Photography: Business vs Means of Self-Expression

Posted on 11/11/2015 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

Photography has become much more of a means of self-expression than a business. That’s not necessarily a bad thing unless you are trying to earn your living from the images you produce.

When I started my career in photography (1950s) there were relatively few people with the equipment, training, skills and desire to produce images that others would want to use. People who needed photographs sought out these individuals to produce the needed images. Often days or weeks were required between identifying a need for a certain type of image and delivery of the final image. The process was expensive. But it was the only way to get the images that could be used for advertising, marketing and editorial purposes.  When the customer hired a photographer, often the photographer was unable to produce exactly what the customer hoped to receive, but the customer still had to pay because the photographer had done the work and produced the best that could be expected under the circumstances.

In the 1970s there was an increasing demand for less expensive pictures, that were more immediately available. Customers wanted to see exactly what they were buying before they committed to pay for the product. The demand for “stock” photography grew exponentially. Many photographers discovered they could earn more, and have a more satisfying work experience, by producing stock rather than struggling to find customers who wanted to hire them to produce images on assignment.

Then technology began to make it easier for more and more people to produce the kind of images that others wanted to use. Technology also made it easier for everyone to share their images with the world, and for a few to occasionally earn a small amount of revenue when someone else used one of their images. Today, given the total number of new images being posted on the Internet daily, only a very small percentage of image creators ever receive any compensation whatsoever.

Business or Means of Self-Expression

When I started my career as a photographer it was an interesting and enjoyable way to earn a living. I looked at each photographic opportunity in terms of what I was likely to be able to earn for the effort expended. If I had a choice between spending time to produce a beautiful image for myself that was unlikely to ever generate any revenue, or a boring job for a customer that would earn me a significant amount of money for the images I was asked to deliver, I would invariably do the job for the customer. For me photography was a business. It was the way I earned revenue to support my family and our lifestyle.

Today, for most image producers photography is much more a means of self-expression. The vast majority of image producers have no desire to earn revenue from their images. They would like for their work to be appreciated by others. But the costs involved in producing the work and making it available in a way that would allow them to earn revenue and realize a profit are factors that are usually not considered.

Now, every part-timer can easily compete with the professionals. Many of them produce excellent images. In the 90s most of those images would have never been seen. Today, they are right there in Internet databases along side the images of professionals.

Recently a photographer told me that he is earning $1.00 per month ($12 per year) for every image in Shutterstock’s collection. I suspect that if he were to do a true analysis of his total costs of production he would discover that he would need to earn this monthly rate for several years just to break even on his costs of production. And due to the oversupply the useful life of all images is declining rapidly.

Actually, this photographer is doing very well compared to the average Shutterstock contributor. Shutterstock will pay our about $120 million in royalties to contributors in 2015. But, they have 66+ million images, and growing, in their collection. That works out to about $1.82 per-image per-year.

Supply And Demand

There is a huge oversupply of images compared to what is needed for use. Supply will continue to grow at a much more rapid pace than demand. In most other businesses when supply exceeds demand suppliers cut back on production in an effort to get supply and demand into balance.

That fundamental concept of economics doesn’t work in stock photography. The vast majority of suppliers keep producing new work, even when demand for what they are producing totally dries up. They are more interested in self-expression than revenue.

At some point some suppliers will become so frustrated with receiving no compensation, and little or no affirmation of their work, that they will turn to some activity other than photography. However, it seems that for every person who gives up there are several new people who want to give it a try and start posting new work. By carefully assessing the market and producing only subject matter that is in greatest demand a few photographers will be able to earn enough to support themselves and realize a profit, but they are the exception and their number is decreasing daily.

Meanwhile, all that production clogs the sales channel and forces prices down.

Photographers trying to earn a living from their work can yearn for the way things used to be, but that is not going to change anything. If you haven’t done so already, It is time to adapt to the new reality.

Copyright © 2015 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:  


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