Stock photography is an alluring business. If successful, you can earn a continuous, passive stream of income from images you’ve already taken. It’s no surprise, then, that the industry is defined by intense competition.
Searching for advice on how to enter the field, comments like “it’s not going to pay the bills” sit comfortably next to articles exclaiming “I made $10,000 in one year, and you can, too!” And this isn’t just the usual case of being able to find contradicting opinions somewhere on the web: good faith arguments exist on both sides.
Clearly some photographers do make a living producing stock photography. Just as clearly, however, many do not. Thus a more fruitful question than “Can I make a living off of stock photography?” is instead “What kind of photographer do I have to be to do so?”
Useful Definitions for Selling Stock
First, some terms. Like most images, stock photos are licensed through a contract with a client who—depending on the terms of the contract—then uses that image for their purposes. The different types of contract available—exclusive use, etc.—do not depend on whether the image is labelled “stock” or otherwise.
Instead, “stock” refers the fact that an image is being sold through—and stored on—a platform which has aggregated many such images in the hopes of eventually selling them to clients. These archives are labelled “stock” because rather than being commissioned by, or specific to, any one product, event, or brand, they are generic. This is why they are sold the way they are: an image is not meant to serve a specific purpose, but to be flexible enough in meaning to be used by a variety of brands at one point or another.
In contrast, most images that licensed directly to a client—whether it be editorial, commercial, fine art—are original works created for that purpose.
Who Doesn’t Make Money From Stock Photography?
For many, selling stock is a last-ditch effort to earn income from their unwanted work.
For example, a PetaPixel review of stock sites begins with the writer saying, “Well, I can let [my photos] sit there on my website and do nothing, or I can let it sit there and earn me money… “ He then warns that regardless “what agency you sell through, do not expect to become rich…”
And he’s right. A photographer who—after licensing out their best images—sends the rest to stock sites is not likely to make more, over the course of a year, than the cost of a tripod. In general, stock photos earn between twenty-five and forty-five cents per image, per month.
In addition, stock sites are more selective than most realize. Besides strict copyright regulations, many images are turned down for being out-of-focus, having low resolution, or even lacking aesthetic appeal. Finally, these sites’ services aren’t free: for their role as intermediaries, most take a cut between sixty to eighty percent of sales.
Who Does Make Money From Stock Photography?
Cathy Yeulet is the founder of Monkey Business, a stock image production company earning “well into the millions.” However, she wasn’t always supported by a full staff; like many others, she got into the game after deciding to “go out on [her] own.”
In many ways, Ms.Yeulet exemplifies the character of a successful stock photographer. For starters, she didn’t begin as a photographer: Yeulet worked as a picture researcher, a photo editor and had a brief stint working alongside paparazzi before beginning her stock work.
This kind of background is useful in an industry which, as one Shutterstock rep told Business Insider, is driven by data: “contributors,” he said, “look at what’s popular…and they make more of it.” Having an eye towards a finished product and how it fits into a brand’s marketing strategy—rather than one’s own preferences—is crucial. Stock isn’t about projecting your own vision, but “making it as natural as possible.”
And What About Me? Can I Make Money From Stock Photography?
Stock photography can be a highly lucrative career, if you’re willing to produce stock photography. The catch—frequently glossed over by how-to guides—is that “stock” doesn’t mean merely the photos in your library that you haven’t put to use. To produce a successful stock image, some of which earn over $10k, you have to have your heart in it: researching, traveling, removing your own personal style.
Otherwise, you can continue submitting your unwanted work to stock photography platforms in the hopes of making a few dollars here and there; just don’t quit your day job. “Plenty of people do that,” Ms.Yeulet confirms, “and have it as a nice hobby.”