Broken Promises and Stock Photography

The stock photography industry has to face the challenge of becoming relevant in an economy that has no patience for inadequate business models.

Today the vast majority of photographs are used without any contact with the traditional photo industry, which has completely lost control of production and distribution. But the industry continues stubbornly to apply old rules to this new landscape. It does not see, or purposely wants to ignore, that their model does not fit current needs and thus is chasing customers away.

It still hopes to enforce the antiquated rights-managed model on a space that obviously is not adapted to negotiate every usage, every fee, every image and where everyone is a publisher. It has failed to understand that in a world of Twitter, Tumblr, WordPress, Pinterest and Facebook, the client universe has changed from a few publishers to almost everyone in the world.

Agencies, Photographers Once Ruled

There was a time when the only two places one could find images were a photo agency and through a photographer. Back then photo agencies and independent photographers controlled production, as they decided what to shoot as well as where and how. This is no longer the case, and hasn’t been, actually, for a long time.

Take Flickr, for example. It has, and for a long time, offered a new channel of distribution to anyone looking for images, whether free or paying. Sure, Getty Images has tried to put the lid on that massive leak but with little success. The majority of images on Flickr are used without ever passing through a Getty representative. Why? Because they use Creative Commons, a licensing tool that exists outside of the photo industry, invented and used simply because existing ones were inadequate.

Spend some time on Facebook and ask yourself if any of the images you see have been licensed (or even if permission was sought). A study by PACA showed that 8 out of 10 images on the web are stolen (that is, used without permission).

Production? It has also been a long time since pro photographers and photo agencies had any control. They have massively been overtaken by the decisions of the masses, who now dictate to the photo industry the type of images that are successful.

Industry Reaction Repeated Mistakes

The traditional photo industry has attempted to react in numerous ways, first by accepting this new source of production in their tradition distribution channel: microstock. Most stock photo agencies have lowered their bar of entry and are accepting submissions by non-professional photographers, forever changing the production landscape.

In order to compete with the widening distribution channel, they also have increased dramatically their offering. While a traditional photo agency used to keep a few tens of thousands of photographs maximum, they now are in the tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions. And that’s still a speck of sand in the overall universe of available images.

They have also, repeating the mistakes of peers (RIAA), tried to engage image thieves in hopeless lawsuits. While some have anecdotal success here and there, the vast majority, here again, simply do not have the manpower and resources to fight back. It is a self-defeating process, as it will never be an effective solution against sharing. Piracy, you see, is not about stealing but accessibility. People do not steal images because they are evil; they steal because they are no practical alternatives if they want to use an image they like.

‘Lawsuits or Despair’

We have switched from the “one to many” (one magazine, millions of readers) model to many to many (millions of users sharing with millions of users). Everyone is a publisher. Royalty Free might seem a little better adapted, but most images end up being used hundreds, if not thousands of times without the owner ever knowing it. The stock industry is horribly ill-adapted to the current market. And, instead of adapting, it is fighting it. Sounds very much like the dinosaur scenario to me.

Take, for example, the absurdity of trying to sue over every copyright infringement. It borders on complete insanity. If people steal your images it is because they like them. For some reason, they either can’t pay for them (too expensive) or cannot find who to pay (poor accessibility). Rather than find a way to accommodate this huge opportunity with a creative licensing solution, the industry reacts with lawsuits or despair.

If the photo industry wants to survive, it has to quickly understand that it is not the amateurs who are taking their bread and butter but their own infantile stubbornness.

19 Responses to “Broken Promises and Stock Photography”

  1. Is it too late to invent a new model? For example, a stock image file could require an active, embedded 'key' (paid thru an online license) to display. This would require some smarter browser software. Or perhaps all stock files must be served from the stock licensing service. Perhaps license is paid by viewer, rather than host.

    Certainly the current model is not self-sustaining.

  2. It's hard to read black type on dark gray background. :-/

  3. Well said.

  4. Will,

    It is never too late to innovate and your idea is interesting. The question is would user pay to see an image they have yet to see ? What would be their incentive ?
    One solution is certainly in the image travelling with it's own embedded licensing solution or, at worst, linking back to a place where you can find an easy way to license the image. But then again, it is just trying to replicate the "pay per usage" model.

    When you go to the market, no one asks you what you intend to do with with those fresh tomatoes before deciding how much to charge you . In the RM stock photo industry, they do.

  5. Articles like this are all the same. They criticize the current system or the current players, but they don't give the answer either. Anyone can see we need a 'creative solution'. Suggest one rather than just repeating that!

  6. Dear Johan,

    I do not give free business advice. I have plenty of suggestions but, same as your images, they are not for free public consumption.

  7. Would agree with Johan. Am equally tired of listening to the issue being raised. The issue has been raised. We agree as an industry that new business models are needed but nobody has come up with anything worthwhile. While the article is well written it leaves me with no new information.

  8. Beate,

    The first step of every business that is not performing well should be to revisit their business model from the ground up and understand why there is friction with the marketplace. Then you look for answers. Each business has its own culture and no answer works for all. To write a blog post and say : "you should do this" without discrimination to the type and background of each business would be close to criminal and certainly not my area of expertise.

    There are answers, there are solutions, there are options and alternatives. However, there are no magical wand you can purchase with a dose of "you can make it" potion.

    It is not my role to explain to businesses how to exit their torpor. I leave that to snake oil merchants and other coaches that rely on a vast catalogue of pre-chewed obvious business cliches and endless self-congratulatory back patting.

  9. Our world of stock photography is emerging from the dark caverns of the last century. What with all those chemicals and celluloid back then, it wasn’t always pleasant to spend time and breathe vapors in a blackened room. And the filing the transparencies was a tedious job… and locating them was worse.
    Plus there was the delivery problem. Thanks to lost slides, UPS and FedEx managed to give a lot of steady work to attorneys.
    No one will argue that in those days, buying and selling stock photography was not as glamorous as the images being bought and sold.
    Today. the digital age has destroyed stock photography as we knew it. Thank God.
    Along came digital and good stock photography. Good photographers popped up like dandelions in a crowded Kansas landscape. Everyone became both photographer, and, yes, publisher. And digital technology advanced also.

    But the creative types in the image world have missed an integral element. This element has received meager application: text. Yes, text.

    Decades from now, photo researchers will look back and smile when they learn that back in the ol’ days (today), a person eyeballed scores/hundreds of images when making a search for a photo.
    The practice of eyeball searching for images will soon disappear in favor of text-centric systems that will employ long tail keyword search phrases, highlighted for the ease of the searcher.
    Will today’s photographers oblige and begin building robust descriptions of each of their images? At first, few will. But those photographers who don’t will see they’re being passed by, that photobuyers are using keyword trails to land at sites where forward-thinking photographers have listed full-bodied text descriptions of their photos. This will bring more and more photographers into the text-centric search world.

    And that’s only the beginning of the text-centric world the new digital photographer will live in. When the photographer retires, his/her collection of 100,000 exquisite images will die if they are not long-tail keyworded. His or her heirs will find the image collection useless to try to sell, or even donate to a university or museum, because of the lack of identifying data about each photo.
    Advanced Google search, and even more sophisticated algorithms, will be developed. Get ready. Phoenix is about to rise again, thanks to the capabilities of search engines. Welcome back stock photographers!

  10. Rohn, as always I appreciate your brilliance! Yes, I agree, there have been very interesting changes on Google that are making me cautiously optimistic that we will see very serious favoritism toward content creators versus distributors in our near future.

  11. Trying to figure out how to sell to freetards ("everything should be free except how I make my money") and to the visually illiterate masses is an exercise in futility. Worrying about how to monetize one's images among the billions easily accessed on the Internet is a fool's game.

    The real-world basics for trying to make a living with professional stock photography are the same as they have been since the well-funded industry-changing digiots and conglomerates took over and began to swing their wrecking balls wildly about 15 years ago: 1. Make (or distribute) unique images that will appeal to actual potential buyers who use such images (and forget everyone else). 2. Tightly control access to your images (for goodness sake, keep them off the social media and photo sharing sites). 3. Protect your copyright (images are virtually valueless on the Internet unless you do this). 4. Be highly selective in marketing/selling only to targeted buyers/users (again, everyone else only wastes your time in the polluted atmosphere of today's world). 5. Price fairly for specific uses (RM, or forget having a stock future of more than a few years). 6. Maintain your relationships with your buyers/users.

    Carl May

  12. Rohn : Could you elaborate on what is the " long tail keyword search phrases" that is going to save the stock photography world ?

    Carl : and how is that working for you ?

  13. Very interesting debate. I agree with Carl that a tight relationship with buyers who are interested in your particular niche specialism is a great plan (and one that Rohn will agree with as well, I think), but for someone entering the industry it is extremely difficult to do that. We must be very careful not to fall into the trap that the music and film industries walked into - ie "How can we make $200M films if everyone steals them for free" when the real question is how can we make films and have methods of distribution that meet the needs of the consumer. People want fast and easy access to information and most are willing to pay what they think that access is worth - we need to have an approach that makes the supply of images economically satisfactory to us as photographers.

    I chose the microstock/midstock route. I had never sold my images at $2000, and so getting $0.36 was more than I had ever received before! As I saw the number of downloads increase to 20, then 30 then 40 a day, those $0.36 license fees started to add up. After four years, I am now receiving around $1500 a month. Is that great? No, not if you were used to $100K a year, but from a standing start four years ago it is not too bad. It is certainly enough to keep me enthused about finding and taking more commercially successful shots and perhaps I will start to find that relationship with a buyer in due course!

    If anyone is interested, I have written an eBook about the steps to take to get started in stock photography. Second edition available from my blog and from Amazon/Apple.


  14. There is so much wrong with the stock photo industry it's impossible to list it all. Mainly, photographers gave up what little control they had by selling out to corporate interests. Trade organizations like ASMP proved worthless. Amateurs invaded stock.

    It's too late. Photography is no longer 'art' it's a commodity and 'content.' Photographers didn't protect the value of their works and now you can 'license' a stock photo for less than a cup of coffee.

    Look at the stock photography business model:
    Photographers give their work for FREE to stock 'agencies' (for lack of a better term). The 'agency' has NO INVESTMENT in production.

    Photographers allow their pictures to be licensed for whatever amount the 'agency' sees fit and have no influence over pricing.

    Photographers accept shitty contracts that remit whatever small percentage of sales back to them, even after multiple sub-agent deductions.

    In short, photographers sold out, they lost control of an industry that no longer serves them.

    It's too late, photographers screwed themselves.

  15. The answer to Paul's question about how the tightly controlled distribution of images I and some other RM photographers and small agencies employ is working out for me (and my stock photographers) is "better than anything else could from a business standpoint."

    After all, we are still here, unlike the many RM stock providers, photographers and agencies alike, who have sold out, quit, gone under, or become dirty with RF right down to microstock.

    As digital took over before it was ready and the race to the bottom began with RF pricing and rights, it became obvious there was nothing a small-timer could do individually to prevent bad money from driving out good. Most stock photographers behaved like lambs to the slaughter. At my little agency, we hunkered down, severed the subagency arrangement we had with Getty (which had purchased Tony Stone) when they offered an unacceptable contract renewal in 1998, stopped all expansion efforts until we could foresee sanity returning to the stock photography marketplace (it hasn't), released photographers (some of whom were excellent) who had more common subject matter that would be (and has been) killed by RF, told Corbis we weren't interested when they made contact, and otherwise got smaller from about 1998 to 2005.

    The result is that we now gross about half of what we did before the undercutting plague hit, but our profit after a 50-50 split of gross with our specialized photographers is two-thirds to three-quarters what it was before because our costs are so much lower. Because we reduced the number of photographers and others left because they wanted to try the polluted end of the pool, many of the remaining ones who are right for our way of doing things do about as well as before. My agency work has gone from 50-60 hours per week to under 40 most weeks. The maintenance of our integrity and a continuing emphasis on quality are bonuses from our current approach.

    By the way, that 50% figure for RMers who have stuck to their guns over the years is not uncommon among my acquaintances. Our big, continuing failure, and a problem that is probably past solution now, is our (stubborn, independent) refusal to get together on new-era programs to compete with the junk stock approach.

  16. I call BS on it all. I blame Adobe Photoshop for not putting in protections to the images. Just as we have to activate the software there should be a code that is generated so that when a customer uses an image they have to key in the code. It would go a long way to solving the unauthorized usage.

  17. I like Steve Heap's comments. He changed to microstock and has found it better than nothing. I have been shooting for and am hoping to make it a little extra on the side. More than likely I won't be making my main living thru stock photos.

  18. The problem as you so eloquently described is that there are already a plethora of sites and "agencies" offering photographs from anyone and everyone with a digital camera and a computer for commercial use for free or ridiculously low royalty rates. Oh...has anyone noticed...quality of submissions and usage have gone right down the toilet to match up with "expectations"!

    The only solution is education of the buying client. and that is a daunting prospect.

  19. Stan

    Why do you say that the quality has gone down? I find that the bigger microstock agencies are very particular about quality - images are rejected for pretty small technical reasons and certainly "everyone with a digital camera and computer" would not get very far without a fair amount of effort. I've got no regrets about plunging headlong into the microstock industry - I now get a pretty reasonable return on my efforts (almost $20K in 2012) and the income is recurring - I could stop uploading and continue to milk the existing images, but I prefer to keep taking shots and getting them available for licensing. I did a long blog post yesterday analyzing my results for 2012, and, yes, I do earn a small amount per average download, but the volume is sufficient to make it worthwhile. FOr my sort of portfolio, I can reliably get 70c per online image per month. May be peanuts, yes, but reliable.

    I fully understand that images used to be licensed for a lot more money, but it is impossible to put the genie back in the bottle at this stage, in my view.


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