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The PRO-Files: Make Money While You Sleep

Based on seismic changes to the industry since 2000, any photographer will tell you that the stock photography business is practically unrecognizable compared to its heyday. So it might be easy to believe that stock photography as a viable income stream for professional photographers is dead. In fact, the golden age of getting rich may be over, but the industry is still alive and kicking—and plenty of people are still making money licensing images as stock. If you’re not augmenting your income with stock sales, you might be missing out.

Stock Isn’t Dead, But It Is Different Now

According to assignment and stock photographer Christian Lagerek, the business has changed considerably since its peak in the 1980s and 1990s—but it’s still a worthwhile venture. While individual images don’t sell for the dollar amounts they once did, many more images are needed to populate the countless websites and social media posts that grow exponentially by the day.

The best thing about stock is as true today as it was before the rise of the Internet…once you’ve put in the initial effort, you’re making money while you sleep.

“I’ve been shooting commercially since 1988,” Lagerek says, “and I was introduced to stock photography by Tony Stone, who owned the legendary agency Stone’s Worldwide. Together with Image Bank, they were the premier agencies in those days. It was all based on large format 4x5 transparencies, beautiful quality, and drum scanned. The revenues in those days were extremely good. It wasn’t unusual to get monthly earnings close to $10,000, but the pricing was also very different. Rights-managed was the only option. Royalty free wasn’t invented at that time.”

A rights managed (RM) stock photo is licensed at a cost based on a limited usage determined by region, print size, print run, exclusivity and more. A royalty free (RF) image, however, can be licensed once for a lower fee than a rights-managed shot, but used for multiple purposes without paying additional royalties to the agency or photographer. It is also intended to be licensed more frequently—at least in theory. These two types of stock licenses formed the foundation of stock until the advent of microstock at the turn of the century, which capitalized on the perfect storm of digital photography and the Internet era to drive up the quantity of images available and drive down the fees.

The Rise Of Microstock

Microstock images are licensed for pennies on the dollar compared to traditional RM and RF stock from 20 years ago. Lagerek says these licensing models all function a bit differently, but all can be useful to photographers interested in selling stock. “There must be at least 100 microstock agencies,” he explains, “but only four or five generating any revenue to speak of. These top micro agencies are quantity oriented rather than quality. Prices have reached a crazy low, and in fact many creative buyers are questioning the low pricing schemes, which cannot result in quality, but rather quantity. Having said this, one can still make a decent living in stock and microstock, given the right commercial subject matter—especially a niche. Specialized material can still be a good earner.”

It Pays To Have A Niche

Lagerek’s own specialty is technology and industry. He shoots a lot in the aerospace and energy sectors, both of which are of course highly specialized and not the kind of thing just anyone can photograph. If anyone is able to shoot it, whatever it may be, chances are it’s not a very good earner in stock. The niches are the fertile ground.

“Niched images are when the photographer is capable of supplying images that are very difficult or impossible for others to achieve,” Lagerek says. “To understand stock-photography is simple: the more you shoot, and the more commercial an image, the higher the chance of a sale—whether it’s in the traditional agency or microstock. Specialized shots are far better sellers than the ordinary image. There could be exceptions, but they are rare.”

Lagerek says the first step to start selling stock is to take a critical look at your body of work and determine if it’s likely to appeal to your ideal audience. If you shoot a lot but the subject matter isn’t particularly specialized, microstock might be your only option. Traditional agencies will have higher standards and seek out the highest caliber of unique work for their highest paying rights managed collections.

“The first thing is to put together a small portfolio,” Lagerek says, “and send it to an agency for approval or rejection. Traditional agencies will hopefully sell images for lots more money for a single image then the subscription-based microstock agencies where prices often are no more than an average of $0.38 up to $1. But on the other hand, it’s a quantity thing. Ask yourself if you have the correct content, the right subjects. Are they interesting and commercial enough to attract buyers? The most commercial areas are lifestyle with models, as well as business, finance, industry and technology. Modern Industry, energy, alternative energy; these are commercial in the sense that they are popular topics. Perhaps specialized travel, although there is a ton of this.”

“A well-lit studio shot will sell more than an outside shot,” he continues. “A professional studio shot of people, models, lifestyles, people at work, etcetera, will outsell a ordinary outdoor shot—but it has got to be well lit and a good composition. Same as images containing people will, on the whole, sell better then empty shots. General photography is really a waste of time and done mostly as a hobby. Most hobby photographers in microstock supply general everyday pictures. They have a job during the week and on the weekend they throw the camera over the shoulder, go out and shoot general scenery, this and that, but with very little in return.”

“Some years back an amateur could easily earn $100 a month on his hobby,” Lagerek adds, “but nowadays with commission cuts, too many photographers and with supply far greater then demand, only the best will survive on the whole—especially in RM/RF where it’s always been a game for professionals.”

Take Advantage Of Special Access

Some assignment photographers are able to license their assignment work as stock. The smartest among them utilize the access provided by their clients in order to build stock portfolios, perhaps trading a small portion of profit today for the prospect of an extended return down the road.

“Being able to supply stock from assignment work is a fantastic advantage,” Lagerek says, “as it often results in quite unique images impossible to obtain by many photographers. I have done that the whole time. I cut my day rate by, say, 20% to get permission to stay a couple of hours on site and shoot at will. I have even borrowed aerospace engineering parts and brought them into my studio for a few days. Photographers who can do this and obtain releases are normally very successful in stock photography.”

Get A Release

Releases are crucial when it comes to licensing images as stock. Any identifiable people in stock photos must have signed model releases, which will be supplied to the agency with the images. Without releases, a subject’s publicity rights trump the photographer’s copyright and mean that an image cannot be licensed for commercial purposes since the subject’s consent can’t be guaranteed. Property releases for identifiable private property are also necessary. Ignoring this red tape will bring a quick end to a stock photography career. But as Lagerek says, many clients are happy to offer their approval for stock licensing in exchange for a discount on the assignment. And those benefits can continue for years.

“Many years back I shot interiors for Harrods,” he explains, “as well as Liberty [department store] and The Ritz in London. It was commissioned work. I got permission to supply the photos as stock and even today, 15 years later, they are still selling very well. Not many people would be able to do that.”

Which Agency Is The Right Fit?

With a portfolio ready for licensing, Lagerek says the next step is to determine which agencies to submit to. Submitting to multiple agencies is standard practice, and essential for those working in microstock. Different images, and different calibers of work, naturally make sense in different collections.

“You can pursue both avenues,” Lagerek says, “Rights managed/royalty free and microstock, as long as you’re supplying different content—especially to rights-managed agencies where images have to be exclusive. Many microstock photographers can belong to 10 or more micros since it’s based on royalty free, although it’s debatable if that’s a clear advantage. Microstock will work on quantity; much more sales but for less money. An exclusive image sold by an rights managed agency will normally fetch lots more money. I've had some rights managed sales throughout the years for over $5,000, and many for around $50; it varies depending on the usage. The stock agencies will normally decide and negotiate on your behalf.”

Specialized photography lends itself to specialized stock agencies, although these are fewer today. Industry giant Getty covers every industry and subject matter, with images that are rights managed, royalty free and even microstock. But smaller niche agencies might be a viable alternative for those photographers with very unique subject matter.

“Back in the film days,” Lagerek says, “you could easily choose agencies because they were much more specialized. Now it’s like a hit and miss choice, especially in microstock; they are all general agencies with a wide scope of subjects. In the rights-managed agencies you do have a few that are very specialized—for example SPL, Science Photo Library, which specializes in technology, medicine, science, industry, etcetera. These agencies are tough to get into. My advice is to concentrate on the niched and creative agencies. Many of us are convinced that these are the ones that will prevail.”

Lagerek himself works with multiple agencies in rights managed/royalty free and microstock. The key, he says, is keeping the work separate and ensuring exclusivity when necessary. “In microstock you really have to work at least with four or five agencies,” he says, “because the prices per sale are so low that any income is a quantity factor. These days, I only work with Shutterstock, iStock and Fotolia by Adobe. I also work with rights managed and royalty free agencies, although one has to understand that you cannot supply the same material as you do to the microstock agencies. You have to be careful with this! Even if you’re serious about stock you simply cannot avoid the three biggest microstock agencies.”

The glory days of stock photography might be fading in the rearview mirror, but that doesn’t mean stock is dead for professional photographers. Yes, you have to work a bit more and returns will be less than they once were, but the opportunities to make real money still exist. And the best thing about stock is as true today as it was before the rise of the Internet…once you’ve put in the initial effort, you’re making money while you sleep.

About the author:


William Sawalich made his first darkroom print at age ten. He earned a Master's Degree from The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. Along with portraiture, still life and assignment photography, Sawalich is an avid writer. He has written hundreds of equipment reviews, how-to articles and profiles of world-class photographers. He heads up the photo department at Barlow Productions in St. Louis.

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