New Zealand Stock Photography advice for newbie photogs to the industry

November 2nd, 2009 § 12

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 ( or 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.

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§ 12 Responses to “New Zealand Stock Photography advice for newbie photogs to the industry”

  • Derek says:

    Very insightful and helpful post Rob. I have been looking into selling my images as stock and your comments have touched on a few issues that I have been mulling over. After a lot of research on the web and taking in your points, agree that the Rights Managed model is the best way forward. I am not keen on joining a local library that has royalty free or microstock product competing with my images, I can’t see how it would benefit my work – on the contrary it devalues it. With equipment costs etc always increasing it doesn’t make good business sense. Cheers for the advice.

  • Rob says:

    Thanks Derek, I’m pleased you found it interesting. Drop me a line if you’d like more advice. Cheers, Rob

  • Robert Catto says:

    Ha – nice removal of ambiguity there. Though I’m not sure how many people actually know my name rhymes with po-TAH-to, not po-TAY-to…anyway, good article! (And it wasn’t me.)

  • Paul Gilbert says:

    Generic stock is dead and with Flickr being trawled by Getty/Corbus for microstock the flood of low/no value imagery has devalued the professional work of traditional stock shooters. I specialise (marine/art Documentation) and this is one way to have an edge, but with publications getting bulk deals from Getty etc its no wonder we see so little local content, and homogenised imagery .
    Interesting new models are emerging like Photographers Direct that act as a conduit for hundreds of photographers to market genuine quality RM&L stock, and it will be interesting to watch the traditional roles morph and evolve with Tech’s turning out hybrid Designer/photographer/webmaster/journalists into a fluid unregulated electronic media age.

  • Rob says:

    Hi Paul. Great comment. I see there being tiers to the market. Luckily quality clients will always want quality work, so I’m confident that by keeping the faith you’ll always shine. Drawing on content from Flickr is interesting, but personally I don’t worry about that – it’s still the digital peasants slaving in the fields (and for many robbing their time from important things in life like family, by slaving on the home PC late at night after work for a tiny return) and hopefully they’ll wake and demand more one day – in returns (& maybe life’s important stuff)?

    Your comment about “hybrid Designer/photographer/webmaster/journalists” is especially interesting. You know whenever I’ve tried to do 2 things at once – photos and timelapse, or photos and video, everything goes to the pack. Quality suffers. Maybe it’s being a mere male ;->, but I just know that I can’t do quality justice creatively if I have a multiple focus (foci?). But horses for courses, of course. A “hybrid Designer/photographer/webmaster/journalist” is not photographer, they have a different focus and purpose; that’s fine by me.
    All the best

  • Elizabeth says:

    Very good points, I hope those who are underselling their work and devaluing the stock photography market read your comments and take note.

  • Brian says:

    Your site is fantastic! Lots of good information and encouragement, both of which we all need!

  • Rob says:

    Thanks for the encouragement Brian. All the best for 2010, Cheers Rob

  • Rob says:

    Hi Elizabeth.
    Thanks for your comment. Yes, I hope people wake up to who is really benefiting from all their hardwork behind camera and comupter and see the reality of the situation.
    Kind regards, Rob

  • Those are some tremendous photos, wish mine were that good quality!

  • Fabulous! I’m very jealous of those photos, I wish I could do as well.Those photos took a lot of ability to create, well done. I’ve bookmarked this site.

  • Robyn says:

    Hi Rob,

    Your talk last night at Marlborough was excellent. Looked for your blog this morning and found this. I mentioned to you last night a website called It offers 60% to the photographer and is rights managed. I may just upload one and see how it goes :)


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