What Is Stock Photography?

Posted on 12/7/2018 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (1)

When I first started actively producing stock photography, I did so because I wanted to make money. I had discovered that I could earn additional revenue from images I had previously produced on either an assignment or on speculation.

At the time I wasn’t earning enough from assignments alone to fully support the needs of my family. The stock revenue was an important supplement. Assignments weren’t as frequent, or as well paying, as I would have liked. I realized I could use the “in between” time to produce images for my stock collection that one day might be licensed.

The important thing is that from the beginning it was All About The Money.

I wasn’t looking for recognition as an “artist.” It made little difference to me whether one, or many, people “liked” my images. The important thing was how much someone was willing to pay to use one of them.

At first I just photographed subjects I enjoyed. As time went by in the 1980s and 1990s many photographers were able to study the market, get a good idea of the kind of stock imagery customers were interested in buying and produce more of that subject matter. Many photographers found they could earn a good living by just producing stock imagery and avoiding the assignment hassle all together.

That time has largely disappeared.

Now, most of the stock images being produced are of subjects that appeal to the photographer alone. Most of the people producing stock images seem to give little or no though to whether their images are of subject matter that someone else would be willing to pay money to use. Photographers post these images on stock photography websites and feel “gratified” when others -- mostly photographers – “like” their image. Money is a very secondary issue. For most there is very little of it.

In the Social Media environment everything is supposed to be free. Increasingly, photographers are posting their images on “Free stock sites” just for that satisfaction of getting “likes.” Often, there is no expectations, whatsoever, of earning any money. These photographers allow anyone to use their images -- for any purpose whatsoever -- at no cost. Now, the whole idea behind much of stock photography is to be “generous” and give your work away.

As Unsplash says on their home page “Beautiful, free photos. Gifted by the world’s most generous community of photographers.” (emphasis mine).

It is great to be generous, but it has become almost impossible for those who would like to earn a portion of their living by producing images to compete with the massive number of free and low cost imagery available.

There still are stock photography sites that charge money for the use of the images they offer, but in the vast majority of cases the license fees are so low that the images might as well be free.

To give an example, I recently examined a year’s worth of sales of a major Getty Images contributor. He has a collection of over 5,000 high-quality, carefully edited images. In the year almost 2,500 uses were licensed.  58% of the licenses were for less than $10. The average price for those uses was a little less than $5.00. The contributor gets about 30% of this figure.

I presume most of these sales were for social media or digital use. Increasingly, that is where most images end up. Print uses are declining rapidly. Fortunately, a small percentage of this contributor’s sales were for print uses at much higher prices making his gross overall royalty somewhat reasonable.

I wrote recently that at Alamy average annual return per-image-in the-collection that image creators receive in 2018 is $0.097 (less than a dime). And Alamy is one of the good agencies.

Considering what it costs to create such images, make digital corrections, keyword the images and upload them to a website where potential customers might find them, this is no way to make money.  Stock photography is no longer a business or profession where creators might expect to earn a reasonable amount of money for their efforts. A few photographers who are very lucky and happen to produce a few images that an increasingly small percentage of image buyers are willing to pay reasonable fees to use might at least cover their costs. For all the rest stock photography has become an exercise in stroking ones ego and being generous.

Copyright © 2012 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 www.selling-stock.com, 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: http://www.jimpickerell.com/Curriculum-Vitae.aspx.  


  • James Domke Posted Dec 8, 2018
    Micro Stock Photography? Flickr? I got started thinking that it was a good way to get revenue from rejected photos taken on an assignment. Hoping it might draw client to contact me directly for photo assignment.

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