How to thrive in stock photography

The Tortoise and the hare, a stock photo that certainly applies to success in stock photography

The Tortoise Mentality.:How To Thrive In The Stock Photography Business

If you want to thrive in the stock photography business I think it is best to take on a tortoise mentality. You need a thick shell to protect you from all the negative press and commentary that is constantly flying around. But perhaps more important, you need to practice a consistent and deliberate production of content maintained over a long period of time, to create a body of work that will support you.

Billions of Images, Recession, Depression and Common Sense

Sometimes even I get mildly depressed at all the negativity out there surrounding my chosen profession of stock photography. On the one hand, with literally billions of images available, and millions more going up online every year, and thousands of contributors happy to give away their images…well, that is pretty bleak! But sometimes it is necessary to keep faith when the voices all around you are yelling otherwise. I try and review the positives when I feel myself getting too weighed down.There is an enormous amount of money spent on stock photography. There are more buyers of stock than ever. I still make excellent money at stock photography, and still have many sales ranging from the hundreds of dollars to the thousands of dollars every month. We are coming out of the recession and common sense says that sales will pick up. I do good work. I have excellent distribution. I am in a great place and have a good start on improving my position through my web site.

A Sense of Control and Hope For the Future

This brings up an interesting point for me. What does all the work I am doing on my site and with SEO provide me? One big thing is hope for the future. Without hope, without a positive outlook, my production would fall and I would become victim to a self-fulfilling prophecy. I know that the web works for some photographers, and I can see progress, albeit slow, in my own efforts. Knowing that I can go beyond just making images, and actually boost sales through my Internet efforts, gives me a sense of control that really helps me stay productive.

Slow and Steady Production and a Large Body of Work

Another important example illustrated by the old fable of the tortoise and the hare is the slow and steady nature of production needed to succeed in the long-term undertaking that stock photography is. Back in the so called glory days of the early 1990s it took me over five years of constantly adding images to get to the point where I could let go of the assignment work. Now it takes a much larger body of work to sustain you. Too, if you are trying, as I am, to provide images that are well thought out, that illustrate concepts and have staying power, and that require a lot of pre and post efforts ranging from market research to intense Photoshop work, then it takes more time to produce a large body of work.  The good news is that it can still be done. I personally know several photographers, who weren’t even photographers a few years ago, who are well on their way to being able to totally support themselves through stock photography.

Encouraging Results and a Lot More Work

Then there is the Internet and SEO work. Originally I thought in a year I would have created a huge amount of traffic. After a year-and-a-half I can see encouraging results, but am now thinking it will be another year…or maybe longer, before I see a truly significant return on my efforts. I am licensing images, selling prints and coffee mugs, sending traffic to my stock agencies, and even pulling in a small amount of advertising revenue through Google Adwords. But to offset the effects of the oversupply of images and the recession is going to require a lot more traffic, and a lot more work to get that traffic. The amount of work required means one has no choice but to take a long-term view.

Uncertain Outcomes and the Certainty of Revenue

Some might question the wisdom of putting a large amount into a project with an uncertain outcome. I would answer that if I am making images for stock that I would be proud to have in my portfolio, then should I decide to go after photography assignments, the time and effort will not have been totally wasted no matter what happens in the world of stock. Too, I know that my images will earn me money. There is some question as to how much, but there is no question about whether they will bring in revenue. As I have mentioned before, I have images created twenty years ago that still bring in income. Back in 1990 when I first started using Photoshop to create stock photography (and to do assignments as well), there were those who said it was too soon. In some ways they were right…it took forever to do things. And yet, as most of those images are still earning money, maybe it wasn’t too soon…and I am certainly glad I had a long-term vision for my stock career!

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



Be a Tortoise and Not a Hare
So be a tortoise in the sense that you need to protect yourself from negativity in order to stay productive and to do the things that need to be done to get or stay successful. If you have to pull your head into your shell from time to time, so be it. But do keep sticking your neck out as well, putting one foot in front of the other, producing images, getting them into the market, and someday you will find that you have crossed that finish line…and ahead of that hare as well!

Marco | Editor

Editor at large and founder of a bunch of stockphoto businesses