Joe Sohm: Stock Photo Success Story

Posted on 2/12/2018 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (1)

Joe Sohm, the creator of Visions of America has been crisscrossing the U.S. for more that 30 years documenting the country as he sees it in all its beauty and uniqueness. From Presidential Campaigns of both parties to Landscapes & Cityscapes, Sohm is one of the most prolific Americana photographers. He has approximately 33,000 images in his collection. The collection is represented by the three major agencies – Getty Images, AdobeStock and Shutterstock – as well as a host of other agencies around the world including: Dreamstime, Panoramic Images, 123RF, Pacific Press in Tokyo where his work has been represented for 25 years, UIG in Chicago and New York that feeds into Getty, ImagineChina, Photosearch, Superstock, Alamy and a few others. Corbis was also a major seller of his work until they were sold two years ago to Visual China Group and the images went to Getty.

Gross licensing fees of his images during his career have been over $50,000,000. (His net is a royalty share of that number.) From the time he started licensing stock images his gross sales increased every year compared to the previous year, up to 2007. After 2007 every single year has been worse than the previous year. It’s been a steady decline of 10-30% a year now for a decade.

He continues to shoot. His production costs remain pretty much the same, or have increased because he is shooting out of a nicer RV (recreational vehicle) and using more expensive digital cameras and other equipment. By any standard he is one of the world’s most successful stock photographers. So what’s his perspective on the stock photo business?

He says, “The cost of producing images is completely divorced from the economics of the selling the images. I’ve been an optimist, most of my life. I’ve been lucky to make as much money as I have in this industry. Fortunately, I was able to invest a portion of my earnings prior to 2007 in things other than the stock photo sphere. Now, 80% of my annual income comes from those non-photographic investments and 20% from what I earn from stock photography.

“I no longer consider stock photography as the significant revenue generator it once was, but basically a break-even proposition that keeps my photographically active. In my opinion there is not much room for professionals with high end cameras, RV’s, etc. who will go out and do elaborate shoots of the kind of things I want to shoot, which in this case is my passion for all things America.

“I think the connection between the price and the sale of imagery is totally divorced from the economics of what it costs to create images. I would no longer recommend this career to anyone younger than I am unless they are willing to shoot model released people like Yuri Arcurs shoots.” (Editors note: I’m not sure model released people, and its additional costs, can be a successful strategy either.)
Joe went on, “I know there is money to be made here, but the way I made my money which was to just to go out on the road, get lost and take pictures, submit them to agents and make a lot of money. Those days are gone. I’m saddened for that. I’m saddened for others that they won’t be able to experience what I and others did. While I’m still actively shooting providing several thousand images a year, I have very low expectations for a return.

“Today about 80% of my income comes from the big 3 – Shutterstock, Getty Images and AdobeStock. When I started with Shutterstock and put a large collection with them income went up very quickly. I don’t know what happened at Shutterstock. My sales with them were rising until two years ago. They peaked. Initially, they were ecstatic with my sales. They had me come to NY and talk to the staff. Now their sales are in the same cycle as everyone else. Every year is worse than the previous year. There are fewer sales, but I continue to see my images almost daily on TV, the web and in print.

“Adobe is rising a little bit, but by far my number one agency is Shutterstock, number 2 is Getty and number 3 is Adobe. Combined all the rest make up the remaining 20% of my overall declining income.

“About 10% of the images in my collection sell. I am making $6,000 to $8,000 a month when I used to make 10 times that much.

“Panoramic Images in Chicago is one of the agencies that still manages to pull in a few $1,000 sales. I used to regularly make sales for $20,000, $10,000. That’s all gone. But Doug Segal does continue to generate a number of sales and would be in my upper tier of agencies.

“For the longest time I thought I was the problem. Maybe I wasn’t producing the right kind of imagery.  I thought ‘Oh, woe is me.’ After talking with other top producers I realized that everyone was having the same experience. I believe the industry mostly benefits the owners of these companies and not the people who are creating the images. I think there has been a major shift, a devolution from professional photographers to amateurs.”

When asked if he thinks the downward spiral will continue, or if he can perceive of some changes that might occur in the next few years that might improve the situation for image creators he said, “there needs to be a significant change in pricing and I don’t see that happening.

“During the 1990s and early 2000s I believe there were maybe 50,000 people worldwide making a healthy living producing stock photography. I don’t think that’s possible anymore. From my point of view. It’s dismal. Royalty revenue drops 15% to 20% every single year. Ultimately, that approaches zero.”

He offered an analogy. “it is like driving across the country you run out of road at the ocean. You can’t drive any further West.”  

“Given the way amateurs, and professionals, are filling up the agencies with new images, it is classic economics. There is too much supply and not enough demand. With sales flat and inventory growing the handwriting is on the wall unless there is a significant change in the pricing. That seems unlikely.

“For me I just had to make the decision. I still love photography and America. I love shooting and I love all the new cameras and software. It is amazing what you can do. But now I am doing it for myself and my own productions & publications.”

Sohm produced a “VISIONS OF AMERICA – A Photo Symphony Concert” series that was performed by the Boston Pops, Philly Pops and New West Symphony which featured Clint Eastwood narrating his journey. With original music by Grammy-Oscar-Emmy winning Alan and Marilyn Bergman and Roger Kellaway, vocals featured Grammy winning Patti Austin, Judith Hill and Steve Tyrell. Simultaneously, he published with Readers Digest the award winning tabletop book “Visions of America.” Sohm is focused on leveraging these productions & publications into a TED-Style Lecture series as well as DOC-Series for TV, place where there is still revenue potential.  On February 18, in Thousand Oaks California (Los Angeles), he is giving his HD Multi-media talk at CAL LUTHERAN.

He continued, “I’m shooting time-lapse with motion control rails, but none of it with any ambition of licensing it as stock. Stock is a dead issue. I’m very active. I shoot all the time. I have an RV. I drive all over the country. I’m actually better than I was in my past, but there is no longer a relationship between the quality of your work and what it is worth. That doesn’t exist. That’s been wiped out.

“The field of still photography is just like Lake Casitas where I live in Ojai, California. The lake is going dry. There is no reasonable way to turn it around. The economics of the stock photo industry get lower and lower and pretty soon the lake will be empty.”

Copyright © 2018 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:  


  • Jeff Maloney Posted Feb 17, 2018
    Thanks Jim, we need a lot more of this honest info on pro shooters and how they are doing. It mirrors my exact stock history also. I wish it were better news.
    Keep up the good work.

    Jeff Maloney

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