Stock photography – how much does it pay?

Stock photography - Sales volume over time

Stock photography – how much does it pay?

There’s no denying it, the stock photography industry has changed over time. A lot. The advent of the micro-stock libraries a few years ago caused a major upheaval and with prices as low as a few $$ to buy a low res image the traditional libraries had to react or go the way of the dinosaurs.

But how much of an impact has that had on you, the photographer, submitting your images to sell into the visual market place around the world? In the long-term, perhaps not as much as you might think…

Stock photography sales volume vs time…

The two charts below are screen grabs from my account with one of the largest stock libraries. The first shows the effect of image sales over time and the second the gross revenue. At a first glance you’d be right to assume that sales have dropped off but that’s not the complete picture.

Ordinarily you’d expect to see about one sale per 100 images per year with a traditional stock library. This figure tapers off over time as the image ages. Looking a the first chart, this is roughly what we’re seeing. For the 685 images I had on sale I managed 5 sales in 2013 dropping to 4 in the following two years with none so far this year.

Stock photography - Sales volume over time
Sales volume over time

2012 showed a bit on an anomaly with much better sales volume than I’d expected and I put that down to the new opportunities the library was introducing to compete with the micro-stocks. Yes there were three times as many sales but most. of them were very low value at $1-$3. This is explained in the next chart.

Here we see the total sales revenue for 2012 at just less than $300 whereas in 2013, with only 1/3 of the sales of the previous year, the revenue had actually increased. Nevertheless there is a general trend downwards in subsequent years that I’d attribute to a gradual decrease in the image prices over time. Not sure if this is across the entire library as a whole or merely a factor of the image ageing that we’re seeing. (If you know the answer, please lead a comment below as I’d love to find out)

Stock photography - Sales revenue over time
Sales revenue over time

Also, I should say I’ve not submitted to this library now for a few years so the number of images on sale has remained constant throughout the 5-year period shown.

Rights managed image pricing over time…

These two panels are screen grabs of image sales made roughly 7 years apart. The prices are in the same ballpark whereas the licensing for each sale is very different:

The first being for an advertorial here in the UK with a print run of up to 25,000 copies over a 12 month period. Compare this to the second which is for editorial use in a book with worldwide use for 25 years.

Stock photography - Rights managed image revenue, 2008
Rights managed image revenue, 2008
Stock photography - Rights managed image revenue, 2015
Rights managed image revenue, 2015

Although the sales revenue is very similar, the usage is completely different. Personally I’d rather have seen a much higher price for 25 years of exclusive use in the case of the second sale (after all, it’s only $4 per year and effectively prevents anyone else from using it in a book during that period).

PS, don’t forget that the stock library takes 50% commission on each sale and after I’ve converted it to Sterling I’ll actually earn about £30 before tax so I’d be about able to treat my son who’s in the photo to a burger with the proceeds.

Royalty free image pricing over time

These next two sales were also just over 7 years apart. We need to be very careful here as whilst they’re for the same image and both royalty free sales, the image sizes are different.

I can’t comment on how the library calculates its prices nor the effects of time, image ageing etc. (If you know, please leave a comment and enlighten us) so I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusion as to whether you think they’ve increased or decreased.

Stock photography - Royalty free image revenue, 2008
Royalty free image revenue, 2008
Stock photography - Royalty free image revenue, 2015
Royalty free image revenue, 2015


What I do find fascinating about this whole discussion is there does appear to be a general downward trend in stock photography prices. That’s great for picture buyers but not so good for the original artist. Also, when you allow for the library’s commission of between 50% and 70%, convert to your local currency and account for tax there’s not much meat on the bone.

That’s actually why I took the decision several years ago to stop submitting to image libraries. The amount of time it took to capture the image, prepare for submission then keyword it wasn’t worth the money I was earning and I certainly couldn’t raise a family on the proceeds.

There are definitely better ways of earning a living from your images.

If you have a big image bank and plenty of time, are just starting to look into using your camera to earn some money or just want to save up for your next lens, stock photography could work very well for you.


PS Do you think I’m being overly harsh and cynical? Have I missed something? Leave a comment and let me know

Share your thoughts...