Anatomy of a Christmas Stock Photography Shoot

I am not primarily a stock photographer, but I do contribute to a few stock agencies (primarily Stocksy United).  Right now, I mostly see stock photography as a way to earn passive income by leveraging leftover photography from paid gigs or personal work into additional revenue streams.

It’s pretty sweet to check your stock photography stats and find out that you just earned some extra cash from work that would otherwise just be sitting on a hard drive somewhere.

However, every once in a while I do go out to specifically shoot stock photography.

In this article, I am going to share the anatomy of a recent Christmas stock photography shoot.

Christmas Stock Photo Christmas Stock Photography Woman with Christmas Tree

Access Is the Key to Great Stock Photography

I don’t have a lot of Christmas themed work in my stock portfolio, and a lot of the Christmas stock out there is very cheesy – kind of like what it would look like if the Walmart Christmas section exploded and landed on white seamless with a lot of fake sparkles and the occasional scantily clad elf / Mrs. Claus thrown in – so I figured shooting some tasteful, elegant Christmas stock photos might be a good investment. 

I’m not really a lifestyle family photographer either, but I seem to do a good enough job with my own kids, so I figured what the heck!  The concept for this session was to photograph a real family (albeit an attractive and impeccably dressed family), in a high end home, decorated with trendy, tasteful Christmas decorations.

To pull that together I needed a trendy, attractive family who were willing to sign model releases, and who live in an awesome trendy, attractive house, with trendy, attractive Christmas decor.

So I asked my interior decorator (who just happens to be working on my own house right now) if she had any clients that have a great looking home that might be willing to model for some Christmas stock photos, in exchange for a few prints.

Lo and behold – she had just the family who had just finished completely remodelling their house – and a few nicely worded emails later – I had access.

Christmas stock photo christmas stock photography happy family at home

Family Photo Day

In exchange for access, I did promise this family some free photos – and as much as any family would love some awesome photos of themselves hanging out together and (pretending) to decorate the Christmas tree, what they really want is family photos.

As it turned out, what this particular family really wanted was a group picture for their Christmas card and some fun portraits for a photo wall in their amazingly well decorated sitting room.  We’ll come back to this later.

I was more than happy to take some lifestyle family photos while I was there.  The setup was very straight forward, but I did have to make a conscious effort not to let the whole session turn into family photo day.

Christmas stock photo, christmas stock photography little girl with christmas lights

Return on Investment from Stock Photography

The whole point of this session was to come away with a series of Christmas stock photos that will make money – I don’t push that little button for free.

Here is a simple breakdown of the time I had invested in this session:

Email Correspondence: 1h
Pack Up and Put Away Gear: 1.5h
Driving: 2h
Photography Session: 2.5h
Culling and Initial Edits: 1h
Advanced Edits: 1h
Uploading and Keywording 1h


That all adds up to a total investment of ten hours of my time (in realty it is probably a bit more than this).

christmas stock photo christmas stock photography woman with christmas decorations

My billable rate is $100 / h so I need to gross a minimum of $1000 in stock sales over the lifespan of the images I produced from this session. 

(By the way – if right now you’re reading $100 per hour and you’re thinking something like “how dare that guy make $100 per hour, I’m better than him”…we need to have a chat about calculating your billable rate).

Out of the 2.5h of shooting time I had, I came away with maybe 10-20 solid Christmas stock photos.

I also estimate that the lifespan of the images from this session is approximately five years, after which time fashions will change, popular color schemes will evolve and the people and things in these photos will no longer be as desirable as they are now.

So that means that I have to make on average $200 per year for five years from this set of 10-20 photographs.

Right now I average about $15 per download, (which has been fairly consistent from month to month), so that means I need to sell about 13 photos per year for five years out of a set of 10-20 photos in order to break even.

Unfortunately, based on my current sales records, that is not a very realistic goal.

In reality, I will be lucky to sell one or two photos from this session every Christmas season for the next five years.

As purely a stock session, the bottom line is that I am going to take a pretty big loss here.  I might get lucky and hit a few $100 sales, but the realistic projection is grossing no more than a few hundred bucks long term from this session.

christmas stock photo christmas stock photography woman with wine glass

Additional Revenue Streams

Remember when I mentioned that my model family wanted a photo for their Christmas card? 

Well, it turns out that they are genuinely cool people who happen to be pretty well-heeled.  I am assuming that they will have some similarly cool and well-heeled friends and relatives who own all kinds of interesting businesses that could use a good photographer.  So I sent them a free photo for their Christmas cards.  That’s what I call free advertising.

Remember when I mentioned that they wanted photos for a photo wall too?

While I was there I took a look at their room – which is a gorgeous, professionally decorated sitting room.  I told them – nah – you don’t want a few crappy little 8×10 prints in little department store frames – you want big, beautiful fine art giclee, quad-toned black and white photos printed on textured Hahnemuhle Torchon paper, in custom no-glass frames with oversized mats.

Go figure – that was exactly what they wanted, and I stand to make quite a bit more from that sale then I ever will from stock sales from the same set of photos.

christmas stock photo christmas stock photography mother and daughter decorating christmas tree

Do You Make Money From Stock Photography?

If you shoot stock, what is your rate of return?  How many stock sales do you need to break even on a stock session?  Has a free stock shoot led to a paid gig down the road?

Leave a comment and let us know.

About The Author

JP Danko is a commercial photographer based in Toronto, Canada. JP can change a lens mid-rappel, swap a memory card while treading water, or use a camel as a light stand.

To see more of his work please visit his studio website blurMEDIAphotography, or follow him on Twitter, 500px, Google Plus or YouTube.

JP’s photography is available for licensing at Stocksy United.

  • Wolfmeyer

    Don’t you think that investing $1000 in marketing (instead of this not so great stock shooting) would bring you much more revenue (and with much less effort)? Well, I do.

  • Clayton Finley

    I know i’m gonna catch crap, but this is more photo entitlement nonsense. “I spent X amount of time on this so i should get a $XXXX return” when in reality, the only value it was for the advert and whatever income you get off your stock photos and the framing sales.

    • Joel Penner

      I think professional photographers often forget a basic fact of business: just because you need a certain amount to make numbers look right and to make a living does NOT mean the market will give you that or values you that much.

      • Clayton Finley

        Yeah, i’m just hoping for the sake of the article he simplified the numbers. If he charged this family $1000, they would be shocked to find out they were charged $200 for him to drive, another $150 for him to put his things in his car, and another $100 of talking to the client before he even had the job. If he can pull that off he should seriously take up selling used cars as a profession. By this logic my last photo shoot I should have charged the family about $4-500 for some christmas card photos.

    • Andy

      I agree… mainly to bolster your point that a photo’s value is only what someone will pay for it. But I believe the author meant to explain that the photographer needs to keep that in mind and compare it to what he thinks his time is worth. If they don’t line up, then the photographer needs to look elsewhere for jobs (or change what he thinks his labor is worth).

      • Clayton Finley

        or don’t shoot stock photos that are only relevant 1 month out of the year.

  • Andy

    The numbers seem OK to me when I look at them from this angle: If the time I spent doing anything associated with the shoot was instead spent at my day job, I would certainly have gotten $100 per hour in pay, health insurance, dental insurance, vision insurance, life insurance, 401k matching, free coffee in the kitchen, year-end bonuses, and so on. Now, since I have a day job and all those incidentals are taken care of, I wouldn’t need to charge for them and wouldn’t expect anyone to pay for them. However, if photography *were* my day job, I would need to charge a rate high enough to pay myself a salary while also paying that health insurance bill, that dental insurance bill, that vision insurance bill, and so on.

    In other words, I don’t feel that I’m entitled to that money and I don’t believe the author does either. We just know that we shouldn’t take a job for less if we expect to maintain our quality of life.

  • Troll Police

    ^^^^ Note 78 prior posts from this spammer troll saying exactly the same thing.

    • udi tirosh


  • Paul Davies

    I thought he said his photos were not cheesy! The only thing missing is horrendous Christmas jumpers! Oh and well over priced and rated.