Why Full-Time Stock Photographers Are an Endangered Species

Increasingly, rights-managed and traditional royalty-free stock companies are having trouble finding photographers willing to shoot for them. Many of the star photographers from five or 10 years ago have given up shooting stock — or at the very least, dramatically cut the number of images they produce and the amount they are willing to spend on production.

Why the decline? Monthly royalty checks have plummeted to the point where many photographers feel it no longer makes economic sense to risk the upfront investment required to produce marketable images.

Very few photographers will produce as many images for rights-managed and traditional royalty-free licensing in 2010 as they did in 2007 or 2008.

If they can find a subject that has no cost in terms of props or models, they might shoot it — but even that requires an investment of time. And is this investment worth it anymore?

Looking for a Better Return

Photographers today are looking for a better, surer and quicker return on investment than the traditional stock companies are providing.

Here’s an example to help explain why:

A photographer — who most would consider to be among the most successful in the industry today — spent between $7,000 and $8,000, not counting his time, producing several shoots in June 2009. Over 300 images were accepted by his agency.

Earlier this month, he received his first quarterly check for the use of those images. It was less than $1,000.

At that rate, perhaps in another year or so, if prices don’t drop further, he’ll make his investment back and maybe earn a little for his time.

We cannot call this “profit,” because that will really be just paying himself a minimal salary for the time invested and the use of his capital; profit should be over and above a basic living wage.

Getty’s Failed Experiment

Three or four years ago, Getty Images began doing lots of wholly owned production shoots, because its contributors were not supplying imagery its data showed was in high demand.

The company’s art directors planned and organized shoots and hired the most experienced and successful stock shooters to do the work. The photographers were paid a flat fee, with no royalties, for unlimited exclusive rights to their work.

After about a year, Getty abandoned the project. Rumor has it, the imagery produced did not generate enough of a return, in a reasonable time period, to offset production costs.

Getty went back to encouraging photographers to produce more and shoulder all the production expenses themselves. That did not work very well, either.

And all this occurred before the recession hit and Getty lowered its prices by an average of 30 to 40 percent to maintain previous sales volume. This, of course, did not improve photographer royalties.

The Flickr Option

With those who had been Getty’s main source of imagery no longer contributing the volume of material the company wanted, Getty went looking for other sources. Voila, there was Flickr.

The nice thing about Flickr images for Getty is that most of the photographers are not taking pictures to earn a living. They are happy with a little money for their work, even if it does not cover cost of production. They weren’t expecting to get anything anyway.

And yet, the Flickr option proved problematic, too. Initially, Getty had to edit the work and make sure the keywording was satisfactory, which appears to have been too costly given the return from sales.

The next step was to eliminate the costs of editing and keywording and let Flickr host the images. All a photographer has to do now is put a notice alongside his or her Flickr images that basically says, “if you are interested in buying this image, call Getty.”

Time for a New Strategy

I wish I could find more positive things to say about the industry, but stock photography is not the business it was in the ’90s, and it never will be again. Change happens. Sometimes, it is very disruptive.

Twenty years ago, there were relatively few images available on any subject, so photographers had a chance to make multiple sales at relatively high prices. Since then, the number of rights-managed images licensed annually hasn’t grown, but thanks to digital technology, customers now have many more choices.

Even for the best photographers, this dramatically reduces the odds that any one of their images, no matter how good or how creative, will be licensed.

Of course, there also has been a decline in the number of printed products, as well as the number of pages in most publications. The new and growing ways to get information are digital. These new customers need pictures, but the prices they are willing to pay for the images they need for these uses are a tenth (or less) of what they used to pay to reach the same number of consumers.

Some like to place the blame for the industry’s problems on the recession and argue that everything will get better once the economy improves. They’re kidding themselves.

A Narrow Path to Success

I am not saying all photographers should give up on stock photography. I do not believe in no-win scenarios. But when you’re facing a brick wall, rather than banging your head against it in continual frustration, it may be better to look for a way around it that will allow you to achieve most of what you want and be happy.

The key to success now is to

  1. design shoots that cost no money to produce, but which
  2. generate unique images that aren’t similar to those already done in abundance by someone else, and the images must also
  3. be in high demand by customers so when they are licensed individually for low prices the combined total sales will generate enough revenue to make the effort worth the trouble.

Obviously, meeting all three of these requirements is not easy. Going forward, however, the photographer who wants to earn enough from producing stock images alone to support himself and his family will have to be able to do this on a consistent basis.

Stock as an Income Supplement

Microstock sellers have discovered a market for imagery that annually buys about 100 times as many images as are licensed as rights-managed. Granted, these customers are usually licensing the uses for very low prices, but this is where the market is headed.

We’re not going to change that trend by wishing it would go away. We’re in the middle of a paradigm shift. We’re not going to reverse it.

That leaves us with a conundrum. In this new environment, is it possible to focus exclusively on producing stock images and have a successful career? If not, then the photographer must find some other revenue source for the bulk of his income needs and look at stock photography as a part-time, supplementary source of income.

Many photographers are quite happy operating in that manner. They might not get to spend as much time taking pictures as they would like, but they are not living on the edge or starving.

Back to the Future

Back in 1975, everyone in the stock industry was saying, “Don’t shoot on speculation.” Re-sell outtakes from assignments where the production costs have been paid for by someone else, but don’t make an upfront investment of time and money without being sure of receiving adequate compensation for your efforts.

Of course, at that time demand was much greater than supply, and speculative shooting worked very well for many photographers. But that’s not the world today.

We do a great disservice to photographers when we encourage those just getting into the business to think they can build a career around shooting stock images exclusively if they will only license them at rights-managed prices. Earning a good income from stock photography simply won’t happen that way.

If they want a career in photography, they are going to have to do something else in photography in addition to producing stock images. They had better develop a strategy from the beginning that includes some other kinds of income-producing work.

13 Responses to “Why Full-Time Stock Photographers Are an Endangered Species”

  1. This is very true, I have heard of report from photographer where images are stolen and used as stock or printed by commercial companies.
    Stock photography has always had limited opportunities for the future, I guess in 30 or so years every subject has been covered and there is very little in the market areas where modernisation is called for. The small areas I see are fashion and modern areas of stock photography.
    The only reason I have stock is purely out takes from paid shoots or on these days where I am having fun and happen to capture something.

  2. All the comments on this blog about stock seem to be about the photographer. From those who want to buy stock what is that perspective?

    In other words, people make money for solving other people's problems. In 1975 the photographers and agencies were solving the problems of the buyers in a particular way, which obviously was a good model then to solve those visual problems.

    I think the problem with stock today is there may not be a problem to solve for the client like there used to be. People will pay more for someone providing a service they cannot get just anywhere.

    From my perspective, it is much easier today than any other time in history to get an image to fill a hole. It is easier today to get a great image to fill a specific hole as well.

    What is the problem for which stock photography is providing a solution today?

  3. Great article and I think you're spot on with this assessment of the supply/demand issues today. While microstock may have encroached on the traditional stock photo market I think it also created new markets for stock photography that didn't exist before - or rather made stock photos affordable to buyers with limited budgets. Many traditional stock photographers had become complacent and expected what once worked would always work. They were content to send their work to an agency and wait to let their commissions roll in. As a relative newcomer to all of this I think my success as a photographer will come from multiple strategies and reliance on direct contact and queries to potential buyers of my images. I agree with your statement that "it is much easier today than any other time in history to get an image to fill a hole" but this wealth of new images available also makes searching for the right image more time consuming and possibly harder to make a decision. With so many choices a lot of good, and potentially more suitable, images go unnoticed. Photographers will have to work harder to get their images in front of potential photo buyers. The result could be increased stock sales and future assignments.

  4. The only problem today is that everyone wants a quality product for less, or even free. That's the change that internet brought. And that's why Getty and other agencies are lowering comissions for photographers, so they can offer their products for less and stay competitive at today's market. That in turn makes photographers reluctant to invest heavily in shoots as the photos might not even break even in the long end.

    But as time goes by, the dust will settle. A new model, a new way of doing business will emerge ( It might have even emerged several years ago as microstock photography) and every hard working proffessional wil surely be able to make a living out of doing stock photography.

    Regards, Ljupco

  5. A very sobering blog post. You raise some very interesting points. Stock libraries are shooting themselves in the foot. The quality of the images available through these libraries have declined as prices have fallen. At some point, the decline needs to stop or the industry will end up destroying itself.

  6. Most of the photo libraries I shot for in the 1970s,1980s and early 1990s are now gone, and so are half the companies I shot photographs for, so I feel the loss keenly. Photography has increasingly become a personal thing that I sometimes make money out of while now bringing most of my revenue in from writing.
    Nor am I the only one: I see a lot of former craftsmen now carving out an income in reporting, writing, or reviewing, throwing in a picture as an illustration to their own words.
    It's not what it used to be, but it's a living...

  7. I was a staff photographer for many years but am now self-employed. I shoot some images for stock but have absolutely no illusions that it will provide a living wage. It supplements my income, and it's a small supplement at that.

  8. I think what's happened to stock photography has happened in other areas of the business such as portraits and weddings. The whole industry has become flooded with part-time wanabe photographers who think that all you need is cheap digital camera and a computer. This is driving talented people away as the public now expect photography services to be cheaper and cheaper. Some of these photographers don't know how to cost out jobs and thus are far too cheap. Such is life.

  9. What a great article,I came across it by chance after typing in Google 'whats the future of photography' ! I have been a Getty Contributor for about 20 years and have seen the good times in stock and advertising.Things have changed dramatically since the advent of digital imaging and the internet. With easy access to imagery online and Photoshop becoming the main package for modern designers,the value of photography in general has taken a BIG nose dive. I rent a part of my studio to a designer, iStock is their first port of call on every job that comes in requiring photographs.The client knows about it as well so there has to be a good reason to commission a photographer who needs to hire models locations etc. I have tried many avenues over the past ten years as I could see the way it was going.I've tried film and video production,but hit the same kind of barriers,where people don't want to pay much for the end product.There is always room at the top for great people but unfortunately the ones not quite that high are struggling ! It's hard not to blame yourself but I have come to the conclusion it must feel like it did in the industrial revolution where the new inventions made life easier for people in general but difficult for a lot of the workers.
    After 25 years in the business I am seriously looking at a career change ! Not an great prospect at my age (50)but needs must !! Anyone got any ideas on suitable professions ??

  10. I gave up on making a living with stock images long ago. I saw this coming and I knew I had to do something different. I never did well with galleries but I did do well with selling to publications as a assignment photographer. When I was in college, I worked out a deal with a restaurant chain to provide ten new photos each quarter, rotating the others to different restaurant locations.

    Those days are over and I realize that. I still sell to publications, however, and the market is still getting thinner. Good quality photography is out there, but the perception of photography and art in general has changed. Strangely, most of my sales are to overseas clients, not in the United States. I have no answer to why this is the case. I wish I knew.

  11. I have worked as a photographer and have worked for several years as a graphic production artist. The biggest shift I have seen is that designers no longer shoot/search for images to fit their design, they prefer to design to the stock images they find. This is a huge shift in thinking! It used to be when a designer stumbled across an image that fit their design they would pay big $$$ for it. Now to save time they find something "Usable" and design around it. Unfortunately as designers/agencies aren't willing to pay as much the quality has decreased and you have to search through a sea of mediocre image to find one decent one. I agree the perception of photography has changed... Everyone with a DSLR is a professional... right?

  12. I've been selling stock as a nice sideline (not main living) since the early 1970s and the sales graph had been interesting. Revenue increased for about 30 years, as you might expect with annual top-ups into the stock pot. This film-based revenue peaked at the millenium, to be followed by a downturn as the industry converted to digital. Many (most?) of the traditional agencies went bust, as their huge inventories became worthless more or less overnight: scanning millions of slides to digital is an impossible task. For us photographers the change was a shock, but not fatal. We scanned the best of our slides and began to build up a digital stock base. For 6 years my revenue figures were about 30% down on their 2000 peak, but in 2007/8 they shot up again to near prevous levels. It has proved to be a false dawn. In 2009 the market collapsed and will probably never recover. Why it happened just then and so suddenly, I've no idea. But my guess is that photography has joined the long list of once-great industries that suddenly died - coal mining, horse transport, you name it. The best we can do is make photography work for us in a different ways. I lecture on cruise ships, powerpoint presentations with lots of pictures; no money changes hands, but at least I get around the world for free. Best of luck all you ex-snappers.

  13. That is exactly how it went with all my photography business Rolf. Exactly! Not long ago a fellow in town called and said he wanted to use three or four of my images. He said, "I will pay top dollar to use these. Ten bucks each for exclusive unlimited use. Where can I forward the contract?"

    I said to him,"Kiss my ass",hung up the phone and immediately, swiftly, and surely blocked his phone from calling mine ever again.

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