The Arithmetic...

of Stock Photography

Editorial stock photoresearchers and photobuyers who list in and subscribe to our photo listing service...know that the fees paid for editorial photos requested on our PhotoDaily marketletter average between $100 and $300 per photo.

Using the mid-range of $200, it is interesting to compare this fee with the fee per image a commercial stock photographer ends up with from sales through agencies such as Getty Images (Getty) or Corbis Media.

These two giant companies take sometimes more than 80% of the sale price.

That’s right, for a $200 sale, the photographer with photos in these agencies receives $40. In contrast, the freelancer subscriber to our PhotoDaily, for a sale through the PhotoDaily, receives the full $200 (100% of the sale).

This low return from agency sales may be the reason why many commercial stock photographers receive most of their income from sources other than stock, such as annual reports, assignments, fashion, social media, catalogs, weddings, portraits, etc.

Pure editorial stock photographers are rarely full-time pros. Although they have what it takes to be a pro, they are frequently pros in other fields: education, medicine, sales, technology, law, transportation, etc. In their avocation or side-line business of editorial stock photography, they are able to devote their skills and talents to the select few specialty subjects of their choice, and realize the long-term promise of the extended value of their photo files.


It’s possible that a commercial stock photographer could sell three times as many photos through an agency than an editorial photographer sells directly to a select group of photobuyers within his or her editorial specialty area.

However, there is another
important factor involved here.

Placing images in a stock agency requires photographers to shoot what the agency needs (e.g. guys running while cellphoning). Working for yourself as an editorial stock photographer, you shoot what you want. As one photographer told me, "In commercial stock, the agency drives you. In editorial stock you’re the driver – of your own wishes.

Yet another major factor: the long-term value of a photographer’s body of work. Many editorial photographers who were shooting editorial subjects back in the 80’s and 90’s, such as environmental issues, personalities, politics, schooling, social issues, etc. have told me that these pictures, for their historical value, are now making them more money than when they were originally shot.

These photos are used in books, magazine articles, CD collections, training courses, in ads, and in PBS and commercial TV series.

I haven’t heard of any commercial stock photographers who consider their commercial photos of twenty or thirty years ago to be marketable today. The “lifetime” value of a commercial stock photo is generally considered to be three to five years at most.

A testimony to the importance of editorial stock photography can be seen by browsing a special edition of Life Magazine put out several years ago that featured what they termed as the important photos of the 20th century.

All of these photos can be considered to be editorial stock. The same holds true for the photography featured in the prime PBS TV program on the impact of photography on our lives in the USA.
Editorial stock photography has a way of significantly influencing our lives, and has staying power.

Am I saying “Mothers, don’t let your sons and daughters grow up to be commercial stock photographers?”
No, but most photographers are attracted to the vocation by the presumed opportunity to express themselves and to share their talent and knowledge with the world.

Because of the need to earn bread for the family and pay off the mortgage, they often find themselves lured into an aspect of the profession they didn’t expect, conforming to the dictates of the commercial world.

I like to put in a plug for sticking with the editorial arena, where that original goal can be fulfilled, in spite of sometimes facing financial constraints.

As an editorial stock photographer you are going to find much more enjoyment when you are photographing subject matter that you like to take. Learn more about how to sell those pictures at PhotoSource International and the PhotoSourceBANK, Pine Lake Farm, 1910 35th Road, Osceola, WI 54020 USA. Rohn Engh is director of and publisher of PhotoStockNotes. E-mail: info[at]photosource[dot]com Fax: 1 715 248 3800;

AN AFTER THOUGHT: Probably one of the most influencial photography magazine in the USA is PhotoDistrict News. In the upcoming issue(February 2012) the PDN's director of the pdN-sponsored PhotoPlus Expo 2011 lauds the evennt's success and its strong attendance interest in wedding, portrait, nature/landscape, and fine art photography. There was no mention of editorial photography. I thought that to be curious because when I made an assessment of all the photographs in the current upcoming February issue, I found this. Of the photos in the February PDN magazine, 24 were portraits, 51 were for advertisements, and 81 were editorial photos. Should PhotoPlusExpo do something to attract editorial (stock, documentary, street, journalist) photographers to it? Also important to note is February was their annual portrait issue. Check it out. -RE

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