Surprising Trends In Photographer Earnings

Posted on 1/2/2009 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (8)

There are countless stories about what best-selling stock photographers earn. However, the earnings of photographers a little farther down the food chain are more germane. It is useful to consider the likely earnings of the 50 most successful contributors to Getty Images’ creative collections (rights-managed and royalty-free) and compare these figures with iStockphoto’s 50 most successful photographers, paying particular attention to the probable earnings of the 50th photographer on the list.

Getty’s numbers are used because more and better data is available from this company and its contributors than from any other distributor, as well as because Getty is the industry leader in both traditional and microstock sales. Still, it is necessary to make significant additional assumptions that could lead to errors in the conclusions. Nevertheless, the resulting analysis may cause many photographers to rethink their plans for the production and marketing of stock images in 2009.

Getty creative collection

Based on the Goldman Sachs’ analysis prior to Getty Images’ sale to Hellman & Friedman, the company expected to generate $460 million in 2008 creative sales. Though this figure was forecast in 2007, long before the recession and the expected revenue decline in the fourth quarter, it remains a useful starting point.

Some royalties from Getty’s creative sales were paid to individual photographers, and the remainder went to more than 100 image partners—stock agencies or production companies that Getty represents. Such partners supply about 66% of the images in Getty’s collection, but for the most part, these images are given low positions in the search-return order. Thus, it could be hypothesized that no more than 50% of Getty’s revenue—perhaps less—results from licensing image-partner images.

This leads to the conclusion that $230 million is generated by licensing images shot by Getty’s contract photographers. This number is divided about evenly between rights-managed and royalty-free sales. Photographers receive about 35% ($40 million) of the rights-managed sales and 20% ($23 million) of royalty-free sales, for a total of $63 million.

One or two of these photographers earn close to $1 million in royalties. Assuming that 30 of the top 50 photographers earn $250,000 or better, this group’s average earnings would be about $416,000, or a total of $12,480,000. If photographer number 30 earns $250,000, photographer 50 probably earns about half that, or $125,000. Based on discussions with leading photographers these figures appear to be in the ballpark.

The average for the 20 earning between $125,000 and $250,000 is about $187,500, or a total of $3,750,000. Together, all 50 would receive in the range of $16,230,000, or 26% of the total royalties paid all individual photographers.

If we assume all 50 photographers earn $250,000 or more, and number one still earns $1 million, the average would be $625,000. Royalties paid all 50 would be about $31,250,000. This is almost 50% of royalties paid to all Getty’s photographers, but it is more likely that the top 50 photographers earn closer to 25% of total royalties rather than 50%.


In 2007, iStock’s average payout was $400,000 a week. Since this was for the overall year, and there was continued growth throughout the year, that probably means that the average payout in the last weeks of the year was in the range of $550,000. iStock recently announced that the company was now paying photographers over $1.1 million a week, or an average 2008 weekly payout of $850,000 for the year, totaling $43 million for 52 weeks. Compare the iStock payout with the estimated $63 million paid Getty’s Creative collections contributors.

To learn more about iStock photographer earnings, examine Duncan Walker’s tracking of 274 “diamond” photographers, each of whom have more than 25,000 downloads. Go to his blog and click on “Diamond List” to see the total downloads for each of these photographers.

In the past, Selling Stock estimated iStock’s total downloads since the beginning of 2005 at between 52 million and 60 million. For those who have been uploading for several years, as many as half those downloads came in 2008. The top 50 photographers have had close to 9 million of the 60 million and over 300,000 came in the last two months. The average price of all download in 2008 was about $5.00. Exclusive photographers receive 40% of the gross sale, and non-exclusives get 20%.

The 50th exclusive photographer has a total of 95,129 downloads since 2004. Assuming that half his downloads came in 2008 and he received $2.00 per download, his earnings would be in the neighborhood of $100,000. Then consider that Getty’s creative sales have been declining, while iStocks have been increasing at a dramatic pace—and it may be time for those licensing rights to images at traditional prices to do some re-thinking.

Copyright © 2009 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:  


  • Jonathan Ross Posted Jan 2, 2009
    Hi Jim,

    I appreciate the comments but your numbers on my side are off for the Getty and third party distributors collection from Getty. Either that or I am in the very top and I don't think that is true. The reason for testing Micro is never been more necessary to be able to play this game in the future. I made a post about Micro stock here a week or so ago and made a poor statement that wasn't clear. I stated that a test in Micro needed to be several thousand. That was a poor assessment of how we approached Micro at first. We spent money on only 100 images for about the first year and after analyzing these numbers we came to the realization that many more needed to be placed to get good data and our cost per image had to drop. We also found reading the blogs that the real top dogs in Micro are building a following of buyers and this is being done through blogging but they also say you must have several thousand images to really build the following and support your efforts. I hope that was a better explanation. However it is clear to us through our returns in Micro and our dwindling return through Macro that we will be investing again in 09" into the Micro market and expect sales to increase from the raise in price cost. Also the quality will keep getting better I am quite sure. With that quality increase in Micro if the subject matter is right you could be seeing a much smaller portfolio needed to make a decent return of income.

    Jonathan Ross

  • Gerard Fritz Posted Jan 2, 2009
    As RF and RM image pricing slides downward with pressure from microstock, the question of "what's a photographer to do" might be irrelevant. The entire image pool (regardless of RF, RR, RM, Micro status) will drain downward to a common level. The effect being all pricing will approach micro levels eventually. And, just as RF did, when Micro dominates you can expect them to raise prices...because they can.

  • Greg Ceo Posted Jan 2, 2009
    A business in Micro is based on a high volume of sales while constantly pumping out lots and lots and lots of new pictures. This leads me to believe that photographers making money will not be in a position to make unique images. Art Buyers of unique pictures will have to look elsewhere for their product, either hiring a photographer and shooting the job or finding the image via RM stock files. A company like Getty will always have a brand like "Stone" or "Stone +" for the high end work, but less and less photographers will be able to afford to contribute to these brands on a regular basis and sales will eventually be spotty at best. So there are two choices: become a production house of generic images or find another source of income while contributing to RM stock.

  • Bill Brooks Posted Jan 2, 2009
    The 50th ranked Getty Creative photographer may also have many other RM/RF images at Corbis, Masterfile, Alamy etc so his Getty Creative earnings may only be part of his total stock income. On the other hand the 50th ranked EXCLUSIVE istockphoto photographer only receives income from istockphoto, so your figures represent all of his stock income. Therefore the income of the istockphoto photographer may not be as close to the income of the Getty Creative photographer as your analysis would indicate. The moral of the story is to have as many different images in as many different stock libraries as possible. This is not as difficult as it sounds, as, depending on the phase of the moon, one editor's RM reject is another editor's RM select.

  • Jonathan Ross Posted Jan 2, 2009

    I think you make a very good point.

    Jonathan Ross

  • Jim Pawell Posted Jan 3, 2009
    Speaking as the new owner of a boutique agency, I agree with Bill's reminder that photographers should find as many suitable homes for different RM images as possible. When in October 2007 I purchased (which focuses on images of minority and ethnic students for textbook publishers), I was surprised to learn what a high percentage of its photographers earned mid five figures to low six figures from such a small agency.

  • Don Farrall Posted Jan 3, 2009

    If the conclusion from this analysis is that traditional (macro RF) or RM shooters should be moving to microstock because it offers a better potential for return, well… I remain unconvinced.

    As a long time traditional RF and RM Getty contributor, I do believe that your dollar numbers for Getty contributors are a reasonable guess. I also believe that the earnings of the 51st-250th top Getty earners are a relevant point of consideration, but I do realize that it is impossible to know what the actual numbers for those contributors are. Clearly there are more microstock photographers earning “something” for their involvement in the process, than there are traditional stock shooters.

    At the moment there may well be a reason to look at all of the data and conclude that traditional stock photography is on a downward trend, and microstock is on an upward trend. And that therefore “smart” photographers who don’t have their head in the sand, should move some, if not all, of their effort, into this new image marketing model.

    This kind of thinking totally ignores the evolutionary changes that will be, or are, happening to the microstock environment because of the influx of new players who were former traditional stock producers. As the pie splits the slices are going to get thinner, and they are already pretty slim by my standards. I don’t pretend to think that anything I say is going to stop this from happening. I have traditional stock producer acquaintances who I know are moving in this direction. Many of them fought the battle for respect when they first began selling under the Royalty Free model. I did as well. But I don’t see the move to microstock in such direct comparative terms.

    There has been very little discussion anywhere about what kind of images that are best suited to these varied marketing models. I have very strong feelings that to earn the most, some material should be RM, and that some should be sold as $100 -$500 royalty free. I would even agree that there are some images that by their “consumer nature” belong on sale at microstock prices. But I do not believe for a minute that on whole what has been considered “commercial stock photography” should be sold under the microstock model. The buyers are the winners under this model, so are some agencies, but not professional image suppliers.

    By staying out of microstock, ( yes I have tested the waters, but I do not intend to invest in microstock ) I am betting that microstock has already peaked, from a contributors point of $ view. That the few talented early adopters had an easier time establishing themselves as a brand, ( a necessary component that should not be underestimated ) than newly entering producers are going to have. I further believe that the RPI will only support very efficient bare-bones shoots. The necessity of volume will make prior efforts look like child’s play, and that the ever-increasing volume of better and better work will result in fewer sales per image and a lower RPI. Is anyone asking how many serious volume, serious quality producers microstock can support?

    I am familiar with the work produced by Jonathan Ross, and I sympathize with his situation. A lot of big producers form the traditional RF side have seen devastating drops in sales. This is clearly a result of microsock. I am not a big producer, it took me ten years to get 2000+ images on Getty, and for the most part I only see sales form the most recent few hundred images. Microstock has hurt my stock sales quite a bit as well, though of late I think it is the state of the economy that is to blame for a continued drop. In any event, for what I shoot, for what I am good at, microstock is not a viable answer. I am just saying that running to microstock because traditional stock sales are in the tank is not going to be the answer for everyone. For me this is not about how much my images sell for on an individual sales basis, it’s about an annual income, plain and simple. I do not pretend to take the high road of principal here.

    I am betting that I will be better off raising the bar and working toward ever more difficult imagery to duplicate, striving for sales to people for whom the quality and uniqueness of the images is more important than how cheap the images are.

  • Jonathan Ross Posted Jan 5, 2009
    Hi Don,

    Thank you for your sympathies but I am doing pretty good so far through the battle. Now the economy and the stock photography industry are in a bit of a hurt. I just had the second biggest year in sales ever for our company and we have another 2000 images to upload in the loop. My company closed it's studio doors to drop our overhead through what I think will be a slow year but we will still be on location full time. We had to work much harder than we ever have the last couple of years but we were able to offset the loss of income through our furthered efforts. If it wasn't for Micro sales and what they did to this industry yea, I would be buying property in several parts of the world right now but those changes took place for everyone in stock. My only reason to venture into Micro is to be in position with a new emerging market. We did it 11 years ago with RF when a lot of RM's wouldn't come over and then Kaboom the sales exploded. Then they said well that is it and Boom they went even higher. I don't expect Kaboom from MIcro but who knows and for the small amount of effort it took to actually do the work to get the data is worth every penny in itself. We plan on producing a lot of RM as well for this year. We are at 14,000 images across all markets with more images to come and climbing in 09'. I see a lot of opportunity in 09' and focus on diversification.
    Jonathan Ross

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