The stock photo business has been around in one form or another since 1920. In fact that very first stock photography company, called RobertStock, is still in business. In the days before the internet, stock photos were primarily the outtakes or “seconds” from studio shoots. It wasn’t until the 1960s that stock photography became its own photography specialty and in the 1980s there was a surge of interest by individual and freelance photographers.
In the days since the internet and digital photography, the number of companies in the stock photo business has blossomed and the number of pictures has soared into the tens of millions.
Digital photography and the explosion of reasonably priced high end cameras have democratized stock photography but also changed the entire pricing structure. The days when photographers could make a living strictly from stock photography are pretty much over, except for a select few at the top agencies. There are a few people who manage to earn as much as $300 per day, but it takes a huge amount of effort. For the majority of photographers it’s a part-time income that covers some of the bills for their photography habit focus photograph.
It should be noted that stock photography can be a pretty decent part-time income. Those who have been at it regularly for a number of years are reporting incomes of $20,000 to $30,000 a year. That kind of income doesn’t come easy, but it’s a way to pay for your camera gear.
When comparing stock photo agencies there are a number of factors to consider before deciding which ones to submit your images. There are two basic types of stock photography sites: Stock photography and microstock photography sites.
Stock photography sites are the old school type sites where photos are licensed for fees ranging from a few dollars to a few thousand dollars. They are primarily the domain of truly professional photographers and the screening process for photographer acceptance can be both tedious and time consuming.
Microstock photography sites are the newer type sites on the block where both amateur and professionals mix and photo rights are sold for anywhere from $1 to $5. The idea is that lower license fees lead to more sales and more revenue for photographers.
Each type of site has different requirements for image submission and not all images are accepted. All sites screen images, but not all apply the same standards. Every site has different types of image licensing and determines price differently. They also have different requirements for photo releases.
Stock image galleries have three basic types of licenses: Rights Managed Exclusive, Rights Managed Non-Exclusive and Royalty Free, which includes several sub-classes of Royalty Free licenses, depending on the intended use.
Rights Managed Exclusive – A customer buys rights to use an image for a limited amount of time and no other company can use that image.
Rights Managed Non-Exclusive – A company buys time-limited rights to an image, but other companies are also free to license the same image. It’s a generally a bad idea for companies to use non-exclusive rights for advertising photos because competitors can license the same pictures.
Royalty Free – Royalty free licenses have become the default license type for most stock images. It allows the customer to purchase the image once and use it multiple times in different applications.
Editorial Use License – Images which feature logos, brands or recognizable products, events, and even some celebrities are licensed as editorial use photos, which means they can only be used as part of a news story and not in commercial advertising or applications.
Extended Licensing – Extended licensing and buyout licensing are for companies that want to purchase the rights to use images on products, logos or copyright use marks and use them, essentially, forever.
All stock photography sites insist on having commercial photo releases for every identifiable person in the image. Minors must have a release signed by a parent or guardian and witnessed. Some sites will accept any commercial photo release; most have their own specific release.
Selecting the best stock photography sites for the individual photographer will require a screening process to determine the best match between the photographer’s images, interests and skills. Also the split between the licensing agency and the photographer can make a big difference in earnings.