As recently as 10 years ago, I thought making photos on assignment was like putting money in a retirement account. “My stock is my retirement,” I told people then. Times change. Stock photography, as operated by corporations bent on record profits every quarter, is in decline. That does not mean that photography is in decline — just one aspect of it. Assignment photography lives on.
Stock Photography in Freefall
Segments of markets decline over time. Consider that albums made way for cassettes, which made way for CDs and now iPods — yet music and musicians live on.
Getty and Jupiter are in freefall, and deserve to be. They devastated the industry rate structures (“Let’s sell 100 for $1 instead of one for $200”). Now they are getting a taste of what the photographic community experienced when they started selling “subscriptions,” and photographers were seeing “$0.48” as the commission rate for a use of their photograph.
In a race to the bottom, stock licensing will continue to decline not just on a per-license basis, but also in revenue per image category, as categories continue to be flooded with imagery, watering down the marketplace even further.
Microstock will ultimately be in trouble, too. How many redundant servers can continue to run with a significant staff to take orders and collect $1 here, and $4 there?
As those companies who have damaged our industry fall, professional photographers will respond, “See, I told you so.”
Assignment Photography Will Endure
Fortunately, though the stock industry is in disarray, there will always be freelance assignment photography. As faces, styles, trends, and subjects age, and new products are announced, new images will be needed.
While my day-to-day operating budget has never been based upon revenues from my stock photography, I do re-license my images. Recently, an existing client extended a license from a PR rights package to a marketing use, generating $1,000 in additional revenue from the assignment. This is not unusual. But remember, it came from an assignment.
Yes, the stock industry is self-destructing. But professional photographers — those of us still standing in the aftermath — will be left to pick up the pieces. And we will.