Earning A Living In Stock Photography

This post is by Jim Pickerell of PhotoLicensingOptions

For many photographers seeking to earn some, or all, of their living producing stock images, one of the most important decisions in 2011 will be whether to retire from the stock photo business or get into microstock. Many photographers who are licensing their images at rights-managed or traditional royalty free prices have seen their revenue decline significantly in the last couple of years. They are also skeptical that it is possible to earn any significant money licensing images at microstock prices. As a result quite a few are choosing to get out of the stock photography business.

@ Daniel Laflor | iStockPhoto

Several experienced rights-managed shooters continue to argue that it is impossible to make money selling pictures at microstock prices. They say microstock is only for hobbyists, not “real professionals.” When we point to the exceptions like Yuri Arcurs, Lise Gagne, Sean Locke and a few others who are earning high six figure and in some cases seven figure incomes they argue that these photographers are able to do it only because they were early adopters and have built extremely large collections over a number of years. The skeptics say it is too late for anyone trying to enter the field now.

With these thoughts in mind, the experiences of Denmark photographer, Daniel Laflor, are instructive. From his blog we know that Daniel started producing stock photography as an assistant to Yuri Arcurs in August 2008. Five months later in January of 2009 he went out on his own and in his first year as a microstock photographer represented by iStockphoto he produced about 1559 images and had about 6,500 downloads. It is unclear when he went exclusive with iStock, but that probably occurred as soon as he reached the 250 download requirement.

In 2010 he added 5,500 images to his iStockphoto collection. This is significant because none of the 197 top iStock producers that we have been tracking in the last two years added that many images to their collections. Only one added a little more than 4,000 and only seven added more than 2,000 images. It is unclear how Daniel was able to get so many images accepted by the iStock editors, although when looking at the quality of the images in his portfolio they are certainly exceptional. Even his mentor, Yuri Arcurs, only added 1,484 to the iStock collection in 2010.

@ Daniel Laflor | iStockPhoto

By the end of 2010 there were over 96,000 total downloads of Daniel’s images from the iStock collection — a 1461% increase for the year. Thus, during 2010 he had in excess of 89,000 download. Based on what other iStock exclusive photographers tell us about their returns-per-download he should have averaged at least $4.50 per download which would mean that he earned in excess of $400,000 for the year. We have no information as to what his expenses might have been, but if we look at the images in his portfolio he clearly had significant expenses for models and sets. We also suspect that he employs significant staff in order to produce that many images from a wide variety of productions in a year. It is also unclear how much experience he had as a photographer before he started assisting Yuri.

There are less than 16 other iStock contributors who had more downloads in 2010 than Daniel and given the number of total images in his collection, he is on track to move ahead of many of them in 2011.

While there are a number of things we don’t know about Daniel’s experience, in two-and-a-half short years from the time he first started producing stock he has managed to reach an amazing level of income that most stock photographers never achieve, regardless of how they choose to license their images.

@ Daniel Laflor | iStockPhoto

If a photographer chooses to get into microstock then the next question is whether to put the images with multiple agencies or pursue an exclusive arrangement with iStockphoto. It is interesting that unlike his mentor, Yuri Arcurs, Daniel has chosen to be exclusive with one agency rather than place his images with many agencies. This is a clear indication of the dramatic shift that is taking place in the microstock world, particularly since the beginning of 2010.

iStock’s move to raise the prices for photos they represent exclusively, to allow exclusive photographers to get even higher prices for a select group of photos of the photographer’s own choosing and to introduce new, even higher priced collections has dramatically changed the microstock landscape.

It is also worth noting that Daniel has learned a great deal from Yuri. That has undoubtedly given him an advantage that others will not have. We understand that in some cases they work together on shoots sharing models and sets, and presumably the costs. If you look at Daniel’s images side by side with Yuri’s it certainly appears that many might have been shot in the same studio with similar sets and the same lighting style. I suspect, also, that we might find many of the same models, but I will leave that research to my readers.

Even, Daniel’s and Yuri’s web sites (http://www.laflor.dk/) (http://www.arcurs.com/) have a similar design and layout. Both of these sites are a tremendous source or information for those interested in producing microstock images.

Daniel’s experience is one more example of what is possible in microstock. But only a very small number of those who choose to license their images as microstock will ever achieve this level of success just as only a very small percentage of those who choose to license their images as rights-managed will ever have six figure incomes from stock.

About The Author:

Jim Pickerell has been involved in the stock photography business for almost fifty years as a photographer, Macro agency owner, and newsletter editor for the last 20 years. He has lived through the industry changes and is often able to supply useful perspective to those new to the business. Jim publishes www.selling-stock.com, a subscription service and www.photolicensingoptions.com where readers pay to read individual stories. To receive a FREE email every Saturday that includes summaries of the new stories posted the previous week click here, and then click Subscribe to confirm.
Posted on January 15th, 2011 in Editorial | tags: ,
  • Thanks for the post Jim.

    Very impressive work Daniel. There are those who say that micro ‘just doesn’t work at all’, and those who say it works, but only for those who have been in it from the start – you disproved both of those theories. It is an inspiration to see what you managed to accomplish in such a short time. Thumbs up.

  • Jasmin

    Very interesting post, thank you! I suppose in the future we will see many more professional photographers whith assistants and teams moving towrds microstock.

  • Interesting article. I did look for a comment indicating that Daniel & Yuri were on board with being featured examples in your blog. Hope that was the case. It’s striking how closely their work resembles the other’s images.

    I think the important lesson I glean from this is that the quality of set/model/equipment is indeed a factor if you choose to move beyond the amateur/hobbyist levels in microstock.

    • @Stacey – I sent the article to Daniel to get his “OK” before it was posted on the MicrostockGroup Blog.

  • thanks Tyler…saw that in the thread too…cheers

  • I’d like to give all of you some information about how this article came about. At the beginning of the year there was a thread on Microstock Group that asked how 2010 had been. While many reported so-so years, Daniel Laflor reported that he had added 5,500 images to his iStock exclusive collection and that he had a 1461% increase in income. These two numbers seemed fantastic. I thought it would be interesting to know a little more about the photographer who could post such numbers. It would be particularly interesting to my macro readers who keep saying you can’t make a money in microstock.

    The first thing I did was go to iStock and look up Laflor. If he had started the year with a couple hundred images a 1461% increase would have been interesting, but not all that surprising. But he has had over 96,000 total downloads. Doing the math that means he had over 89,000 downloads in 2010. That is impressive. Only a handful of iStock photographers exceeded that number. Going to his blog, I discovered that he didn’t start shooting microstock until the beginning of 2009.

    At that point I emailed a series of questions to Daniel to try to get a better understanding of his business. I also expressed an interest in doing a story on him for Selling Stock. He responded cordially, acknowledged that he was good friends with Yuri, that Yuri had helped him get started in microstock and that they sometimes shoot together. He also said, “I would appreciate that you do not tell ‘my story’.” (Just so we are clear this story or this post was not authorized by Daniel or Yuri.)

    I felt this story was important. I had enough information from publicly available sources, even if I had no quotes, to supply some important information to the photo community and particularly the macro community. I felt Daniel had left the impression with his earlier post on Microstock Group that it is easy to be successful (generate significant income) shooting microstock. I thought a little balance was needed. I told Daniel that I could not honor his request not to do a story, but I did send him a draft of the story I had written asking for comments and corrections and told him that if I didn’t hear from him I would publish the story later in the week.

    I have the greatest respect for what Daniel and Yuri have been able to accomplish, separately and independently. The comments made by both Daniel and Yuri on this thread are a very important addition to what I had to say and I only wish I had been able to integrate them into my story. I urge everyone to flip back, find those comments and read them carefully.

    One of the things we learned from the comments is that while Daniel has certainly earned a lot of money his business is not yet profitable and he expects it to take another year to break even. We also learned that Daniel was a very experienced photographer before he got into microstock and that he has studied the business very carefully before jumping in.

    One issue that has been touched on here, but not explored in any great depth is how it is possible to upload so many images in one year. Are there certain exceptions that allow some exclusive photographers to post more images than others? Or have the rules been changed? Does iStock need to change its exclusive requirements given what it is doing with the Agency collection? Is there any logical reason why a photographer should not be allowed to have “other images” (not those on iStock) in other royalty free collections? Isn’t “image exclusive” better than “photographer exclusive” for all involved.

    Another thing which a few who have made comments here seem to have missed is how significant the income per download increase is for exclusive photographers compared to non-exclusive photographers. The higher prices for Exclusive, Exclusive+, Vetta and Agency make a big difference. People with images in these categories may make somewhat fewer sales, but the revenue increase per download seems to more than make up for the lost sales. I have information from one exclusive photographers who averaged $4.95 per download in 2010 and another who averaged $8.60. That is a big difference from $2.40 to $2.80.

  • Jim, the upload limit for a Diamond level exclusive contributor at iStock is 150/week, which works out to 7,800 a year, so Daniel adding 5,500 to his collection is no mystery. If he started in 2009 he likely wasn’t Diamond for all of 2010, but even Gold level exclusives can submit 120/week.

    Regarding the income bump from the other collections, take a look at this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1PWn-6_bR44
    Other iStock exclusives I spoke to at that event said their income rose 200%, 300% and one said 400% after the introduction of Vetta. And that was before the exclusive price increase and the exclusive+ & Agency collections were introduced.

  • Earl

    Thank you for this information it is all very helpful. I have been away from photography for nearly 30 years. I am looking to build a small portfolio (600-1000) over the next few years as a hobby. I hope to keep at it in retirement with a goal of it paying for itself. I see it is possible to put a hundred or two in my pocket every few months.

    • Yeah, if you have a port of 600-1000 I certainly think you should be able to gross a few hundred $$/month