Everyone taking pictures for any length of time eventually looks at their collection of images and starts seeing dollar signs. They starting thinking about sending their photos to stock agency and making a little sideline cash. If that’s your plan for extra cash your chances of actually making any real money are extremely remote.
On the flip side of that there are people making $40,000 to $50,000 a year from commercial stock photography while working 3 to 4 days a week, a few are making more than $100,000 a year but they’re putting in more hours.
So there we have the beginning of the tale of two approaches to stock photography; one that’s successful over the long term and one that’s a fantasy with little chance of making money. What follows is my advice for getting started on the one more likely to pay off.
Every new business plan starts with thorough research. Launching into a new business with nothing but the vision in your head is risky because most of what you know right now about commercial stock photography is wrong. Start by reading a couple books on the subject like Microstock Money Shots: Turning Downloads into Dollars with Microstock Photography by Ellen Boughn, and Stock Photography – 2nd Edition by Blair Howard.
By the time you’re done reading up on the subject most of the common myths people carry around in their head about commercial stock will be replaced with a more practical frame of reference.
Treat It Like a Business
People get hobbies and business confused all the time and end up failing at the business they loved as a hobby.
Any hobby, raised to the level it becomes a business, ceases to be hobby and becomes a job. The same is true in stock photography. The more businesslike your approach, the more likely you are to be successful.
You can’t just shoot willy-nilly whatever you feel like on a particular day, you have to spend time understanding your market and what your customers want. Then start building that long-term relationship by consistently delivering both the quality and content that stock commercial customers want.
When you shoot commercial stock for a living the seasons become bizarrely convoluted. You’re shooting for the Christmas holidays in late summer, spring themes in the dead of winter and summer themes when it’s still cold enough to get frost in the morning.
The reason you’re doing that is your customers are planning seasonal advertising runs months in advance. They’re not looking for Thanksgiving photos in November, they’re collecting collateral for those ads in August and September, so that means you’re shooting them in July.
Sometimes you’re shooting summer photos a whole year in advance. The exact timing will become easier the longer you work with it. You’ll be able to tell by how many views your image gets if you’re hitting the timing right.
One advantage you have being new to the business is advertisers are constantly looking for something new; a fresh face, a different look, a new perspective. When they find something they really like that’s new, sometimes they’ll want exclusive rights to an image. When that happens it’s like hitting the jackpot, that’s where the big money is in commercial stock photography.
If you’re really lucky and company wants to use your image as a brand logo, then you’re really into some money.
Really, if you’re making a few dollars per image, per year, you’re doing really well. Over time, as the number of images you have in your catalog increases, that starts adding up to some decent money.
Be Patient, Don’t Quit Your Day Job Right Away
Until you’re bringing in enough money to make a living, you’ll want to hang on to your day job. Before walking in to tell your boss where he can stuff it, you’ll want to make sure you’re bringing in enough to cover the rent, your liability and health insurance, plus pay your quarterly taxes (if you live in the U.S.). It just seems like the moment you cut off the low-paying but steady job you get hit with a string of unexpected expenses. Maybe it’s some kind of strange small business karma, but it sure seems inevitable.
What you definitely don’t want to do is be operating on a shoestring budget.
Sometimes you have to invest a bit of money to get the really quality talent or rent a venue for a shoot. While all those expenses are likely deductible, if you’re running your commercial stock photography business as a company and paying your taxes, you don’t want to be so poor that you have to go begging. You also don’t want to be so poor you’re tempted to cheat on those taxes, or a business license, permits or anything else you’re supposed to have to operate legally.
$50,000 may seem like a lot of money but when you start deducting business expenses, it doesn’t go as far as you think. If you’re trying to live on what’s left over, you might find yourself living a pretty frugal lifestyle – not that it’s a bad thing though.
With some patience and perseverance you’ll be able to eventually carve out a decent living, but it’s going to take some time.