Is Stock Photography Worth The Trouble?

Posted on 1/18/2013 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (2)

Recently, a writer for Nikon Pro magazine asked me a series of questions in preparation for an upcoming article on the stock photography market.  I have no idea how much of what I had to say will be used, but the questions were very appropriate for a readership of photographers with professional equipment who hope to make a little money from the images they produce.

My readers may be interested in my responses.
Nikon ProOn the one hand there is an ever-increasing demand for images, on the other a vast pool of low-priced stock. Where in this market do you think the opportunities lie for photographers?

JP – Much of the answer to this one is outlined below. But, I don’t agree there is an “ever-increasing demand” for images that customers will pay to use. When it comes to paid use the number of images licensed over the last few years is at the best flat, and may be declining. Whatever increase there has been in the actual number of images used comes from three sources:
    1 – customers being allowed to use 10 images for what they used to pay for one (mostly for editorial, on-line, multimedia presentations).
    2 – getting images for free.
    3 – creating the images themselves.
The opportunities are mostly for the part-timers who would like to earn a little extra money from their hobby, or those who simply want the satisfaction of knowing that someone liked their image well enough to use it.

Anyone, considering still photography as a career should look to stock photography as, at most, a sideline, not their main source of income. They also may want to consider an entirely different career.

Nikon Pro - What kind of market should photographers aim for? Microstock, mid-stock or macro-stock?

JP - Definitely Microstock. The numbers tell the story. I estimate that in 2012 there were about 125 million paid downloads, worldwide, of images distributed by Microstock companies. There were maybe 1.5 million Rights Managed images licensed and maybe 2.5 million non-microstock Royalty Free images licensed. On top of this many of the macro-stock images (RM and RF) were licensed for prices less than it would cost to purchase a microstock image. The odds of making any macro-stock sale at all are much, much lower than they are with microstock.

That said, keep in mind my answer to the first question. Don’t expect to make a lot of money and be prepared to spend a lot of non-picture taking time to get your images ready for market.
Photographers should also keep in mind that we are on the cusp of smartphones taking an increasing share of the stock image market which will certainly cause demand to fall for pictures taken with a Nikon and demand to fall as well.

Nikon ProDo you think the flood of images by non-professional photographers sold at very low prices threatens the livelyhood of the professionals, or has this been exaggerated?

JP – It is absolutely a threat. The change taking place in the industry is not exaggerated. Unfortunately, many of those who would like to have a career in photography are not willing to accept that a paradigm shift in the business is taking place.

Nikon ProAnd do you think something can and should be done to stop prices from being driven even lower?

JP - It would be lovely if something could be done. But, there is nothing that can be done to stop prices from declining. First, there is too much over supply of every conceivable subject. In addition, many of those selling images today have no concept of what a reasonable price (one that covers the cost of production and provides a profit) should be for a given use. They are willing to accept anything that is offered just for the satisfaction of knowing that their image will be used.

On top of this it is very easy for people to grab images they want off of the Internet and use them without paying anything or even recognizing and acknowledging the creator.

And with recent developments in equipment it has become easier and easier for anyone who picks up a camera – with very little training, or experience – to produce the images they need. Consequently, they don’t need someone else to produce images for them.

Professional photographers like to think that their “unique vision” is valuable. It is not enough to have a different perspective on a common subject. In order to command a higher price an image, on any particular subject, must be the only thing available that illustrates the point the customer needs to make. AND the image must be something that the customer absolutely must have. Very few images meet these criteria.

Some photographers try to solve this problem by holding back their images and only making them available to customers who are willing to pay higher fees. This is virtually impossible to do when licensing images through a stock agency. Thus, it often happens that customers who really could really use those unique, expensive images, and who would be willing to pay for them, don’t know where to go find them. As far as the customer is concerned that great image that would be just right doesn’t exist. Consequently, the customer ends up settling for something less than what they want and the photographer still doesn’t end up making the sale.

In general, the best strategy is to get the images as widely disbursed in as many distribution sites as possible and accept whatever prices they can get for their use.

Avoid mid-stock. Nobody is really sure what that price is. I see no evidence that any of the companies that claim to be mid-stock are doing much business.

Nikon ProDo you think there are a few star photographers supplying the vast amount of images, and the great majority, who only have the odd sale, or do you think it is a more even spread?

JP - Yes, a few star photographers are responsible for the vast number of images licensed. See (  But, revenue is going down for most of those “star photographers.”  Every year fewer and fewer photographers earn enough to recover expenses and support themselves. I see no evidence that trend will turn around.

There will always be a few photographers who earn a good living producing stock images, but their numbers will steadily decrease and it will become harder and harder for anyone starting out now to become one of them.

Nikon Pro
How do you find out what kind of imagery is in demand?

JP - The best way to determine what is needed is to decide what you would like to shoot. Then go to;, and Using keywords that describe the subjects you like to shoot, do searches on each of these sites. Organize the search returns by downloads. Then look at how many images are available on that subject. See how many times the best selling images have been used. Look at the quality of those images. Ask yourself why a customer would want to buy the image you’re going to produce rather than one that is already on the site.

Also keep in mind that most customers only look at the first 200 or so images found in any search.  Many keywords will produce 10,000 or more returns. Anything after the first 200 returned in either a “Best Match” or “Download” search will almost never be seen by any customer. Thus, the question is not only what you must do to get your image accepted by a distributor, but can you get it high enough in the search return order to be seen.

If you can find a subject where there are few images available then your new image has a chance of making a sale – assuming there is some demand for that subject. Given the huge number of images available on virtually every subject it is extremely difficult to find an under supplied niche. Keyworking is critical, maybe even more important than image quality.

Nikon ProHow important is it to tailor your images to the market you are supplying?

JP – Customers do not buy stock images because they are looking for art. Stock images must fulfill a market need. Thus, it is absolutely necessary to figure out what the market needs if you hope to make sales.

Nikon ProHow globalised is the market? How important is it that images for a national market are shot in that country?

JP - Roughly, 35% of the market is in North America, 45% in Europe and the Middle East, 10% in Asia and 10% in Latin America and Africa. There are certain images that must be shot in the area of the world where they are used. (People in Japanese kimonos are most heavily used in Japan.) Still life’s can be shot anywhere. Models from various ethnic groups can be found anywhere in the world. With Internet distribution a significant number of lifestyle images used in the U.S. and Western Europe are now being shot in South Africa, Eastern Europe and Russia.

Nikon ProDo you think there are opportunities to try and sell images through stock libraries that have been shot for other commissions, or are they unlikely to succeed?

JP - Yes, there are some opportunities. For example, often it is difficult to get good pictures of industrial locations without a specific assignment to shoot such locations. Sometimes it is possible to get permission from the original customer, and it can even be to the customer’s advantage, to distribute such images more widely as stock. But, there are fewer such opportunities than there used to be.
Nikon ProWhat do you think the future holds for stock photography?

JP - See above.  The revenue generated will steadily decline. More and more it will become the way amateurs earn a little extra money from their hobby. Anyone who needs to earn a living will look for other ways to do it.

Copyright © 2013 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:  


  • Bill Bachmann Posted Jan 19, 2013
    Jim.... I know you mean well, but there are still opportunities for people to succeed in stock. You always make it sound like the sky is falling!

    I am with many multiple agencies, as you know. About 1/4 of my agencies sold more for me in 2012 than in 2011..... and I made more in 2012 on total. Was it as much as the "Golden Era' of 1990s and early 2000's --- no. But it still is substantial money.

    You seem to scare everyone into Microstock. Yes, more sales (if you want to call making 20-50 cents a sale) but they can NEVER reach the numbers I make in total revenue in those tiny sales. Before I wrote this, I checked --- I had over 20 sales in 2012 for over $2000 each! (two over $12,000 each).

    Yes, far more smaller sales on the reports, but I do NOT sell in Microstock. You can not succeed in Microstock plus it hurts your pride (and your value as a photographer( to know you are giving your pictures away for one dollar. I do wish you would realize you are NOT the only voice in this industry. There are positive people still.

    You are my friend, but I am not into "gloom & doom". There is an old saying from Henry Ford that I live fully following....

    "People say they CAN'T and they are ALWAYS right!"

    I choose to live positively and it has paid off handsomely. Just have people look at my website to see some of the best selling images.

  • Todd Klassy Posted Jan 21, 2013
    I'm all in favor of gloom & doom. We should be persuading more people to avoid the photography industry. More opportunity for the rest of us.

    But you highlight another point. The most you disseminate your images through microstock companies, the more they are used. And the more they are used, the less attractive they are to people who are willing to pay top dollar to use them.

    If Getty sells the same image (50 cents) Bill does ($2000), Getty would have to sell it 4000 times in order to reach that same sales volume in terms of dollars.

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