Stock Image Production Costs

Posted on 6/4/2018 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

One of the hardest things for stock photographers to calculate is their actual costs of stock image production. As in any business it is critical to understand your costs if you hope to eventually earn a profit from their production. This story will provide an outline of some of the things that need to be considered when determining costs. It will also provide some average costs figures that some leading professionals work toward.

Obviously costs will vary greatly from shoot to shoot, but if a photographer spends a lot on one production he needs to find some way to significantly cut costs on a number of other productions if he hopes to realize a profit on his entire business.

For photographers who spend 100% of their working life producing stock photos it is relatively easy to determine the average annual cost of production of the images produced during that year. Simply determine the total annual cost of operating the business and divide that by the total number of images accepted for marketing by the various stock agencies that represent the work.

Hopefully, some of the images made available through a stock agency will generate revenue for several years, but ideally one should try to cover costs within the first year and see a higher return over time. Thus, dividing annual costs by total images in the collection will provide a reasonable guide and allow you to see trends year over year.

Many photographers who produce stock images will also do assignments, or are involved in other income producing activities. In such cases the calculation becomes much more complicated. It will be important to make a determination of the percentage of total annual time spent shooting assignments relative to the time producing new stock images. When thinking in these terms don’t just consider the time actually shooting pictures, but include all the pre-production planning and marketing time as well as the post-production time.

Once you have determined the percentage of annual work time that was devoted to stock then try to allocate that portion of total overhead and operating costs to stock production. Of course, some marketing costs should be allocated entirely to the assignment side of the business and some costs including the hiring of models, building sets and renting props should be allocated entirely to the stock side. In order to make an accurate determination the photographer should be careful to consider all costs related to producing stock images as part of the overall cost per image.

By now many readers will be saying, “This sounds too complicated. Why is all this important?

The answer is simple. “Because in 2017 it is very easy to spend much more producing images than you’ll ever recover from licensing their use.” If you’ve got extra money you want to throw away, please give it to your favorite charity or send it to me.

What Professionals Have Determined Regarding Costs

Back around 2006 many successful professionals told me that they tried to average 50 accepted images from each shoot at an average cost per-image of around $50, or $2,500 per shoot. A lot of that cost was basic operating and overhead costs, not just costs tied specifically to the actual shoot. In 2006 Getty had 1,767,214 images in its creative collection and grossed $634.1 million in revenue for an average earning per-image of $358.81. RM photographers got 40% or more in royalties or $143.51 per-image on average. RF photographers working at 20% got an average of $71.76. So even if it cost them $50 to produce each image they covered their costs and started to realize a profit in less than a year.

But then prices started to fall and photographers had to find ways to cut costs. Some of the top photographers tried to get a greater variety of situations out of each shoot day in order to increase their acceptance ratio to 100 images per day. But that often just meant more close similars of each situation being accepted, not a greater variety of images that could be used for really different purposes. Overall, increasing the number of images from each shoot situation didn’t seem to increase overall sales that much.

Others tried to just cut costs which meant paying less for models and assistants, cutting cost of props and sets, spending a lot more time trying to find inexpensive locations and cutting travel costs. Some say they have been able to cut their costs (not including their time) to $25 per image. Others are aiming for $15 per image, but that’s very hard to do if you pay anything for models and support staff.

Earning vs Cost Of Production

But let’s look at earnings today verses cost of production. In 2017, instead of averaging $143.51 per-image in the collection as was the case in 2006 photographers who receive a 40% royalty from Getty got, on average, $4.82 per-image per-year and those who receive a 20% royalty for RF averaged $2.41. (See here for more about this calculation.)

If it cost $15 to produce each image and you earn $2.41 per-image per-year it takes over 6 years just to cover your costs before you get any return on your investment or any money for your time invested. If you can’t get your costs below $25 per-accepted-image, then it is over 10 years before you’ve covered your costs.

A few top photographers earn 2 to 4 times the average but it is very rare for anyone to earn more than 4 times. A lot are not earning any where near the average.

Then you must ask yourself, how many of the images produced today will have a 6 or 10-year useful life span considering the number of new images being produced? Sure, a few images will still sell occasionally after they are 10 years old, but not enough to offset the huge number that never sell, or haven’t been seen or licensed in years.

A significant and increasing portion of the photographers producing stock images today have little or no production costs because they are engaging in a hobby, not trying to earn a portion of their living from the images they produce. Tomorrow, I will examine the amateur’s impact on the market.

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:  


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