2008 Income Survey Results

Posted on 4/27/2009 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

The results of Selling Stock’s 2008 self-employed photographer income survey compared to the 2007 results are disappointing on several fronts. First, we only had 136 responses this year compared with 238 in 2007. Many factors could have contributed to this, but the 2008 data must be viewed as having less validity. Nevertheless, as we parse the data there are some interesting nuggets of information.

In 2007 the gross income reported was $33,741,722 and in 2008 it was only $24,135,104. The average gross 2007 income for all those responding was $141,771.94. In 2008 it was $174,288.63, but 5 people whose combined earnings were over $10 million skewed this averages.

There were seven respondents with gross income over $500,000 and five of them had gross stock income over $500,000. The number one seller had $6 million in gross revenue and $2.04 million in revenue from stock. However, this individual reported equivalent work hours of 25 full time employees (question 8) and $5.3 million in expenses leaving only $700,000 in profits. Obviously it is unfair to compare this photographer with those working alone. Another individual had gross income of $1.4 million 100% of which came from self-employed stock production. But he reported the equivalent of 14 full-time employees and $980,000 in total expenses. The other three of the top five had stock income of less than $800,000, but more than $500,000. Combined, these five represent 42% of the total revenue and 40% of the stock revenue. The following is a breakdown of the 2007 figures compared with 2008.

  Number  Gross Income Expenses Stock Income
Over $500,000 in Stock Income 5 $7,935,000 $2,500,000 $7,645,000
Stock Income Under $500,000 211 $23,562,092 $9,282,263 $12,639,081
No Stock Sales 26 $2,244,630 $991,194 0
Total   $33,741,722 $12,773,457 $20,284,081
  Number Gross Income Expenses Stock Income
Over $500,000 in Stock Income 5 $10,105,746 $7,110,600 $5,532,938
Stock Income Under $500,000 125 $13,801,158 $4,843,415 $8,184,356
No Stock Sales 6 $228,200 $118,847 0
    $24,135,104 $12,072,862 $13,717,294

To provide a fairer picture of what is happening with the majority of individual image creators, we will drop those earning over $500,000 when we calculate averages and concentrate on those with “Stock Income Under $500,000”. However, before we move on we’ll examine the top 5 in a little more detail.

Over half the revenue of the individual with a $6 million gross came from advertising assignments, and 10% came from illustration assignments. The rest come from stock sales. This individual is a member of ASMP and APA. Four of the top 5 were ASMP members. One was a member of ASMP, PPA and ASPP. Three of the top five earned 100% of their revenue from stock. In addition to stock one of the top five does corporate assignment, advertising assignments and consumer editorial assignments. Two made 100% of their income from licensing images as rights-managed. One earned 93% of his income from licensing images as royalty-free and another earned 75% of his income from royalty-free sales.

If we remove the five top earners and the six who reported no stock sales we are left with 125 whose combined gross income was $13,801,158. This gives us an average income of $110,409 per person. The average stock income for this group was $65,475. Thus, on average 41% of the freelance income coming came from something other than the licensing of rights to stock images.

By way of comparison with 2007, taking out those who earned over $500,000 and those with zero stock income the averages for the remaining 211 was gross income of $111,669 and the stock income average of $59,900, or 47% of the freelance income of these individuals came from something other than the licensing of rights to stock images.

The important thing to note here is not so much whether the average stock income is rising or falling, but how important the “other income” is to their total revenue. While some photographers still devote 100% of their freelance time to producing stock, it may be wiser to devote some of that time to activities that are guaranteed to produce a certain fixed amount of income for the time and energy expended. Thirty-six of the respondents said all their income came from stock and 56 said less than half of their freelance income came from producing stock.

Keep in mind that the people who responded to the most recent survey were probably very different from those who answered the one for 2007. We asked the 2008 respondents if they had responded to the 2007 survey. Only five said yes, 8 said no and 123 weren’t sure. The relatively small sample, general trends of the economy and anecdotal information from a many photographers makes us think there may have been an overall decline in industry revenue rather than growth as these figures might indicate.

The following chart compares the number of respondents in 2007 with those in 2008 for certain income ranges.

Stock Earnings 2007 2007 Percent
2008 2008 Percent

Number Total
Number Total
over $500,000
5 2.30%
5 3.85%
between $200,000 and $500,000
15 7%
10 7%
between $100,000 and $200,000
23 11%
13 10%
between $30,000 and $100,000
67 31%
40 31%
between $10,000 and $30,000
45 21%
29 22%
less than $10,000
61 28%
33 26%






Respondents Making Stock Sales

Respondents Making No Stock Sales


It is interesting that in both years there were five people with above $500,000 in stock revenue. However, their proportionate share in 2008 is almost double that of 2007. In the other groups the number of respondents was lower in 2008 than in 2007, but the proportionate share remained about the same. Almost half the respondents earned less than $30,000 from stock and 80% earned less than $100,000.

The question of “What can I make?” often comes up from people who are considering entering the business. The tendency is to look to the stars. Don’t forget that the stars did’t attain their exalted positions overnight, and that most people end up somewhere in the bottom 80%.

Revenue by Stock-Licensing Model

Everyone wants to know the best strategy for marketing their images. These numbers show that more people used the rights-managed strategy than any other and their average gross revenue was the highest at $56,326. However, as with many of the other numbers in this report, don’t be too quick to jump to the conclusion that the correct approach is rights-managed.

Gross Stock Average per

Number Revenue Photographer 
Rights Managed 110 $6,195,900 $56,326.36
Rights Ready 17 $404,815 $23,812.65
Royalty Free 53 $1,125,591 $21,237.57
Subscription 2 $17,100 $8,550.00
Microstock 22 $431,705 $19,622.95
Not Applicable 3 $9,245 $3,081.67

Of the 125 respondents 110 or 88% earned some of their stock income from rights-managed sales. Somewhat surprisingly 50 of that 110 also earned some income from royalty-free sales, making it clear that a significant portion of stock producers now view royalty-freet as an accepted marketing strategy. The 50 rights-managed shooters who earned income from royalty-free earned a total of $3,101,346 from rights-managed and $1,116,075 from royalty-free. Seven of them earned more from royalty-free than from rights-managed. None of those who licensed their images as royalty-free used that strategy alone. The other three that earned money from traditional royalty-free, also earned money from microstock.

The microstock information is some of the most interesting. In 2007 the 19 microstock sellers who earned less than $500,000 each (one earned more) represented 9% of the total respondents. In 2008 the 22 whose images were licensed as microstock represented 18% of the total respondents. In addition 8 of this 22 also earned revenue from traditional royalty-free sales. One whose gross stock revenue was $131,000 earned 95% of it from microstock licenses and 5% from traditional royalty-free.

One surprise was the subscription sales. It has been generally believed that most non-exclusive microstock sellers also license their images through Shutterstock, primarily a subscription based service. However, in our survey only one of the 22 who license their images as microstock also earned money from subscription.

The growth in the average earning of the microstock photographers is also startling. In 2007 it was $9,971 and in 2008 it was $19,623, almost as high as the average earnings of those who license rights to traditional RF. Of course, we must acknowledge that these numbers come from such a small portion of total microstock contributors that they may not provide any kind of an accurate picture of what is really happening with microstock.

For more information on the microstock potential see our analysis of 131 highest earning iStockphoto photographers who are among the top earners as well as statistics on selected photographers that are among the top 1,800.

The rights-ready number offers another insight. Rights-ready was a Getty Images product that has now been discontinued. It was designed to be a simpler rights-managed and the initial hope was that it would generate an average return-per-image similar to rights-managed. The low average return that these photographers experienced may explain why Getty dropped it and moved all the rights-ready images back to rights-managed.

Type of Photographic Activities

In the survey we listed several different income categories and asked respondents to assign a percentage of their gross revenue that fell into each category. The “Num” field indicates the number of 125 total respondents who had income in the category.

Num Gross Expenses Stock Average Average

Revenue Gross Stock

Revenue Revenue
Stock Licensing 125 $13,801,158 $4,843,415 $8,184,356 $110,409 $65,474
Illustration licensing 7 $313,000 $145,500 $61,200 $44,714 $8,742
Illustration assignments 11 $336,758 $112,500 $107,493 $30,614 $9,772
Corporate magazine assignments 37 $4,794,720 $2,134,956 $1,260,224 $129,587 $34,060
Ad & brochure assignments 45 $7,040,796 $2,782,568 $2,855,981 $156,462 $63,466
Consumer editorial assignments 30 $4,502,362 $1,822,181 $1,683,970 $150,079 $56,132
Newspaper assignments 4 $337,207 $83,211 $116,226 $84,302 $29,056
Architectural assignments 10 $1,769,441 $812,411 $459,273 $176,944 $45,927
Event coverage 12 $579,091 $233,300 $139,373 $48,258 $11,614
Wedding & Consumer portraits 18 $1,065,649 $460,208 $284,171 $59,203 $15,787
Footage 6 $585,155 $122,000 $216,138 $97,526 $36,023
Other (teaching, tours, etc.) 27 $2,395,598 $912,838 $1,668,729 $88,726 $61,804

On average 35% of the gross income of the 125 photographers who made some stock sales went to covering expenses, not including salary. Two of the respondents just starting out spent more than what they earned. The average stock photo income of this group was $65,475, but it should be noted that many of these photographers also worked on assignment for corporations, advertising agencies, graphic design firms, newspapers and magazines. In some cases they did a little of all of these and it was the combined total of all these sources of revenue that enabled then to make a decent return on their investment. Seventy-one percent of these photographers earned less than the average.

There were some very surprising results when we compared U.S. photographers with non-US photographers. Twenty-seven percent, or 34 of the 125 respondents live outside the U.S. The gross income for this group was $7,025,596 and the stock income portion was $6,090,399. Thus, these photographers earn almost all (87%) of their freelance income from licensing rights to stock images and the average return per respondent is $179,129. Twenty-eight of the 34 had gross incomes in excess of $100,000.

On the other hand, the gross income for the 91 U.S. photographers was only $6,775,562 and their stock income was $2,093,957, or 31% of gross. This makes the average stock photo sales of the 91 U.S. photographers who responded to this survey $23,011 and the average gross income $74,457. Only 18 of this 91 had gross freelance revenue in excess of $100,000. Obviously, stock represents a very small proportion of self employed income for this group.

We thought the answer to this conundrum might be that there were more microstock photographers in the U.S. group than in the non-U.S. group. However, that was not the case. There were 9 U.S. photographers who earned some income from microstock and 13 non-U.S. photographers from 12 different countries who earned some income from microstock. The gross revenue for the non-use group was $598,290 and their stock income was $404,038. The gross revenue for the U.S. photographers who produce some microstock was $494,831 and their stock revenue was only $141,116.

These U.S. vs. non-U.S. figures are enough to call into question the total validity of the survey. It is possible to believe that non-U.S. photographers are earning more than U.S. photographers from their stock photo sales, but not this much more. We suspect, based only on anecdotal information, that the non-U.S. photographers who because aware of our survey were among the most successful in their countries while in the U.S. many of the more successful did not respond to the survey. We should also note that all of those who earned more than $500,000 from stock were from the U.S. Their numbers would have made a big difference in the averages. Nevertheless, we believe that in both the U.S. and overseas the vast majority of photographers earn less than $500,000 and it is important to examine a sample of those who fall into this category.

Photographer Earning By Organization

To help measure how representative the survey results might be, responders were asked to indicate their affiliation with trade associations. Approximately a third (29%) of respondents did not belong to any such group, while 26 belonged to organizations other than the choices provided in the survey.

Organizations Num. Gross Income Expenses Stock Income Average per

ASMP 52 $6,394,167 $2,457,209 $3,832,921 $73,710
APA 7 $1,200,110 $478,800 $433,194 $61,885
SAA 37 $5,785,174 $2,262,168 $3,815,303 $103,116
EP 16 $1,441,053 $619,923 $485,338 $30,334
PPA 6 $207,541 $93,926 $163,525 $27,254
ASPP 6 $518,148 $263,806 $342,190 $57,032
AOP (UK) 2 $696,139 $428,531 $387,837 $193,919
Other 25 $1,829,633 $668,008 $963,028 $38,521
None 36 $3,472,608 $1,060,894 $2,114,100 $58,725
    (These figures do not include the 4 of the 5 with stock incomes over $500,000 who are with ASMP and one who is also with APA. If we include those numbers The average gross revenue for ASMP members would be $285,423 and the average stock photo revenue would be $157,790. For APA members the average gross revenue would be $810,234 and the stock photo revenue would be $274,799.)
It should be noted that we only listed one trade association located outside the U.S. Twelve of the 36 respondents from outside the U.S. indicated that they belonged to a trade association not listed. We had respondents from 19 different countries -- 8 from the UK, 6 from Canada and 6 from Australia and New Zealand.

It is not surprising that the Editorial Photographers (EP) earn less than ASMP members because those in ASMP tend to do more higher paying commercial work than the members of EP. On the other hand this sampling of ASMP members probably includes many who are much more successful than the average ASMP member.

Unfortunately, all these numbers really demonstrate is how difficult it is to get a representative sample of any of these groups.

Certainly the two members of the Association of Photographers in the UK are not representative. In 2007 six photographers of this very large organization responded and their average stock income was $150,309. In 2008 one of the two responders was very successful pushing the average to $193,919.

U.S. Photographers In The Survey

The information on this chart takes into consideration all those who responded to the survey including the two from California and one from Florida whose gross revenue was in excess of $500,000. Ninety-Six live in the U.S. Their gross revenue was $12,409,310 and their net stock revenue was $8,028,064. Photographers from 27 U.S. states participated with California having 22 respondents followed by Washington state with 15, Florida with 9 and New York with 7. The other 43 respondents were from 23 different states.

Number Gross Income Expenses Stock Income Average per


California 22 $10,027,762 $6,405,313 $4,569,002 $207,682
Washington 15 $1,455,480 $497,756 $801,210 $53,414
Florida 9 $2,429,250 $698,305 $1,315,097 $146,122
New York 7 $604,000 $271,000 $335,825 $47,975

Should Photography Be Your Only Source of Income?

Eighty-one percent of respondents said self-employed photography or illustration was not their only source of income. This suggests that, in the face of declining pricing and revenue percentages, many photographers have found new ways to supplement their freelance income. Some may have staff photography jobs and freelance on the side. A growing number work in similar or allied fields, such as graphic design, or even hold a totally unrelated job of real-estate agent, teacher or flight attendant.

Many outside the industry believe stock photographers must accept whatever customers are willing to pay because photography is a commodity and the way these people earn their living. The theory goes that if fees decline or percentages are cut stock photographers must either work harder or make their productions more efficient in order to survive.

Clearly a huge percent of photographers have already found other ways to supplement their freelance photography income – or the other way around – photography has become a supplement to their primary source of income. When the risks and costs in time and money become too great photographers will put more energy into finding other ways to earn a living. For many that point has already been reached and more and more are making that decision every day. As the return for time invested in photography goes down some may continue to produce images that are easy or fun to shoot, but they will no longer look to stock photography as an important income source.

It is interesting to note that the “gross” figure in response to the first question only asked for “self-employed income from photography, illustration or graphic design”. This answer should not have included revenue from other “non-photographic employment” or from working as a staff-photographer. The 26 whose only source of income was freelance photography, illustration or graphic design averaged $71,301 in gross free-lance income and $37,039 in stock photography income. But the 109 with other sources of self-employed income earned an average of $157,119 from freelancing, and presumably even more from their “other” source of income.

One possible conclusion is that a photographer is likely to earn more from the photography aspect of his businesses if he also earns income from non-photography activities than if he focuses exclusively on photography as a profession. While this is counter intuitive, it is possible that those who focus all their energies on photography may at times be forced to do some things that are not economically productive in order to keep the cash flowing. Those with more flexibility can pick and choose the photographic activities that are most satisfying and lucrative and ignore the rest.

There is also the possibility that many didn’t really understand the question and included salaried income in their “gross income” figure.

Copyright © 2009 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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