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Common Questions About Stock Photography
This page contains some of the most common and frequently posed questions by those who are curious about or considering stock photography. For an answer to what defines a stock photo, as well as some very important context to the definition, look no further than the what are stock photos page. For all other questions, please read on.
How much money can I make?
The answer is relative to the time you put in and how strong your images are. Based on surveys of stock photographers' yearly income and total photos in their portfolio, the average for nonexclusive photographers submitting their work to the top five agencies is roughly $1 per photo monthly. So if you have the same batch of 1,000 photos selling at several of the top agencies, you can probably expect about $1,000 a month. A bland portfolio with poor keywording could be less. A strong portfolio could also be more. For my own sales, I've always been slightly above the average, and on rare months it's been as much as triple, so there's plenty of reason to aim higher than the norm.
How much do stock images sell for?
Prices are set by the agency and every agency has a different pricing structure and subscription plans. Your cut can be anywhere from twenty-five cents to a few dollars per image. Enhanced sales can net $20 to $30, but those are rare.
How can anyone make an income off such low commissions?
The key is consistency and lifetime sales. Every image you add to your portfolio is there to stay and will generate sales for years to come. Royalty-free images can be sold an unlimited number of times. Some of the top stock photographers who have been selling for years have generated tens of thousands of dollars in lifetime sales from a single image. Going by the average of $1 in earnings per image per month, it would take less than 3 photos added per day to reach a goal of $1,000 a month within a year's time. Maintaining that momentum for a second year would double expected annual income to $24,000 a year. Many have made the transition from a hobby photographer to a full-time photographer. A survey taken of 606 microstock artists by the MicrostockGroup in January of 2011 found that 25% of the participents named microstock as their primary income. Their annual income averaged out to $35,000 each. With the steady cumulative nature of microstock income, there is no reason to limit yourself. Some stock artists have even achieved millionaire status, like the often-referenced Yuri Arcurs who pulls in an annual multi-million income and now employs a host of staff.
Do I retain my copyright and rights to sell my images elsewhere?
Yes, you remain the owner of your images and are free to sell them elsewhere. The exception is if you sign an exclusive contract to authorize only one agency to solely represent your work in exchange for a higher commission. This usually results in less total revenue overall but reduces the work of submitting to multiple agencies. If you sign a contract for exclusivity but later change your mind, you have the option of terminating the agreement. More information on the pros and cons of nonexclusive versus exclusive can be found on the microstock reviews page.
What gear do I need and how much will it cost?
Stock photography has become increasingly accessible and many people already have a camera that is suitable for stock photos. Most cameras will easily meet the minimum image size requirement of several megapixels. That said, you'll want a DSLR camera body so you will be working with a good size sensor and be able to change lenses and take full control of all exposure options. Some high-end compact cameras might get by in optimal shooting conditions, but in general they'll be more prone to increased noise from a smaller sensor and aren't going to offer the flexibility you need. So how much can you expect to pay for some basic starting gear? An entry level DSLR body starts around $500. Also at the low end, a kit lens can go for $50. Not the best lens, but it can get the job done on a budget. While a fortune isn't needed to be a stock photographer, scraping by will find you riding the line on image quality, especially if you do a lot of post-editing where every edge in image quality helps. I spent $1,140 for my first camera body and lens (Nikon D90 + 70-300mm) in 2010, and that's a fairly common figure for new photographers who are serious about their work. Investing in one quality lens is a better option than getting two cheap ones just for more options. You can work towards another in the future.
Are there future expenses to consider?
Unless you are really hard on your gear, it should last you for years. Many photographers upgrade to a newer camera body every 3 to 5 years, but lenses age gracefully. In fact, photographers have been known to use their lenses for 10 to 20 years, with some cases of even 30 or more years! Keeping this in mind, if you're going to obsess over gear, it's best to do it in glass. Upgrades in camera bodies become more trivial as the years go on. Lenses are where most of your difference in optical quality is at.
What are the entry fees for joining microstock agencies?
Zero. At least for all those reviewed here. Microstock agencies want your work. You and the agency both make money; if you can provide the photos, they will take care of the rest.
What is the best microstock agency to join?
On average, Shutterstock brings the quickest rewards to new stock photographers and has the best earnings-to-submission ratio for your time. iStock can potentially be more profitable, but given its very slow submission process and limit on number of weekly uploads, it tends to require a high image approval ratio and a longer time to build up your portfolio to match Shutterstock. But why worry about who is the best when you can go nonexclusive and submit to all the agencies you want? Even if you want to save time by submitting to only one agency, I would still recommend starting with several until you have sufficient time to gauge where your sales are strongest, as well as a decent size portfolio to base the findings on.
What should I shoot? What sells well?
There is no definitive answer to what sells well. It's easy to argue that some subjects are vastly more popular than others, but just like a creative advertising campaign can sell an obscure product, so can a creative photo sell an obscure subject. For that reason, I'm a strong advocate of shooting what you enjoy, because you are most creative when you love what you do. Even if your ideas have been done before by others there is always room for improvement. There are tens of millions of stock photos out there. Everything has been done, but nothing has been done the best. The best can always be pushed one bar higher, it can always be redefined. "Best" can be number 1 on a music chart one week and fall out of the top 10 the next. Search stock websites for ideas you have in mind and be inspired by the top results. Then ask yourself how you can do better. Many of my best selling photos are ideas I copied from other people. I'm #2 for "night sky" on Shutterstock out of more than 100k images. The sky is accessible to everyone on the planet, but not everyone sees it through the same lens. Focus on creating strong effective images and your subject matter won't matter so much.
What are model / property releases and when do I need one?
A model release is an agreement signed by a human subject agreeing to allow photos of them to be used for commercial purposes. It is required for all ages and all people, be they strangers, family, friends, or even yourself. In addition, a witness (not yourself) to the signing is required, and the witness must also sign. Information required on a model release varies by agency, but it generally includes the model's name, address, phone, date of birth, and signature. Minors must have a parent or legal guardian sign for them. If this all sounds a bit confusing, feel free to print and use the same model release that I do. This single release works at every agency for me. For uncommon situations, such as dealing with indigenous people, it may be impossible to acquire information such as a physical address. In these cases just try to get whatever information is possible and take a photo of the person holding the signed release next to their face. Include that photo with the release when you submit your photos. Allow the model to sign in whatever language or "mark" they are able to write in. If they don't have an address, then try to get a home town or other general location indicator. You will still need a witness as well.
A property release is similar to a model release, except it is an agreement by a property owner to allow photos of their property to be used commercially. I personally have never bothered to sell a photo requiring a property release so I'm not much help here, nor do I have a release to share. In many cases you're likely to be out of luck in obtaining one. Property releases can even apply to famous skyscrapers if used as the sole or primary subject. Best way to avoid this is to include them as part of a wide cityscape, in which they are one of many elements in the scene.
Is income from stock photography stable?
My personal experience is that it is extremely stable. I've had months in which my earnings were much higher than normal due to multiple enhanced sales, but I've never had a month in which earnings were significantly lower than usual. My top selling images from a year ago are still my top selling images now. Furthermore, if you sell your images at multiple agencies, then the unlikely chance of any negative impact on sales at one agency won't effect your sales elsewhere. It's a perfect application of eggs in different baskets.
How does stock photography affect my taxes?
Income from stock photography is classified as self-employment income, whether it is your full income or only part of it. If you earn money from selling your photos, you must either register as self-employed or declare the extra income when tax time comes around. This means that a part of any income earned from stock photography is going to have to be paid to the tax man when tax season approaches. It is not already deducted for you like in a job in which you receive a paycheck. Microstock agencies will send you a tax form, usually in January or February, to help you accurately report and pay on earnings for the previous year. If you live in the United States this will be a 1099-MISC form. Self-employment may make tax season a little less enjoyable than it already is, but there is at least one perk to it. Expenses for your business – business being defined as pretty much any action that results in income – can be deducted, thus reducing the amount you owe. Do exercise caution in this area though, as any deduction that looks suspicious can raise a red flag. Camera gear for example would be a reasonable deduction if purchased for your stock photography needs. Flying around the world on $9,000 for months and then only producing $1,000 in photo sales for the year would probably look suspicious as a deduction.
Should I shoot in RAW or JPEG?
Shoot in whatever you want, just make sure it suits your own needs. Fussing over the countless debates on this topic isn't worth your time. There is no right or wrong way. RAW and JPEG serve two different groups of people and purposes. It is not a question of compression quality. In fact, the difference is so negligible that you would have to zoom in about 500% to spot any change in pixels. The debate arises from the fact that RAW allows you a little more post-processing room before noise levels get ugly. RAW files contain data from the sensor that has not yet been processed into a standard image file format. As a result, they contain about 2 stops worth of extra information, allowing you to correct mistakes a little easier or enhance your colors to the point of looking artificial. The downside is much larger file sizes filling your card faster and taking longer to write, which could potentially cost you a shot if you are shooting at 6 frames per second to capture action and your camera pauses because it is writing 100MB of data to the card. Again, use whatever suits your personal preference. Every photo on this site was shot as JPEG. I have never had a rejection for image quality on a properly exposed photo, and I have never needed to enhance colors more than I currently do. If you are doing HDR photography then you'll probably want to shoot RAW, but HDR photography is very difficult to get accepted for stock because noise is unavoidable and requires delicate removal.