Direct Selling Of Stock Images

Posted on 1/25/2019 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (3)

The stock agency sales model no longer works for most photographers trying to earn a portion of their living from the images they produce. Prices for the use of photos have declined so dramatically that it no longer makes much sense for professional photographers to spend much time or effort producing stock images on speculation.

Many photographers have spent years building collections of images that they hope will provide some extra income for their retirement. Given the way the industry is changing such collections are unlikely to generate much of anything in the future.

The major stock agencies set prices. Smaller agencies are forced to match the major agency prices in order to compete. Prices and royalties continue their steady decline as the agencies drive for market share. Image creators who must absorb all the costs of production have no say in what should be charged for the product they produce.

As long as the agencies are in control of the market, stock photography will be a business for amateurs and hobbyist who take pictures for their personal enjoyment and are unconcerned about any revenue the images might generate.

The thing to recognize is that given the current state of the photo industry images are likely to earn very little revenue no matter how great they are, or costly they were to produce. Due to huge oversupply the average price for use of a stock photo is currently about 5% of what it was 20 years ago. There is every indication prices will continue to decline. While more people want to use photos now than was the case 20 years ago increased sales volume does not make up for the low prices.

One possible solution that might make it is easier for photographers to earn enough to justify continued production would cut out the middleman and enable photographers to deal directly with customers.

The main advantage for the image creators of such a strategy is that rather than receiving 20% or less of the gross fee paid by the customer the creator might realize as much as 80% of what the customer pays after the cost of operating the technology is covered.

Here’s how such a system might work.

Direct Selling

The first thing to recognize is that each photographer selling directly from his or her own website is unlikely to improve sales all that much because it is not efficient for the customer. The customer needs to be able to go to one central location and quickly review the work of a broad cross section of photographers. Logging into lots of different websites and remembering which photographers specializes in which types of work is much too complicated and time consuming for customers. The majority won’t do it.

There must be a central site, but with today’s technology such a site could be a non-profit operation rather than one designed to be a major profit center for the sites owners.
Here are some of the elements of how such a site might work.

Creators should be able to easily:
  • Upload full resolution images which are automatically assigned a unique number by the site.
  • Upload keywords and captions that are linked to each appropriate image number
  • Upload a price schedule that would apply to the vast majority of uses of all the creator’s images. The site would offer a few price schedules for creators to choose from. But each creator would also be able to create his or her own unique pricing schedule if they choose. The important thing is that once a customer finds an image they would like to use they must be able to immediately determine the price for a particular usage, complete payment and download the full resolution image file without further communicating with the creator.

    If a photographer wants to price some images at a higher price than others the photographer could set up two or multiple accounts to accomplish this goal. All images for any particular account will be priced at the same level.

  • Modify the price list at any time
  • Remove an image from the collection at any time.
  • Re-upload formerly removed images at any time in order to make corrections to the image or change the upload date.
  • Make available contact information in the event a customer needs to contact the creator regarding a use not covered in the pricing schedule.
  • It may also be advisable for the creator to stipulate a minimum price point for certain base uses for each image, such as: $10, $15, $30, $100. In this way if the customer has a budget they can limit their search to only those images that they can probably afford to purchase.
Much of the technology is already in general use by free and commercial stock photo sites. It just needs to be integrated in a way that works for the image creators.

Customers should be able to search for:Only images that have been licensed previously
  • (The return order for this a search should be determined by gross revenue generated by the image divided by the total times the image has been licensed. Thus, an image licensed once for $100 would be delivered ahead of an image that was licensed 5 times for $10.00 each.)
  • Uploaded in last 12 months with most recent upload first
  • Uploaded in last 3 years with most recent upload first
  • All images in the collection
  • By image creator’s name
  • For only images available for some usages below a certain price point such as $10, $15, $30, $100

When the customer clicks on the thumbnail of an image along side the preview the customer should be shown the photographer’s prices for use of that image.

The photographer should also have the option of adding a contact email address and phone number in the event the customer wanted to negotiate.

Given the current state of the market, I strongly suggest that photographers establish some specific prices for online uses only (price does not include any print use) of their photos. Based on my analysis I think 80% to 90% of all uses today are online only. Online users simply won’t pay anything near traditional print prices. There are plenty of sources for them to get cheap images.

On the other hand, while the average prices Gettyimages and some of the microstock companies charge are very low there are a significant number of customers who are still willing to pay between $10 and $30 for the right image, as I have outlined in the sample price schedule below.

Many photographers will say. “My images are worth much more than that. I’ll never sell them for such low prices.” But, if they get 80% to 90% gross license fee of a $20 sale that may not be such a bad royalty compared to what they might get from Getty. In 2018 77% of Getty sales were for prices below $20 with 55% below $10 and one-third below $5.00. Consider, if you get 80% of a $20 sale that’s $16.00 while at Getty’s 20% royalty Getty would have had to make an $80 sale of your image for you to earn just $16.00.

By offering an Online Only option the photographer is likely to make significantly more sales than if they aim all their pricing toward print uses.

Sample Pricing Strategy

The following is a sample pricing strategy one photographer is using on his website. I think it is a reasonable approach to pricing although each photographer should be allowed to stipulate his/her own prices.

General Description of Usage Types

Layout and Planning

A Layout and Planning use may be purchased when an art director needs full sized images without watermarks while working on a project design, but is unsure if the image will actually be used in the final product. The image may be retained for an unspecified period of time and considered for multiple projects. In the event that the image is eventually published either in print or online the appropriate license must be purchased from (photographer’s name and contact link) at the time that decision is made.

A public use of the image without paying the appropriate license fee will be considered a copyright infringement.
    (Photographers may decide that they don’t want to offer this option, but they should recognize that many customers want to work with an image and manipulate it before deciding if they actually want to use it in their finished project. Every effort should be made to make it difficult for customers to right-click or copy-and-paste an image before actually paying some type of license fee. This licenses enables the photographer to track the customer.)
Commercial Use Online Only

Commercial Use is defined as any use of the downloaded image file that contributes to the generation of income. Recognizing that many start-up companies and online users have limited resources we have established four different price categories based solely on the gross annual revenue of the company using the image. All buyers will receive an unlimited, non-exclusive, worldwide usage license to the image file purchased. The image may be used in multiple online projects by the purchaser of the image, but it cannot be passed to other non-related organizations or individuals. The image may remain online for an unlimited duration of time.

In the event that the person purchasing the image is the employee of a small company, but is actually working on a project for a larger end using company, the fee should be based on the annual revenue generated by the large end using company.

Commercial Print Uses (applies to all print uses)

Rights vary depending on the type of print use and whether the images is used inside or on the cover of the publication. The print rights granted include unlimited digital use at no additional charge when a print use is purchased. Whenever possible it is requested that the photographer’s credit be displayed under the image in the form of (© photographer name), or within the publication. In all cases the downloaded files are provided “as is” with no warranties express or implied.

Layout and Planning Use  
For purposes of planning and designing project. If image eventually used in
a published project the appropriate additional license must be purchased. $2.00
Online Commercial Uses  
End using company Annual Revenue less then $100,000 $10.00
End using company Annual Revenue between $100,000 and $500,000 $15.00
End using company Annual Revenue between $500,000 and $1,000,000 $20.00
End using company Annual Revenue greater than $1,000,000 $30.00
Commercial Print Uses  
Postcard or Greeting Card $99.99
Calendar - Inside Use $99.99
Calendar - Cover $149.99
Corporate Inside & Online Use $129.99
Corporate Cover & Online Use $249.99
Editorial or Book Use Inside, circulation less than 500,000  
      Unlimited online use included $49.99
Editorial or Book Use Inside circulation greater than 500,000  
      Unlimited online use included $199.99
Editorial or Book Use Cover, circulation less than 500,000  
      Unlimited online use included $199.99
Editorial or Book Use Cover, circulation greater than 500,000  
      Unlimited online use included $599.99
Advertising and Product uses  
All advertising and product uses must be negotiated separately  
(Photographer’s contact information)  


In today’s market it is extremely important to have an automatic payment system so the customer can complete the transaction instantly using PayPal or a credit card and not have to go through the hassle of cutting and mailing a check. Such a system can be set up easily.

The system should also instantly credit the photographer’s PayPal account with his/her royalty share. The bank transaction fee for this service will probably be about 5%, but if the rest of the non-profit costs of storing the digital image file and operating the site can be covered for 15% of sales the image creator can still receive 80% of the gross sale price.
Now that image creators are doing all the work of preparing and uploading the images to the site and basically managing the images while they are on the site, the middleman role that stock agencies have played may not be necessary. In most cases they really aren’t adding much for the percentage of revenue they command.

Copyright © 2019 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:  


  • Michael J Clark Posted Jan 27, 2019
    This idea of a direct selling agency already exists. Photoshelter allows photographers to offer their images for sale on the website and the entire website is searchable. Photoshelter takes 8 to 10% of the sale I believe. I have been using Photoshelter for years as an online backup. They are great to work with and the photographers have full control over pricing and which images are available.

  • Brian Smale Posted Jan 28, 2019
    Yes, it definitely sounds like to me. I've had very good experiences with PS over the years. A few years ago there was another company similar to PS that looked pretty good, although I don't recall the name. They even had a method of splitting up the revenue from sales... for example if you did a stock shoot where you had a model (or other contributor) working for a share of the sales, you could designate a percentage of a sale to go to that person. I set up an account to test it out, but since I was already deep into PS, I didn't continue.
    PS now has a (free) service called Lattice, that looks pretty similar to Pinterest, where photographers can assemble groups of images for researchers to more easily find. I've only tested this out briefly, but I think I will make a few more and see what happens.

  • Tim McGuire Posted Jan 28, 2019, if only photographers would move all their work there.

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