The price you get for a stock photo is based on you.

Posted Dec. 23rd, 2018 by Daniel J. Cox

For those who travel with us you’ve most likely heard me profess the dangers participating in the world of Royalty Free stock photography. And now there’s a great, new, example how doing so can make you feel really, really taken advantage or what many of us refer to as…

Feeling Screwed

A young photographer named Michael Stemm from Fredericton, New Brunswick had friends recently alert him to the fact one of his images was being used by Walmart and being used in a BIG way. Not only had Walmart published a Christmas card of the image but they also had it featured as the cover picture for a calendar and used it for the main design of a big, fluffy throw blanket. They obviously loved this image and they knew the public would as well.

Based on the youtube video Michael created discussing this frustrating reality, Walmart has a license to sell 500,000 units of items featuring his beautiful image of a lonesome, winter bridge. Unfortunately, Walmart obtained the image fair and square by purchasing items featuring the photo from Islandwide Distributors who intern purchased the virtually unlimited license from Shutter Stock, a Royalty Free stock photo agency.  Shutter Stock is just one of many Royalty Free stock agencies that have been a big part of the demise of stock photographers around the world.

A stock photo can still have extreme cash value

Shutter Stock has paid Michael a measly $1.88US for the use of his image. That’s right– no typo here–no zeros or commas missing. Not even two bucks. Thankfully it is enough to cover two cups of coffee at McDonalds. Wow, it’s going to be a Merry Christmas after all for poor Michael.

Even though Michael professes to love stills and video image creation and in fact runs his own video production company called Down to Earth Productions, he mentions Shutter Stock and admits that, “I do have an account there I guess”. I guess? That comment is my first clue that Michael had no idea what he was getting into when he signed on with Shutter Stock.

A stock photo can still have extreme cash value

If you don’t even remember you signed up with some company, who can distribute your work for virtually FREE, you most certainly need to brush up on your business skills. This blog post is not intended to throw salt on an already painful wound. Rather it’s about trying to enlighten photographers to the reality of giving your work way, allowing others to profit from your photography with no advantage to you.

The right image can make YOU a lot of money, if YOU don’t give it away

Just to give you an idea of the financial windfall Walmart can obtain from this image I’m going to outline the potential retail sales. Based on the facts I’m aware of, Walmart has the ability to sell this image on virtually any type of product. But let’s look at the products currently being sold that we know of.

Walmart throw blanket

  • Potential units sold= 500,000
  • Similar throw rug on Walmarst website selling for $7.00 each
  • Total potential sales= $3,500,000 That’s 3.5 Million dollars.

Walmart Christmas greeting cards

  • Potential units sold= 500,000
  • Similar greeting card on Walmarts website selling for $16.00/box
  • Total potential sales= $8,000,000 8 million dollars

Walmart wall calendar

Total potential sales inspired by this one image $18,495.00 US

Do these number impress or depress you? Obviously, it depends on whether you would have made the right decision on the contract for a project like this. The only reason Walmart was able to get this image for $1.88 US is due to photographers being willing to hand their work over to corporate America for virtually no cost. That’s a bad business decision.

Spoiler Alert-No money left in stock

I’ll tell you now, if you’re reading this to find out how to make money from stock photography, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Quite simply, the money in stock photography is virtually nonexistent which the example above proves. Why? Because so many photographers are willing to release their work for little or no money, many joining Royalty Free stock agencies like Shutter Stock or iStock Photo, like Michael has done. Unfortunately, the demise of stock photography is based on the business theory of supply and demand. If there’s an over abundant supply of pictures and you’re a photographer, you loose.

However, if you simply just enjoy seeing your work in print, that may be enough. But that shot of adrenaline only lasts so long. Photography is one of those jobs that everybody thinks is so much fun, why should anybody pay for it? It’s not that the publishers no longer have the money–they do–many have told me so. No… it’s not a money issue, it’s a photographer issue, plain and simple. Too many freebies equal zero returns. Eventually, reality sets in and photographers figure out it’s all fun and games until the spouse wants a decent house, the kids need to be educated and the car and your health need to be insured. Life necessities that inspire a reality check.

OK so that’s if you’re trying to make a living. What if, ” I’m just having fun”, many people ask. Well… if you’re ok with spending tens of thousands of dollars on equipment, travel as well as time away from your family and not receiving any monetary reward in return, then you have a more dedicated spirit than I do. And maybe a more understanding spouse. Eventually, especially if you’re married and have a family that depnds on you, no paybacks get old. That’s all I’m going to cover on the getting paid issue. I’ve saved my answer to this problem for the very end of the Blog.

Making a decision about the value of your work

It’s always amazed me how photographers are so insecure about their work that they’re willing to just slap it up on the web and allow the world to prove to them their images have value. Obviously Michael is now feeling that kick in the teeth.

I’ve been adamant since the beginning of my career about not giving my work away. Unless… it’s for an important cause for a dedicated NGO I believe in. And then I give it a lot of thought. There are many worthy nonprofits, many that will pay for pictures and most all I work with are normal business clients. One exception is Polar Bears International, a group I’ve chosen to donate to. I can’t give my work to all that come calling. I decided to pick just one, PBI, due to my belief in what PBI is doing. Working with them has the benefit of a gift with a purpose and fulfills part of my need to give back. Supporting a nonprofit, with free, certainly is more rewarding than gifting a major US corporation in business for their shareholders.

Make a plan to do the right thing for YOU.

The top half of this blog was all about the dangers and realities of stock photography today. This second part is more about encouraging and educating those who still want to give Stock Photography a try and not get taken advantage of. In the text to come, I’ll share a bit of background on how I started as a young photographer along with information on how to price your work for fair compensation. If you don’t want to play the game of lining the pockets of others while you go hungry, the following details will give you knowledge and confidence to make the right choices.

How I got started as a photographer

I can remember my decision to become a professional photographer like it was yesterday. It wasn’t’ long after making this resolution my father and I had a serious sit down where I informed him of my plans. It was 1981 and when I told him I wanted to be a professional photographer his response was pretty much, “great, a guy with two cameras around his neck and a wife that works”. And he wasn’t too far off base with what he knew about so called professional photographers. He went on to explain that if I was crazy enough to try this I best treat my career as a serious business. My father was and has been self employed his entire life and it was that dedication to working for himself that gave me the courage to do make a similar plan.

Marketing before the internet

With any successful business you have to have a marketing plan. Mine was hatched in Sioux Falls, South Dakota where I was attending a Professional Photographers of America photography convention. I was there representing a studio I worked for called Grandmaison Studios. Dan Grandmaison was kind enough to send me to this PPof A conference to learn to be a better wedding photographer. Unexpectedly, out of the blue, I found out a photographer named Pete Czura, who’s work I admired for years, was going to be speaking at the conference. Pete’s work graced the pages of Sports Afield, Field & Stream, Outdoor life and others. I went to his talk and afterwards I asked him if I could buy him a drink. We were sauntering down the hall to the bar when he suddenly jerked his head to the side and barked “you old enough to drink?”. I laughed and said, “yes, I’m 21, not a problem” and on we went.

While conversing with Mr. Czura he gave me many tips for becoming a successful outdoor photographer. Off them all, the number one suggestion was to get my butt to New York City and meet the editors I wanted to work with. He suggested I needed to take a least one week, rent a cheap hotel and get dressed up to meet with photo buyers, editors and art directors from all the publications I was interested in. Six moths later I was at the Milford Place in downtown Manhattan running to 17 different meetings in a one week period. It was almost impossible but I made it work. That year my career began to take hold as a stock photographer in natural history and nature and it was all due to the advice from a very giving gentleman to a young, uneducated kid.

What was a Stock Photographer?

For the next 35 years I made my living as a stock photographer. As such I licensed an inventory of already captured images. In other words, in most situations, nobody paid me to go out and shoot those pictures. Almost all photos, from the first days to now, were shot on my own budget with no help from anyone else. Over time, publishers began calling looking for pictures for magazines, calendars, greeting cards, advertisements and other publishing venues. As a stock photographer I generally didn’t get paid for a shoot–that’s called an assignment. But when I did get an assignment I made certain I had a contract that stipulated I owned all the images. This allowed me to have access to license those pictures for stock sales as well.

Licensing your images-Rights Managed or Royalty Free

The stock photography market began to change somewhere around the mid to late 90’s. That change came in the form of photographers being willing to release many more rights to an image than what they had normally accepted. This inspired the idea of what is now called Royalty Free image rights as opposed to Rights Managed. What’s the difference you might ask…

Rights Managed

Rights managed is a business model where you keep track of every single way an image is used and you get paid for ALL those individual uses. An example might be a magazine that wants to use an image as a cover, but also wants to use it on the inside as a 1/4 page. Along with those two uses, the magazine loves it so much they want to publish it as a card that goes in the magazine for selling more subscriptions. On top of that they plan to do a trade show to advertise their publication and the image would make a great backdrop for the booth. These are all uses that would require additional compensation. This example I’m giving is something similar to a sale of a Rights Managed picture I made to Field and Stream many years ago. At that time a Field and Stream cover brought me $1500.00US. The 1/4 page inside was another $300.00US, the subscription card was another $500.00US and the backdrop to the booth was an additional $1500.00US.

Are those prices the same today? To be honest I’m not sure. I’ve herd some photographers are getting paid and others are not. Just yesterday I had a conversation with a fellow photographer who used to make substantial sales to Alaska magazine. He told me they published some of his pictures about a year ago and it took him awhile to follow up, eventually asking them when they planned to send his check. The response he got was, “Oh Tom… we don’t pay for photography any longer”.

Royalty Free

Royalty free basically started back in the mid to late 90’s where photographers were putting their less than stellar images on the newly invented CD. Many CD’s contained as many as 399 pictures for $100.00US with no restrictions on their use. I quizzed more than one photographer about why they would allow their images to be distributed like this and the argument was always the same. They would say something to the effect of, “well these images are not my very best. They’re actually my bottom of the barrel pictures”. But more than one mentioned how their bottom of the barrel was better than the next guys bottom of the barrel. And so began the circular spiral to the bottom of the barrel, all the while adding better and better pictures for a very short term gain, flooding the market with photos that gave photo buyers no reason to call or buy truly quality images at a reasonable price.

Why royalty free?

Royalty Free was basically born from the push by photo buyers to have a less complicated purchasing model than Rights Managed. Admittedly, with Rights Managed, they have to keep track of every way an image is used. They have to get that information to the photographer who in turn has to give them a price. Many photo buyers felt it was too complicated and several have mentioned it was “inconvenient”. The inconvenient comment typically comes from todays younger photo editor/art director crowd.

What they don’t get, because they weren’t born at the time, is that photographers used to get paid to shoot these same images. Before stock there was pretty much just assignments. Editors hired photographers all the time to go to wherever, hopefully getting great pictures that were worth publishing. To do this the magazine paid the photographers plane ticket, a per day rate, they took care of all expenses AND paid the photographer a page rate for the final photos used.

I the case of wildlife and nature, the chance of not getting the images was very high. Maybe the caribou didn’t migrate, or the skies were cloudy the entire shoot, or the vehicle was hijacked by outlaws, (it happened) and all gear was stolen. Point is, the risks a magazine used to take was what I would call inconvenient. Today it’s the photographers that take that risk, yet it’s the art buyers who whine like three year olds for having to pay prices a photographer can live on. The new age art directors have no idea what inconvenience really is.

Keeping track of my valuable pictures

As I continued building my business one of the first things I researched was software that could help me organize and track my pictures. I settled on a one of a kind tool called Phototrack, designed by fellow natural history photographer Charle Summers and his son Chuck. Phototrack allowed us to number each individual transparency with a ID, add a caption and eventually even a bar code. With each image individually numbered it was easy to create a contract that listed all the photos in a submission that I included with each collection of pictures.

Keep in mind that that sending a contract with a collection of images was not common. Most editors were not used to such business behavior since nine out of ten photographers used nothing more than index cards to remind them what they had sent. Getting a package of images with a contract that stated the magazine was responsible for keeping these photos safe and accounted for was very unusual. At the time I used a standard contract supplied by the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) I was a member of. In my contract it stipulated that each and every transparency was worth $1500.00US and if lost or damaged the magazine would be charged accordingly.

Needless to say some editors were taken aback by my business practices and confidence in my work. Thankfully, my photography was of sufficient quality that many understood and agreed to sign. Some did not but the contract put them all on notice I meant business when it came to keeping track of my pictures. Remember, the promise I made to my father?

Quite simply I had confidence and trust in my photography and that inspired others to have the same. But… I gained that trust and confidence by studying the market, sharing my pictures in print form that people purchased, entering photo contests and not submitting my pictures to real clients until they looked as good or better than the images I saw in print. In other words, don’t confuse confidence built on experience with over confidence built on an overactive imagination or an overabundance of compliments from helicopter parents.

What’s a picture worth?

With over forty years of making a living selling pictures, I’ve accumulated more than a few examples to prove photography has serious value. Let’s take one of my very favorite pictures I shot and first licensed rights to when I was nineteen years old. It’s titled “Empty Skies” and was first purchased by Eddie Bauer as a cover photo for their catalog.

A stock photo can still have extreme cash value
A Golden Retriever sitting on the banks of the Missouri River after a duck hunt.

They also contracted with me to provide the same image as a Limited Edition of 500 Fine Art Prints. I not only got paid a substantial chunk of money, $2500.00US for the cover, but I also got paid for the Limited Edition prints I produced. All told I made a bit over $17,000.00US off that one sale. That money gave me the ability to purchase my first Nikkor 300mm F/2.8 and 600mm F/4 lenses. Imagine doing that in todays world of $1.88 photo sales.

The Internet and iStock Photo

So that’s how it used to be. Today it’s much different. In fact the final nail in the coffin for making a living at stock photography came via the internet and iStock Photo. The internet gave us all a way to compete with even the largest stock photo agencies like Getty Images. Initially this technology seemed like the great equalizer. Building a good website would place my work in front of as many editors as Getty without the brick and mortar infrastructure Getty required. We would basically look pretty similar on the web. But with the web came the ability for ANYBODY to post their pictures to Facebook, Flikr or any number of other online picture sites. In other words, the competition increased. No longer did photographers need to market their work, the editors came to the photographers. That’s what you call a buyers market, not good for making a profit.

Pricing Stock Pictures

Even so, we still license a substantial number of images each year. But none of them to publishers looking for a steal. Today I’m fortunate to only work with fair and reasonable buyers. To make sure we’re on track with what Rights Managed pictures are selling for we use several tools. We don’t sell Royalty Free as Michael did in the example above. So all the tools I’m going to detail are for Rights Managed sales. I’m sure some of these tools also include Royalty Free pricing but if Michael’s nightmare doesn’t convince you not to offer Royalty Free I can’t imagine anything will.

Getty Images

Getty is the largest seller of stock images in the world. When contacted by a publisher wanting to use an image, we often go to the website to check the prices Getty would charge. It’s fairly simple, just go to the Getty site, search their database for an image similar to the one you have, and start selecting the rights being requested by the publisher. Make sure you select the Filter button on the left side of the page and select Rights Managed or you will get Royalty Free pricing.

A stock photo can still have extreme cash value

When you click on one of the images it will take you to the next page which shows the many different details you’ll want to select.

A stock photo can still have extreme cash value

Here’s a list of the things you need to select:

  • How will the photo be used? Example a Greeting Card
  • Maximum number of cards allowed to print
  • Starting date and ending date of the license. Greeting cards I usually give 3-5 years.
  • Territory: Where will the cards be distributed? World Wide, US, North America?
  • Industry. Is it for reatial or possibly a copmmercial client?
  • This use covers language. Use Getty for example

All the answers effect how you price the image. The bigger the numbers the more the image is worth.

A stock photo can still have extreme cash value

Alamy Stock Photo

Alamy is another large player in the world of stock picture sales. They too have both Rights Managed and Royalty Free. I’ve selected another subject to price, brown bears. Below is what pops up on Alamy. Keep in mind I made sure I selected Rights Managed at the top of the screen.

A stock photo can still have extreme cash value

This next screen below is like Getty, the place you select the product you’re interested in. Notice that for three years Alamy is almost half of Getty for similar rights. This shows you why people are constantly haggling over an image. There is no set rate.

A stock photo can still have extreme cash value

FotoQuote & FotoBiz

The other tool we’ve depended on for many, many years is a piece of software called FotoBiz which has a stock photography pricing module called FotoQuote. The two programs are tremendously helpful for a photography business in general and stock pricing specifically. FotoBiz will give you lots of software tools for building a photography business. FotoQuote helps you figure out a fari price for stock image use. Both programs have numerous coaching tutorials on communicating with the buyer the benefits of hiring a professional photographer as well as why it’s more effective to use a quality Rights Managed stock image. Using FotoQuote won’t guarantee you’ll convince a buyer to accept a price that’s fair but you’ll certainly be in a better position to know what should be expected based on rights requested and eventual overall use. Quite simply, knowledge is power and good business.

Register your images for better protection

Finally, one of the most productive ways of protecting your pictures is to Register them with the US Copyright Office. I’ve talked about this in prior Blog posts but it’s certainly worth mentioning again. If you post your pictures to Facebook, Instagram, Flikr or about any other on-line web site, you most likely have had your pictures stolen and possibly used in any number of different ways. But… you most likely don’t know it. Many of the thefts will be from other users of the website you posted them to. Those folks will have no money and about all you can do it to request they take your pictures down.

However, even major corporations often can’t help themselves from stealing pictures. Big corporations don’t do it very often but if they do and you’ve Registered your photo, you will almost certainly be compensated 3-10X’s more than you would have for a normal Rights Managed stock photo sale. And that’s without even going to court.

There are several services on the web that are set up specifically to help you find your photos that have been used without permission. Below are three I’m aware of. Pixsy is a service our office uses regularly. The others I’ve not used but both seem legitimate and well organized. All three of these work in different ways. Pixsy simply searches the web and sends you reports free of charge. It’s up to you to make the decision as to whether it’s worthwhile spending time and effort to go after the infringer.

Whats the answer for photographers today?

With all the information above it would be normal to be discouraged. But that’s not why I wrote this. I wrote it to encourage you to understand the realities so you don’t come away feeling taken advantage of. As I said earlier, knowledge is power.

The good news in all of this is that photography is actually a lot of fun and if you make that your goal you will be richly rewarded. Even in the good old days, nobody got into photography with the goal of making a lot of money. All photographers, I’ve ever known, started their dream with a simple passion to take pictures. Many of us went the business route because we were crazy enough to spend so much time at it, there was no room for a real job. We had to make it pay.

Today I do it mostly for fun which is much more successful than trying to count the dollars I used to base success on. There still is money in some genres of photography. Things like doing paid assignments shooting fashion, weddings, portraits and commercial products. It’s just the really fun stuff, things like wildlife and nature, that’s virtually impossible to get anyone to pay for. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just reality we all have to accept.

Add Your Voice!
There are 19 comments on this post…
  1. Gary CralléOn Jan. 30th, 2021

    Excellent article, Dan. My career has paralleled yours, though with a detour into travel editorial photography and writing rather than nature and wildlife. The digital age is a completely new world and the competition is global. It’s tough out there for both new and experienced photographers because making images has become as commonplace as having a conversation. Having put in the hard work, you deserve the fun you are now having.

  2. John NesserOn Apr. 2nd, 2019

    Great article Daniel. A real wake-up for many who think they can buy a camera and make money selling wildlife and nature photos. I would like your opinion on wildlife / nature photo contests where entries are notified that they are giving permanent, non-exclusive, royalty-free permision for the contest owners to display their photo about any way they want. Are these contest worth-while or generally a waste of time? Are many photos sold through personal websites such as SmugMug, Zenfolio, and others?

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn Apr. 3rd, 2019

      Hi John, I’m torn on the contest question. If they’re only requesting the use of the image to promote the contest then I say it’s not a bad way to get your images out there. But if they require any other rights I would not enter. No, Smugmug, Zenfoloio and the like do not bring many sales. One of the perks we offer our NE Explorers is the ability to check with us anytime somebody contacts them to use an image. There are lots of people being contacted but virtually 100% of the time the request is to use the image for NO MONEY. They’re contacting the photographer to request a freebie. When the photographer tells them they want money they’re typically indignant and stop all communications. How many people who are out searching for photos (the ones contacting the photographers) are doing it for free do you suppose? None, zero, zilch I can promise you.

  3. Todd BannorOn Feb. 5th, 2019

    Great article but I’ll add I’ve been with Alamy since they began and it’s had its ups and downs. The best up was a $4K license last year. The downs are also recent and that is they frequently license rights managed images as if they were royalty free. I have no RF images with them, yet they license RM images “in perpetuity” occasionally and for not a lot of money.

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn Feb. 7th, 2019

      Good input Todd. Thanks for the heads-up on Alamy.

  4. Daniel BelenguerOn Jan. 17th, 2019

    A sincere and enlightening opinion from the actual state of photography. If this is the situation in the USA, imagine on other countries like mine, Spain…there’s no money for photography, you just need another job to maintain the photography, crazy. Having fun and enjoy nature and photography makes a lot of sense.
    I read on a regular basis your blog, great job!

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn Jan. 17th, 2019

      Thank you Daniel, your comment to have fun and enjoy nature is very good advice. I appreciate your input.

  5. Sandy ZelaskoOn Jan. 12th, 2019

    Fantastic article with advise for every photographer selling their work. Thank you Daniel for taking the time to write this piece.

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn Jan. 12th, 2019

      It’s my pleasure, Sandy. Happy to help others understand this issue better.

  6. Louis BerkOn Jan. 12th, 2019

    Very wise advice, Daniel. I am not or never likely to be at your stage of creativity but I do make some stock sales (not of wildlife but of urban landscapes that I also create). I have had a couple of bad experiences and now I am a lot more careful about the rights I attach to photos in the stock library where I can. I like the idea of using pricing models from Getty and Alamy. From time to time I am asked directly about a photo and in future I will offer the same pricing model less a small discount for selling direct.

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn Jan. 12th, 2019

      Great input Louis. Thanks for adding your experience.

  7. Mike GrandmaisonOn Jan. 10th, 2019

    Well written Daniel. Could not have said it better myself. Throughout my career, I have also only licensed Rights Managed photography and made a very comfortable living at it. I still think there is money to be made in stock photography but one must simply be smart about it. Passion, patience, persistence and good business and marketing skills will go a long way! People need to realize that it takes time to build a successful and sustainable career.

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn Jan. 10th, 2019

      Thanks for joining the conversation Mike. I’ve admired your work for many years. My wife is from Churchill and I’ve been coming to Canada for many years and along the way have seen many of your beautiful images.

  8. Glen FoxOn Jan. 9th, 2019

    Thank you for taking the time to write this excellent and comprehensive article. What an education! In a society where millions of images are captured every day, we tend to forget that some folks are trying to make an honest living with their images, and that around every corner there is someone who is trying to rip them off!

  9. Portrait of David and Shiela Glatz

    Dave GlatzOn Jan. 9th, 2019

    Great post Dan. Super helpful and informative. Thanks for sharing your experience and your advice on this topic!!

  10. DanOn Jan. 9th, 2019

    There’s a lot of truth in this with regards to the current state of stock, but I disagree with the conclusion, and I think it’s a shame to tell people it’s a reality we have to accept.

    What needs to be accepted is that things aren’t as they used to be. Now move on from that and embrace some more modern ways of making a living in photography. There are many younger photographers who never knew the bounties that were possible with stock and many of them are making an excellent living now.

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn Jan. 9th, 2019

      Please share some examples of young photographers “making an excellent living now” in wildlife and nature photography. Would love to be educated on this claim.

  11. Michaerl P. GadomskiOn Jan. 9th, 2019

    Excellent article! This is pretty similar to the same route I have taken. I have been leasing rights-managed stock since the early 1970s through several agencies and on my own. I refuse to go royalty-free or microstock route. My stock income has suffered greatly due to the deflated prices and is now about 30% of what it was a few years ago

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