what is stock photography


In the above video I explain what is stock photography, and whether it is a viable business model in this day and age. 

Simply put, stock photography is photography that is available for licensing for various uses through a stock photography agency. In it’s hayday, this was a very lucrative business model that many photographers were reaping the benefits from.

How stock photography works

A photographer would do a shoot. They would then send the agency a selection of images from the shoot to choose from. The agency would select the images that they felt would be salable, and then they would host them in their collection.

Usage rights would be available for purchase for the images for a variety of uses, and could be purchased and used numerous times. When usage of the image was purchased, the photographer would then earn a royalty percentage from the sale. It’s similar to how musicians earn royalties when their songs are purchased.

More exclusive rights of an image is a higher price. Conversely, paying a lower usage rate for an image means less limitations on other businesses usage. A big brand with a lot of exposure is going to want to have more exclusive rights to an image, so that competitors don’t use the same images. this means a higher price-point. 

I’m a big fan of this business model as it is one of the truest forms of residual income… or at least it used to be.

I started my early career in photography working for one of the top, high end stock photography agencies as a photo researcher. Basically an agency or business would call in, and request a certain type of image. I would head to the files of slides and rifle through them putting together images that fit what they were asking for. Obviously… things have changed a bit since then, and that is a big reason why the industry is not what it once was.

I have also worked extensively in stock photography, helping photographers with production, submission and sales tracking. It was very worth it for these photographers to invest big production dollars into shoots that would turn around and generate royalties that made their businesses thrive. 

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The landscape for stock photography has changed significantly since this time for a variety of reasons.

The biggest reason is that the photography industry has become an over-saturated market. The introduction of digital photography made photography accessible to more people, and therefore everybody could now be a photographer. This meant more photographers contributing to stock photography libraries and clogging up the system making the lasting power of an image very short.

Several agencies started offering photographers buyouts of their images… which essentially meant the photographer would do a shoot, get paid a lump sum of money and then the agency would own the copyright to the images. This meant that they were now not required to pay a royalty to the photographer. These lump sum payments were appealing to newbie photographers because it offered up-front money for their work. In the long run however, they made practically nothing for the images, and agencies were making the long-term profit.

I’ve answered what is stock photography, now is it worth it as a business model?

I think so… I just think it requires a different approach then it used to. 

While once it was realistic for a photographer to make their sole income through stock photography (and do very well with it) that is not as common any longer. For me stock photography is a very nice supplementary income while you are able to focus on other aspects of your business.

I don’t rely on it as my only source of income, but I do contribute to my collection when possible and get residual checks monthly.

There are a lot of agencies out there, and it’s difficult to weed the good from the not so good. For example, I don’t deal with the larger agencies anymore because images are just swallowed up into the system, and stuffed down with the algorithm. I don’t see much of a return. I like the smaller niche agencies because they are more personal and your content actually gets exposure. Plus, their collections are on the larger agency websites, and have higher ranking than an individual photographer.

If you find one that you like, stick with them, take their lead and don’t spend huge dollars on productions for them… especially in the beginning.

It’s not as lucrative as it used to be but…

… which is one of my favorite things.


I hope this has given you more understanding of what stock photography is, and if it could be a fit for you. If you have any questions about stock photography or photo production, feel free to shoot me an email. I am going to be launching something that you might find helpful in a few months, so be sure to get on my list if you want to be the first to know.

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