Can You 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.
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.
Let’s say you have 50 images after 6 weeks and wondering why you only have $0.68 in your Dreamstime 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.
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.
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.
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.
Alexandre RotenbergTravel Photographer
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Photo credits: Brasilnut.