My Stock Photo Made 97 Cents, and I’m OK With That

My Stock Photo Made 97 Cents, and I’m OK With That

The payouts for stock photography have become something of a joke to many photographers, but is there a better way to look at things? I’ve changed how I’ve approached stock photography, and in doing so, came away with a refreshed view of photography as a whole.

First, let’s talk just about stock photography. Years ago, the legend goes, photographers were able to make quite a bit of money shooting and selling photos of anything they fancied. I’ve been shooting seriously for over a decade now, but never personally saw the “golden era” of stock, so take that legend for what it’s worth. What’s undeniable, however, is how prices have dropped and continue to shrink with time. Shutterstock, for instance, just made the news for a massive decrease in the effective payouts contributing photographers receive. 

There’s no getting around it. The payouts just aren’t there to get anyone excited about stock photography, especially if you’re new to the business. If you already have an established, deep catalog, I’d be interested to hear from you in the comments. Are you still making a worthwhile amount of money from it?

I’m somewhere in the middle of the two positions, with a couple of hundred images uploaded. I initially just got started to take advantage of a promotion Adobe was running for Creative Cloud but found that it was easy enough to continue with. Since then, I’ve sporadically dropped a few dozen images in, usually when I get some reminder notification. It was one of those images that prompted this piece, when my phone buzzed with an email, alerting me that I earned less than a dollar for the sale of an image.

Now, I imagine most photographer’s reactions would be the same as my initial take: a whole dollar? Wow, I’m 12% of the way to buying a microfiber cloth for my lens! Jokes aside, stock photography has been hardly worth filing the extra form at tax time, just to claim my $20 worth of earnings.

When I looked at the email a little closer, however, I was surprised by the image that sold. It wasn’t an amazing piece of art or some great technical accomplishment. It was just a shot I grabbed while I was actually working on a specific project, while I was playing around with some alternate composition ideas.

Now, I’ve had other stock sales, but I guess something was a bit different from this one. Maybe it’s because the last couple of month’s events have really hampered the pursuit of my favorite photographic subjects, but looking back at this shot gave me a real feeling of nostalgia. The project I was working on at the time turned out great, with a shot from the series going on to be a personal favorite for years to come. Selling this spare shot, even if it was just for a dollar, felt like a little extra pat on the back.

What’s This Have to Do With Me?

Here’s what I took away from that little moment: I don’t always need to be shooting in pursuit of some financial payoff. What got me into photography, like many others, I’d assume, is the enjoyment of creating and sharing my work with others. Some of my favorite experiences have been photos I’ve just shot for myself, and I think I’ve been losing sight of that over the last little while. Instead of shooting to learn something new or create something interesting, I’ve just been approaching it as another job.

Now partly, that approach has been dictated by conditions, and I’m not saying I’m unappreciative of having a way to make money at a time of record unemployment and economic jeopardy for so many, but really, this goes beyond even the last few months for me. Going forward, I’m going to give some projects that I’ve had in the back of my mind a genuine try. They might not turn out, but for the first time in a while, I’m excited to get out there with a camera in hand.

With that in mind, I’d encourage you to go out and try something new. Whether it’s a new technique, a new subject, or just a self-assigned challenge, take a chance on something different.  

If you’re new to photography, don’t let the negativity around stock discourage you. Not only is it a great way to develop technical skills, as the approval process can be rigorous when it comes to things like focus and exposure quality, but it can also be a fun way to get a genuine sense of accomplishment at a time when social media seems to have become so gamified. 

More broadly, don’t feel like you absolutely have to “shoot to sell.” Making money from something you enjoy is awesome, but there has to be a balance. Additionally, you have to have a diverse skill set to make money with visual art anyway, as it’s clear that photographing for the cliche “woman laughing while eating a salad” stock market has been tapped out.

Reset To Stock

To circle back around to the stock photography side, there are a few things I’d love to see a stock photography site implement, as well as a few things that I really have enjoyed when it comes to working with Adobe Stock in particular.

The biggest would be some more detail about where my photo might actually end up. Now, I know this could fall flat if clients never want to disclose, but I’m sure some art directors and designers wouldn’t mind dropping a few words in about where they’re going to use the asset. As a bonus, I’m sure the stock company’s data team could use those notes to further refine search results, which would be a win for both photographers and buyers.

I’d also like to see some more clarity on pricing. Now, I get that playing games with the pricing structure have been connected with selling stock forever, with things like packages and monthly subscriptions obscuring any real price transparency, but still, the variability makes this feel like a not-fun casino game. I’ve had images sell for $10 and for 25¢, with no real difference between them.

Lastly, I’d like to see it even easier to upload and list the photos. Adobe’s done a pretty good job of this, with support for automatically categorizing and tagging the images, but take this a step further. Give us a tool to feed our Lightroom catalog into, which can then compare with the “top” search results and suggest what images we should even bother uploading, to begin with. This also just ties into a request for more analytics in general. Are the images that don’t sell not getting views or not converting?

So, stock photography has been a bit of an on-again, off-again relationship for me, and I think it might be the same for many of you. Have you tried stock? If you gave it up, what would it take to get you back?

Alex Coleman's picture

Alex Coleman is a travel and landscape photographer. He teaches workshops in the American Southwest, with an emphasis on blending the artistic and technical sides of photography.

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"My Landlord evicted me due to back rent, and I’m OK With That!"

Not every photographic pursuit needs to “put bread on the table”, even if it has a paid element to it. I’m not trying to pay my rent via stock photography, and for 99% of people, they shouldn’t expect to either. Do it because you get some other type of fulfillment from it.

"Not every Walmart cashier needs to 'put bread on the table', even if it has a paid element to it. I’m not trying to pay my rent via working at Walmart, and for 99% of people, they shouldn’t expect to either. Do it because you get some other type of fulfillment from it." I assume you don't make a living from photography? Even if the people enjoy doing photography, shouldn't they be paid fairly for their work if a company is going to use their work? The other aspect of it to is if photographers don't feel the pay is worth it, they will stop contributing, and there will be no photos for buyers to buy.

Obviously a sufficient number of photographers believe the market rate for stock photography is a fair rate, otherwise nobody would upload.

As others have pointed out in the comments, stock is a race to zero because of the massive oversupply. As a photographer, you're facing competition from free sources like Unsplash, companies just contacting random users on IG or Twitter for permissions, and the huge back catalog that has already built up in microstock.

The whole debate around this reminds me of the outrage surrounding cheap Craigslist wedding photographers who'd charge $100 for a wedding - pros decried it as unfair, but it's just the reality of the market.

Lastly, to return to your Walmart reference - have you seen a Walmart checkout recently? There's self checkouts replacing cashiers, and it's only a matter of time before Amazon's "walkout" model takes over. There's a lot of types of job that are being replaced by one means or another, and it's something you'll have to be prepared for if you are in a vulnerable field.

I have a few colleagues who rely on stock photography for a good portion of their income. Neither of them are “ok” with it. Initially they thought this pandemic would give their work added value because of the lack of new production, however with the recent payout changes, they are struggling.

Being a stock photographer is most definitely a full time job if you want to make a decent earning from it. Imagine if your boss told you he was paying you 1/3 of your salary from now on.

I understand not caring if stock photography is not something you’ve invested in, but if you are invested, its a pretty devastating change.

It's unfortunate, but it's also the reality of every market facing change from technology. It's the same thing that farriers faced when cars were introduced and long haul truck drivers will soon be facing from self-driving vehicles. Technology, in this case high quality and inexpensive digital cameras, can radically alter a market.

Now, anybody with a entry level DSLR or even an iPhone can shoot an image that would qualify for stock use. How could that not drive the pricepoint down?

I just think you need to acknowledge that it’s also ok to not be ok with it.

Otherwise, I feel like you’re not fully empathizing with dedicated stock photographers. As I read through your reply’s to comments on this article it feels a lot like you’re coming to the defense of stock photography sites with an attitude of, “well you should have seen this coming.” That attitude comes off very privileged, which I’m sure you’re not intending.

I can’t imagine it’s easy for someone who has invested their time in stock photography for many many years, to simply take a step back and find a different sort of fulfillment that isn’t monetary.

It’s easy for you or me to say that we could have seen this coming and take a different approach to stock photography. On the other hand, for someone who has invested decades into the system to see a 66% pay cut all at once, I think they get a pass to be upset. I feel like telling them “this was inevitable because of technology” doesn’t show a great deal of empathy.

Even if it was so obvious that this would happen, it’s not easy to pivot your entire business model in anticipation of something like this. It wasn’t gradual. It was all at once. It’s easy to break things down and make your judgements in retrospect, especially when you weren’t the one affected by it.

My take is that if they won't pay, then don't play. Even a subway musician will move on when there are too few coins in his instrument case.

The. problem is hobbyists like Alex who will work for free since they seem to have alternate sources of income.

If hobbyists are able to compete at the same level as stock "pros", then there will always be too much pressure on price for it to be highly paid. For most stock photography, there's just not enough of a barrier to entry.

Unfortunately your "Unsplash" mentality is causing damage to other photographers that you may be willfully unaware of or you have trustfunder roots. Your ease in this economic crisis also points to the latter. I don't know any photographers now that are not hurting. Some have had to quit the business. Your hobby is taking bread from someone elses table. Yes, I said hobby because to me I have stayed in the business for 25 years because I do not give away my work for pennies. Photography is an art as well as a business. What you are doing is harming your colleagues.

The low payout for stock photography is not new. If you choose to get mad at people for contributing to those sites because it hurts "your" income then you need to make a change, not them. If someone chooses to go into an industry with low wages, they shouldn't be surprised when they get paid a low wage. Don't blame your problems on other people. Welcome to capitalism.

Alex, you do realize your comments come off as condescending a bit? I would expect a bit more neutral approach. It is your discussion space and your call of course, but it doesnt make in interesting read.

What does pay your rent? You write an article about how stock doesn't pay but you haven't left this industry. If anything, you contribute to the problem. Have you considered making your primary occupation free of charge as well? If not, why not?

When I started assisting in the early '90's, my mentor made a comment on his Stock sales. He shot environmental portraits for Time, People, ESPN, and Forbes regularly and he averaged about $1200 a month through Gamma. As I started to build a body of work, I submitted them to a Stock Agency and my first sale netted $800. It has been a quick decline and it's hardly worth the editing, describing and tagging images. My last sales was $50 and the Agency took 60% of that...

I hope you did not rely on stock agency to "“put bread on the table” since "for 99% of people, they shouldn’t expect to either." "Do it because you get some other type of fulfillment from it." - a wise man's advice I absorbed from these comments.

I saw Stock as a reward for doing a job well. Unfortunately, the market has changed and I feel as though we are simply feeding the machine. I haven’t submitted new images in quite awhile. BTW, do you think the users of Stock are using the images for philanthropy?

I know 97 cents is not technically free, but let's not pretend you are not giving your images away. The concerning part in this is the fact some company is screwing you.

Anyway, stock no longer pays for the admin time.

Don't forget that he and many others are actually choosing to get screwed by some company. I mean there are so many photographers out there that actually pay to get images they created featured on some online "magazine" or featured on Instagram. The problem in this industry is the creators I'm afraid.

I even alluded to the waste of time involved in filing the tax forms connected to it, hence why I'm just viewing it through the lens of a hobby. The halcyon days of stock photography are gone - my suggestions for improving a stock site take that into account.

I recently delisted all of my content from Shutterstock. Even before the earnings cut it wasn't really worth my time. Occasional afternoons culling, editing, uploading and keywording over 2 years netted me about as much money as an hour at my day job. Making 60% less just feels insulting on to top of that. Plus, I sometimes found the monetization aspect to be discouraging. Spending $5 on a subway ride to a shoot destination doesn't seem worth it when you think of it as 3 months of revenue.

I also didn't find the curator comments to be helpful at all. I'd occasionally get images rejected for noise or focus, but it seemed pretty inconsistent as to what the standard was.

Images will get rejected on auto-analysis. I have published shots (wildlife) rejected by Adobe and Shutterstock. At least, Shutterstock is way better than Adobe in selection and response. In fact, 2 of my "top" sellers (not that my wildlife stuff sells much) were rejected by Adobe stock. Am not really concerned since this is just a passion/hobby, but, all I would say is go for your own sites and promote photos other than these stock sites. Okay, I admit I have only about a 100 odd shots on Shutterstock since 2017. I have made around $300 so far :)

I don't understand why photographers upload pics to such a companies. Personally, I just upload to agencies that I know sell photos for more than 5$ the end of the year I can get around 1000$ in total (my catalog now is around 3000 photos). I think market is killing photographers, but also we are killing as photographers giving them our photos to sell for such a prices. I worked for some agencies that was macro stock and start to sell me reports about 50cents, at this time I ask them stop selling for these prices. If up to the end of the year I just sold 2 photos for 10$ its better than need to sell 40 pics for 50 cent.

Also, there is thousand of people giving pics for free and happy to see his photo published. Not good...

The problem with the idea of a "photographer's strike", the idea that if you don't upload you'll strike a blow to the business model, is that there's just too many cameras out there, and too many photographers that are willing to share their work for free. Years ago, there might have been more of a barrier to entry, but now, the market is oversaturated - the market rate is what it is.

for sure, I didn't propose a strike because it's impossible. I just said that every photographer must validate his own job, and uploading there you don't give value to your job. If market in the future will find normal photos for 50cent and good photos for 30$, maybe the person that need a pic for a job will spend the 30$ if his job deserve a great pic, or 50cent if just need a normal photo. In the same way that photographers must choose how much cost his job, the publisher will choose how much want to spend according to quality. Now for 50cent they can buy great pics and this is the problem.

That's one of the arguments behind my piece - because of the value the market has placed on stock photography, you probably can't look at stock as a job these days. Instead you have to derive some other sort of value from it. Whether that's practice shooting to a technical standard, the enjoyment of just seeing your photos used, or something else, it's clear that you can't look at as a moneymaking proposition anymore.

That market situation hasn't changed for years, and won't ever get "better" for photographers. Even if it's just the democratization of cameras meaning more usable photos than ever, or something esoteric like AI generated imagery, it's clear that the market isn't going to run out of supply and prices will never go back up. I think photographer's have to make piece with the fact that this part of the market has gone away, effectively.

"Whether that's practice shooting to a technical standard, the enjoyment of just seeing your photos used, or something else, it's clear that you can't look at as a moneymaking proposition anymore."
To me that's failure, there is nothing positive in seeing someone else take credit and make profit from your work and have a good laugh.

Was a great feeling to have sold the first image on Shutterstock and then some others, but, if you are planning on some income, I would say find your own way with sites other than Adobe/Shutterstock and the likes. You will mostly face frustration from their stupid automated selection process and not make much. Things change with time and stock is no longer what it might have been once upon a time...

I have few k images on getty and it is total rip off. It used to be 40%. Now it is 15%. Today I give shitloads of images for free on Unsplash.

You likely were asked this several times before. Why do you upload images there? Looked at your work and see time went into pre-planning, set up, taking photographs, and post-processing.

Plus scoutting, paying models, travel gas.

Whats you rationale for giving images for free to Unsplash?

What about PicFair? Do you have any knowledge or experience with that platform?

no sells, but I just upload 2 series there.

You have to pay the fee for posting with picf.

My bank pays 0.001% interest on the money in my checking account. I am totally not okay with that.

That actually sets up a perfect metaphor - if you're unhappy with that level of return on investment, take a more proactive role. For the money, make investments in the stock market, or take a bigger risk and start your own business.

For photography, it's the same idea. Photographers will have to seek out the business opportunities that pay more, pursuing clients and diversifying their income sources.

Both scenarios involve more risk for your "capital", but in markets that are overflowing with supply, all the "easy" opportunities have been crushed.

As much as I don't agree with the statement "I am OK with $0.99" (company you are selling through made $8 on top of your less than $1) i agree that is big difference now in photo stock market and back in 2005. In example spring 2010 with less than 2k images I was making +7k $ US a month. Fast-forward 10 years and the spring 2020 with 8k images less than $150 per month. Nowadays anything less than 20-40k images in your portfolio and you can't pay the bills.

One correction - the ratio, while not good, is not as bad as you mentioned. It looks like a 99 cent royalty is originally a $3 sale.

As for your experience, yeah, that's a massive devaluation, and it's unfortunate that it's hit photographers that hard. It's the same correction that's hitting camera companies so hard - just look at Olympus. Everyone's in for quite an adjustment.

In my case the %15 gives something like $1:$7.5.
Dog eats dog business as usual. I am not complaining, just commenting your article as I found it interesting. Thanks for writing.

Ah, yeah, with Adobe the structure looks to be a little different, but the same result. Thanks for commenting! I always find the community has something interesting to say.

Alex Coleman wrote, “…alerting me that I earned less than a dollar for the SALE [emphasis] of an image.”

To be very clear, stock photography is never “sold” or “bought,” but rather “licensed” – that’s the correct terminology! However, “selling a photo license” could be acceptable; you just have to include the term “license/licensing” in the description.

The client purchaser of today’s stock licenses is typically getting a non-exclusive right to exploit some or the entire image’s IP. If the image is being “bought” or “sold,” then that suggests a “copyright transfer,” where the image buyer/purchaser has obtained the legal ownership, title/interest, and sole & exclusive copyright to the image (the photographer signs-over all rights to his/her image).

Not using the proper terms can confuse new and current photographers who read your postings.

From about 1990 to 2000, I contributed thousands of 35mm slides to a number of stock photo licensing agencies. Stock nicely supplemented my assignment photography income.

Many stock images were licensed to textbooks and editorial publications including calendars and postcards and, on occasions, to commercial entities. There were times when the licensee would come back to purchase additional licenses, generating more income for the agency and me. One mid-sized city skyline image was licensed on a company credit card for $1500; I retained a 50% split. Most non-commercial licenses ranged from $50 to $200+ (keep in mind these licensing fees are from the 1990s).

One of the enjoyments of stock photography during my time was that I would regularly receive print tear-sheets from my agencies. Magazine covers, full-page, and two-page spreads where nice to frame in the office and include in our then-print portfolios.

Today, stock photographers are unlikely to receive any acknowledgement of their licensing sales and where their images were reproduced. And that can create problems: If you see one of your stock images being used, was it officially licensed (and you got your 20-cents licensing fee) or was the use a (willful) copyright infringement (that’s not within the scope of Fair Use)?!

I’m glad I’m no longer contributing stock images. It’s not work the time, money, and effort, especially when photographers have to grant broad licenses for pennies. The only winners are Adobe, Getty, and other stock “image distributors” and their clients (licensees) – they get to exploit our copyrights, our most valuable business asset!

Ken Rockwell has the right idea... Leave photography as a hobby, almost everyone is better off doing something else to earn income.
On a side note, we only need to declare income over $600 from one source in Canada come tax season, I'm sure the US has something similar. The only time it doesn't apply is when all those small earnings actually make up your primary earnings.

97 cents is high end these days.

The problem isn't that you're not making any money from your photo; it's that other people ARE.

why buy the cow when the milk is almost free?

I'll pass on the "income" made from stock photography and use that time to take more photos. Tried it once, mainly to see if some of my photos were decent enough to actually sell (full disclosure: I'm a hobbyist whose images, to the best of my knowledge, are only hanging on my wall... and I'm pretty ok with that). I listed the images through 500px/Getty. I was so excited when I was notified that 4 of my images sold! I was not so excited to see that I made a whopping $0.33. For all four images. That evening, I pulled my photos from the listing site, grumbling because I couldn't even collect my payment since they have minimum payment policies. At least now I get to brag that I sold something.

14.000 images on Shuttestock, level 5 contributor, it is not my primarily source of income, but it covers my rent. Since Shuttestock started paying as low as 10 cents per image my income declined 50%. I have no ther ways to replenish it and struggle mightly. The fact that payment reduction was initiated by Shuttestock during the pandemic is another aggrevating factor.

Stock photography was once an industry where the agency and photographer profited equally. Now the vast majority of the profit goes to the corporation and the photographers are OK with that. I think somewhere, somehow, something went wrong... :-)

I think the issue is that across creative industries, less value has gone to the creator and more goes to the marketplace they're operating under. The same applies to musicians with streaming services, app developers with Apple's App Store cut, graphic designers with Fiverr, etc - it's just too tough to compete on price with the whole world's supply of creative work.

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