Stock photography is dead, long live stock photography (Act 1 of 3)

Since the majority of my income is derived from stock photography, I pay a lot of attention to what is going on in the stock photography business. Three recent events got me thinking about the state of stock photography, prompting me to write three different blog entries. This is the first of three.

Stock photography broadly refers to the business of licensing existing images (from the photographer’s “stock” of existing images,) rather than creating new images on assignment. Most stock photography is used in the publication realm, which increasingly includes the Internet. Typically, and this has been my experience, there are two broadly defined type of stock transactions. The higher volume, but lower paying licenses are usually for the more editorial/informational imagery, primarily textbooks, magazines, etc. The fees are much higher, but the transactions are far fewer, when the image in question will be used for some kind of overtly commercial/advertising purpose.

In all stock photography, the key is making images that end users will want and getting those images in front of those same end users so they will license (buy) them. While stock photography can be an outlet for creative expression and the like, fundamentally it is still making images that someone else wants to pay money to use.

There are three broad strategies for licensing stock photography. Rights Managed (usually called RM) takes the approach of licensing specific uses for specific fees. The more the image is used, the higher the fee. Photographers like this the best, but image users often do not. That model is what the business has existed on for years. Royalty Free (RF) came along more recently with the end user paying only one fee and having the ability to use and re-use the image as they see fit. Needless to say, most established stock photographers have “issues” with this system.

The RM system enables the end user to know where and when the image has been used previously, which can be important to prevent the same image from showing up in competing companies’ publications. Both RM and RF were both generally produced at a fairly high technical and aesthetic standard. More recently some photographers have been able to make RF into a profitable model, based on a very high volume of work produced with minimal expenses.

The newest system to come along is usually called Micro-Stock (or Micro referring to payments of as little as one dollar per image) and it has few distinguishing features. The license granted is like that of RF, pay once and use as you wish. The fee charged for that license is usually based on the size of the digital file, assuming that a smaller digital file is likely only to be used on the web, vs. a bigger file which is presumed to be used in printed publications.

Micro is not always made at the same technical or aesthetic standards as RM or RF. This is because much of the photography licensed as Micro stock is produced by non-professionals who have little or no understanding of what is involved in making a living as a photographer.

Ever improving cameras will enable the producers of Micro to continually raise the technical standards of what they produce. Ever improving digital technology will NOT get most Micro photographers any closer to making a living. That is because, if we assume that the costs for the technology (cameras, software, etc.) required to make stock photos will continually drop (and thus can momentarily take it out of the equation) the photographer still needs to make certain return per image on each image they make, in order to make a decent living.

The need to make a decent return per image exists with all three marketing strategies, RM, RF and Micro. With RM you had relatively few photographers making high quality images licensed for fees that resulted in a viable revenue stream. The RF brought more photographers into the marketplace, who made work at a standard that was close enough to RM to undermine the market for RM. RM and RF were generally produced by professionals who knew how much they had to earn per image to sustain their businesses. Non-professionals, who do not pay much attention to how much they need to earn per image to sustain their businesses, on the other hand, are the primary producers of Micro.

Certainly, some photographers make good money in Micro but they are few and far between. The majority of people involved in Micro are giving their labors away with little real likelihood of any return on the time and effort invested. Yes, it is crowd sourcing. But it is the worst kind, where a few at the top of the pyramid make good money and the vast majority in the middle and bottom make nothing. By comparison, in assignment work, the photographer usually is guaranteed at least a minimal fee for the work they do.

All stock photography (including my own) is done on speculation. I produce the work at my own expense and expect to make up the costs, plus a profit, down the road. I have been doing this a long time and I am absolutely ruthless in my evaluation of what works and what does not, so I have good luck making images that will pay a decent return. Most stock photographers, especially the non-professionals flooding the market with Micro, have little understanding of which images will pay a decent return down the road. They love their images and assume other will love them enough to pay money for those images.

Also, keep in mind that most stock photography is usually licensed through an agency, because few photographers have a high enough volume of imagery or a big enough name/market presence to have agencies of their own. Some folks do, but most of us do not. The agencies, especially the newer Micro-stock agencies, thrive on the Micro model of gathering lots of imagery at little cost to themselves then marketing those same images, collecting fees based on the ones that are licensed.

By way of background, I did not go into stock photography on purpose. It was actually the result of the convergence of three factors. First was my steady accumulation of imagery from assignments and projects from around the globe. Next was the fact that I owned (and still insist now on owning) all the photography work I have ever done. Finally, I developed an understanding of how one set of images from a given project could be used initially in the context of the work I was doing AND used again later in other contexts. For example, my work on the complex relationship between Israelis and Palestinians was widely used in connection with the Mid-East conflict and the Oslo peace accords. It has also been used, usually as single images, in publications focusing on other topics, such as ethnic conflict, displaced communities, the psychological stress of conflict on children, etc.

So, one of the triggers for this three-part blog entry was a note from a friend who was thinking about entering the stock photography business. She wrote:

One more question. Would it be possible to use some of my photographs for stock photography? I know I’ve asked you about this before and you told me that it was a full time job—but I’ve heard recently that it is opening up to people who are not doing it professionally.

So here is my answer:

In order to make a living in stock photography it does in fact require a near full-time commitment. First, no single agency can generate enough sales to live off of, so you end up working with multiple agencies. Since each agency has a different workflow, a lot of time is spent tailoring your workflow to theirs. After investing all that time, the only way to make any return on that expenditure is to produce and send them lots of work, utilizing the system you just set up to accommodate their workflow. Also, since most sales are fairly low paying, especially after the agencies take their cut, you need a high volume of imagery. You also need to be making new images almost constantly. So, it is a full-time or nearly full-time endeavor.

Frankly, you can do it part-time which will make the agencies happy, but it will not work economically for you. The last line of her query is a danger sign. The agencies, especially the Micro agencies would like nothing more than having thousands of people making images for them to license, who “are not doing it professionally.” The professionals, like me, argue with the agencies and oppose (often less than successfully) their ever worsening (in terms of the photographer’s payment) contracts. Though it is a bit more bookkeeping having thousands of contributors who “are not doing it professionally,” the agencies generally do not care. First, as much as a third of those contributors move periodically, usually not even updating their contact information with the agencies, so their lost revenue is eventually the agencies’ gain. I would suggest about another third realize the futility of their endeavor after a year or two and move on, some leaving no updated contact information for the agencies, which again leaves the companies with more undeliverable contributor’s fees in their accounts.

The funny thing is that I do not really blame the agencies. They are in business and if they can get decent imagery from people who do not understand the business, they can then maximize their income while reducing their expenses. I am faulting the photographers who do not approach stock photography as the business that it actually is. And yes, this is personal because they are chipping away at my income, but only to a small degree. What they are really doing is undervaluing their work and themselves, something NO self-respecting person would do.

There is much talk about how the business of stock photography is changing. On one obvious level that is absolutely true. As digital technology has lowered the technical barriers to entering photography, it has vastly expanded the number of fine-art, wedding and portrait photographers. Clearly, it has done the same thing to stock photography. So now any one can, in theory, be a wedding, portrait or stock photographer. The thing that has not changed, is that in order to stay in business as a photographer, only old fashioned, hard-nosed business skills will keep you in business.

2 responses to “Stock photography is dead, long live stock photography (Act 1 of 3)”

  1. Perhaps in the future, all professional vocations will be so marginalized and commoditized that there won’t be any difference from a professional or income standpoint between working as a barista at Starbucks and working in any other vocation that takes any amount of significant experience, skill and expertise (or no longer does so because it becomes a commodity).

  2. Thanks Mr. Wells for all this information. Wow, stock photography is not easy, I have to study a lot before start. Really helpfully your texts.

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