Stock or assignment - what's right for me?

Some photographers exclusively produce either stock or assignment photography; some engage in both types of production; and many photographers shoot assignments that also generate stock photographs. Deciding which path to follow is a matter of understanding the effective differences between stock and assignment photography

Covering the cost of your operation

In assignment photography you don’t make photographs until someone orders them. Consequently, someone else pays for the work that you do within a short time after completion. The commissioning party pays all direct and indirect costs of production of the photographs. Stock production photography is self-assigned work. You must cover the production costs and the related overhead. This requires having enough capital on hand to meet those costs. The only way that you can recover your costs is by the future sale of your stock images. The images must sell at high enough fees to not only cover your costs but also to make a profit so you can stay in business.  It is important to understand that it can years to accumulate enough marketable stock photographs to earn an income that can pay the start up and ongoing costs of the business.

To be a successful stock producer you must have good insights into the future needs of the marketplace. You must produce trendy images before the need to assure that you have adequate time to have them visible in the marketplace when the actual need for such images arises. That is risky business. Very few photographers are successful in the stock production business. Those who are successful are so because they understand the imaging needs that drive the market.

Combining stock and assignment work

Photographers who direct some effort at assignment production and some at stock production usually want additional revenues that stock could produce but do not want the risk that the stock producer has to take. Revenues from their assignment business support their stock effort to shoot and sell stock photos.

The success of generating stock images from assignment work is dependent on the kind of assignments you shoot. Many photographs are not suitable for stock. If your assignments will expose you to subject matter that will have stock value, then you must retain the necessary rights you need to be able to market it. Your clients’ policies about rights will be varied. Most advertising and corporate clients do not want photos of their products, services, or personnel published without their approval, and they don’t want to be bothered by giving approvals. Some will allow the use of generic images taken on assignment for them. Editorial clients usually want non-exclusive usage so images on those assignments are good candidates for stock.

Financial risks

Since the client pays the fees and costs of assignment photography, the assignment photographer’s need for working capital can be less than the need of the stock production photographer. More capital needed to operate a business means more capital at risk. We can generalize that stock production puts more of the photographer’s capital at risk. Let’s look at the financial risks for assignment and stock photography producers.

The assignment photographers risk is that he will not be paid for an assignment. That could $200, $2,000, or much more.  But the loss of capital in such a situation is limited to the production costs that had to be paid out of pocket to do the work done.  That is less than the price, and not being paid can be guarded against with good business practices.

For the stock photographer the cost of making the images that end up on the market is similar to that of the assignment photographer, but the risk is greater because at the time of production there is no client to buy them. Eventually there might be assuming your photographs will appeal to a buyer.

The statistic I most hear quoted is that only 2 to 5 percent of a stock file actually ever licenses to clients. That means 100 percent of your production costs will have to be covered by 2 to 5 percent of your marketable images. If you license stock through a stock agency, you will pay a commission of 40 to 50 percent to the agency. So your images will have to earn $2.00 for each dollar of production cost to cover that expense. The stock photograph business is highly price competitive and there is an oversupply of stock images. Those conditions generally drive licensing fees down. When you add the low cost of micro stock to the mix, it makes matters worse.


Stock photography is a form of speculation. Can you afford to speculate? If you cannot, I’d suggest you stick to assignment photography and stay away from producing stock. The best solution is probably to mix your output. Shoot assignments, cull stock from those assignments that offer the opportunity, and produce stock when it is feasible and affordable to do so. That said, I think most photographers would be wise to maintain a healthy assignment business, and to continue to do so until they have a substantial understanding of the stock photography business which has undergone dramatic changes in recent years and is likely to continue to do so.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by or any affiliated companies.


Total comments: 15
By VincentPaulRevo (10 months ago)

Id say to do both! I know it's a lot of work and it really depends on the situation but to have the chance to get together a stock portfolio that earns for you while your taking on assignments is going to really help you out.

By bcalkins (Nov 3, 2011)

Interesting that you chose to use a Microstock image to illustrate this article... Personally I think that this is exactly the niche microstock should be filling - but curious if that was a conscious choice or not, given the content of the article?

1 upvote
By Tape5 (Nov 2, 2011)

To sell photographs you love to take is like selling the body you love to be intimate with. so either be prepared to be intimate with a lot of bodies and selling them cheap ( and yes many can do that ) or shoot for the love of it and get another job to pay the bills or the BMW.
keep things separate. Life is too short.

By Damuta (Nov 2, 2011)

After reading this article I find it hard to see how it will help someone that is trying to make the decision to go pro. Being a 'Pro' means you get paid for your work. This usually also means this is what you do for a living. Semi-Pro means you do this as well as something else. Amateur means you do this for fun and sometimes for a little cash to cover cost/make some $$ for your 'enthusiasm' and 'not fully developed skills'. Amateur doesn't mean you don't know what your doing, it just means your skills aren't as polished as the 'semi-pro/Pro'. I've taken a few wedding gigs, with my old film slr and only got paid for my 'costs' (it was a favor for a friend) I don't consider myself a pro. I'm an amateur that will someday be semi-pro/pro if I feel like it. And that means I will take pictures of what I want to. If you don't love what your doing it's a job. If you love it then it's just fun you get paid to have. Running out of space so I'll leave it at that.

Jeff Greenberg
By Jeff Greenberg (Nov 2, 2011)

"the assignment photographer’s need for working capital can be less than the need of the stock production photographer."

This writer's frequent references to "stock production" implies released COMMERCIAL stock. Non-released stock primarily for editorial use is a mostly distinct genre with big differences, where one can build a large salable collection by devoting mostly time & very little overhead if one starts out by covering subjects & situations in one's home territory, then after the $$ starts rolling in, take some of that to cover expenses related to further distances or local non-free photo opportunities.

1 upvote
Richard Weisgrau
By Richard Weisgrau (Nov 3, 2011)

Certainly editorial stock has low costs (primarily time) associated with it. Of course, it also has low licensing fees since without releases it can only be used for editorial purposes. Those are low paying uses. Additionally, the market for editorial stock is shrinking rapidly in the print publication market while growing in the Internet publication realm. Internet editorial use is among the lowest paid use in the business. A good stock file can be built at low cost in editorial but the payback is very small unless one has great content that is in demand. Remember that the vast majority of editorial images are not timeless and have a much shorter sales life than promotional stock.

Richard Katris
By Richard Katris (Nov 2, 2011)

as always Richard knows what he is talking about. Of the comments, some interesting points have been made, first, the importance of specializing and building a reputation in a niche field. and second the benefits of being your own stock agency rather than splitting with a Microstock for pennies on the dollar.

Sure you may have less exposure, but your income becomes 100% of what you sell. Good business practices...required as well.

Many photographers grasp at any offer for remuneration (even just credit) without gauging their true costs of production...esp. part timers. What photography needs is people with the stomach to turn down offers that verge on slavery wages.

Your images need to be better than your competition, you have to offer better service, and you hope unique images that will influence the buyer to go outside their comfort zone (right now often zero) financially to purchase your images.

1 upvote
By maboleth (Nov 1, 2011)

I totally agree. Especially Microstock. That's a slavery. Initially, they take like 60-70% of the shown price. That's ridiculous. Also, they pretty much thrive on the photographers that work/live in developing countries where assignments aren't on the regular basis or paid well.

By dcdigitalphoto (Nov 2, 2011)

Actually the top (micro)stock site takes 80-85% of income for non-exclusives. Even the very top exclusives only get 55%. Having said that a fair number of people seem to make a living and at times a very good living out of it (we're talking $200K+ after expenses). On top of that there are thousands who make more than enough to sustain an expensive hobby from a couple hours of effort a week. Sure it's not a profession, but for many it's enough to be self-sustaining.

By maboleth (Nov 2, 2011)

You are right, 80-85% is correct, but that make things even worse. Lets talk about majority of people "working" for microstock. Because those that earn $200K+ are so rare, it's almost like the people that won the lottery. The majority however are struggling to get anything back. The image inspection is uneven and sometimes ridiculous. You are working for the agency that takes 80-85% of already ridiculously low prices. If you want something to sell, well, the production behind you must be on the higher level. From shooting to developing. Yet you don't know IF it's going to sell at all. And lets assume you tried but didn't succeed or you gave up - they pay you when you reach at least $100. That means, if I give up or I'm unable to satisfy the market and earned like 70$, I won't get anything. That means that even those images that I've sold and earned on them just 20%, I WON'T get paid! In the same time, the agency already took 80% of the price. Sorry, this is a slavish business.

By dcdigitalphoto (Nov 2, 2011)

Certainly the majority of people struggle to get anything back, but as the article states it is something you have to build over time. I sell through iStock and even with their high cut percentage, I'm making around $1 per image per month on a portfolio of <1000 images and that is with a few hours of effort per month. Certainly it hasn't always been like that, and it has been a slow build over a few years and I'm not saying that if I scaled that to full time the income would scale as well, but if you work at it consistently, the rewards are there. I know of half a dozen people in my peer group (those who started at about the same time) who are now doing it full time and making a decent living out of it. I can't imagine doing it full time myself, but you don't have to be a stock machine to make a go of it as long as you're smart about it and work hard - but then isn't that the same as any job!

By microstockposts_com (Nov 4, 2011)

"Also, they pretty much thrive on the photographers that work/live in developing countries.."

This comment is based entirely on supposition. As I am aware, most microstockers work and live in Western countries. Most don't make a living from it (it's a difficult market to succeed in now), but there are plenty that do it for some extra cash.

It is ridiculous that the agencies take most of the cut. But like any market with little or no regulation, greed is virtually inevitable. If anyone thinks that a business will take actions to make sure that things are running fairly for all parties concerned on it's own, well some do, but most won't. And as most of these agencies are Western owned, they are yet another example of how the contemporary approach in regards the economy and society, just isn't that good.

By maboleth (Nov 4, 2011)

Fair enough, I agree what you said dcdigital. My point was only what microstockposts said - there's no regulation in that market right now.

By CameraLabTester (Nov 1, 2011)

Stock is a mirage which every photographer should realize.

The general population have more chances of turning an income on a niche market they discover themselves or dug up by hard work.

The playing field of stock photography have dramatically changed for the last 3 to 4 decades. The potential market is literally flooded with so much options, the chances of being noticed is catastrophically almost nil, unless boosted by factors such as connections and notoriety.

By IcyVeins (Nov 1, 2011)

Great article, there have been so many about how to take photographs but so few about how to make money doing it. I would love to have more articles about different types of assignment photography and their various advantages and disadvantages.

Total comments: 15