Michael Jay Fotograf Berlin

Selling photos across agencies

How to make a living from selling 33 cents images

I am not shy talking about the amount of money I have been making from my photography in the past years. And I have been vocal about microstock or stock photography in general. So I get some feedback every now and then. People asking me for an opinion or advice. People thanking me for sharing the information I have. And sometimes people who just do not seem to get what I’m doing.

Some (very few) of those people can get pretty aggressive in their opinions. It starts with ridiculing my efforts, the royalties I am making. And sometimes it’s my fault alone that photography as a business is doomed. Well, I can take it. No one is obliged to believe that anything I say is the truth. In most cases, I am not convinced myself. Mostly I am just sharing experiences, drawing conclusions from small pieces of information, stating my very personal opinion. And I am sharing parts of my personal story and life. If your story and life is different, that is totally fine. Feel free to go down the route that you have chosen for yourself but do not blame me for going down the one I believe is right for me. And for certain do not blame me if your thing isn’t working out for you.

For all those who just did not understand the business but are interested in understand why I’m doing this crazy stuff I have decided to be part of, here is a few things I would like to clarify. Maybe it helps you understand better why I am where I am and why I’m not so unhappy about it.

How I expect to make a living from 33 cents per image

Well, this is one of the things that always make me smile a bit, though usually combined with a big sigh. It shows partly ignorance or misunderstandings, partly it might be caused by the marketing tales of some other agencies.

Here is for one which at least all stock photographers should know as well: I am not selling an image for 30 cents. Never. Nowhere. A client is just buying a non-exclusive license to use one of my images and I am getting royalties that sometimes go as low as 15 cents, most regularly (at Shutterstock at my current rate) go for 33 cents and sometimes make more money. The image wasn’t sold, it still belongs to me and I can sell more licenses again and again.

This does not happen on a regular basis for each image, though. Some images might never make more than those 33 cents, true. Well, in exchange a handful of images will make those sales again and again, maybe ten times, some even more than a hundred times. And my best selling image on Shutterstock has reached more than 500 licenses within less than a year and keeps selling almost every day. It isn’t fair to take this exceptionally good selling image as an example either but the one lucky shot evens out a lot of the low earners.

But after all I am not focusing on selling licenses for 33 cents as often as possible. I am just aware that there are subscription models for image buyers around in the market. They have been for many years and they are here to stay. There is not much I can do about it. However, they are also just only one part of the market. I can not avoid that part of the market if I want to reach out to as many potential customers as possible.

MichaelJay-January2014 with special sales

The special sales are making the good days
(Base chart: StockPerformer)

But whatever you think about subscriptions, they are sold at the same places that keep a large number of image buyers coming back regularly. And some of them have bigger pockets and more money to spend. Those are the ones I need to reach.

I am always happy to wake up and see a series of my images have sold over night, even if it is only for 33 cents a piece. But those are short moments of excitements. They don’t make a good day – though sometimes just getting 50 downloads on a single day can provide some good money as well. The special days are made by special sales: Those single licenses going for $10 or $28 or $50 or sometimes $80.

And what I have seen in the past year: Those special sales and special days are coming on a more regular basis. The more images I have online, the more likely it gets that one of my images pops up at some designer’s screen and he chooses to download that one. And the more downloads are coming, the more of the special downloads will be arriving in my stats as well. It started to be one or two of them each month. And then almost every week I had one of those larger licenses. And as you can see from the graph above, in January it was twice a week or three times. The goal obviously is to have one of those special sales every day of the month.

This is when it starts to work out for me and I’ll be able to make a living: Take the steady stream of subscription downloads as a base line but get enough visibility in the market to get those larger sales on a regular basis as well. Judging from the January chart, I am about half way there.

But each image takes a lot of time to create, right?

Yes, it can take hours to create a new stock photo. Sometimes less, sometimes more. Also it very often depends on what you count as part of creating an image – starting from an idea to shopping for props or finding models, setting up a shoot and finally processing, keywording and uploading the images.

I often do simple images, objects isolated on white for example. Still it takes me an hour or more to set up table, light and objects, it might take a few minutes or an hour in post processing to isolated the object. Then I still have to add image title, description and keywords and distribute it to several agencies. If I would do it for each image, it would consume a lot of time.

So efficiency is a big topic: As it might take hours to create one image, it might only take minutes to create a second one. And a third one. Make that five or ten by adding half an hour of shooting. Or change the setup just a bit and get a dozen more images out of it. This is something I keep working on, trying to get more out of it once I started something. Be it a studio setup or traveling places.

And it can make a big difference in your returns to get more images out of one setup. Here is a very recent example:

Pair of red rain boots. This image sold an EL on Shutterstock recently

Pair of red rain boots. This image sold an EL on Shutterstock recently

This image of my son’s rain boots was part of an afternoon I spent shooting objects on white background. It is nothing special and I do not expect huge numbers of downloads for images like that. But it will be downloaded. Again and again over time. And sometimes we get lucky with one image: This one has just been licensed with an Enhanced License on Shutterstock, making me $28 in royalties. Not that much either but I am sure the boots have paid of with this sales alone.

But as I said, I try not to shoot only one or two images, so with these boots I just quickly rearranged them in different positions and angles. This is another shot created within minutes of the one above:

Same series, different image - this sold on Thinkstock

Same series, different image – this sold on Thinkstock

Guess what? This image just sold with an Extended License on Thinkstockphotos in December, adding $24 to my accounts. So, that is two larger sales on the same objects I shot in fall of 2012 within a few weeks.

In total, I have shot seven images with the same boots, and those images are selling on almost a dozen agencies these days. They are no big sellers anywhere but they keep popping up in my sales overview every now and then, one image here another one there. Maybe they have made about $100 in royalties so far. Not enough to get rich but not too bad for a few hours of work either. And they will keep selling in the coming years, slowly but steadily adding to that amount. And they were not the only images I shot that particular afternoon.

Find the right price for the images

The third thing I am focusing on is to find the right price (and place) for my images: Images like the ones seen above are doing quite okay on microstock agencies. They are versatile and can be used for many purposes, they can easily be integrated into designs and they are more or less timeless. So I am pretty sure they will find dozens or hundreds of buyers over the course of many years.

But there are other images: Either the ones that take more money and/or time to create. Or the ones that are just too special in topic to attract a large number of image buyers even over a long period of time.

Car pushing from behind on the Autobahn (Stocksy / MichaelJay)

Car pushing from behind on the Autobahn (Stocksy / MichaelJay)

This is an example of an image which I believe would not make good money in microstock: It is not the clean, happy look of stock imagery that is very popular among designers and for advertising. The rain and grey sky doesn’t allow any happy “buy me now” message go along with it. And the minor detail of the blue signs in the back make it a bit less global and generic, it points quite clearly to a German Autobahn.

For this type of image, I do not know if it will sell ever. If I’m lucky I might get a handful of sales over the course of many years. The best thing about the image is that it is quite timeless – until one day in the future we will all drive a total different type of car.

I believe selling this type of image for 33 cents per download would be a waste of time. Then again, I believe someone looking specifically for this type of image will not mind paying a few extra dollars. Because they have a very special purpose and will be looking for a very special image to serve that purpose. That’s why I believe this image might work in a mid stock price range, allowing a news magazine to use the image for $10 on a website article about driving in Germany or maybe $50 in their printed issue.

Neues Rathaus with frozen Maschsee in front. Hannover, Niedersachsen, Germany.

Rathaus Hannover at night with frozen lake (Westend61 / Michael Zwahlen)


Another example of image that actually might work in microstock but is better suited for a higher price in my opinion: This image is very seasonal, a frozen lake won’t make a good cover story for traveling in summer. It is from a city which doesn’t belong to the top tourist destinations in Germany – Hannover is mainly known as a big exhibition location with computer exhibition CeBIT and industry events.

Then again, this image may not be unique in the stock industry but it is very special and very hard to “copy”. As Hannover is not the typical city you will put on your list of places to visit when coming to Germany, it is unlikely that foreign stock photographers will get there very often. And even less likely, they will get there during the two or maybe six weeks of winter when the lake is frozen. Maybe even more importantly: It certainly won’t be redone by someone with a big studio and cheap employees and models in Russia or Ukraine.

Special images with very small competition: This is when I have to max out what I can get from any of the potential image uses. There might be no buyers interested in this image ever, who knows… but if they are interested in this, they are most certainly prepared, willing and able to pay quite a bit more. This is why I have found that this image is perfectly right for the macrostock market: If it sells it will return more than 33 cents. If it doesn’t sell, I won’t have lost much. And I am quite sure even if this image won’t sell: As soon as I have hundreds of those on the market, some of them will.

Maybe not so crazy after all? At least I don’t hope so.

I hope these details give you a better idea about why I do what I do. And if I’m happily announcing to have sold five images for 33 cents somewhere, keep in mind that they might not be all my sales for that day.

But as I said at the start: If you don’t agree with my opinions, that is totally fine. We are all obliged to make our own judgements. Make your own and let me make mine.

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