IanButty

Is it possible to make a living out of stock photography any more?

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I've been an Alamy contributor since February 2003 - at the time there were still a lot of photographers for whom stock photography was a significant if not primary source of income.  The digital camera revolution happened everyone became photographers.  We saw the rise of microstock sites.  Images were which used to attract four-figure sales were attracting single figure price tags. 

 

There was a joke at the time "How many stock photographers does it take to change a light bulb?  Answer none - we just sit around and talk about how it used to work"

 

I changed my focus and found other forms of income - mainly teaching other photographers.  The number of images I submitted to Alamy got less and less and I've hardly submitted anything over the last four or five years.

 

As part of the training sessions I run, I still do one on stock photography.  But I usually start off by setting expectations very low.  I tell people that while stock photography used to be a good business to be in, now it's just about impossible to make a living at it.  I revising my training notes at the moment and wondered if this is still true?  Is there anyone here whose major income is from stock?  If so who many images to you have for sale?  (Yes, I know number of images isn't everything but it is a useful metric).

 

If you had to give one piece of advice to someone considering getting into selling their images as stock photography, what would it be?

 

Thanks

Ian.

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3 minutes ago, IanButty said:

If you had to give one piece of advice to someone considering getting into selling their images as stock photography, what would it be?

 

Don't give up the day job

 

Pearl

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We saw the rise of microstock sites.

 

Ah, that's my cue!

 

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 I revising my training notes at the moment and wondered if this is still true? 

 

Depends entirely where you live. @Martin Carlsson lives in Sweden and that's really expensive. I'm in Italy and costs of living are lower. Then there's the extreme low end south-east Asia where $500 a  month goes a hell of a long way.

 

Let's talk about most contributors on here who are based in Europe & North America. Is it easy to make $3,000 a month consistently? Nope, although I wouldn't say it's near impossible. I'm sure many posting on here easily make that every month. I don't make a living off stock (yet). 

 

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If you had to give one piece of advice to someone considering getting into selling their images as stock photography, what would it be?

 

Skip the Microstock temptation altogether, there's no decent money to be made there anymore and focus on Midstock agencies. 

 

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Maybe the question should be, how does one live the life of the old fashioned stock photographer before digital, and before most of this lot on the Alamy forum entered the business?

 

Widen your horizons. Maybe the following.

 

Put the same RF images up on every possible stock sales site including your own, blog, sell prints, teach groups, give private lessons, publish photo books, lead photo travel tours, consult to companies like Canon.

 

This was the life of most full time film stock photographers, and no reason it cannot be done today.
 
Everyone is a photographer these days, so provide services aimed mainly at all the new photographers.

 

Here is someone doing it.

https://www.stuckincustoms.com

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Last year I averaged $573 gross per month. In 2014 (my best year on Alamy), it was $824 gross per month for the same number of annual sales (120).

 

I'm not unhappy with those amounts, but I certainly couldn't live on them in expensive Vancouver. But then I'm over 65 and am not looking to do so. Fortunately, I have other income.

 

I think the advice about not quitting your day job is the most responsible one to give young people -- without discouraging them, of course -- who are hoping to make a living solely from licensing images. Bill's suggestion re "widening horizons" would be a close second, although I haven't really got any personal experience to back that up. Perhaps he does, though.

 

The "m-word". Well, personally I wouldn't go there. An agency like Alamy is a much better training-ground IMO.

 

 

Edited by John Mitchell

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19 minutes ago, Bill Brooks said:

Maybe the question should be, how does one live the life of the old fashioned stock photographer before digital, and before most of this lot on the Alamy forum entered the business?

 

Widen your horizons. Maybe the following.

 

Put the same RF images up on every possible stock sales site including your own, blog, sell prints, teach groups, give private lessons, publish photo books, lead photo travel tours, consult to companies like Canon.

 

This was the life of most full time film stock photographers, and no reason it cannot be done today.
 
Everyone is a photographer these days, so provide services aimed mainly at all the new photographers.

 

Here is someone doing it.

https://www.stuckincustoms.com

Excellent advice, Bill.  Stock photography is a business and has to be run as a business if you want to make a living at it.  Maximise your income opportunities by exploring all possible avenues and diversifying into other areas if they are likely to be profitable for you.  With the exception of a few remarkable talents most successful (income based) photographers seem to be business / marketing oriented rather than just good behind the camera.

 

I'll add to say that I'm a pretty recent recruit to stock, with less than 4 years on Alamy and no experience anywhere else but I have advised small businesses in my pre retirement professional life.  The need to explore all avenues is universal across small businesses.  As is the need not to be sidetracked into areas you should not be going.  

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With all the POD sites out there, selling prints is definitely worth exploring. I've had some success there. Returns per sale are usually much higher than stock, but the competition is now ginormous (even super ginormous). Don't think many people make much from self-published photo books. They are best for promotion and sharing. Probably better to find a real publisher.

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Define "living"? ;)

 

90% of my income comes from stock. Sometimes less if I get a decent paid job on the other side of the camera.

 

But that is only a part of the story. I regularly talk to people who want to give up their "normal" jobs to pursue a less certain career. Then I explain that income is only one side of the equation. One of the major factors enabling me to make a living from stock is that I dont spend much. No dependents, relatively cheap rent, in the winter I put a jumper on, no need for a car, dont smoke, I grow a lot of my own food, trips away are invariably at least self-subsiding from sales, I buy stuff that lasts. I was baptised Rich so have little desire for big sums on my bank account.

 

I am pretty sure I couldn;t do it if I lived elsewhere... just the rents or mortgage would make it more difficult if I lived in many parts of the UK. Even at home I probably fall into the official poverty figures.

Edited by funkyworm
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Did anyone ever make a living from stock photography? If they did it was probably well before 2003.

Agency photographers were able to made a living back in the day, but that included money from assignments. The photographer's percentage was higher and rates were higher too.

With assignments, the client would pay expenses and then the images would go into stock. With shooting stock or on-spec work agencies would sometimes split the expenses with photographers.

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Thank you folks, for the replies.  Very interesting reading and mostly confirms my own experiences and thoughts.  It's been really helpful to get your perspectives on this, rather than me just presenting my experiences. (Which are a bit out of date these days).

 

As the old saying goes, the only way to end with a small fortune from shooting stock is to start with a LARGE fortune!

 

Thanks

Ian.

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My advice would be to find a niche, or a USP, for your portfolio. Not easy these days but still possible, and it has a dramatic impact on sales and income.

 

Marc

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1 hour ago, fotoDogue said:

Did anyone ever make a living from stock photography? If they did it was probably well before 2003.

Agency photographers were able to made a living back in the day, but that included money from assignments. The photographer's percentage was higher and rates were higher too.

With assignments, the client would pay expenses and then the images would go into stock. With shooting stock or on-spec work agencies would sometimes split the expenses with photographers.

 

For decades, I managed to cobble together a living from teaching (not photography-related), freelance writing, and photography. Many of my stock photos were byproducts of tourism press and fam trips that I used to get invited on, expenses paid. I could never have made a livable income from stock alone. Everyone's situation is different, of course. Some hardworking forum members (not me, too lazy now) seem to be making good livings from their photography alone, so it is obviously still possible.

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I started seriously in 1991 and made a very good living from stock supplying  magazines and books from 1995 through to 2008 when most of my customers went out of business. But it was very niche and relied upon writing fairly technical articles to support the photography. i was never going to be rich but it allowed me to follow the lifestyle I wanted and continue to do now. Starting now I would not stand a chance of making it work as stock now only supplies about 20%  of the income it did back then.

 

Regen

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""If you had to give one piece of advice to someone considering getting into selling their images as stock photography, what would it be?"

 

 

Get a proper job, and do it as a hobby business!

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If I was doing a course I'd probably emphasise the hobby aspect of stock photography, maybe call it a hobby-business that provides focus ( sorry) for a person's interest in photography. 

 

 

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Photography pays for my alcohol consumption over the year. Luckily I'm not a heavy drinker. If I didn't do photohraphy I would have to find that money from somewhere else.

 

Alan

 

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Photography isn't full-time for me, nor is writing. But put the two together and that's enough to keep me going (in a modest, 'don't need much' kind of way)...

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1 hour ago, geogphotos said:

If I was doing a course I'd probably emphasise the hobby aspect of stock photography, maybe call it a hobby-business that provides focus ( sorry) for a person's interest in photography. 

 

 

That's more or less what I tell folks.  Income from stock is a nice bonus when it happens, it might make the difference between buying a reasonable piece of kit and a good piece of kit.

 

It appears that those who have any reasonable income from it, have huge collections of images for sale : 10s of thousands of photos.

 

 

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4 hours ago, IanButty said:

That's more or less what I tell folks.  Income from stock is a nice bonus when it happens, it might make the difference between buying a reasonable piece of kit and a good piece of kit.

 

It appears that those who have any reasonable income from it, have huge collections of images for sale : 10s of thousands of photos.

 

 

 

It is not just having thousands of images with the agency as the people who make reasonable amounts from their images also curate their own portfolio, as well as taking images that are trending (supplying customers needs), they also process their images to a very high standard. Not too mention the correct captioning and keywording (tagging).

 

In fact put all this together and you do not necessarily need 10s of thousands of images but it does help.

 

Allan

 

 

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If you live in the Central African Republic, you can make a great living.  There the GDP is $639, the lowest in the world.    Kidding aside, I used to think I could "retire" on my stock photo income but that won't be the case.  

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15 minutes ago, Michael Ventura said:

If you live in the Central African Republic, you can make a great living.  There the GDP is $639, the lowest in the world.    Kidding aside, I used to think I could "retire" on my stock photo income but that won't be the case.  

 

But if you live in Africa, and presumably shooting in Africa, will your new images continue to sell at the same rate as when you were living in the UK or US?

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But if you live in Africa, and presumably shooting in Africa, will your new images continue to sell at the same rate as when you were living in the UK or US?

 

Oh yea, if you're in Kenya and shooting the animals in the wild...I'd imagine those images would do really well! Or documentary style images of war-torn places. It all depends. 

 

I recently got in touch with the director of a stock agency which specialises in only images from Africa (I won't give the name out here). 

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36 minutes ago, Michael Ventura said:

If you live in the Central African Republic, you can make a great living.  There the GDP is $639, the lowest in the world.    Kidding aside, I used to think I could "retire" on my stock photo income but that won't be the case.  

 

My expectations were more modest. I never thought that I could actually retire (whatever that is) on my photography income. I'm not that talented a photographer. However, I do hope that stock continues to provide a useful supplement to my pensions and other income. Things could always be better, but so far, so good (touch wood). Living in a place where the cost of living is still low certainly makes sense (not sure about the CAR, though) as long as you can generate enough saleable images in that locale.

 

 

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37 minutes ago, Brasilnut said:

 

Oh yea, if you're in Kenya and shooting the animals in the wild...I'd imagine those images would do really well! Or documentary style images of war-torn places. It all depends. 

 

I recently got in touch with the director of a stock agency which specialises in only images from Africa (I won't give the name out here). 

 

The best part of shooting in Kenya is being in Kenya with the wild animals. Alamy has images from many famous wildlife photographers as well as the National Geographic Collection so competition here is fierce. I do make sales but don't expect much income from the endeavor. I will do it as long as it is fun.

 

Paulette

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21 hours ago, fotoDogue said:

Did anyone ever make a living from stock photography? If they did it was probably well before 2003.

Agency photographers were able to made a living back in the day, but that included money from assignments. The photographer's percentage was higher and rates were higher too.

With assignments, the client would pay expenses and then the images would go into stock. With shooting stock or on-spec work agencies would sometimes split the expenses with photographers.

Absolutely

I personally know 3 people who's gross stock sales were in the $500,000 a year range. So $250,000 after the 50% commission. They did have production costs of $50,000 to $100,000 a year. So $150,000 - $200,000 net revenue.

I also knew one person who's gross was in the $1,000,000 a year range with comparable production costs.

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