Why Even Successful Photographers Are Unhappy Today

I recently did a survey of Getty photographers in which respondents expressed a high level of frustration and dissatisfaction. After the survey was completed I got several more responses and one photographer gave me a very detailed explanation of what had been happening in his career. I would like to share this with you.

This photographer is an aggressive producer and certainly one of the more successful photographers contributing images to Getty. I estimate that he is at least in the top 5 percent of all Getty photographers, and maybe higher.

He started contributing to Getty in 2001, and in 2004 had 250 images on the site and was earning royalties of about $120,000 a year. In 2005 he averaged about $20,000 a month, boosting his annual revenue of $240,000. Sounds great! But he had images on Photonica and in the middle of 2005 he lost the Photonica revenue as it now became Getty revenue. Counting the additional images he added to Getty and the Photonica images, he ended the year with 550 image on the Getty site. Thus, more than double the images earned him about double the revenue.

Once Photonica was made a part of Getty, he saw an immediate 30 to 40 percent DROP in revenue from his images that had been on the site two years or more. If this were a race you could say he’s running a lot faster to stay even.

Then he hit 2006. In the early part of the year, his average monthly check was about $16,000. He added another 300 images in 2006, bringing his total to 850. Once the images had gone up they boosted his monthly average to about $20,000. But, by November, with all those additional images his monthly return was already falling and had dropped to about $17,000. In the first quarter of 2007 average returns per month were continuing to fall.

Yes, this photographer is making a lot of money, but his costs are going up too. And he must put an increasing number of images into play just to stay even. He’s finding that in order to produce those new images, his costs have almost doubled in the last two years, in spite of doing everything he can think of to cut his costs of operation and production. Part of this is natural inflation, part is that he has to travel more, use more expensive models and day-rate assistants instead of staff. In addition, he is getting a lot less support from Getty and is expected to do more and more to prepare the images for submission than was the case two years ago. This means additional staff costs (as Getty cuts support staff).

This photographer, as is the case with most top producers, is supplying images to a number of brands. The average RPI with these brands is much lower than Getty. On the other hand, some of them will accept a lot more images than Getty will accept. In addition, they often offer active art direction, partial production support and back-end post production raw processing. And they get the images online faster. All these things enable photographers to accept a lower RPI and still cover production costs and make some profit.

This photographer is still making it work, but he is also recognizing that he has to run faster and faster to attempt to stay even and he’s not sure how long he can keep up the pace. In addition, he’s not staying even.

This photographer’s experience is not unique. I hear similar stories from lots of photographers. Most of them have been in the business for a long time, and a lot of them are looking for some other way to make a living.

It is hard for agents to have a clear understanding of the costs a photographer has to produce the images he delivers. At the very least, I would recommend that each agent have a clear understanding of how much revenue they are producing for each of their photographers, and the trends. Compare what each photographer received in 2004 with what he/she received in 2006. If that number is going down, they’re not going to be producing much longer, if they haven’t already stopped. If their revenue has gone up, look at the number of images each of those photographers had on the site in 2004 compared to 2006 and calculate their average-return-per-image. If the average RPI is going down, he/she may not continue to produce much longer.

Your only happy photographers are going to be those few where the average RPI has been going up. My guess is that will be a very small percentage of your total contributors. Interestingly, one of the reasons many micropayment photographers are happy is that their average RPI has been going up — admittedly from a very, very low base. But the trend is in the right direction and that gives them reason to hope.

2 Responses to “Why Even Successful Photographers Are Unhappy Today”

  1. Interesting and helpful insight into the industry. Have you checked in with the photographer lately?

  2. Thanks Jim,
    Just came across this interesting older post about the situation for us stock photographers and relationships to stock agencies. My feeling is that the described situation has increased quite a lot since your post – and the financial crisis hasn’t helped anybody of course. And without focussing on the more demanding styles and set-ups of the stock shooting the conventional stock agencies cannot keep their prices compared to the offers of microstock pictures.
    Soren Breiting

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