Is it possible to make a living from stock photography sales?

June 30, 2014 at 9:36 am  •  Posted in Q&A, Tips & Techniques by

I know that some of the Photo Life contributors are stock photographers, placing images with an agency’s library for sale to companies that need photos to illustrate an article or an advertisement. Do you make a lot of sales? Is this a suitable way to make a living for a guy with a wife and two children? It definitely sounds like it would be more enjoyable than my current occupation?
—Irv J.

My best-known stock photo, this (Royalty-Free) image was used by Microsoft as a screen background in millions of copies of Windows. The company paid the Corbis agency $300 and my share was less than 50%. In spite of dozens of other paid uses, my total income from this photo has been under $800 in 9 years, and the vast majority of my stock images have earned much less. © 2005 Peter K. Burian

My best-known stock photo, this (Royalty-Free) image was used by Microsoft as a screen background in millions of copies of Windows. The company paid the Corbis agency $300 and my share was less than 50%. In spite of dozens of other paid uses, my total income from this photo has been under $800 in 9 years, and the vast majority of my stock images have earned much less. © 2005 Peter K. Burian

I get this question quite often, Irv, occasionally from folks such as dentists and lawyers. The short answer is, “No, you probably cannot make a full-time living from stock photography in this day and age.” I suppose a few commercial photographers, shooting with professional models specifically for advertising use, may be getting by doing only that. However, they are the rare exception to the rule. There was a time (perhaps as recently as five years ago) when stock photography was a viable occupation for at least some, but even then most shooters were supplementing their income.

Even famous photographers like Art Wolfe and George Lepp were leading photo tours and workshops, writing illustrated books, and making presentations to camera club conferences. These are still common sidelines for those who want to earn a full-time living from photography, but you really need to be very well known to succeed in those pursuits.

My own work is represented by three agencies, and I do make a few thousand dollars a year from those sales, but definitely not a full income. There are several reasons why stock photography is no longer lucrative. The most important is that micro stock agencies now sell royalty-free rights to images for a few dollars, and there are hundreds of millions of such photos on the market. As well, the market is oversaturated with the types of images most photo enthusiasts tend to shoot: nature, landscapes, travel, wildlife, and so on. And even when the market for stock was booming, it was very difficult to convince an agency to represent portfolio containing such images regardless of their superior quality.

Photographers often believe that they can make many sales of beautiful images from a Web Site with an e-commerce component. A few famous photographers probably do, but for most of us a Web gallery is primarily like a résumé: to convince potential clients for our other services of our abilities. © 2014 Peter K. Burian

Photographers often believe that they can make many sales of beautiful images from a Web Site with an e-commerce component. A few famous photographers probably do, but for most of us a Web gallery is primarily like a résumé: to convince potential clients for our other services of our abilities. © 2014 Peter K. Burian

If you really want to get a quick education about the stock photography market, read some of the insightful articles on Jim Pickerell’s Selling Stock website. There is a small fee for much of the content, but some articles are available free of charge. Read even the latter and you will quickly begin to appreciate that the best advice I can provide is this: “Don’t give up your day job!”

Editor’s Note: For more information on stock photography and if it might be right for you, please read Dale Wilson’s series on the subject. Micro-Managing Your Stock Portfolio: Part 1 is here.

One Comment

  1. BRAD CALKINS / July 3, 2014 at 4:19 pm /

    I think you are spot on – for most people it can’t replace a full time income, even if you work at it full time. Initially things seem good, but the challenge over time is coming up with new, fresh ideas that aren’t already over done and don’t compete with your own imagery. And you don’t just need a few good ideas – you need hundreds or thousands!

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