Stock Photography Business Tips

The business of photography most often has far less to do with photography than most people think. Questions about what to charge are the most common I get, and not only from those new to this. Many seasoned professionals also have problems with what to charge, especially for image usage that is outside of what they commonly do. This article will look at some of the fundamentals of the business of photography with an eye on stock photography.

Before you make any big financial decisions you should talk things over with a professional that understand your unique situation. Finding a good, local certified public accountant (CPA) is crucially important to any business. Getting your financial details set up correctly from the start is always a wise investment. Setting up an initial consultation with a CPA is typically not very expensive and most certainly worth it. If you’re not sure how to find a good CPA it’s a good idea to call some colleagues locally and ask them who they use.


True Cost of Doing Business

The basis of any business is to know your cost of doing business. This is actually a lot simpler than you might think. Figuring out your cost of doing business rarely takes more than a few hours. Here’s how:

Make a list of all your business expenses on a monthly basis. The details will vary depending on your unique situation but make certain that you really are adding up all your costs and expenses. This list will likely be a lot longer than you think it will be at first glance. Just some of the items that should go on this list are:

  1. Your monthly salary
  2. Social Security
  3. Insurance. Include health insurance, equipment insurance, liability insurance, vehicle insurance etc.
  4. Depreciation of your camera equipment.
  5. Money set aside for investing in new camera equipment.
  6. Retirement savings.
  7. Phone, Internet, and cellular phone costs.
  8. Funds for purchasing new and upgrading existing software.
  9. Funds set aside for investing in new office equipment.
  10. Funds set aside for equipment that needs to be replaced on a somewhat continuing basis such as camera bags, memory cards, etc.
  11. Postage and shipping costs.
  12. Office paper goods.
  13. Professional organization dues.
  14. Subscription fees to Photo.Net and for trade magazines
  15. Travel costs.
  16. Props for photography.
  17. Marketing costs.
  18. And so on…

By now you get the idea no doubt. There are a lot more costs to cover than people typically think of. In addition to the above are things unique to you. Some of my unique costs are things like protective gear, no not that kind of protective gear, I’m talking about things like ballistic vests, heavy duty boots, uniform clothing etc. I bet there are things that are unique to your situation too that you can add to the above list to make it even longer.
The point here is to make sure you’re really covering it all. Once you’ve done that and know what the various things will run you per month go ahead and add it all up. The enormous sum you arrive at is not the national debt but rather your monthly cost of doing business.
Once this is done, divide by 30 (for the average number of days per month that you as your own boss running your own business will end up working per month) and divide the result by 8, for 8 hours a day.

Now you have the sum per hour that you need to bring in to cover your costs. To this sum you’ll also add one more thing – the profit you want your business to make each month.


Reality Check

Knowing your true cost of doing business is helpful. You can use this knowledge to determine what to charge. Once you know that you need to bring in $xx.xx/hour you also know that to break even for a photo that takes one hour to make you need that charge $xx.xx for that photo.

Knowing the true cost of doing business can also be quite depressing if you’re having a hard time bringing enough money in. It is something you need to know to be able to run a successful photography business and in the long run you’ll be far better off knowing.
If you are having your day job paying for your photography, knowing your cost of doing business will at least make to able to see how much money you’re really shelling out. If you’re trying to decide if you are going to go pro or not, having this information is crucial.
The same goes for if you are working on a new or re-made business plan. Really understanding your costs will make it possible for you to create a realistic business plan that can prevent unpleasant economical surprises in the future.

One thing I often hear from folks who do this for the first time is that they are surprised by how much they need to bring in per hour. One detail that can help a little bit with this is to realistically extend your workday. I don’t know a single colleague that run a successful photography business that work only 8 hours a day 5 days a week. I kept track of my hours for a few months a couple of years back and averaged about 11 hours a day for 6 days a week.


Just for sake of argument, say that you need to bring in $10,000 per month to cover your true cost of doing business. This number is intentionally low and is set at $10k to make the math easier – I need all the help I can get in the math department. If you calculate on the average 22 days a month that gives us roughly $454.50 per day. In an 8 hour day it makes for $56.80 per hour. Instead if you work six days a week you end up working 26 days on average. The same $10,000/month is now $384.61/day.

Now, the problem is naturally that most photographers aren’t working for clients every day or every hour. Once you have experience and know how many days you actually work for clients a month you can start to figure out what a realistic day rate should be for you.
Again, the need is $10,000 per month. On average you’re hired to shoot two days a week, for a total of 8 full days of shooting per month. If that is your only source of income your full day rate for shooting is $10,000 divided by 8, or $1,250 per day.

Once you know what you need to bring in per day and can compare that with the going day rates in your area for the kind of photography you do you can start to see if this is viable for you or not. These numbers aren’t something you should discuss with your clients. These are for your own internal use only.


Jack of many trades

If you’re anything like the rest of us you’ll realize that things might not add up for you. Take myself for instance. I would love to be able to be out in the field photographing cops all the time. That’s what I love to do and I’d easily pull 12 to 14 hour days just doing that.
To make money from my images though I need to edit what I shoot.I need to caption images. I need to upload images to my own site and to the agencies I work with. I need to plan future shoots. I need to do invoicing. I need to market my images.

In other words, there’s a balance that needs to be arrived at. The actual making of images might be a smaller part of your photography business than you think.All these non-billable hours needs to be taken into account as well. No client will pay me for when I plan future shoots. Hence, I need to charge enough for my images not only to cover what I need to bring in per hour to cover my costs but also enough to cover those hours I can’t bill for.
This is why day rates and hourly rates might seem quite high. Take the above rate at $1,250/day for instance. It seems high to a casual observer. If you indeed worked 26 days a month and could bill your full day rate every day you’d bring in $32,500 every month.
You might also need to add a side-line to your shooting.


If your main business is weddings maybe you can’t book enough weddings to make ends meet so you also add portrait service as well as shooting events for the local chamber of commerce. In my case I also write and am fortunate enough to work with a wide variety of magazines and publishers. As a stock shooter this also helps because if there’s one thing many magazine editors absolutely love it is packages of text and images. Means less work for them and means it is a much easier sell for me.

If you’re not confident in your writing skills teaming up with a local writer might be a good plan that might bring some extra business your way.

Room for Savings

So once you know your true cost of doing business you might be in a bit of shock. There are good news though. Now you also know areas to target for savings!
Say that you budget $100/month for software. Now would be a good time to ask yourself if you really need to upgrade to the latest and greatest version of everything? Are there Open Source options available?

I recently wrote a savings guide for stock photographers that I will make available to those that want it. If you would like a copy e-mailed to you please contact me through Photo.Net (click on my name and send me a message) and I’ll e-mail you the PDF free of charge.
A few years back I got slightly irritated with my current book-keeping software. The software had lots of features I didn’t need and I ended up spending what I felt was eons of time entering information and setting things up I never used. When it came time to renew the license and upgrade to a current year model I decided to go completely luddite instead.
I talked to my CPA who was up for the idea as well – provided I did all the work. I got a 3-column journal at my local office supply store, made an invoice template in Open Office, and plopped fresh batteries in the calculator.


Here I must mention that the vast majority of my business is simple. I have preferred vendor agreements in place with most of the publishers I work with and prices are set for the most common usages. In other words, invoicing is a snap. I started simply making invoices in Open Office and e-mailing them as PDFs to the publishers. I pay everything I can by check or through my on-line bank. It is easy for me to keep track of money in and money out because my set-up is so uncomplicated. Because of this I got away with using my 3-column journal. I added one extra thin column on the left side of the pages and now had what basically amounts to a large check register.

Starting on the left side of the page I have a thin column for date, another thin column for check # or deposit/payment type, a wide column for Description, a regular column for In, a regular column for Out and a regular column for Balance. Very simple. Very fast. Very cheap – I think the journals run like $2 and one of those things last me at least two years.

This set-up obviously will not work for everyone. I have no need to run off reports. I send out a small enough number of invoices that I can easily keep track of when they are paid or if I need to mail reminder notices. Each tax-time I bring my home-made ledger/journal to my CPA along with all the paperwork (recites, copies of invoices, bank statements etc) and my own calculations. I end up spending about a day each year to run the numbers and prepare things for tax-time. For me it’s worth it not mainly because of the savings but rather because how much less complicated and frustrating things are now compared to when I was using accounting software.


Get It Right From the Start

When I consult with photographers starting their stock photography businesses one thing I often notice is the reluctance of consulting with others. I believe it to be hugely important for anyone in business to have a good working relationship with a good CPA. This is especially true when starting out or starting over.

A good CPA can help you get things get up correctly from the very beginning. There comes huge piece of mind with knowing that your finances are set up properly. Working with a good CPA will make a big positive impact on your business and is something I urge everyone to do.
Since the financial side of things can make or break your business quite easily it is crucial to get everything set up properly. Take such a seemingly small thing as sale tax and use tax. My wife work for the state department of Revenue here and her job is to inform businesses about sale tax and how to comply with current rules and regulations. That makes it easy for me to make sure I comply, but this is something you should absolutely talk to your CPA about.


Did you know that if your state has sales tax it very likely also have what is commonly known as use tax? This means that if you purchase something from out of state, say a new camera from B&H, and B&H doesn’t collect the sale tax because you live outside the state of New York, it is your responsibility to pay the use tax to your state department of revenue? I certainly didn’t know this when I started out and had it not been for my wife I doubt that I would have found this out by myself unless I was audited. Things like this a good CPA will make sure you’re doing right. We’re talking small sums (in Nebraska the state sale (and use) tax is 5.5% so on a $1,000 camera it’s $55. But added up over a few years and having fines and interest tacked on at an audit would make it sizable. One of the main reasons to get set up with a good CPA is to avoid these minor things that can turn into major irritations.
The same goes for getting your business set up properly. Talk to a local attorney. If you’re fortunate enough to have a local chapter of Attorneys for the Arts you should be able to hire one for a reduced rate.



Taking the time to get things right from the start really pays off. To know how much your time is worth you need to know and understand your expenses and costs. It is a lot less complicated than most people think and a process most certainly worth the time and effort to go through.

Simply thinking about your business in a cost-efficient manner can make a lot of difference. My inner geek hates the guts of my inner CPA for simply pausing and asking if I really need whatever new gadget or piece of software I’m currently drooling over.

In future articles here on we’ll be looking at many other aspects related to the business of photography. Future topics include: negotiate licensing fees with photo buyers, how go get access to areas normally not that easy to get into, and how to select an agency to work with. If you have ideas of other topics you would like to see covered, please make your topic suggestions in the comments area below.


Originally an investigative reporter in Sweden, Mikael Karlsson worked for many years
covering neo-Nazism, organized crime, international organized crime, armed conflicts and other similar topics, based in Europe and the Middle East mainly but working with a global scope. Mike picked up photography by necessity when no photographers could be found to assist on a series of articles in the Middle East and the photography aspect grew over the years. Early on after moving to the United States in 1998, Mike’s focus turned to law enforcement. He wrote an article about criminal street gangs, but had trouble finding good up-to-date stock images to illustrate his points, and Karlsson soon discovered his niche. Starting out covering only law enforcement working mainly with the Street Narcotics Unit and the Gang Squad of Kansas City, MO, PD Karlsson soon added Corrections (prisons), Forensics and similar topics to the coverage. In addition to crime and law enforcement photography, Mike produces numerous reports and guides on editorial stock photography for PhotoSource International, in addition to offering consulting services on the same. He also writes for a small group of trade magazines in his native Sweden. You can find out more by visiting his website

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    • Sales taxes in most states are mostly likely not enforced especially if involves buying used gear on ebay. I have known pro's that have not paid one dime in sales tax and he runs bird tour all over the world. He even give advice of people to buy their gear out of state they do not have to pay taxes in it. Either he does not know and he out to cheat the system. Who could blame him, the states waste our tax dollars anyway, is a just a little for them to waste when someone make a few big purchases out of state though out the year.

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    • The Lemonade Fasting begins with preparing the Lemonade. During the fasting, you will only eat the Lemonade that you act apiece day.  In status to assure that it is rested and present prolong as such of the nutrients and healthiness as achievable, you should read the Lemonade each day in the farewell.


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    • -"$10,000 per month to cover your true cost of doing business. This number is intentionally low..."-

      And now go figure why micro-stock sites, the ones selling your pictures for $1.00 or even less, are a real pain in the neck !!!

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    • If you divide your overhead costs by 30 and then by 8 you are making the assumption that you can bill for every minute of every working day. You can't. You can bill for maybe 70 percent of that time. So, your hourly rate has to be overhead costs per month divided by 30, divided by 5.6 (which is 8 hours minus 30 percent non-billable time). Non-billable time is things like phone calls, talking to people, and other things you must do but cannot bill for. It would be nice if you could bill for 8 hours a day every day,but it is just not realistic. If you calculate your hourly rate the way this article says, you will lose money.

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