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
- design shoots that cost no money to produce, but which
- generate unique images that aren’t similar to those already done in abundance by someone else, and the images must also
- 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.