The world of stock photography has grown tenfold in the last few years, and the large print archives of the past have been replaced by even larger archives that contain millions of digital image files from professional and non-professional photographers alike. For some, this change has caused a lot of heartburn, while others see it as an opportunity unfolding in front of them in the stock photography industry.

Food Stock
Sweet rolls on a white plate with natural window light. Image via Christopher Kimball Photography

Two Sides to the Argument

Let’s start with the general landscape of the stock photography industry and introduce two sides of the arguement.

Free Stock Photo of an “Argument”

For the professional photographer, the opinions are typically mixed. On one side, the photographer stands to make some money selling images through stock agencies, but on the other side, many feel that these micro stock agencies are lowering the value of the images and making it harder to make a living as a photographer.  Recently, companies like Pexels and Unsplash are offering free stock photos, which is one more step in the direction of devaluation.  However, the old adage of “you get what you pay for” seems to apply to this scenario because paid stock images typically have much higher quality.  In addition, those images will be much more rare and less likely to be seen on a myriad of other sites and ads.

The argument has been ongoing for many years and will likely continue for many more. It reminds me a little bit of the old argument about shooting on spec — and guess what — crowd sourcing is growing by leaps and bounds with more photographers jumping on board every day. At its core, it is similar to that old spec model that we all feared.

Who is the Stock Photo Industry For?

Today, the micro stock, or stock, industry is filling up with talented photographers, many of whom are choosing to work full-time at creating images on their terms and in a style that suits them so they can sell those images through one or many different stock agencies. If you consider the benefits of shooting stock alongside other work, it may become harder to dismiss it so easily.

Some of the advantages that have come out of the expansion of the stock sites are:

  • Castoff Images – Photographers have a market for what would otherwise be castoff images. Those images that the client just did not like for one reason or another may make great stock images — and guess what? You already got paid to create them.
  • Freedom – Shooting stock allows you to create the images YOU want to create. The downside to this is that if you want to shoot images that no one has a need for, they may never sell. It is a roll of the dice whether you can really do this AND make money at it.
  • Fill Time – Stock sessions can fill slow days in the studio and offer you a chance to experiment with new or different techniques. Let’s face it, the client that is paying your $900 day rate sure doesn’t want you trying something you saw on YouTube or just heard about at a workshop, but you could create these images on your downtime then sell them as stock to pay for the time you spent shooting.

The truth is that this list could go on and on.  As a food photographer, it is almost standard that some of the images I create for each client just don’t make the cut for one reason or another. These are great images for my stock portfolio, and unless I have a contract that specifies otherwise, they will be uploaded and sold many times over.

Chinese Park Ribs
Pork ribs marinating in Chinese rib sauce. Image via Christopher Kimball Photography

Sure, there are downsides. The sheer number of images needed in a photographer’s portfolio to remain relevant and compete in the stock arena is mind-boggling. The truth is that you will need at least 1000 images in your portfolio just to be a player on the field in this game. If you have the images and the stamina to maintain a portfolio like this, stock can be a great way to make yourself some extra money.

Give it a try yourself to see if it fits your style. Who knows, you might just be the next great stock photographer.  Have you had good experience with stock photography?   What are your thoughts?  Let us know in the comments below.