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This article will go over our top 10 disadvantages of starting a stock photography business in 2023. In our previous article, we discussed our top 10 advantages of becoming a stock photographer. At the end of this post, we will conclude if stock photography is still worth doing today.
My wife and I have been doing stock photography for the past 7 years as a full-time business for a living. In this article series, we would like to share our experience with you and tell what to expect if you are thinking of getting into stock photography.
Disadvantage #1: Initial Investment
Disadvantage number one is that you will need an investment of anywhere from $3,000 to over $5,000 to start your photography business. While the majority of this expense goes towards purchases of camera gear, you will also need to budget for various software programs to edit your photos and videos. The post-processing software is typically offered on an annual subscription basis from $200 to $400 per year.
If someone tells you that all you need is your phone or perhaps cheap cropped sensor camera, do not trust them. They are being disingenuous. While it is true that you can take photos of decent image quality using cropped sensor cameras, the image quality is not anywhere comparable to full-frame cameras.
Also, lenses for full-frame cameras produce much higher image quality compared to cropped sensor ones. If you go cheap, the result may be a high rejection rate for your content when you submit it to stock photo agencies. As for the phone, it is very limiting in terms of image sensor size and inability to swap lenses.
When we started our stock photography journey, all we had was an inexpensive cropped sensor Nikon camera with a zoom lens. However, we quickly upgraded to a full-frame Nikon D810 and later Nikon D850 DSLR cameras. Also, we bought a 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom lens and 14-24mm f/2.8 wide angle lens by Nikon. Because we started with very little capital, we purchased all this equipment through Amazon on our credit card that gave us an interest-free 12-month financing.
We spent over $4,000 on these purchases. Later, we bought a 70-200mm f/2.8 telephoto lens that completed our holy trinity setup of lenses. We also have a few prime lenses, mainly 35mm f/1.4 and 50mm f/1.4 with wide aperture for night photography. As soon as we transitioned from a cropped sensor camera to a full-frame one, the difference in image quality was very noticeable, especially for videos.
Disadvantage #2: Build Photography Skills
Disadvantage number two is that you will need to build your photography skills. Unless you are already proficient in photography, building the right skills can take a little bit of time.
When it comes to stock photography, there are three main skill sets you will need to master. First is to learn how to take photos/videos that are esthetically attractive and will sell. Second is to be able to properly post-process your content. And third is to correctly keyword and title you content for submission.
As for taking attractive photos/videos that will sell, there is a technical skill in terms of knowing how your gear works, how to set proper exposure and which focus distance to use. Then, there is a creative aspect to it. Among the things you will need to master are composition, design and use of light. We will make a separate article about which resources could help you expand your creative vision.
When it comes to stock photography, unfortunately, it is moving in the direction of AI, or artificial intelligence, models judging and deciding which content to accept or reject. Even if you think that your photo is perfect in every sense, but the machine learning algorithm used by stock agencies detects that there is some level of noise or some other imperfection, your image will be rejected.
Therefore, proper exposure and correct post-processing are paramount to get your images accepted. Finally, you will need to learn how to correctly title and keyword your images to make them discoverable and sellable.
Disadvantage #3: Lower Contributor Pay
The third disadvantage of stock photography is that further reductions in contributor payments are very likely. Since we started stock photography in 2015, we saw several reductions in contributor compensation. I have no idea what the ratio of exclusive to non-exclusive contributors is. However, I would guess that the majority of contributors are non-exclusive, like ourselves, meaning they contribute their content to multiple stock agencies.
Under the disguise of benefiting exclusive contributors, almost every major stock agency lowered payments to non-exclusive contributors since 2015. In 2017, Getty Images lowered their percentage payments to non-exclusive contributors to an industry-low of 15%. Next, in 2018, Alamy lowered their commission rate from 50% to 40% for non-exclusive contributors.
In 2019, Pond5 made a similar move by lowering commissions from 50% to 40% for non-exclusive contributors. While Shutterstock does not publicly offer exclusive contracts to contributors, in 2020 they made a similar move by introducing various levels of sales you need to achieve to get a higher payment percentage. These achieved levels reset each year. Effectively, this was a pay cut.
Overall, I would speculate that we may see another round of payment reductions sooner or later. With Getty paying 15% to non-exclusive contributors, there is a lot of room for further decreases. At the end of the day, all of these stock agencies are corporations answerable to shareholders who demand maximization of profits. As one goes, the other follows and so on.
There is probably a limit to how much lower contributor’s payments can go. At some point, if it is too low, individual contributors, like you or me, will stop contributing and that is a big trouble for stock content agencies. So, I am sure that they will keep this in mind as they are searching for other creative ways to lower contributor payments going forward.
Disadvantage #4: It’s a Numbers Long Game
Disadvantage number four is that stock photography is a numbers game and it is a long game. This means that you have to have a large number of photos and videos featuring diverse subjects and themes to generate a substantial income stream. Do not get upset when you upload your first 100 photos and do not see an immediate result.
How big your portfolio should be depends on how strategic and lucky you are with choosing the right themes for content that will become your best-seller. In our case, we do not limit ourselves and submit in pretty much almost any category you can think of, although landscapes, cities and food dominate our portfolio. What sells best changes all the time and it is a guess work that requires research. Even if someone tells you that this or that category sells well, it could be a thing of the past by the time you hear about it. So the best way to cover your bases is to submit a large number of diverse photos and videos of high quality.
As for us, we have over 35,000 stock photo and over 6,000 videos and it took us about 7 years to build it up and earn a living from stock photography. It is possible to earn a living with a smaller portfolio and make it work faster. It all depends on the themes of your content and how often you submit it. Also, from my personal experience, videos can potentially earn even more money than photos.
Disadvantage #5: High Competition
Disadvantage number five is that stock photography is a very competitive field. These days anyone with decent gear and photography skills can take and submit content to microstock agencies. Microstock platforms are inundated with so many photos that you have to think about ways to stand out and make sure that your content appears on the first page of search results.
One obvious thing is to create high quality content. Second, you need to keyword and title photos and videos well. Third, do not wait and start submitting footage, including timelapses, for sale as soon as you can. Because making high quality videos is a bit of a trickier process, I feel like competition in stock footage is less severe compared to stock photos.
Disadvantage #6: Lots of Administrative Work
This leads me to disadvantage number six, which is that stock photography requires a lot of time-consuming administrative work. By administrative work I mean keywording and titling your photos. If you ask around, most stock photographers will likely tell you that keywording/titling is the biggest bottleneck in their workflow. At least it is for us. We realized early on the importance of keywords and for this reason we spend quality time on each image and video to make sure it has the right keywords and title. And this takes time.
Some people may advise you to outsource keywording and titling. We have not tried it. Moreover, I have two major concerns about it. First, you need to pay for keywording services. If you submit a lot of content and it turns out that only 10% or 20% of it sells well, this could be expensive. Also, concern number two is how accurate keywords will be. Let’s say, I have an image of a rare temple somewhere in rural Japan. How would a person keywording this image know about this particular temple? The worst case scenario is that you will get a bunch of generic keywords that will require you redo their work and add or replace certain keywords.
Over the years, we improved substantially our workflow for keywording and we will write a tutorial about it soon. So stay tuned for that.
Disadvantage #7: Easy To Get Discouraged
Disadvantage number seven is that it is easy to get discouraged early on by many mishaps. You need to find ways to stay motivated and keep yourself on track of submitting your content regardless of what happens.
As you submit your first batches, you may get a lot of rejections. Some people say that their acceptance rate is as low as 10%. Clearly, they are doing something wrong. Our acceptance rate ranges from 50% to 90% depending on the batch and agency. Despite these rejections, you have to push forward, learn to take better photos and videos and keep on submitting. Also, you will likely see very small sales at the beginning. That could be discouraging too.
Because there is no boss around to tell you what to do or pat you on the shoulder, it is important to keep things in perspective and continue your work. If you know what you are working towards and your ultimate goals, it is easier to stay on course.
Personally, the most discouraging thing for me is the time it takes to keyword and submit my content. Sometimes, it feels like it takes forever. But once I submit my content and I see sales, especially big ones, I feel even more motivated to continue my work. We always remember that stock photography provides a valuable passive income. This income can give you financial freedom and ability to pursue many things in life, such as other hobbies, travel and more time with loved ones.
Disadvantage #8: Vacations Become Workations
Disadvantage number eight of becoming a stock photographer is that sometimes your vacations may feel like workations. Traveling is one of the fastest ways to build your portfolio, because you are constantly exposed to new things, cities, food, nature and people. When we travel, this is when we take most of our photos and videos. Knowing this, it is very easy to fall into a trap of constantly working and forgetting the reason you travel in the first place, which is to see new places, try new things and meet new people.
When we first started traveling and working on stock photography, this is exactly what happened to us. Because we were overly eager to quickly expand our portfolio, all we did was working and not taking our time to enjoy ourselves. Over time, we decided to balance stock photography work with leisure and we are doing much better now. As long as you are conscious about it, you should not have a problem mitigating this disadvantage.
Disadvantage #9: Tax Accounting Work
Disadvantage number nine is that with the benefit of tax deductions comes the responsibility of doing your own accounting and taxes. Regardless of whether you decide to go with sole proprietorship or form a limited liability company, you will need to track all your revenues and expenses either on your own or using some form of accounting software.
As for us, because our income and expenses are relatively easy to track, we record them on an Excel spreadsheet. It is not the most convenient or glamorous method, but it works fine and it costs us nothing. Also, we file our taxes using either H&R Block or Turbotax, as these companies make it very convenient to calculate depreciation expenses and ensure that we do not miss on any other important tax deductions.
If our photography business involved working with clients, besides doing stock photography, we would most definitely form a limited liability company and use accounting software for a small business. Doing so would shield our personal assets from liability and allow us to do accounting in a more efficient way. For now, sole proprietorship and an Excel spreadsheet is all we need.
Disadvantage #10: Work From Home (Likely Alone)
And the final tenth disadvantage of doing stock photography is that most of the time you will be working from home, likely alone. This may or may not be a disadvantage if you are not a people’s person and enjoy spending time by yourself working and learning new things. As I mentioned earlier, you will be spending a lot of time post-processing and keywording your content. You will need to find ways to make it as efficient as possible.
As for us, my wife and I teamed up early on and help each other with many aspects of stock photography work. If one gets sick and tired of keywording, the other can pick up the slack. We sometimes brainstorm video and photo ideas and bounce them off of each other. It would have been much lonelier to do all stock photography work by oneself. So, maybe you can find a partner or ask your significant other to help you with your work.
Those were our top ten disadvantages of doing stock photography. The final question is: should you do it? I cannot answer this question for you and the conclusion depends on your goals in life. The best you can do it is to have the cons and pros lined up next to each other and put weights for each item and see which side wins. In our personal experience, our aspiration to achieve financial freedom and love of photography beat all the cons.
What are your goals for doing stock photography and do you have any other positives or negatives to add to our list? Let us know in the comments section, as we are eager to hear what other fellow photographers think.