Stock photography is where photographers toss their work into a collective bin, called a stock agency, and people who need a photo to use for an advertisement or other purpose rummage through that bin looking for it.
It's called stock because it's in stock, compared to having to hire a photographer to go shoot exactly what they need.
I've never had the organizational skills to submit work to stock agencies. I thought about it in the 1970s, and gave up.
In the old days (pre-internet), stock agencies served to bring together buyers and sellers and organize everything so it could be found.
The difficulty in locating a particular image and the limited availability of stock images and agencies kept the prices high.
The guys who made money were able to keep submitting a lot of the work that these agencies needed each month. They need images you can imagine as being used as a background for an ad. These are the photos of a guy in an airport on the phone while looking at his watch. They are not photos of flowers or sunsets.
People who do stock complain that the money's not in it anymore.
The Internet and digital cameras remove the transactional friction that kept the price high. It also lets buyers find the images they need almost instantly.
I write this article today, May, 2006, because in one of my television advertising production magazines I saw an ad from istockphoto.com. They were advertising images for a dollar each with no restrictions. I looked at their site, and lo and behold, you can get unlimited eternal use of any of their images for a dollar each, at web sizes. Want the image with enough resolution for a full page magazine ad? That's a whole five bucks.
istockphoto has a funny page showing what shots they do and don't need here.
The best photo is a bunch of people in suits engaging in some sort of sport while consuming food and beverage, all rallied around some concept like an idea. The worst photo is the shadow of your dog in front of a brick wall at sunset with flowers in the forest.
If I wanted to do stock, I'd set up my own automated site to sell it, and start reaping in a dollar a shot, before expenses. Most people would sign up and give their images to someone else's site. You'll get paid 20 cents for each dollar image they sell. Wow.
Think you're going to get rich by submitting 1,000 images each month and letting them float? istockphoto.com says they post 14,000 new images every week! Think they're the only stock agency? Have a look at the ads to the right. Click refresh, and you'll probably see ads from even more stock places.
If you want to make money in stock the way to do it would be by arbitrage. Start a site and resell the works of others. I would also opine that being the software engineer who codes these websites would be far more lucrative than submitting images to them. Stock photo sites are everywhere. I just happened to see this one advertised someplace that people who actually buy stock will see.
Call me a naysayer, but this doesn't seem like a way to make money. I've always made money by differentiating myself. Stock is the antithesis of differentiation.
Say "NO!" all you want to royalty-free websites like istockphoto.com and the royalty-free discs of several years ago, but so long as enough photographers say YES! to submitting to these folks that will set the market price. This is exactly why I'm too chicken to mess with stock: enough others submit their work for nothing, so no one is going to pay me any more.
Today many of the few images I have on my site pop up first at Google's image search, and I get requests from people wanting to use the images. Of course when they learn my rates they go elsewhere.
This is why I'm especially not getting into stock sales today. Why would anyone buy from me if they can get almost as good for a buck? People who buy these photos are cheap because they can be. If they have top dollar they'll hire someone to shoot exactly what they want. If not, they can get close enough for a buck. If they want better, they can go to Getty Images. Getty sells the good stock photos.
I also hear that Getty just bought istockphoto. That's another thing: Getty is buying up everything in stock and causing lots of whining from photographers.