Is Stock Photography Dead? Of Course Not.


The brilliant yellow colors of the aspen trees in Colorado, the high school game that was won at the sound of the buzzer, the family pets’ visit to the veterinarian. No, these weren’t microstock photos these were words, describing these scenes.  They were what our parents and grandparents used when they wanted to share an event or experience with a family member or neighbor.

Today, those same experiences and events are still happening, but the communication is different. It’s digital: Cameras and mobile devices.

No wonder there are so many pictures available these days. And the number will keep multiplying as picture taking machines become cheaper and better. And, amateur photographers and their photos become more plentiful.

The automatic controls on cameras today make it near impossible not to take a technically good picture. A pro and an amateur can each make a picture of the Grand Canyon in the right lighting and megapixels, and no client or customer can tell whether the pro or the amateur is the author.

So what are well-meaning pros to do about this spreading competition to their talents? As actor Helen Mirren said when asked about how she landed on her feet after major busts in her career: “Just deal with it.”

Get Used to the Heat

And that of course means, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” to quote president Harry S. Truman.

For over forty years, I’ve watched hundreds of photographers enter the profession, stay a while, and get out. Those that stuck it out? How did they “deal with it?” Changes in any commercial enterprise come in waves. No different in photography. The survivors seem to have a common trait. They love what they’re doing. Wild horses couldn’t pull them away. They adapt. They adjust.

They assess and move forward.  They ride the ups and downs of the wave. Outsiders might say, “Too bad for stock photographers. They’ve lost their market in the enormous flood of photos available today.”

But the survivors haven’t noticed. They’ve already adapted to new ways of selling themselves and their talent to the public and the photobuyers. They know pictures will never go out of style, whether on walls of caves in pre-historic France or the walls of Grand Central Station in New York.

A New Way to Market

I’ve noticed a trend in photographers today, especially in stock photography. You can expect to burn and crash if you employ the selling methods and marketing model that was taught to you in your youth. Today’s marketplace operates with a different focus.

Many stock photographers have wisely moved toward targeting their photography focus to a segment of the market where they feel comfortable and “speak the language” of their clients. They have narrowed their personal expertise down to a point where they are no longer available to produce just about any kind of photo. They have planted their flag as a specialist, much like the segmentation in other professions – medicine, education, law. They concentrate on building a massive photo collection and knowledge in a specific subject area, such as health sciences, motor sports, education, deep-sea fishing, and so on. They get so good at their “brand” that assignments build in their favor in a vertical direction for them, all in their area of expertise.

Art directors, photo researchers, and photo editors prefer working with such specialist photographers.

Why? To cover their own tails.

They know if a photographer is well-grounded in the subject area they work in, it comes through in the veracity of their work. And makes the photo editor look good. Editors and buyers now choose photographers based on what knowledge and expertise they possess in the target subject area.

The Digital Age has made all this happen. The annihilation of distance, the speed of delivery, a compact in-house workflow, automation in cameras, and not the least, search engines. Clients now have the capability to swiftly find the right photographer for the job through a keyword search.

This has resulted in a New Era for photographers, both the veterans and the newcomers, to step forward, and move forward.

I, for one, see great things ahead.


One Response to “Is Stock Photography Dead? Of Course Not.”

  1. Great post, Rohn! The more competition, the better you have to be. Sharpening skills and improving your work is never a bad thing. At the end of the day, professional photographers are those career individuals who work at photography every day and put their work out there to sell constantly for their livlihoods. Taking photos on vacation or at your child's baseball game and not touching the camera for several weeks does not provide competition for professional photographers. The Digital Age has simply made amateur photography more accessible to the public.

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