Making a Living as a Stock Photographer

Find out what it takes to earn your keep selling your photos to a stock image company.


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In the early-to-mid 1900s, stock photography images were basically leftovers from commercial assignments, commonly referred to as “outtakes” or “seconds.” Stock image libraries and agencies cataloged the images and sold them for purchase and republication in ads, books, annual reports, and the like.


Example Stock Image via Unsplash

As time passed, customers realized they could save considerable time and money by using stock images instead of hiring a photographer for an assignment. By the 1980s, stock photography had become a specialty in its own right, with many photographers enjoying the flexibility of shooting stock instead of working on assignment. Today, thanks to the proliferation of online consumerism and marketing, stock imagery is a multibillion-dollar business. As a stock photographer, you’ll be paid based on residual income (royalties), or in some cases, rights to your images will be purchased outright.


In recent years, the stock imagery business has become very competitive, and the prices companies are willing to pay for stock photography has decreased rather dramatically. Thus, unless you have a vast collection of images being offered by stock agencies and your photos are often selected by clients, this will more realistically be a way to supplement your income as opposed to generating a full-time (or even a respectable part-time) income.


One of the most successful stock photo agencies is Getty Images. It’s among the world’s leading creators and distributors of award-winning still imagery, video, music, and multimedia products as well as other forms of premium digital content, available through its trusted house brands, including iStock.


Getty Images serves more than 1.5 million business customers in over 100 countries. Images acquired from Getty Images help their customers produce work that appears every day in the world’s most influential newspapers, magazines, advertising campaigns, films, television programs, books, and online media.


For each image license a customer purchases, photographers earn a royalty, which is a percentage of the price paid by the customer. Earnings vary, but according to Getty Images, “The more content you have in your portfolio that customers need, the more opportunities you’ll have to gain earnings.”


The opportunity to sell stock images is as vast as the locations where you’ll find those images used. They’re featured in all forms of advertising, as well as within brochures, billboards, presentations, books, magazines, product packaging, blogs, and websites. Stock images are routinely used by commercial and nonprofit entities, such as architectural and design firms; advertising agencies; book, newspaper, magazine, website, and blog publishers; corporations in all industries; educational institutions; and website designers and graphic artists.


Related: 3 Tips for Timeless Photos


During the 1980s, photographers controlled all rights (copyrights) for their images. Then, in the new millennium, royalty-free images with unlimited usage rights were introduced through large stock agencies. In today’s market, stock photographers are faced with the struggle of accepting a flat, royalty-free fee, or sometimes retaining royalty control rights over their images.


Unfortunately, the battle is weighing heavily on the royalty-free side, which often means less revenue for the photographer. This newer model is replacing the rights-controlled version by offering a huge selection of images to buyers at significantly reduced prices.


It helps to understand the difference between royalty-free and rights-managed stock. Royalty-free doesn’t actually mean “free,” but it gives buyers permission to use the image multiple times in any number of ways, for as long as they want -- for a one-time fee. There’s usually a limit on how many times the image can be reproduced by a client.


The biggest downside for stock photography users is that they don’t own the royalty-free image. Anyone -- including competitors -- can potentially use the same image, for the same fee, at the same time, and for the same purposes.


Images that are licensed, or “rights-managed,” charge a fee each time an image is used. The buyer can have exclusive use for a limited time, allowing the photographer or agency to sell the image again when the embargo period is up. Fees are negotiable and based on factors such as exclusivity, distribution (readership), and how long and where (region or country) it will be used.


Although some photographers receive assignments for stock photos, it’s more common for a photographer to take the images on their own and submit them later for possible presentation and representation by a stock photo agency. For it to be a financially lucrative opportunity, you’ll need to provide hundreds of pictures, only a few of which stock agency customers may want to license. As the photographer, you’re also hidden behind a veil of anonymity: Buyers don’t know who you are, and you rarely get photo credit for your work.


Due to many stock agencies now offering millions of images online, prices for their customers to license or purchase images has dropped significantly, so keep in mind that this aspect of the business is no longer as lucrative as it once was. Instead, you might consider offering stock images through an agency or service as just one part of your overall photography business.


How profitable is stock photography?


The profitability margin for stock photography varies widely. Although the initial payout from some stock photo agencies average less than $1 per image, many photographers find this opportunity to be an attractive one because they can make money on photos they’ve already shot, without doing any marketing or selling themselves. A large portfolio with quality photographs of popular subject matters, combined with relevant titles, descriptions, keywords, and appropriate metadata, will greatly increase your chances of success. Stock photo agencies regularly publish guidelines that describe the types of images their clients are seeking. It’s a good idea to study this information prior to submitting your work to stock photo agencies for evaluation.


It’s important to understand that commercial stock photographers are not phasing out; they’re simply reconstructing and streamlining their specialty areas. The quality stock agencies that supply images for business-related clients (where the real money is) are specific and selective about the photographers and material they want to represent and offer to their clients.

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