While I had no education in photography and had not taken pictures since my youth, I was a gadget lover working in the software development industry, so when the first digital cameras came out (producing images in VGA resolution of 640 x 480 pixels – yeah, that means 0.3 megapixels) in 1999 I got one of them. The image quality was abysmal – I still have some of the pics in my archive, please don’t ask me to look at them anymore. But I didn’t care because I found the technology interesting and the pictures on my computer got looked at more regularly than the vacation photos lying around in albums or boxes.
The early years of digital stock photography
I started offering some of my images for licensing in 2002 when I discovered one of the first internet-only image agencies had started their business in my home country Switzerland at that time. I had bought a box of CDs with stock images a few years before when I built a website for my company at that time. Though I didn’t really understand the concept of stock photography at that time. Neither did I really know what I was doing, so rejections (without reason given) were common. Nevertheless, a few of my images sold every now and then, an experience I was intrigued by.
A few years later – when I was flat broke after a company bust and a divorce – I remembered all of this when I also stumbled across articles mentioning how to make money from vacation photos and the like. In the process, I discovered iStockphoto and some other microstock sites. As I was accepted quickly at my second try at iStock I found that submitting my images didn’t really do well as the handful of images which made it through the tough inspection did not gather a large number of sales. Though it was just enough to keep me interested. And as I was just back in a regular job and recovering from my financial losses, I could use any additional dollar to pay for a travel or gadget I could not afford otherwise. Had I been in a financially better position, I would have given up quickly. But at that time quitting was not an option for me.
Broken promises? Or just a headline matter
Today, six years later, I still keep reading at least three or four times a year some new article about how to make money from your hobby pictures by submitting them to all those agencies out there. I feel appalled each time when I see someone publishing a new eBook on the topic, asking interested photographers to pay some $29 to get all the secret insights into creating great images and selling them to get rich easily. Maybe I should write one of those eBooks myself, with all the people with cameras out there it might make more money than actually selling images…
Well, here is the truth – at least my version of it – if you want to read it or not: Forget about getting rich easily by selling images you just shoot on the go. Those lines were not true when microstock started, they didn’t become true when I discovered it, and they are certainly not coming true in the future. If you just shoot what is around, you will not make serious money. Actually there is a good chance you will not make any money at all, even if a few of your images sell every now and then, you will have long lost interest in the matter before ever reaching the minimum limit to get a payout.
Who is making money from your pictures is the industry built around selling those images: Starting with the agencies and the people working for them. And yes, that includes me: Until now I have made more money from marketing and selling other people’s images and from services around the photos than from the actual sales of my own images. Don’t blame me, I’m trying to make a living for myself and my family just like everyone else, and I certainly didn’t get rich on the way. And you could also blame anyone working for a camera manufacturer or the mobile phone companies just the same, as they make you believe (and sometimes they are right) that you need their newest invention to make better pictures more easily. Just be aware that the creative person is not the one making the most out of their work results.
So we are all doomed trying?
I hardly would take the effort to write detailed articles about my experiences trying to make some money from photography if I didn’t believe there was money to be made. I still believe in the market, I believe in the product and I believe in the future. It’s just not that everyone can make it as the headlines and sales pitches might make you believe. True: If you are brillant in what you do, you will make good money out of it. But it also takes hard and patient work over a long period of time.
What you are trying to do is to compete with photographers from around the world. Microstock has not been a secret for many years now, everyone potentially interested has read about it and many of them are already actively doing their best to stay on top of it. By now, you are competing with many talented people doing a professional job – some full time, many part time besides a regular income but doing professional work nevertheless.
The equipment might not be the deciding factor to shoot a brillant image. But it’s an important factor in establishing a work flow to efficiently produce lots of good images. You might get a lucky shot every once in a while using your smart phone but most pictures will not be good enough to be looked at. A semi-professional camera set costs a few thousand Euros (or Dollars) to start with, and you might be looking into a second or third good lens for more flexibility in your shoots.
Besides the camera, you will need to invest in lighting equipment unless you only ever do landscape photography – which is probably one of the hardest fields because everyone will take almost the same images of the same iconic buildings and landmark features when travelling to the same location but many of them will do it better than you. So one of the factors to be different is to use professional lighting (be it a flash system or studio strobes), no matter if you shoot food or people or objects. You might start with a few hundred Euros but you can easily reach four digits buying tripods, reflectors and light formers in addition later on.
Then you will need to process your images: Hardly any image comes perfectly out of camera. It not only takes time to work on the details to get the best contrast and colors for your image but also to remove the tiny things you always shoot but can’t use for images to sell: Logos in cars or advertisements, pimples in people’s faces, the little pieces of dust on your objects, hardly visible to the naked eye but clearly present in the photo on your screen. All of this requires a capable computer system but also the right software. There are free tools out there but maybe, just maybe there are good reasons why professionals tend to use more expensive applications like CaptureOne, Lightroom or Photoshop. For one, they are focused on providing the best features for professionals – but an excellent reason to go for these applications is the availability of add-ons, filters but also on professional knowledge exchange on the internet. So you are looking into another few hundreds or more than a thousand Euros to get set up properly.
All in all, have a look at what others are doing: You will find that most successful photographers are carrying around a few thousands Euros worth of equipment with a similar amount sitting in their offices and studios. Many of them will not even notice that fact unless you make them count their investments because it’s so easy to spend money here and there for all the little pieces of the puzzle that makes a good workflow.
Oh, and then there is the “cost” of labor. It might be just your own time and you don’t value that – but you could do different things that make more money in the same amount of time. And you are competing here with people living in countries like Ukraine, India or South America with a far lower cost of living. They are feeling okay making a net of $1,000 a month because that can be enough to provide for their family while it might not reach social security levels in Western Europe or the US. So there is no reason to just give up your day job in the hope to earn more in photography right now. Get used to do photography in your spare time, because you love to do it not because you make money from it. It can happen as a consequence but don’t rely on it.
So what’s the verdict then?
After all, the market has become very global over the last years, given the availability of technology for everyone around the planet. Whatever you do, it will never be unique. It might have your own style but even a unique version of a concept will always compete with other unique versions of the same concept.
There certainly is money to be made in this market: iStockphoto has not reported numbers in a few years but it was closing in on making revenues of about $300 million a year at that time. Shutterstock has become a publically traded company and reported more than $100 million of revenue for 2012 and seems to be growing even further. There are lots of smaller companies in the microstock field, along with hundreds or thousands of more or less specialised stock photo agencies in higher priced segments – Getty Images and Corbis as the global leaders. If we count up what we know and add some reasonable estimates, any value between one and three billion dollars a year seems to be a good estimate for the whole cake. Wow, that’s huge, isn’t it?
But you shouldn’t forget that most of that revenue is being spent on marketing, technology, administration and to pay a dividend to investors. On average, the payouts to photographers are probably well below a third of the raw earnings made with imagery. Even if you estimate the global market for image licensing to be about two billion dollars, there might be less than $600 million paid out to photographers around the world. And there might be at least 5,000 photographers whose main income is from stock photography. They have to share the cake with tens of thousand part-timers who are happy to make enough to pay for a new camera or lens every now and then.
So the average professional is likely to make (far) less than $100,000 a year from stock photography – and this is not distributed evenly as some of the top guys might make half or even more than a million while others are struggling to reach five digits. And even for that you would have to belong to those top 5,000 among more than a billion people walking around with a camera in their hands or pockets each day.
Are you discouraged now? Well, you should be. Unless you take it seriously. Unless you do the best you can do each day year after year. Unless you don’t overrate your own abilities but keep making progress. Unless you know what it means to compete against a global world of photographers. Unless you are willing to go the extra mile. Unless you keep treating photography as a passion that can make money. Unless you start comparing photography to the music industry or writing where most people don’t even make a dime, never in their whole life. Then you might have a chance. Now go out there and shoot, upload, repeat.