Stock Photography Is a Scam

Stock Photography Is a Scam

There is a lot of bad advice online on how to make money as a photographer. Truth be told, I followed much of it and made a big fat zero. This is not because such advice is wrong, but rather because it is out of touch with what the market is in 2024. In this article, I will shed light on one of the worst ways to make money with your work.

Perhaps one of the most popular pieces of advice when it comes to making money that I keep hearing is, of course, stock photography. This is a genre that has been popularized by some people on YouTube, and as a result, there are a number of photographers wasting time trying to sell their images online. Usually, it doesn’t work, and they are left wondering why their great work is not making them passive income. A baffling predicament to find oneself in, indeed. The truth is, stock photography, no matter the genre or level, is a niche that doesn’t have that much money in it anymore.

Classic Stock Photography Sells Images Cheaply

Living in the age of social media, every brand, no matter how big or small, always needs content for their marketing purposes. Images, video, and everything in between. This is great for photographers as it means that there is now more work than ever. With that in mind, the business-savvy creators will think the following: Why not shoot a ton of generic images and license them out to companies that need content fast and don’t want to spend tons of money on hiring a photographer? The brand will use the image for a period of time, you will get your money, and life is good. Sounds like a viable business model. Except that it isn’t.

Stock photography sites pay anywhere from a few cents to a few dozen dollars per image depending on usage rights, client, and content. And they have clients; we at Fstoppers have bought stock images for our articles in the past. This is a very common practice in many institutions worldwide. The demand for stock photos is there.

If the demand is there, why can’t you make a profit on doing stock photography alone? Well, because the supply is astronomically high. Anyone can register on a stock photography website and go on to make money with it. I uploaded a ton of images to a few stock websites back in the day, and having had them up for a number of years, I ended up with zero, zip, zilch, nada. Not because the work was bad, or that I didn’t use a ton of keywords and tags for it, simply because there is already so much of it on stock websites, nobody sees it anymore.

If you go look for stock images of a dog, you will find hundreds of thousands of images ready for you to license. Chances are, the first fifty search results will be more than enough to satisfy you, and you will end up buying one of these images. How does one get their work in the top 50? Well, they should've started uploading to stock websites at least a decade ago. If you are starting out now and want to try out stock photography, your work will automatically end up at the bottom. As far as I know, stock websites show images that have been sold before or were uploaded by profitable users. This makes perfect sense. As a business, a stock website wants to minimize the time the user spends searching for an image. If they need to scroll through thousands of new images which are bad, they will not buy something and go look elsewhere. It’s sort of like when Instagram shows you more popular posts first. Same with YouTube. Even if the content is great, but the user is new, their videos won’t be shown to you.

If you are planning, or already uploading to stock websites, I strongly suggest you put your efforts elsewhere as this is not a profitable path. The 1% of users on stock websites who pioneered stock photography back in the day are making a somewhat sustainable income. For the rest of us who were late to the party, we need to go elsewhere. Not because the opportunity is not there, but because nobody will see your work or buy it.


A more bespoke way of doing stock photography is licensing. Say you shot a celebrity and a few magazines are looking to run that image as part of a story they will be doing. They can pay you in the hundreds to low thousands range. Typically not more than $500, though. This all depends on what sort of image it is. Of course, if you are a paparazzi and have captured a unique shot of Matt Damon kicking a pigeon, you might have luck selling it to Fox News for a lot more than that. Mind you, being a paparazzi is by far the least respected career path in photography. With licensing, however, you need to be aware that it’s yet again hard to get into. There are several syndication/licensing websites that handpick the roster of photographers they represent. Typically the work has to be commercially or editorially viable. I would not expect anyone with less than five years of experience being a full-time photographer and fewer than a dozen high-profile jobs to have such opportunities. Even then, syndication is not a very profitable way either. It is rare that companies that have the budget to license work will not just go ahead and schedule a production and pay a photographer.

In the end, it all comes down to my favorite advice: it is better to do two $500 jobs than ten $50 jobs. As such, you will have better clients, more fun on set, and be a lot more profitable by the end of it. You will also create images, which is arguably way more fun than just trying to sell existing work.

Over to you! What is your experience with stock photography? Have you made money selling your images online?

Illya Ovchar's picture

Illya aims to tell stories with clothes and light. Illya's work can be seen in magazines such as Vogue, Marie Claire, and InStyle.

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I won't call it a scam, because they're upfront about what you'll get: pennies, maybe, if they feel like it.

I did it for a while and I can't thinking of a surer way to convince yourself that you have no real talent and that photography is a waste of time.

It would be nice to read about interesting news at this point. Everyone in the photo business came to this conclusion more than 5 years ago and nothing has changed. Why should it? With the possibilities offered by MidJourney and others, stock images are becoming even more popular.

I agree. I am an amateur photography and load my photos to stock sites just for fun. Nonetheless, it is insulting to get three cents for an image. As you can imagine, I put a lot of work taking the photo and uploading it, you get 0.0001% of the sell. Furthermore, you can claim you money only when your total sells reach 35-50 dollars, which is not that easy. My guess is that many photographers who sell a few photos finally give up and go eslewhere, so stock sites are actually getting their photos for free.

I made 10 cents on my last photo sale from Shutterstock. But, I still get about $20 per month for selling video clips on Black Box.

I do upload to 3 still on occasion, but I have zero hope or expectation of them actually gaining traction/selling.
Of the 3, only on Adobe Stock have I sold anything. Sold one image, twice for a total of $ a long way to that $25 cash out lol.

Alamy and Dreamstime are the ones that my photos tend to get approved on the fastest, but have never sold anything and tbh will likely just stop posting on them and stick with Adobe Stock, even if the approval process takes forever on there.

I wouldn't really call it a scam. But, as a system, personally I never liked it. Maybe because of my own personality, but I wasn't able to see myself in the industry for very long.

The issues with stock, back in 2009 when I committed briefly to it, and now are the same:
1) Very low commissions.
2) It is an exhausting marathon that never really ends.
3) You can't take a break really (there is this feed the beast algo on Shutterstock which is relentless)
4) Once you commit, you (usually) are no longer a photographer, but a full on entrepreneur.

The only stock photographers that are successful, that I know of, fall in two camps, the first have zero interest in photography and they organize shoots, have people that edit, cull, keyword, upload images for them. A photo factory in a sense. And the second type is the one that have such an artistic expression that they carved a niche for themselves and are happy where they are (but also work other photo ops on the side.)

Financially, the height for me was about 150-200$ a month 10-12 years ago. Now, it is 20$ a year.

Recently I uploaded about 100 AI images on Adobe stock, just to see if they are going to get accepted. Or get my account blocked :)

Seen from the other side:
I am a graphic designer, working with digital learning tools (e-learning). I often need pictures that are work-related: both from the office, construction site, offshore etc.

I have created many courses on HSE and the like. Finding an image of a human wearing the correct protective equipment on Shutterstock is a challenge. It isn't easy to obtain images of real-life situations. Last, I needed a picture of the employer and employee. Most of the photos I found were of unnaturally smiling (young) people, who often looked straight into the camera. Useless for my needs.

To avoid using the obvious 'stock picts', I rely on metaphors, close-ups etc or simply create icons.
I live and work in Norway. My experience is that clients in Scandinavia want 'natural' photos and not photos that scream 'stock', but the budgets we have rarely have room to hire a photographer.

Perhaps taking 'candid pictures' from 'real life' situations, sober facial expressions, and creatively cropped pictures is the way to go to earn some money.

You have to look at it like the 1849 Gold Rush. Most miners went broke, some made out OK, and fewer made it rich. But the ones who made out even better was the store that sold equipment for mining and living, and the gold buyers/refiners. In our case, we make pictures and video(the ore), then we have camera and gear sellers (the sluice box makers and supply stores), and then the stock sites and curators (the buyers/refiners). But who's really the ones making the money? It ain't us photogs and vidiots. The fad now is AI clips, but who needs us for that? We just sacrifice ourselves at the tops of buildings and cliffs for a dream. Now too many have high end cameras and computers, and now it's all luck. Or is it? The trick is being that maker that sells something that's never been done, and doesn't get swindled by big tech companies and copycats from China. Who are you, is to be Zen. So pop that ego, and just be one with the universe you snap or flicker at.

Illya Ovchar asked,

"What is your experience with stock photography? Have you made money selling your images online?"

I used to make a lot more than I do now with my wildlife photos on Shutterstock, but I still manage to pull in around $2,000 per year. Overall on Shuttertock I've made $50,000 between 2012 and now.

Alamy is my poorest performer, and only brings in around $300 per year.

Adobe Stock is something I just started a few years ago. I only have a couple hundred images there, but made $1,100 last year. Hence, I am going to spend more time uploading and keywording there. My goal is to get another 300 images up there between now and the end of April.

I used to make a couplefew thousand a year licensing images independently to magazines, conservation organizations, etc. But I really dislike having to market myself and cold call places and write emails introducing myself and putting submissions together and keep track of what images have already been published and all that "businessey stuff". So I don't really bother trying to sell that way anymore.

I prefer to do things at my own pace and on my own schedule and not have any pressure or expectations or deadlines, so the online stock agencies work best for me.

"Did I ever make money selling stock photos"?
At one time, yes I did. Of course, that was in the 80's and 90's. When you sold limited usage for a decent price.
Once digital images became the norm. You no longer sold them with limited usage. They decided to take ALL your rights. Then selling them with those unlimited rights to their buyers.
While paying you pennies per sale.
During the changeover. I was having medical issues. Once I recovered. I looked into stock images once again.
I was appalled at how little they paid. Versus how much they took. Not even taking into account the additional challenges just to get paid.
Hard pass on selling stock images these days.