So You Want To Be A Stock Photographer

Posted on 8/27/2014 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (1)

Recently Dennis Davis, an experienced Los Angeles corporate, lifestyle, and food photographer (see his portfolio) posted the following on a blog. “I am moving out of commercial assignment photography into selling my photography after the fact. I am looking for recommendations on stock agencies and methods for selling fine art images and video.

If your goal in shooting pictures is to keep your mind busy in retirement and make a little extra income to supplement your Social Security then Stock may be the way to go. But, if you really need to earn money to support your lifestyle I would not recommend investing that time in producing stock images. Chances are you will earn more money for the hours invested working at almost any other activity. If possible, stick with assignment work.

It’s all about supply and demand. In the 80s and 90s there was much more demand for stock images than supply. So it was possible to shoot on speculation and sell images for a decent price. Even then assignment shooters were complaining that we (stock shooters) were driving them out of business by licensing rights to images for less than what it cost them to produce similar images.  

But, now there is a huge oversupply relative to demand and the supply keeps growing faster than demand -- even when you consider the growing number of images on the Internet.

Being able to deliver high quality images fast, and easily show your work to the world via the Internet, and improved photo equipment has made it possible for anyone with an idea of what they want to shoot and a basic sense of composition to produce acceptable digital stock images. This has changed everything.

The advantage the professional has over the skilled amateur is the years or experience that has enabled him to translate a client’s vision of what the client wants into an image. He knows what will and won’t work and how to produce the desired results on deadline and budget.

With stock you’re no longer talking to the clients. You’re guessing what some future client you don’t know, and will never talk to, will want. You may produce what you and other photographers believe are great images. But the client doesn’t want your idea of a great image; he wants HIS IDEA.

Think about it. How many times in your career have you produced what the client wanted, and made the client very happy? But the image was not so great or unusual that you wanted to add it to your portfolio.

In looking at your portfolio, you I would say you have produced some great images. But, I’m not spending any money to buy images. The question is, “Is there a client out there who will want to use what you have already shot?”  And, if so will the amount he will be willing to pay be enough to cover your cost of production. My guess is that you are likely to find some people who will want to use your images, but the amount they are willing to pay won’t be enough to justify going out and producing such images on speculation.

In the past if you wanted good photography you had to hire a professional. Now, many of your former clients can easily produce some, or all of the images they need themselves.
If they don’t have the time to produce the images themselves, and they need help there are many aspiring pros willing to work for a fraction of what you would charge, just to get a little experience. I’m sure you have figured that out. In addition, there are tons of low priced stock images for them to choose from.

That leaves a handful of people who need the kind of high quality images you’re showing in your portfolio. The problem is that there are not enough of them, given the choices available to them, and the prices they are willing to pay, to make a serious business.  

If you are looking at stock photography from a business perspective go to the following sites:,, (part of Getty Images),, and These are the seven largest distributors in the world, in order of gross sales.

Then search for “lifestyle,” “food” and “nature” and understand the competition. Can you produce better images than all the images on these sites -- and do it at virtually no costs?

I estimate that worldwide something in the range of 184 million images were licensed for use in 2013. About 1.3 to 1.5 million of those were licensed as RM. Better than 25% of the RM licenses were for fees of under $25. Based on the analysis I’ve done of sales of some major Getty Images RM photographers 16% of the licenses were for gross fees of less than $10. The photographer gets a royalty share of these numbers.

These fees might not be so bad if each image were licensed a huge number of times, but that’s not the case.  Getty Images has over 10 million images in their Creative Stills (RM and RF) collection. In 2013 Getty licensed between 500,000 and 600,000 RM uses and about one million RF uses. Some of the images that were licensed were licensed several times so the total of unique images licensed was even less than these figures. Alamy has almost 50 million in its collection and licensed about 400,000 usages in 2013.

For more information check out these links. “Time To Retire RM Pricing” and “RM: Adapting To The New Realities”.

Occasionally, there are still RM licenses for multi-thousands of dollars, but they are very rare. Most photographers never see a $1,000 sale anymore. A very few photographer like Jim Erickson ( make big sales for exclusive rights on a regular basis, but that is because photographers like Erickson have built very strong reputations with the few major advertising customers who still occasionally need exclusive rights. These clients continue to go directly to Jim for the images they need. (And he spends a lot on marketing.) While his images are great, the big dollars are much more about the relationships he has built up than whether his are the only images that could possibly work for the project.

If the customers you’ve built relationships with aren’t willing to pay the big dollars anymore that’s not surprising. Probably, more than 99% of the customers out there have reduced their budgets for photography since 2007. They get away with paying less because there is so much competition.

If you still want to produce stock, I would advise you to put your images with several different distributors rather than just one. There is very little demand for exclusive stock imagery. In theory an exclusive distributor, might get you higher prices and more volume sales, but that is not happening in the real world.

Your only hope of making much money is to accept the low prices and try to be with all the outlets that have a reasonable number of customers using them to find images. Every site appeals to a different group of customers for different reasons, You want to try to get your images seen by all of them.

Here are some links to a few other stories that you might want to take a look at.

Is There A Future In Stock Photography?

Image Licensing Trends

Things To Consider When Licensing Images As RM

Average RM and RF Prices At Getty

The Cost Of Producing Stock

Getty A Three Month Review

Survey Results: Global Stock Image Revenue

Copyright © 2014 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 Aug 27, 2014
    Gloom & Doom, Jim. The business is not dead and video is a GROWING stock business! But you don't ever sound that way.

Post Comment

Please log in or create an account to post comments.

Stay Connected

Sign up to receive email notification when new stories are posted.

Follow Us

Free Stuff

Stock Photo Pricing: The Future
In the last two years I have written a lot about stock photo pricing and its downward slide. If you have time over the holidays you may want to review some of these stories as you plan your strategy ...
Read More
Future Of Stock Photography
If you’re a photographer that counts on the licensing of stock images to provide a portion of your annual income the following are a few stories you should read. In the past decade stock photography ...
Read More
Blockchain Stories
The opening session at this year’s CEPIC Congress in Berlin on May 30, 2018 is entitled “Can Blockchain be applied to the Photo Industry?” For those who would like to know more about the existing blo...
Read More
2017 Stories Worth Reviewing
The following are links to some 2017 and early 2018 stories that might be worth reviewing as we move into the new year.
Read More
Stories Related To Stock Photo Pricing
The following are links to stories that deal with stock photo pricing trends. Probably the biggest problem the industry has faced in recent years has been the steady decline in prices for the use of ...
Read More
Stock Photo Prices: The Future
This story is FREE. Feel free to pass it along to anyone interested in licensing their work as stock photography. On October 23rd at the DMLA 2017 Conference in New York there will be a panel discuss...
Read More
Important Stock Photo Industry Issues
Here are links to recent stories that deal with three major issues for the stock photo industry – Revenue Growth Potential, Setting Bottom Line On Pricing and Future Production Sources.
Read More
Recent Stories – Summer 2016
If you’ve been shooting all summer and haven’t had time to keep up with your reading here are links to a few stories you might want to check out as we move into the fall. To begin, be sure to complet...
Read More
Corbis Acquisition by VCG/Getty Images
This story provides links to several stories that relate to the Visual China Group (VCG) acquisition of Corbis and the role Getty Images has been assigned in the transfer of Corbis assets to the Gett...
Read More
Finding The Right Image
Many think search will be solved with better Metadata. While metadata is important, there are limits to how far it can take the customer toward finding the right piece of content. This story provides...
Read More

More from Free Stuff