesses and individuals with very limited and focused needs amounts to more money than rights-managed image purchases. (See “Stock Photo Business Size: 2010.”)
  2. Accept that professional photographers and traditional stock agencies no longer control the market. Professional photographers are no longer the sole suppliers of images. A larger portion of all images licensed is produced by people not interested in making photography a primary career. This imagery will satisfy the needs of nearly all potential customers.
  3. Accept that stock photography is about multiple sales of a given image at prices that are usually below what it cost to produce. Many good—or satisfactory—images are available for sale from individuals who are unconcerned about earning enough to cover production costs. Listen to Tom Grill, one of the world’s most successful stock photographers, when he says that 50 x $200 = 200 x $50 and recognize that the same is true for 20 x $200 = 1,000 x $4 which is about the current ratio of rights-managed to microstock sales.
  4. Recognize that microstock is the only part of the stock photo business where prices are increasing. In the last four years, the average microstock licensing fee has grown by an estimated 500% to 800%—and still going up. While these fees are lower than previously established image pricing, it is impossible to convince microstock contributors to set their prices at a level traditional photographers think is fair.
  5. Restructure your business to focus on assignment work, which ensures image producers are paid when they deliver the finished product. Look at stock photography as a sideline, supplemental income to be considered when there is nothing more productive to do to grow one’s assignment business. Other potential areas to consider include fine art, where producers should also forget about selling work to advertising agencies or graphic design firms and instead focus on marketing to corporate art reps who buy prints for display in corporate facilities.

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, 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:  


  • John Harris Posted Sep 1, 2010
    Jim- I feel you are too mechanistic with your classical nay almost mystical notions of "the market" as "that which must be obeyed" and you miss out the qualitive, ideational aspects of production which you then misinterpret as vanity. There are still real picture libraries who photographed the complexities of the world rather than churning out ubiquitous "fake pictures of fake people".

  • Bill Bachmann Posted Sep 1, 2010
    I agree with John Harris. Quit thinking that the ONLY way to survive is to churn out fast & furious images to Microstock.

    You are very closed with options. IT IS NOT SO BLACK & WHITE. People who rush into Microstock will be sorry someday when they realize they can NEVER... I repeat NEVER.... sell those images for anything other than a couple of dollars. All of their work will be tied up in Micro with no way to ever reprice it. You can never pull them out of Micro and charge more.... STRESS THAT TO BEGINNERS!!!

  • Jonathan Ross Posted Sep 1, 2010
    Diversification in an unstable market is what I was always taught. Micro isn't much diversification nor is assignment work.

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