Can you really make a living from stock photography?

This is a question my parents ask me all the time, right before they insert the annoying phrase, “maybe you should get a real job”. You see, they’re old fashioned and grew up in a time when careers were the norm, together with a stable pension. The world has changed considerably and the pace of change is accelerating.

Nowadays, it’s not only much easier to become your own boss but it’s expected! Stock photography is just a small part of the much larger ‘gig economy’, where traditional industries have been ‘disrupted’ by advances in technology, here’s another taster of what’s in the book, the Brutally Honest Guide to Microstock Photography:

To purchase a copy of this book, click on this link!

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Is it too late to earn ‘easy money’ from stock photography?

The quick answer is that it probably is, but it depends on a million factors, including:

  • Your technical abilities
  • Your commercial / editorial eye to know what’s trending
  • Your unique niche, that is in demand
  • How hard you’re willing to work!

Most people don’t have what it takes to succeed, perhaps it has to do with this ‘instant gratification culture’ we live in. Earning substantial amounts in stock photography takes years!

I wish I had started in 2005/2006 when there were only a few million stock images around and competition was less tough. Nowadays, it’s a huge mountain to climb.

How much can you expect to earn?

Not much at the beginning. If you’re looking for a ‘get rich quick scheme’, you’ve come to the wrong place. Go open up an evangelical church somewhere (tax free).

Let’s say you have 50 images after 6 weeks and wondering why you only have $0.68 in your Shutterstock account. It’s wayyyy too early in the game to start ‘counting your chips’. Wait until you have at least 1,000 high-worth images in your portfolio, ideally spread out at various agencies. You can get there in as little as 12 months if you’re submitting (and agencies accept) 85 images a month, which is completely reasonable and you follow the advice in my book.

Ok, now I have at least 1,000 ‘high worth’ images in my portfolio, how much should I be making?

The way experienced photographers value their images is by their respective Return per Image (RPI). This can be calculated as RPI/monthly (most common), RPI/yearly and RPI/up to present date.

RPI = Value of licenses / Number of Image

I’m ‘sticking my neck out here’ but an average portfolio with a wide array of generic stock images should quite easily earn $1/RPI/YEAR. Within a standard bell-curve, most portfolios will fall around this average, with some niche-specialist portfolios earning substantially more and the majority of portfolios earning substantially less (but many have such few images that they’re statistically irrelevant).

Your goal is to increase your RPI, together with the number of images

Keeping in mind that the majority of your revenue will come from a small percentage of your images, the aim is to increase the number of high-performing images in your portfolio which will inevitable increase you RPI (or deleting non-performing images but that’s just stupid)! Some images won’t do well but eventually even your low performing images should start to bring you a little something every month, which does add up.

Every Image has a ‘Life Cycle’

How much you are likely to earn from your portfolio depends directly on the life cycle of your image. Customer interest in an image usually plateaus after about 5-8 months of submission and then quickly decreases. There are many factors that determine images’ life cycles which I go into detail in my book.

Can you really make a living off stock photography?

Back to our original question. Can you live off $1,000 a year – well it depends on where you live. That amount probably won’t last you 2 weeks in ‘world cities’ like London, New York, Paris and Sao Paulo. In Thailand and Ukraine, that amount will go much further.

Getting to 1,000 image portfolio will take a while and a lot of effort. But the next 1,000 will be easier and the 1,000 after that likely to be a breeze. Rinse and repeat and sooner or later you’ll be at 10,000 images and ideally earning more than $1/RPI. By the time you get to 10,000 images, you’ll probably be good enough to be submitting some images to Midstock agencies (perhaps even as RM), substantially increasing your revenue. By the way, I’ve included a comprehensive list of Midstock agencies that you may apply to depending on your style – click on this link. 

Throw in a few extended licenses and bang! Perhaps in total you’ll be earning $4/RPI with 10,000 images which equals to $40,000, probably enough to live on and if you’re in Thailand you can live like a Thai King together with your army of Thai wives.

To get many many many more tips on how to monetize your photography, purchase a copy of my book and take advantage of the offer to have 5 of your stock images critiqued today!

To purchase a copy of this book, click on this link!

Good luck and let me know how you’re getting on by commenting below!

Alex, on his way to 10,000 images!

12 comments

  1. […] I’m predominately a travel stock photographer and always on the lookout for additional means to increase my income streams within the photographic realm. We must act like hunters in this jungle that is the stock industry and, especially as it’s become increasingly challenging to make a living purely off stock photography. […]

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  2. […] I’ve written extensively in my Brutally Honest Guide to Microstock Photography about how, generally speaking, the bigger the Agencies get, the less concern they show for their contributors. Their primary concern is, after all, is to ensure that customers keep returning and keep shopping. My only concern is that other Agencies curtain contributors’ benefits all in the name of staying competitive. It really makes me wonder if it’s still possible to make a living as a Microstock contributor. […]

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  3. […] None of these will win a photography competition, but some of the most popular images earn in excess of $20 RPI/YEAR. That amount isn’t so much, per individual image, but closely consider a large portfolio of in-demand images spread out at numerous Microstock agencies.  Click here to see a recent article on how much you’re likely to earn as a Microstock Photograp… […]

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  4. […] I would say this would a quite successful evening of shooting, as I managed to diversify my photography into three different types of genres. This is important since relying solely on Microstock for earnings may lead to frustration as earnings continue to fall off a cliff due to an oversupply. […]

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