I get asked that question a lot, but it is really the wrong question. Despite all the gloom and doom, despite the declining RPIs, and despite the glut of images in the market, there are still photographers making a good living…and considerably more. The question, then, is; are you willing to do what it takes to make real money in stock photography?
Gone are the days when you could run out and shoot a few images on a whim and expect to do well in stock. Now it is important to have a long-term strategy, to know what images are needed, to understand your RPI (return per image), your CPI (cost per image), and to understand your distribution options. There is still a great deal of money to be made in stock for those who can combine talent, dedication, and smart business practices.
In any business having a strategy, a plan, tremendously increases your chances of success. A strategy for stock could be as simple as determining your money goals, understanding what your average income per image is, then creating a schedule to create the necessary images to reach your desired income levels. The most successful stock shooters have thorough, well-researched plans that are both ambitious and yet achievable.
Stock photography is a long-term process and your plan should look out three to five years in advance.
Understand RPI and CPI. If you know what your images earn, then you will know how much you can afford to produce the images for. Most of the successful stock shooters I know want to keep their shoot expenses low enough to be able to have their shoots earn back the expenses within a year…ideally within six months. The more you understand financial end of your business the greater your chances of being truly profitable.
Do your research. Stock photography is used to solve problems. Know what problems need to be solved and make sure your photos apply to those problems. Before creating an image test your idea by applying headlines to it. Will it promote a bank, sell a pet product, or illustrate an article on Internet consulting? Know too, where the agency holes are. You will do well by creating images that the market wants, and that are not competing with hundreds, thousands or even more competing images.
Creating great images is, at best, half the battle. Distribution is critical. There have never been more options, but it is vital to understand those options and to make sure that your distribution serves your purpose well. A few photographers do incredibly well with direct sales, but they are the exception. Attracting buyers to your site is far more difficult than one would anticipate. Microstock has opened the doors to many, and rewarded a few. Niche agencies can offer an effective distribution if you have a strong collection of a unique photos. Blend Images is an example of a niche agency (ethnic content) that has achieved strong, worldwide distribution. If you are a generalist, like most stock shooters, the big agencies can offer the most “eyeballs”, and yet with medium to smaller sized agencies your images might well come up faster in the searches…something very important to consider. Don’t just jump into any contract. Research your distribution channels. Check the forums, talk to other photographers and check out the collections of the agencies that you are interested in having distribute your work.
With a long term strategy, a detailed understanding of the financial end of your business, the knowledge of what images are needed, and effective distribution, all that is left to insure your success is belief in yourself and perseverance. I once had an accountant ask me when I was going to get a real job, and even a bookkeeper who quit telling me that she didn’t think I would still be in business in a few months. That was almost fifteen years ago. I’m still here, and still enjoying what to me seems the best career imaginable.
About the author
John Lund has been shooting professionally for over 30 years. John was an early adopter of Photoshop, first using version 1.0 in 1990. He began using digital capture in 1994. John has been active in the stock photography world as a founding member of BLEND IMAGES, and long time contributor to Getty Images, Corbis, and, more recently SuperStock.
John has lectured on digital imaging and stock photography, has been a columnist for PICTURE and DIGITAL IMAGING magazines, and written ADOBE MASTER CLASS, PHOTOSHOP COMPOSITING WITH JOHN LUND. John has been a frequent speaker at Photo Plus and other venues and has taught workshops at Palm Beach Workshops and Santa Fe Workshops. His work can be seen at www.johnlund.com.