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?

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Previous comments
Damir Spanic's picture

Plus scoutting, paying models, travel gas.

Taxco Boy's picture

Whats you rationale for giving images for free to Unsplash?

Rosanna Mitchell's picture

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

Eduardo Fuster's picture

no sells, but I just upload 2 series there.

Damir Spanic's picture

You have to pay the fee for posting with picf.

Fristen Lasten's picture

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

Alex Coleman's picture

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.

Damir Spanic's picture

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.

Alex Coleman's picture

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.

Damir Spanic's picture

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.

Alex Coleman's picture

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.

AC KO's picture

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.

AC KO's picture

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!

Joel Whipple's picture

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.

jim hughes's picture

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.

Guy Retired's picture

why buy the cow when the milk is almost free?

Mark Guinn's picture

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.

Taxco Boy's picture

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.

Rick Boden's picture

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... :-)

Alex Coleman's picture

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.

J Maloney's picture

Someone please point me to a real website for professional photographers with real discussions. This drivel has gotten really, really old. FStoppers needs to stop.

Deleted Account's picture

Why not just go then?

Michael Hickey's picture

Don’t lump all stock photography into one boat. My stock royalties (editorial) have kept me well afloat for the past four months.

stephen jackson's picture

Hey Alex, here's my experience.
I'm a retired pro who decided to give it a try just to keep the creative muscle exercised because I like shooting. I don't need the money, so that is something that doesn't matter. I have many associates and friends that had shot stock back in the days when you needed 50K images just to be considered. Even back then it was challenging and you had to pay for film and processing. Now it's a bunch of crowdsourced punters and camera club people shooting unbelievably bad images, and copying good ones, thereby diluting the intrinsic value of the original and the copies. If you confront these turkeys, especially the bloggers who are selling "how to make money at..." you get a nasty response and a lot of denial. I've watched the photo industry roller coaster for over 50 years, it's always the same. People jump in because they think it's an easy buck, work cheap, screw up the pricing and finally leave. The fees for photography have gone in the same direction for my whole career, down.
This is no different. At least with film you weren't the creator, developer and accounts receivable when you had clients.
Now it's all kinds of weird and wonderful stuff produced mostly by a people with one arm who put the machine they just bought for a few bucks on auto, point and press the button. I'm going to see if quality and thought, plus some decent developing makes a difference, but maybe the buyers really have no taste either as long as it doesn't cost too much.
I see rumblings of a "stock contributors coalition" organization being formed. Is this something like an organization for the unemployed to lobby for minimum wage? Seems like an oxymoron in the gig economy, which all these punters seem to think is somehow not what they signed up for.

jim hughes's picture

I think microstock has degraded the whole concept of stock imagery. Today's young designers don't know what we're talking about with regard to 'quality' in photography. And we probably don't get what they mean by 'impactful' or 'genuine'.