I’m regularly asked about making money from stock photography. Here are some thoughts:
Producing quality stock photography requires a huge commitment. The business models are changing continuously and will continue to change in the future, but through your hard work, keeping the faith and producing quality work then it might just work.
The trouble is there are plenty of places to flog your work for a pittance (or likely a big loss) these days such as the micro-stock industry like I-stock, and it’s becoming harder to find a sensible route. Photography has been commoditised* and if you want to make some dough you need to figure out a way around this problem. It seems like everywhere you turn there’s a chance to make a few cents from your photos – but a little thought easily uncovers a major problem:
Recently I met a Canadian chap (not a local canadian boy whose name rhymes with ‘potatto’ I should stress) who proudly told me that he’d licenced 268 images. I was impressed because I knew he took the odd photo, so I was keen to learn more. He proudly told me he’d made “$67.00″ total for all 268 images through an online microstock website! I asked him why he bothered for that tiny amount given the huge amount of work and expense he’s put in? “To make some money” was his reply. $0.25 per license isn’t making money – it doesn’t even cover the time taken to upload the images (let alone equipment, travel, or even make some income), but this seemed irrelevant to him. In his mind he’d made some money. I wondered if he’d ever work willingly for someone on this return? I bet not – so why had he been taken advantage of so easily? …
Our friend above maybe misses an important point? He’s happily participating in the great cost externalising game; happily absorbing the real costs of making images so that someone else can get his shots cheaply. The trouble is that it costs a lot to make great quality photos. He’s funding others cheap use of his images with equipment funded by his day job, and time at the computer instead of time with his family, and doesn’t seem to see the reality of it?
Very few photographers make good returns from the micro-stock industry model, while huge returns can be made by the micro-stock website owners on the economies of scale. Some have called it ‘The great race for the bottom’ and way too many folks race to participate (and my advice is probably lost on them). Also, it’s looking way too feudal for me. Digital feudalism is crowd sourced peasants slaving in the digital fields to produce creative image content for their digital microstock masters (normally US based corporations), hoping for a few scraps, but never covering costs to ever get ahead. The lure of a few dollars is better than none, but they’re essentially personally absorbing the real costs of image creation with their time and endeavours.
Once upon a time, there were lots of photographers making a good living from the rights managed stock photo market – they were paid fairly for the creation of good images that fitted a clients need. I know today there still are plenty of us quietly working producing quality images in the rights managed stock industry, enjoying the work, and making a living. I’m one of them. Rights managed stock photography is where a fair rate is paid by the end user for the right image. For instance, the famous green grass Windows XP desktop image was licenced for a large sum because it was the ‘face’ of a large multinational corporation to it’s global users – a very valuable image to get right. On the other hand, an image used on a local tradesman’s card would be licensed for much less. Fair to all.
Producing quality images and providing them in a quality way to clients is the vital key to success. Not valuing your work or time and flogging them for a few crumbs isn’t doing anyone, yourself or the industry, any favours (unless you’re the type that loves a race to the bottom). And, if you don’t value your work, then how can you expect anyone else to? Giving your images away for tid bits tells the world you don’t value your stuff – so why should the world?
I run my own rights managed image library called Nature’s Pic Images (www.naturespic.com or www.naturespic.co.nz) of 50,000+ quality stock photo images of New Zealand. I only represent and license my own photos so I can control quality, style, delivery and because they’re rights managed we can make sure that my clients aren’t going to see competitors turn up with the same image (hey, it’s more common than you think. Even the President ain’t impressed: like Esquire using the image Time had just run. And here’s one from NZ with some interesting commentary). Also, because I shot the material and have specialist knowledge, Nature’s Pic Images backs up with great support and information to go with images – I like that – it’s a bit like knowing the man who grows your veges maybe. I also enjoy the relationships we develop with clients - it’s very satisfying.
I’d recommend you seriously consider the rights managed way to pay a return on your images if you’re really serious about making an income through stock photography. When you make a return you can get on and make more images – just as any mature normal business model should operate.
But to create your own library is a massive undertaking for an individual photographer – not to mention learning what an image is worth for the myriad of potential uses. I’m lucky that over time I’ve amassed a large collection, had a lot of success, learnt a huge amount, and that success has then fed upon itself. This has taken a long time & a huge amount of hard work to get to this stage. I recommend that if you’re not going to establish yourself as an individual licencing your own images, then your best alternative is probably to join an existing quality library.
Let me point out firstly that I do not supply images to any other libraries and I don’t licence other people’s photos in my library, so I believe I’m in an unbiased situation to comment on the rights managed options in NZ. I’m working as both photographer and stock library owner and have the benefit of seeing both sides of the industry.
There are opportunities to supply images to image libraries in New Zealand and to make a good return if you can build up a good quality collection. Though, before you take the plunge into this option I’d strongly suggest you do some research first.
Remember, a photo library needs good content to be successful and they will walk over hot coals to get their hands on your collection if it’s good, as it will make them money too. However, they have a vested interest to tell you what you want to hear, so it’s often difficult to get the real facts. If your stuff is good then take your time to decide, and go with the one that you feel you can establish a good ongoing relationship with. It’s a two way mutual relationship, so make sure you court them as much as vice versa.
I’d strongly recommend you ask a few questions of the library:
- What percentages of license fees are returned to the photographer? I strongly believe this should be at least 50%. I’ve been in the photo library business since before online photo libraries and know that marketing, cataloguing (outsourced online generally now back to the photographer), storage, admin and delivery costs have fallen since the internet changed things. Equipment (especially high end digital camera obsolescence and software upgrades etc), capture and travel costs have risen however, i.e. relatively speaking, library costs have dropped and photographers costs have risen, but some libraries are offering much less than 50/50 split these days which I think is unfair and totally unjustified. Remember that getting only 35% instead of 50% is a whopping 30% reduction for the photog and a 30% increase for the library over what I think is fair.
- Does the library also run other products that compete against yours? For instance, do they ‘import’ other collections from overseas that would compete with yours? These can contain photos taken in NZ by overseas photographers, often happy to snap images cheaply to subsidise holiday travel.
- Does the library run a ‘royalty free’ collection that competes with their rights managed collection?
- Is the library owner a photographer also? Do they contribute to the library (with their name, or under a fake name – yes it happens)? Are they fairly marketing all the images in the collection?
- What contractual conditions are there if you find that the relationship isn’t working for you both? E.g. often there is a minimum time period for leaving images in the collection.
If you’d like to seek more advice or guidance on where to look, then you can drop me a private line or email directly, I’m happy to provide further help if I can, especially if you want advice on what your images might fairly be worth before you let them be published.
Oh, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on this contentious issue. Thanks.
* commoditised – cameras are everywhere; they’re cheap and produce great results. Millions of photographers produce content into the internet ‘market’. Supply is vast.