Photography can be done as a business in many different ways. The most common one is to be doing portraits because people always need photos! Another way is, or at least used to be, shooting stock photography. Shooting for stock can be one of two things: having your own stock of images to sell licenses or contributing to a microstock site.
Photographing for limited licenses to sell on your own or as part of a small collective used to mean a good income. There were many who made a six-figure income off of their own images, and there are still a select few with larger image banks that still succeed in this way. However, many who did this in the ‘90s and early ‘00s are either out of business or have moved on to something else because of micro-stock sites eating up the market share.
Micro-stock websites like Shutterstock and iStock became big during the first years of digital photography. They promoted massive libraries of photographer’s images at low prices with subscription models as well. For photographers, this means you can have access to a larger customer base and more frequent sales. This resulted in the mass commoditization of photography and made it possible for more photographers to sell a little bit of stock imagery without too much upfront cost.
So, with the barrier to entry being knocked down by large companies this should be a good thing, right? Well, yes, at first at least many with large image catalogs were able to continue making a good income without having the cost of running a website or managing sales. It was a great deal for many! Smaller photographers with smaller databases did get run over though.
When selling micro-stock, your sales are usually for less than a dollar each. They come from subscription downloads which means you are offering access to any image of yours for a massive discount. The good money comes from selling many different images over the course of years. If you don’t have a large catalog of hundreds or thousands of sellable images you just won’t see much every month.
Unfortunately, I don’t think this is the worst news for anyone wanting to shoot stock photography. As more people are shooting photos and less are doing so professionally, there will be more companies and other former clients/patrons asking for it to be free. Taking a look at social media and what it has already done to careers like those in photojournalism, the next looks to be stock photography because of how available things are. There are also websites like ‘Unsplash’ which offer large catalogs of creative commons images.
It is time to adapt and survive as photographers. There is good cause for concern and reason to find ways to diversify your income streams if you rely upon this craft for a living!