Goodbye (and Good Riddance) to the Pro Stock Photographer

It is not really the photo industry that is in danger of extinction, but rather a weird and strange animal that appeared about 50 to 60 years ago out of pure greed.

Let me explain: When photography became a job, the first photographers were troopers who would get up in the morning with the firm intention to get an assignment, or two, before the end of the day. They would look for both stories and clients and when they fit together, they would be rewarded with money.

Publication or ad agencies would never dream of licensing images that were not specifically shot for them — how plebeian! Photo agencies were then created mostly for photographers to share and organize resources. Since they became the repository of all images shot, they started to accumulate stock images made on past assignments. And thus, like any sound business, started to license those, too.

A Creepy, Greedy Animal

And then, with the success of bigger stock houses, like The Image Bank, a creepy, greedy little animal started to emerge. The stock photographer. Never talking to a client directly, they would get up in the morning with the sole purpose of taking images that could one day be licensed. Like movies that go direct to DVD, their images where exclusively shot for stock.

Armed with research analysis, spreadsheets, and a whole lot of corporate culture, they started multiplying. Mostly because their images were much cheaper than sending a photographer on assignment. There was no other cost involved than just the licensing rights. In a way, they murdered a large part of the assignment business and opened the door for more photographers, with doubtful talent, to enter the arena.

For a while, a lot did well, as travel prices surged. They managed to live off the rights-managed tradition of exclusivity, even though they never shot those images for that client. And then came in the real experts. Marketing gurus with intense software licensing experience. They turned pricing around by licensing images as a service rather than a product: the RF guys (and girls).

The “stockers” got their first warning shot. Prices went down. Shields were raises, hundreds of thousands of e-mail sent out, forums, debates, heated conversation plagued the industry for a while until tales of high income started to surface. Some stockers where actually making more money than before. The second gold rush started. Everyone suddenly started shooting RF. Agencies followed, as RF was to be the wave of the future. And it was, for a while.

Trampled by the Masses

Until file sharing entered the photo scene. People started exchanging their photographs, for professional usage. As the cost of maintaining a server became too steep, these exchanges were tagged with a fee. A very low fee, but indeed a fee. And a flood of new stockers invaded the scene. Very smart ones, very talented ones, and very useful ones. If there were a market in stock photography, historically controlled by a few selected pompous “pro” photographers, then it should be for everyone.

You can still hear the stockers screaming as they are being trampled by the masses in a last effort to save their “territory.” But let’s face it, we all know it is a dying breed of irrelevant photographers. Beside exploiting an immature market, they had no talent. They were the refuseniks of the assignment world, incapable of being hired for a photo shoot. And now, even their private grounds is being destroyed by the hungry masses.

So now what? Well, besides microstockers who will, in the majority, not be able to sustain a living with their photo sales, there will be less and less “pros” making stock photos anymore. Not because they don’t want to, but because they will not be able to make a living out of it. Some might be capable of moving up to assignment works; others, the majority, will leave the profession altogether.

And that will be a good thing. Photoshelter’s Collection’s recent demise is a good example that these images are no longer welcomed on the market. The oversupply of images that we are currently experiencing will be drained from the middle, that disappearing breed of stockers. They will no longer exist and no longer produce.

And finally, the photo world will be repopulated by photographers that really enjoy taking pictures, rather than analyzing spreadsheets. From the part-time amateur to the full-time pro, the passion of great photography will reappear as being the leading reason for being in this industry, not greed. No more of these small business mentality photographers who thought of themselves as a superior breed. The playing field is leveled and the industry’s parasite, the pro stockers, are out.

3 Responses to “Goodbye (and Good Riddance) to the Pro Stock Photographer”

  1. Oh yes, good ridence to those who may have wanted to supplement their income while working on personal projects or who were disrespected and marginalized by the overgrown egos of advertising or journalism.

    While I am sure that there are were some full-time "stockers" who were in it for the money, my experience is that stock is something a professional does on the side so that the life of being freelance and at the whims of sometimes unreliable industries (advertising or journalism.) To think that some how stock photographers are some how populated by those who cannot hack it in the open market is both illogical and un-researched.

    Yes the playing field is leveled and it is all but impossible to really have stock be a stable part of your income. This is because it has hit the ground, and it is short sighted to think that is good for any photographer. All that has been done is to devalue the work of professional photographers of any stripe and this hurts everyone.

  2. Adam,
    you said it. Only those not succeeding in their primary task need to have a "supplemental income". And the supplemental quickly primary. lets not fool ourselves here, most of those who succeeded in stock were only benefiting from a closed circuit of distribution, not because of their "talents".
    To shoot for no one, we no clients on the receiving end is an absurd occupation.

  3. It's true that there are a lot of people out there taking pictures for the love of it. Just look at Flickr and all of the other photo sharing sites. However, most of them are not creating great photography. And the microstock sites still seem to be carrying a lot of the same old stuff that has been appearing for years on the RF CD collections; it's just available a la carte, so to speak, and really cheap. The 'mercenary' stock photographers you describe probably will have to find 'honest' jobs, but cheap microstock that's 'good enough' will also hurt excellent pro photographers who offer stock as a sideline. They'll have to lower their stock prices considerably in order to make sales.

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