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.
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.
It might be enlightening to review specific sites, how they're alike and different and how much average photographers make off each site, when that information is available. What follows are reviews of five different stock image sites.
1. Getty Images
Getty is one of the largest stock photography sites, located in Seattle, Washington. Getty has over 80 million images and illustrations and 50,000 hours of stock video footage and also owns microstock agency iStockPhoto. Getty is most famous for celebrity and media, sports, and photojournalist images.
The easiest way to get your photos into Getty is posting them on Yahoo's Flickr, but they also have contracts with photographers of exceptional talent. Getty will accept a portfolio for review, but don't expect the review to happen fast.
For Rights Managed pictures Getty charges between $500 and $600 for limited-time use. The photographer gets between 30 percent and 40 percent of those fees. For Non-Exclusive image rights, Getty charges an average of $250, of which photographers get about 20 percent.
The fees for Royalty Free images are based on the image size.
Like most stock image companies, Getty requires a commercial release for every identifiable person.
Lately Getty has fallen out of favor with many creative companies and photographers because of what they consider overly-aggressive pursuit of even incidental use of their images. Many creative agencies have cut back on using Getty images and switched to microstock agencies.
Shutterstock offers their subscribers access to more than 10 million royalty-free images from 210,000 photographers, illustrators, and videographers around the world. Shutterstock is generally recognized as the king of the microstock market and consistently one of the better earners for photographers, although they do not offer exclusive arrangements with photographers.
Shutterstock works on a subscription model. For $249 a month customers can download up to 750 royalty free images per month. Their license supports use in web sites, magazines, newspapers and brochures, though not in trademarked items or logos.
For a subscription service, Shutterstock maintains very high standards of image quality. Each image goes through an "inspection queue" where it undergoes rigorous testing for quality. Lately photographers have been complaining about the acceptance rate at Shutterstock.
For every photo that's downloaded, photographers get $0.25 to $0.30 cents. The compensation goes higher when they reach a certain level of downloads. The payout threshold for photographers is $100.
3. Jupiter Images
Jupiter has a commanding reputation for customer service and quality, offering rights managed and royalty free images. Jupiter offers multimedia subscriptions for $599 per month or a high-resolution subscription for $2,499 a month.
Jupiter Images offers a catalog collection that is colorful, bright and provocative. Their catalog also includes illustrations, clip art, and object photos as vector images.
License fees vary by the type of license and intended use, as do the payments for photographers. Jupiter, like Getty, does offer exclusive deals to certain select photographers.
Getting into Jupiter Images as a photographer can best be described as "don't call us; we'll call you" kind of arrangement. Jupiter or Getty are not the place to start for photographers trying to break into the stock photography business.
Fotolia is a relatively young but growing microstock agency that started out with a focus on the European market and worked its way into broader markets around the globe. They have struggled with web site performance in the past and have few exclusive contributors.
Fotolia currently boasts an inventory of over 2 million images and licenses their products through standard Royalty Free and Extended licenses.
Where Fotolia shines is through their pricing, which runs from $1 to $5 for their standard license and is unique in letting contributors set their own prices within certain parameters.
Fotolia is also generous with its split, giving photographers a minimum of 33 percent and half of any deals for exclusive images. Their payout threshold is also $50, about half of most other stock image sites.
If you're just starting out in the stock photography business, Fotolia is definitely worth a look.
Dreamstime is one of the top microstock agencies and work hard to maintain their position in the industry. It is particularly attractive to photographers as their commission is 50 percent, one of the highest in the market and certainly in the top tier of microstock agencies.
While Dreamstime started as a royalty free CD store in 2000, it became community enabled in 2004. Despite slower sales early on, it has preserved the loyalty of their contributors with high commission rates.
Dreamstime is currently boasting an inventory of 1.5 million images and specializes in Royalty Free image sales, but also offers Extended licenses and buyout licensing. Prices range from $0.75 to $6.00.
Commissions for photographers run in the range of 50 percent to 80 percent with a $100 payout threshold.
Anyone interested in starting in stock photography, will have better luck and more income starting with microstock agencies. After building up a catalog of 1,000 to 2,000 images, the income for popular shots can start to add up over time.
Once you've established yourself in the business and build a name for yourself, then look at sending a portfolio to an agency like Getty.