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Is It Worth Bothering With Stock Photography in 2020?

Back in the glory days of the Internet, before the price gouging, the monopolies, the smartphone and Unsplash, it was possible for the casual photographer to earn a decent amount of cash from stock photography.

For many photographers, stock was a great way of earning some residual income from photographs that would otherwise sit collecting virtual dust in a Lightroom catalog. The new generation of photographers who embraced digital 20 years ago were able to create and upload images quickly and efficiently and it became so convenient that some switched to creating stock images full-time. For a few years everyone was happy – the photographers were earning a bit of steady cash, the stock agencies were doing great with their percentage and the customers had a vastly improved catalogue of images to pick from.

But the stock photography scene in 2020 is a long, long way from how it looked at the turn of the millenium and the question remains – is stock photography worth bothering with?

Saturated

There was a stock photography gold rush a couple of decades ago. The established stock agencies such as Getty were fairly slow to pivot to the new digital marketplace and many smaller digital-only microstock agencies sprung up. The most popular of these was iStockPhoto and it was the site where many photographers got their start in stock. They offered a couple of options for uploads – you could either accept a payment or convert any purchases to credits and use them to download stock images yourself. This was a clever move and a useful option for photographers who also did graphic design work or were website designers. Alongside iStock were a bunch of niche stock libraries catering to highly specific audiences, such as gay, automotive or medicine.

I started submitting images to iStock not long after the service began and ended up with about 200 shots on there before I pulled the pin. I used to convert all my payments to credits to use against the download of shots for web sites we were designing. It was nice because it was self-sustaining. However like all the microstock agencies, iStock slowly but surely reduced the royalty rates they gave to photographers until it felt like they were taking the piss and when that happened I stopped submitting content. I know that many of my peers also stopped uploading to the stock photo libraries. What happened was that the casual, amateur and semi-pro photographers were effectively excluded because it simply wasn’t worth all the time and effort of submitting and keywording photos that you’d earn a few cents for each month. The only people that seemed to be making any money at all (apart from the agencies themselves) were the stock photo factories – studios setup simply to churn up cheesy stock imagery on a production-line basis.

Subscription

The one thing that made stock photography an absolute non-starter for the vast majority of photographers was the subscription model that all the agencies rolled out. You’re probably familiar with the complaints of artists whose songs are streamed on Spotify and for which they earn a few measly bucks every month even after thousands of listens. The same holds true with stock photography. At most of the stock libraries customers can choose to either pay a flat fee for a set number of downloads each month, an all-you-can-eat subscription or they can pay per image in the old way. If you regularly purchase stock photos then of course you’re going to opt for the subscription model since it works out much more cost-effectively to you. If you’re the photographer however, you’ll earn an absolute pittance for each download.

Back in 2016 I did an experiment and uploaded a few images to the Adobe Stock library. I basically dipped my toe in the water in order to see if it was worth bothering with uploading there. I was pleased when I got my first sale there, but not so happy when I saw the commission that Adobe were paying me. Now I’m not expecting to get paid hundreds of bucks for every shot I upload, but is 24cents really a justifiable fee too me for my photograph? Does 24cents reflect the experience that went into taking the photo, the time it took me, the cost of my camera equipment? Of course it doesn’t – Adobe might as well have recorded their CEO farting into a microphone and sent me that instead. How many photos would I need to sell through Adobe Stock to make a living at 24cents a photo? I’d have to sell 160,000 photos a year to make $40k at those rates. And even if we say that I’m just doing it for morning-coffee money, I’d have to sell 20 images at 24cents a go to buy a single fucking latte.

Stock Gets Stuffed

In the dive to the bottom in the photography market, one website took the crown. That site is of course Unsplash, where you can take your pick from a vast amount of high quality imagery for absolutely nothing. Every photo on there can be downloaded completely free of charge and used in commercial projects if required. There can be no doubt whatsoever that the meteoric growth in popularity of Unsplash has seriously hurt the stock agencies bottom line. Yes the stock agencies will always have a greater variety of images covering a  greater variety of subjects, but for most people they can probably find what they want on Unsplash.

It’s safe to say that if any casual photographer was labouring under the delusion that they could earn a bit of residual income from photography then the popularity of Unsplash has surely put the last nail in the coffin of that enterprise. As an experiment I uploaded 15 of my photographs to Unsplash two years ago and you can see the results of that in the screenshot below. Nearly 20million views of my shots and just under 47,000 downloads. That’s 47,000 times my photograph was used on a website or advert or some other project and I didn’t earn a single cent from it. As to why photographers continue to support Unsplash, I have no idea, but I find it appalling that a company is earning hard cash from the good will of a bunch of naive photographers. The only solace I take from it is that it’s surely hurting Getty Image’s bottom line.

Getty who now own iStockPhoto are of course not the only stock library offering subscription options to customers:

  • Shutterstock’s terms are slightly better than Adobe’s in this regard, but not by much. Instead of getting 24cents for your photo, you’ll get about 75cents – slightly more if they go for the value pack instead of the subscription.
  • Alamy have resisted the urge to go for the pile-em-high-sell-em-cheap and offer a decidedly reasonable 40% for exclusive images.
  • Dreamstime are fully focused on subscriptions and depending upon what sort of subscription the purchaser has and whether or not your photo is exclusive to them or not – you’ll get about 25cents a download.
  • Storyblocks have the most complicated payment scheme on the planet and I couldn’t be bothered to work through the maths. I’m guessing they hope that potential contributors are put off too. Based on how ridiculously complicated their payout scheme is and from what I’ve read from photographers who upload there – I’m going to say they’re in the same ballpark as Adobe.
  • Fotosearch images cost the punter 33cents on a subscription so guess how much money you’re going to make off that!
  • Stocksy is a photographers collective and offer 50% on non-exclusive and 75% on exclusive photos uploaded by contributors. And since they charge customers $15 for even the smallest web-only resolutions, you could potentially do okay.

Glory Days

All things considered it’s hard to recommend being a contributor to stock photography libraries if you’re a casual photographer. While some stock libraries still offer equitable payments for images sold, most have moved to a subscription format which is of benefit only to the library, not the photographer. Furthermore free stock photo sites like Unsplash have undoubtedly reduced the volume of images sold at all stock sites. Finally many people are now happy to take their own images to use on their websites or in their marketing materials, because smartphone cameras are so good these days that everyone can take a half-decent photo with no fancy kit required.

The simple fact is that uploading to stock libraries is a tedious process and, after going to all the effort of keywording your images, they might not even get accepted for quality reasons. The only photographers who can earn anything close to good money from stock libraries are those who treat it like a full-time job and upload hundreds of images a week, preferably ones that are relevant to the current zeitgeist.

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