Photos That Don’t Earn Money Are Worthless

Scarlet Macaw (One of my top sellers on Micro-stock)

I was talking to a gentleman the other day while on one of my photography outings. He had a nice camera kit and appeared to be working the same subject I was with the same enthusiasm. We got to talking, as all photographers will do when they are gathered in one spot for any length of time. He began showing me some of the photos he had taken over the years. Just about every photographer I meet wants to show you their images on their mobile phone. It’s a ritual. His photos were quite good, at least as good as mine. I asked him if he was making any money from those photos, to which he replied, “No” He went on to explain that all he does is take photos and then he never does anything with them except maybe put them in a photo contest here and there. He said he had won a few contests but for the most part, nobody ever sees his photos.

So, I asked him “why”, and then went into my little spiel about “if your images aren’t making money, they are worthless.” I pointed out to him that from what I was seeing in his portfolio, he has some very nice photographs and those photos could be money makers. He just sorta looked at me with a blank stare. I asked him how many photos he keeps in his “really good photo catalog” and he said “about 3,000 images.”

So here was a fellow who had 3,000 really good photos sitting on his phone and none of them were working for him and he spends almost all his free time getting these photos.

I responded to him that he should be earning money, because all that work and time he’s spent getting those images is pointless if nobody is ever going to see them or if he never tries to sell them. When we finished up our day’s work, he told me that what I was saying made sense and that he would have to look into this further. Who knows what he ends up doing, but I was dead on with my analysis of his situation. Here’s a guy who is a pretty good photographer and has a butt-load of nice images he’s accumulated over the years and he’s just staring at his own belly button admiring the lint he can pull out. Not the best use of one’s time and effort in my opinion.

I know many photographers. Some professional, some amateur, some better than others, some more financially secure than others. I can generally break them down into two categories. People who make money with their photos and people who don’t. It usually has nothing to do with how good they are. It’s more of an emotional choice than a business choice.

When I founded my photography business, I formulated a business plan and I’ve stuck to it. The primary purpose of any business should be to make a profit. I’ve done a lot of different types of photography over the years. Weddings, events, product, marketing, landscape, wildlife, fine art, workshops, tutoring, etc… You name it, I’ve probably done it and made a profit. But I retired from my pursuit of clients in 2017. Since I’ve retired I’ve dedicated my efforts to earning a photography pension. My pension plan doesn’t involve any company or beneficiary program other than the one I created from scratch in 2006. My stock photography catalog is my photography pension and I own all the rights to everything. I simply sell the rights to use my images to help fund my retirement.

With the profit motive in mind, I have a general mindset that I only produce photographs that can potentially earn me money. I don’t collect anything just to feel warm and fuzzy. I shoot the subjects that I know have a potential to generate income. If I do a road trip, the idea is for the images I bring home to ultimately pay for the cost of that trip and then earn a profit. It’s that simple, to me.

I know professionals who are so cut-throat with their business practices as to actually get belligerent about what and how they do things. Others may be more insightful and helpful with sharing their knowledge. I don’t begrudge that pro who protects their knowledge and who looks at everything as if it were a competition. That’s their thing, they can do as they please. Myself, I don’t look at photography as a competitive sport. I protect my business with as much enthusiasm as anyone else, but I don’t look at friends and acquaintances as “the competition”, and I have no problems sharing what I can about what I do. The result is of course, I have no problem writing about these things, to a certain degree. I know many of you are in similar situations, getting older, looking at retirement, wondering where and how you’ll keep the income coming in. So ask yourself a question. How many photographs have you taken over the past 15 years and what are you doing with those photographs?

There’s an old saying in business.

There are only two rules you never break when running a business.

Rule #1. Never give away all your business secrets.

In keeping with the entrepreneurial spirit, I’ll share a few (not all) quick facts concerning my experience with Micro-stock sales on the Internet.

Firstly, I’m selling images on more than 10 websites. As for stock photography, I have 9 current micro-stock sites that carry my images.

Secondly, I sell a lot of images, but I’m not getting wealthy from it. I look at it as more of a photography retirement pension, so the amount I’m making is comparable to a typical pension for somebody who worked at a well paying job with a pension plan for 10 years or so. (I’m basing this on my wife’s pension.)

My current stock photograph catalog is roughly 3,800 images. With very few exceptions, I sell the entire catalog on all my micro-stock agencies. Not every agency has the exact photos online, as some agencies reject different photos than others and some photos sell better on one agency than another.

My acceptance ratio is on average better than 96% for all agencies (except for one that I don’t fully understand their logic.)

The beauty of the stock portfolio is that the work has already been done, all I have to do is upload the files and collect the money. That money will continue to come in as long as the micro-stock agency continues selling my files into the future. Theoretically, this will earn me money until I’m dead at which time I’ll leave my portfolio & royalties to my beneficiaries, and they too can continue to enjoy the regular income those photos will continue to produce.

My photographs aren’t exactly the common images one would expect to find on micro-stock. My work is mostly landscape and wildlife photography and I estimate that I’m in a smaller than average niche when it comes to available stock imagery. I could probably increase my sales and presence if I were to delve into subjects that are more popular in stock, but I do this for me and I am trying to make income doing what I love. I don’t particularly care about photos of people standing or jumping around with smiles on their face and happy environments. Just not my thing. I also don’t do any type of work that requires a property or model release. Too much overhead for my liking.

Different micro-stock sites have different ways of doing things. Image critiquing by one agency may be more or less vigorous than another agency, and the things they are looking for will vary. Still, I don’t let the fear of having a photo rejected keep me from doing anything. The basic idea I follow is that everyone gets my full portfolio, they can decide what to sell and the customers can decide what they want to buy.

That’s how I look at it. Your mileage may vary.

Of all my points of micro-stock sales, 78% of my income comes from three micro-stock agencies. Adobe Stock, Shutterstock and Getty/iStock.

These top three points of sale don’t perform in the same exact way either.

For total earnings, the best point of sale I have is Shutterstock. I’ve made more money on Shutterstock selling my images than any other single point of sale, accounting for about 29% of all my stock photography earnings.

For shear image sales count, Getty/iStock sells the most of my photographs, by almost 2:1 over any other stock agency. But, the average price per sale is lower than the other top sites. More of a bulk situation, still my earnings from Gerry/iStock sales are a close #2 for me, accounting for about 47% of my total images sold and about 25% of my profit.

As far as getting the most bang for the buck, Adobe Stock is earning me the highest average return per image sold and accounts for about 24% of my total stock photo earnings with only 14% of the actual images sold.

So, that’s today’s insight. I don’t mind sharing my knowledge on this subject, because I have an honest desire to see other photographers be successful in their endeavors. I’m not too worried about helping “the competition” because, really, there are 300 million photographs out there and a few thousand images competing for that big a pie isn’t going to impact what my results are going to be.

I was reading up on the micro-stock industry the other day and one of the things I read was a market projection that micro-stock sales were expected to increase about 5% per year over the next five years. Contrary to the inaccurate thinking of many who can’t be bothered to consider selling stock photos, micro-stock is a viable and upward trending business. If you have photos sitting on your computer and you aren’t selling them now, you are losing money. Free money. You’ve already done the work and you’ve already invested in getting those photographs. To let them sit there doing nothing other than for your own personal entertainment isn’t really going to get you anywhere. When you die, all your images will go with you. They’ll give your computer and camera gear to your favorite relative and you will have nothing to show for it as a legacy.

Me, When I’m dead and gone, I’m going to leave something of value behind to someone I care about. It’s the least I can do. In the meantime, I’m enjoying the fruits of my labor and enjoying the labor even more. I have learned to do exactly what I like and how to make money doing it. For me, it’s a way of life.

Photos that don’t earn money are worthless.

Always Double Check Your Work

Photograph of a mule deer doe in tall grass. Image Colorado
Mule deer doe in the Rocky Mountains.

Sometimes we get complacent about what we do.

When I’m editing images for stock, I normally have a developing formula defined in Adobe Lightroom that creates a suitable jpg image for the stock portfolios.

Every so often, I get a slap back from one of the stock agencies. I’ll submit a group of images and get a flurry of rejections. My first reaction is “WHAT? I’m a good photographer, my images are perfect, what are you talking about?”

Then I calm my emotions and actually go look at the files I submitted and examine them for the problems explained in the rejection. Usually, they were right, I did something wrong.

What “wrong” usually is for me is that I failed to check the actual file I submitted before submitting it. Sometimes, my developing formula isn’t very good for a particular image. This usually happens when I push the boundaries and try to take a high ISO photo and make it suitable. The problem with that is high ISO photos don’t really have a formula.

There are a number of problems that can manifest themselves with a high ISO photo. First, and most common is the amount of noise in the image. I normally just comb over that issue and export a high ISO shot to DXO Photolab, which in most cases cleans the noise like a boot camp recruit cleans the barracks.

But, the noise isn’t necessarily what is going to get you, and I keep fudging up when I take that attitude and don’t actually examine the output file.

Sometimes, it’s the sharpening of the image that gets you. My develop formula in DXO is a little bit persnickety about what and how it alters the photo, and more times than I’d like to admit, it will over-sharpen the image and create a problematic result. By assuming I’ve got everything taken care of with my developing preset, I sometimes find that I’ve created a problem that didn’t exist. Fortunately (depending on how you look at it), one of the stock reviewers will summarily dismiss my submission as inferior.

So, I go back and rework the file and create something a little bit better and resubmit it and 9 times out of 10 they’ll accept the re-submission.

The moral of the story… Complacency is a bitch. Always double check your work.

Moose Monday

Moose Monday. Photograph of moose in a lake. Image Colorado.
Moose gathering in a northern Colorado lake at sunrise.

Happy Moose Monday!

February isn’t the best month of the year for photographing moose. As a matter of fact it is pretty much a useless month. The moose have dropped their antlers, the lakes are all frozen and where they live is fairly difficult to get to unless you own a helicopter.

That leaves me with having to dig through the archives while I dream of warmer days.

Here’s a quick little photography hint for you landscape and wildlife photographers.

If you take a photography class or attend a workshop, the instructor will probably remind you that your camera will work just fine if you orient it in the portrait perspective. You know, narrow left-right, taller top-bottom. I’ve pointed this out myself many times to students.

Here’s a little fact though. If you are trying to sell your photos, images orientated in a landscape perspective sell better by at least 10 to 1. I sell occasional portrait framed images (like today’s photo), but over 90% of the images I sell are wider rather than taller.

I still do those portrait aspect compositions though. They are better for magazine and book sales, which aren’t really a staple of my work, but it’s always a good idea to cover all your bases.