The Realities Of Stock Photography

By Jason Row / September 17, 2018

Type “make money from your photos” into Google and you get around 1.3 billion results. A look through the first few pages of results will suggest how easy it is and how the money will be rolling in for very little work. Indeed on the first page of the search is a site that tells you which agencies will make you $100 plus per image. 

That particular page lists 5 websites, all of which could sell your image for $100 but carefully omits that the chances of that are next to 0. The harsh reality of stock photography is that you are unlikely to be making huge sums of money at all.

In fact, without a lot of hard work and dedication, it is quite possible you will be making money for the agency without seeing a return. More on that later. 

Must be easy, right?

The Money

The vast majority of stock photography agencies these days are micro-stock. They work on the pile-em-high sell-em-cheap principle. That means they have vast collections of images in every genre selling for little more than a dollar to subscribers. 

But it gets worse. Some of those agencies will only give their contributors 20% of that sale, meaning you might see 20 cents assuming you do sell an image. With such miserly commissions, you need to be selling some seriously large numbers to actually make any money.

So let’s look at what’s involved in getting those numbers.

Pretty as it is, stock agencies are awash with images like this. By Diego Torres on Pixabay 

Shooting Sellable Stock

The majority of stock agencies use complex algorithms to determine which images get seen first during a search. As well as the number of times the image has sold, most algorithms also look at how active the contributor is in adding new stock. If you fail to increase your collection, your ratings will fall and in turn, so will your revenues.

To counter this you need to be adding stock on a regular, perhaps monthly basis. That stock needs to be fresh and original. To sell you need to spot trends in sales. Look at what types of images you are selling the most of and analyze why. Following the news can be a good way to spot trends particularly for editorial images but you need to work fast.

Having a style and specialty will improve your chances of sales. A specialty might be botanical photography with a deep understanding of the fauna that you capture, catering to a very specific part of the market.

 

A sellable shot but only as editorial as the main building would need a property release. By Jason Row Photography

The Post Production

Shooting enough stock to make money is only a small part of the equation. The post-production is where most of your time will be consumed. Getting the images looking right requires an efficient workflow. You need to select the sellable images, decide whether they are editorial or commercial, edit them to agency standards and then caption and keyword them.

The captioning and key-wording is perhaps the most tedious yet vital aspect of getting your images seen. You need to get inside the mind of a picture buyer and think about how they would search for your image. Every image needs a different caption and a percentage of different keywords. It’s hard, tiring yet important work.

Captioning and key-wording is tedious but vital

The Time

That brings us to the time it takes. Not only from shooting to uploading but also from submitting to making money. Despite what the articles shout, this is not an instant process. You might not see a return on your time investment for a year, maybe more. 

If you are going to be serious about making money from stock you need to dedicate time and energy to it. Not just in the short term but as an overall commitment of several hours per week over several years. You also need to research your genre and fine tune your shots towards what’s trending at the time.

Some agencies commissions are frankly derisible

The Money – AGAIN.

Is it really possible to make money from stock photography? The answer is yes, but only if you treat it as a business and devote time and energy to it as a long-term project. At the top, we mentioned how you could make money for the agency without seeing a return. Here’s why.

Given the facts we detailed above, it is clear that stock photography requires a lot of dedication. Many photographers have been seduced by the “easy money” clickbait articles we talked about. They have submitted a couple of hundred generic photos and waited for the money to roll in. 

Many would have made some sales, a few cents here a few cents there. It slowly adds up to the point where you might cash in and buy your family dinner.

But here’s the rub. Many agencies have a minimum payout level. That can be anywhere between $50-$100. You might have accumulated $45 over a year but not be able to use it because you are below the payment threshold. The agency sits on your commissions until you make the minimum and unless you are dedicated, that could be quite some time. 

The realities of stock photography are that you can make money but not in the simplistic way blog articles tell you. If you have a good collection of diverse, interesting images and, more importantly, the time, then you can make some money out of stock.

For most people though this will not be a huge fortune, but for the dedicated, it could be welcome secondary income. 


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About the author

Jason Row

Jason has been writing for Light Stalking for over six years now and has 35 years of experience as a professional photographer. He now concentrates on producing travel stock photography and video from around the world. You can find his portfolio here. His work has been featured in numerous publications, both online and in print, as well as for major companies such as Virgin, Etihad, Tripadvisor and Booking.com. Jason has also produced a number of video tutorials for Light Stalking and Photzy. Born in London he now lives in the beautiful city of Odessa, Ukraine.