2007 Photographer Income Survey Results

Posted on 10/16/2008 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version

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October 16, 2008

Selling Stock’s self-employed photographer income (survey) received 238 responses from around the world. Gross income reported was $33,741,722, and 60% ($20,284,081) came from stock sales. Almost all (90%) respondents earned some revenue from licensing rights to stock images.

Average income from stock was $94,242. Though nine respondents (less than 0.5%) earned over $500,000, 78% earned less than average: 29% earned less than $10,000 from stock sales; 19% earned between $10,000 and $30,000; and 30% earned between $30,000 and the $94,242 average.

U.S.-based photographers earned $22,789,407 in gross income, with 62% ($14,157,239) generated by stock licensing. 28% of respondents were from outside the U.S. They spanned 19 countries and included six photographers from Canada, 19 from the U.K. and 30 from other European countries—reported a similar percentage of stock-licensing revenues (61%).

To help measure how representative the survey results might be, responders were asked to indicate their affiliation with trade associations. Eighty-one (34%) of respondents did not belong to any such group, while 63 belonged to organizations other than the choices provided in the survey. The fact that more than half the respondents did not report being a member of a trade association may be somewhat deceptive since we only included one association based outside the U.S. in our list.

Association Responses Gross Revenue Stock Revenue Stock Average
American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP 62 $8,091,047 $3,305,104 $53,308
Advertising Photographers of America (APA) 9 1,526,850 $208,629 $23,181
Stock Artists Alliance (SAA) 37 $4,913,133 $3,050,531 $82,446
Editorial Photographers (EP) 25 $2,925,300 $877,215 $35,088
Professional Photographers of America (PPA) 7 $538,700 $89,690 $12,813
American Society of Picture Professionals (ASPP) 17 $1,411,513 $976,998 $57,470
Association of Photographers, UK (AOP) 6 $1,993,120 $901,854 $150,309
Other 63 $6,226,333 $3,158,900 $50,141
None 81 $7,197,999 $4,493,508 $55,475

The average figure for APA members is probably not representative given the small sample. Most of their members earn the majority of their revenue from assignment work and tend not to license much in the way of stock. Likewise PPA responses were a very small percentage of that organization’s total membership. Most of their members earn the majority of their income from wedding, portraiture and event coverage.

It is not surprising that editorial photographers earn less than members of the American Society of Media Photographers: editorial users tend to pay less than commercial customers, and many ASMP members produce images for commercial sales. The fact that members of the Stock Artists Alliance earn more than ASMP members highlights that the SAA is heavily populated with Getty Images’ photographers.

Of those earning some revenue from stock, 71% (152 photographers) hail from 37 U.S. states. Best represented in this survey are California, Washington and New York.

Stock Stock
State Gross Net Net Average
CA 33 $4,835,480 $3,065,996 $3,166,729 $95,961
NY 16 $1,350,700 $720,973 $680,395 $42,524
WA 19 $2,541,515 $1,592,192 $1,895,005 $99,737

*One New York respondent’s earnings were excluded from this comparison as non-representative (abnormally high).

We sought responses from all self-employed photographers and 22 (10%) had no income from licensing stock. This left 216 who earned some revenue from licensing rights to stock images and their gross revenue was $31,475,092.

Should Photography Be Your Only Source of Income?

Over three quarters (76%) of respondents said self-employed photography was not their only source of income. This suggests that, in the face of declining pricing and revenue percentages, many photographers have found new ways to supplement their freelance income. Some may have staff photography jobs and freelance on the side. A growing number work in a similar or allied field, such as graphic design, or even hold a totally unrelated job of real-estate agent, teacher or flight attendant.

Many outside the industry believe stock photographers must accept whatever customers are willing to pay because that’s the way they earn their living. The theory goes that if fees decline or percentages are cut stock photographers must either work harder or make their productions more efficient in order to survive.

Clearly a huge percent of photographers have already found other ways to supplement their freelance photography income. If stock revenue is not sufficient for the effort put forth the photographer will put more energy into other ways of earning a living. As the return for time invested in photography goes down photographers may continue to produce images that are easy or fun to shoot, but they are not going to look at stock photography as an important income source.

It is interesting to note that the “gross” figure in response to the first question only asked for self-employed photography revenue. This answer should not have included revenue from other “non-photographic employment” or from working as staff-photographers. The 63 whose only source of income was freelance photography averaged $99,140. But the 175 with other sources of income earned an average of $157,119 from freelance photography alone, and presumably even more from their “other” source of income.

Only 8 of the 63 earned over $200,000 while 37 of the 175 earned over that figure and 6 of those with other sources of income earned more from photography than the highest earner whose only source of income was photography.

One conclusion seems to be that a photographer’s are likely to earn more from the photography aspect of their businesses if they also earn income from non-photography activities than if they focus exclusively on photography as a profession.

This seems counter intutive, but it is possible that those who focus all their energies on photography may be forced to do some things that are not very productive economically just to try to earn a little extra income.

On the other hand, those who have other options of ways to make a living only do photography that will produce a better return than what they can earn from other sources.

It is also possible that some of these respondents misunderstood these questions, but if they answered them correctly then those with the highest freelance photography earnings also have sources of income other than freelance photography.

Market Size

One thing to consider when reviewing these results is how representative these figures might be of the total community of individual stock-image producers. In May 2007, Selling Stock estimated annual still-image revenues at approximately $1.8 billion, and the industry has probably declined since. Most images were licensed by agencies, though some producers went direct to customer and kept 100% of the licensing fee. Taking both possibilities into account, I estimate the average photographer’s share of total revenue at 40% to 55%: $720 million to $1 billion. Thus, $20 million in stock-licensing revenues reported by this survey’s respondents could represent a 2% to 2.5% market sample.

This would mean there were fewer than 11,000 photographers worldwide shooting stock—but that is not correct. Shutterstock alone has images from 122,000 photographers. Given the number of other microstock Web sites and the overlap of contributors among them, it stands to reason that 175,000 and 200,000 photographers make occasional sales of their images.

The apparent conflict between the average stock income of nearly six figures and the total number of photographers suggests two possibilities: Either the total revenue generated from stock-photo sales is much higher than the $1.8 billion estimate, or the revenue earned by Selling Stock survey respondents is much higher than industry averages. Since some of the world’s top producers are among those who responded, it is more likely that the survey represents the most successful stock photographers—not the average.

Those who made no income from stock represented 10% of respondents and less than 7% of reported revenues. Their average gross income was $56,974, much lower than the $91,263 average for those who produced stock. These figures are likely not representative of an average non-stock freelancer, as the sample is a very small part of the total photographic community and does not include the world’s top producers as does the stock-only group of respondents.

Sources Of Revenue

Two thirds (175) of survey respondents earned some of their freelance photographic revenue from sources other than stock licensing. Close to half (44%, or $16,052,733) of the gross income reported came other photography and related services.

Average Average
Gross Net Income Net Stock Gross Stock
Stock 216 $31,497,092 $19,714,829 $20,284,081 $145,820 $93,908
Corporate 77 $9,114,885 $5,339,586 $2,443,647 $118,375 $31,736
Ad & Brochures 80 $12,804,908 $7,073,482 $3,704,130 $160,061 $46,302
Magazine Ed 81 $9,626,692 $5,468,091 $3,478,922 $118,848 $42,950
Newspaper Ed 15 $709,000 $465,500 $264,940 $47,267 $17,663
Architectural 24 $3,373,400 $1,756,862 $451,376 $140,558 $18,807
Event 27 $1,837,400 $945,750 $328,281 $68,052 $12,159
Wed & Portraits 24 $2,333,700 $1,502,100 $298,035 $97,238 $12,418
Footage 9 $2,197,870 $1,497,365 $1,656,158 $244,208 $184,018
Other 65 $6,841,425 $3,619,071 $3,427,244 $105,253 $52,727

Stock shooters who also did corporate, ad or brochure assignment work earned about as much from these activities as they did from stock (net income minus net stock). However, their average income from stock was much lower than the overall average for stock shooters (net stock divided by number in the group).

Those who did newspaper editorial, event or wedding and portrait work in addition stock averaged very low returns from the stock side of their business and lower overall from their businesses in general.

The average stock earnings of those doing architectural work were low, but their gross income average was very good.

While there were only nine respondents who produced footage, their average gross income was double that of still shooters. In most cases, footage was not their sole source of photography income, but it certainly helped when coupled with income from other sources.

What Is The Best Licensing Model?

Stock photography is licensed in several ways. Of 238 respondents to our recent survey, 179 licensed some work as rights-managed (RM). A surprising 38 licensed images as rights-ready (RR). Since Getty Images is the only organization currently using this strategy all 38 photographers work with Getty. 37 of them also license images as RM and 25 also license images as royalty-free (RF).

The column labeled “Gross” is the combined gross income of all respondents. “Net After Expenses” is the combined net after all expenses are deducted. “Gross from all Stock” is gross stock income. In most categories gross stock income is less than the gross because many photographers earned some of their “photographic income” from sources other than stock. The “Gross from this Category” is the gross this group of photographers earned from the particular category. For example, the 179 photographers shooting RM had gross revenue from all photography sales of $23,592,327, but from stock sales licensed as RM they only had $9,968,287. The averages are the numbers in the earlier categories divided by the number of respondents in the category.

Gross Gross from from this
this Category Category
RM 179 $23,592,367 $9,968,287 $55,689
RR 37 $12,280,467 $1,678,618 $45,368
RF 67 $16,255,890 $6,882,652 $102,726
Subscription 2 $13,830 $4,043 $2,022
Microstock 20 $1,690,695 $1,267,457 $63,373
Not Applicable 16 $1,621,300 $461,025 $28,814

The fact that 65 respondents produce royalty-free is not a surprise. An increasing number of rights-managed shooters have started producing royalty-free in recent years. One respondent reported uncharacteristically high royalty-free revenue, earning substantially more than many stock agencies. Thus, to get a more realistic picture of average income for this licensing model, the adjusted revenues table excludes his numbers. The adjusted table also excludes the revenues of a photographer who shoots some traditional royalty-free, but specializes in microstock and generates extremely high revenues, thus pushing microstock revenue averages up disproportionately.

Gross Gross from from this
this Category Category
RM 179 $23,592,367 $9,968,287 $55,689
RR 37 $8,080,467 $1,258,618 $34,017
RF 65 $10,955,890 $3,080,652 $47,395
Subscription 2 $13,830 $4,043 $2,022
Microstock 19 $590,695 $189,457 $9,971
Not Applicable 16 $1,621,300 $461,025 $28,814

Even the adjusted numbers demonstrate that, on average, royalty-free shooters are earning almost twice as much from this licensing model as rights-managed shooters earn from rights-managed stock. This can be explained by the fact that those who ventured into royalty-free production were largely the most successful rights-managed shooters who have been very aggressive in producing royalty-free images.

It should be noted that there is not a huge difference between the average RF photographers earned compared with the average RM photographers earned. RM photographers argue that because they get a higher percentage of the gross sale (40% and higher compared to 20% for RF) and because their pictures are often sold for higher prices they should be able to earn a lot more money selling as RM rather than RF. The statistics don't support this conclusion.

We have good reason to believe that twice as many RF images are licensed as RM and that the average price of an RM license is about twice as much as a traditional RF license. Thus, the number of images licensed and average price would seem to be a wash and the difference in percentage would still be the big factor.

What offsets the percentage differences, I believe is that photographers tend to get many more images accepted as RF from a given shoot than will be accepted as RM. And despited the fact that there is a huge oversupply of RF images at the present time there is an even greater oversupply of RM images and that is increasing at a faster pace because more photographers want to offer their images for licensing as RM.

In reviewing the survey figures it is worth noting that 16 respondents selected “not applicable” among licensing-model choices. How these people license their work is unclear. They may be making direct sales, but if they establish prices based on usage, most of those sales should have fallen into the rights-managed category. If that were the case the average RM would have been lower than the average RF.

The microstock-revenue average of $9,971 in the adjusted chart is more realistic but still unlikely to be a true average for ALL microstock shooters. Certainly, a few microstockers are doing very well. iStockphoto has 264 photographers who have had more than 25,000 downloads, and the current average fee per download is in the $4 to $5 range. On the other hand, Selling Stock’s small sample included a disproportionate share of the more successful microstock producers.

The survey did not generate enough responses to offer a realistic perspective on income from subscription products.

The Microstock Myth

A favorite comment of most traditional stock photographers when talking about microstock is, “You can never make money selling pictures for $1.00!” The survey data and other available industry information tends to explode that myth.

In any industry there will always be a Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Tom Grill (traditional stock photography), Yuri Arcurs or Lise Gagne (microstock). While we should celebrate their accomplishments, most people need to be careful in judging what is possible based the success of market leaders.

That said, the 20 survey respondents who sell microstock give us some basis for comparison. One of the 20 was very successful – more successful than the vast majority of rights-managed and traditional royalty-free shooters. 82% of his gross income was eaten up in expenses, but in spite of that he still had a very reasonable net income.

The combined gross photography income of the other 19 microstock shooters was $590,695 and their total stock income was $480,458. Thirteen earned almost all of their income from microstock sales. The other six earned only a very small percent of their total stock income from microstock.

Four of the 20 had gross sales of more than $70,000 and four had sales of less than $2,000. The other 12 were in between. The average income of the 19 microstock shooters was $25,287. But keep in mind that 38% of non-microstock shooters earned less than $25,000.

Other interesting figures come from iStockphoto. On his blog ( http://www.istockphoto.com/duncan1890) microstock photographer Duncan Walker offers a running total of photographers who have had more than 25,000 downloads on iStock and achieved Diamond status. To date there are 267. The median photographer in this group has just over 50,000 downloads and Lise Gagne has over 754,000. (This site is worth examining. Not only can you see the total downloads of each photographer, but there are links to each photographer’s portfolio where you can see the kind of work they do and the number of times each image has been downloaded.)

Since the beginning of 2005 it is likely that iStock has had more than 52 million downloads. (Relatively accurate numbers are available for 2006 and 2007 when Getty Images was public and providing quarterly figures. The numbers for 2005 and 2008 are extrapolations.) These 267 photographers are responsible for Over 18.2 million of the 52 million downloads were of images belonging to these 267 photographers.

It also seems likely that today’s average licensing fee for microstock photos is not $1.00, but between $4.00 and $5.00, still not great by traditional stock standards but for some the volume makes up for the low price.

Many photographers are not doing nearly as well as the 267. Certainly, there are several hundred who have significant downloads of between a few thousand and the 25,000 level, but the vast majority are not making many sales at all.

IStock represents the work of over 60,000 photographers. Thus, 59733 have had a combined total of less than 34 million downloads since the beginning of 2005 or an average of 570 downloads each. On average each photographer has about 60 images on the site. Probably well above 95% of iStock photographers aren’t earning very much at all.

Copyright © 2008 Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-251-0720, e-mail: vasb@fryyvat-fgbpx.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of www.selling-stock.com, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to: http://www.jimpickerell.com/Curriculum-Vitae.aspx.